I failed another test today. A test of conscience.
As I parked my car outside my condo after walking at the park, I saw my downstairs neighbor getting in his car. He drives for Uber and Lyft to supplement his income, so he comes and goes a lot. I walked over and told him about my car getting “robbed” the night before. When I got in my car that morning, I found my glove box open and everything in it on the floor. The box in the center console was also open and the old wallet I keep in there for change for tolls and visits to the fast food joints was gone, as were my iPhone earphones and charging cable. I told him my son-in-law’s car had been robbed in our lot as well a few months ago. In both cases, we had forgotten to lock our doors.
My neighbor’s reaction was immediate. “It’s those folks in Knollwood Apartments down the street,” he said. “Are you sure,” I asked. “I lived in Knollwood for a couple of years and it seems like a nice place.”
‘Not anymore.” He said. “It’s gone Section 8!”
My neighbor is a middle-aged white man from Louisiana. I knew immediately he meant the problem was the “blacks” living on government assistance. I wanted to say something to show I did not agree with him that black folks were necessarily the robbers. That needing government housing assistance did not equate with being black. Or being a criminal.
But I said nothing, not wanting to create a problem with my neighbor. A neighbor who seems to accept me for who I am, even though I do not exactly pass very well anymore. I am androgynous at best on a good day.
But I, too, am an older white person. I have no doubt he would not be so accepting if I were not white.
And so, I am afraid of rocking the boat, here in deep red Alabama. I need to find my voice again.
[For a worthwhile read about why “Section 8” came to be a racially-charged label, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/06/15/how-section-8-became-a-racial-slur/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.11930ad53bb1]
“YOU’RE THE MAN DAWN!! LETS GOOO!! YOU DON’T KNOW HOW LONG I’VE BEEN TRYING TO FIGURE THIS OUT! THANKS FOR THE DETAILED INSTRUCTIONS DUDE!!”
That is a recent comment on one of the how-to videos I make for my students. Although my name is Dawn and I have a photo of myself on my YouTube channel, my masculine voice tips the male-female basket of gender sticks to the blue side every time.
My sense of gender performance is that we all are a mix of traditional male and female attributes – my basket of gender sticks. The metaphor is of a basket containing sticks, some pink and some blue with others of indeterminate color. If you have enough pinkish sticks, the basket tips toward the feminine side and you are perceived as a woman. If there are too many blue sticks, you are perceived as a man.
This is a potentially life-altering balance for trans folk, particularly for transwomen like myself.
When I was first trying to accept my real self, I felt compelled to have as many pink sticks as possible so that I was “read” as a woman and not a man.
My problem is that I was given a traditional male body – 6 feet tall, broad shoulders, large feet and hands, balding scalp, and a masculine voice.
With a lot of effort and good help, I was able to address most of these fairly successfully, and my basket began to reliably tip toward the female side.
But I was not so lucky with my voice. Although I spent many hours with professional voice coaches, I was never able to get a feminine voice. No matter how hard I tried, I am invariably read as male over the phone and at drive-throughs.
But not so when I am face-to-face with most people. My voice is noticed, but I have enough pink sticks to tip my basket to “woman.”
I have lived in Mobile, Alabama, for about 40 years. My favorite department store before I transitioned is Dillard’s, and it is still where I prefer to shop for my clothes. Soon after I transitioned, I met a sales clerk in the women’s area named Dorothy and we became friendly. Whenever I was in Dillard’s, I looked for Dorothy to help me and ring up my purchases. When she was working with me, I never had any problems.
About 10 years ago, I came in one day when Dorothy was off, though I didn’t know it at first. I found some clothes I wanted to try on and just walked to the dressing rooms by her station, found an empty room, and closed the door. The replacement clerk evidently saw me enter and came over to “claim” me so she would get the sale. She knocked on my door and asked if someone was helping me. I was startled not to hear Dorothy and answered, “Dorothy normally helps me.”
Immediately, I heard a raised voice, “You are in the women’s dressing room and you must leave now!” I panicked and did not respond while I rapidly tried to get my own clothes on. Before I could get completely dressed, I heard a male voice say, “Get this door open or I will force my way in!”
I opened the door and there was a uniformed policeman there. He looked at me, stammered, and said, “I’m sorry, Ma’am, I was told a man was in this dressing room.” He backed off and the sales lady began to apologize as well and saying she would be glad to assist me. But I was too unnerved, and I rushed out of the store to my car and drove home.
After a few months, I finally found my way back to Dillard’s, found Dorothy, and continued to shop there. But a few years ago, Dorothy retired, and I did not go back.
Last year, I was awarded the Distinguished Faculty award by my school. I was asked to come up to Albany to accept the award at graduation and I needed some clothes. With some apprehension, I went back to Dillard’s, given that nice clothes shopping options are relatively few in Mobile. Trump had been elected, North Carolina’s Bathroom Bill had been passed, and awareness of trans women was heightened, especially in the South.
Compounding the problem, Dillard’s had cut back on staffing and there were very few sales clerks on duty on the floor I needed. I found some clothes I wanted to try on, but could not find a salesperson to help me, so I ventured into the dressing area. Sitting outside the door, was an older white male, glaring at me as I walked by. I presumed his wife was in one of the dressing rooms, and I almost did not go in, as he made me feel uncomfortable. But I needed the clothes.
And within minutes, there was a replay of the scene from 10 years back. A knock at my door asking if I needed help, my answering I had found some things I wanted to buy, and a shrill voice: “Get out of here, freak! I have called security!”
I scramble to get dressed and just made it as a heavy male voice demanded I open the door. I opened the door and the policeman asked for my identification. I gave him my driver’s license, which thankfully has an “F” and he studied it for a minute or so. Then, he apologized, “Sorry, Ma’am, the fellow outside thought you were a crossdresser or something, and he didn’t want to have his wife attacked.”
I nodded and didn’t say anything. I just walked out of the store as quickly as I could, shaken and determined to leave Mobile and this awful red state as soon as I could.
Somehow a Tweet about Wigwam Villages showed up in my feed today. I have no idea why. For those of you who are too young or not lucky enough to live in Birmingham back in the 50’s, you may have no clue what I am talking about.
After we got our first car in 1949, my parents liked to go on Sunday drives around Birmingham. Because we lived in the west end of town, West End, to be exact, we were closer to downtown Bessemer than we were to downtown Birmingham. So, many of our Sunday drives took us that way. We would pile in the car – Momma drove since my dad did not know how – Dean and I in the back seat. We drove over to Lomb Avenue and followed it Southeast until we hit Highway 11. Bessemer Road as it was known then, a main drag if there ever was one. We would drive south past the coke plants and steel mills that so stunk up our air, through Bessemer toward Tuscaloosa, though I cannot remember ever going all the way there.
There was a restaurant downtown Bessemer owned by a friend of my father. We did not eat out often and when we did it would be a restaurant where we could get family-style meals at a cheap price. I cannot recall the name of that restaurant now, and I am sure it ceased to exist long ago.
But the highlight of the trip for Dean and I was the Wigwam motor hotel just about midway between the Alabama Fairgrounds and downtown Bessemer. You could not miss it. 15 silver teepees surrounding an even larger central teepee containing the restaurant. The Wigwam Village, as it was called, opened in 1940, the fifth of seven eventually built across the country. My understanding is it was torn down in 1964 when I was in my first year at the Academy.
Dean and I loved to argue with my father about the name. You see, Dean and I watched Hop-along Cassidy on our new TV and we knew that the “wigwams” were really teepees. Wigwams, we tried to convince my father, were short and squatty, not tall and pointed. But he never listened to us and just said, “Then why did the rich man who built Wigwam Village call them wigwams?”
Unfortunately, our arguing with him meant he would never agree to stop the car and let us explore them. So, we drove by, always missing our chance to go in a real teepee.
That is until one cold December day in 1951. My birthday fell on a Sunday that year and I guess my father decided to give in to our pleas because of that when we drove by the teepees on the way to Bessemer. Mother pulled into the gravel parking lot and parked by the big restaurant teepee.
“How would you like to eat dinner here?” he said. We were ecstatic and could not wait to get out of the car and run inside. I honestly cannot remember what we had to eat. More than likely, we had vegetable plates because they were usually the cheapest dinners on the menu. We gobbled our food down and ran around the restaurant looking at the sloping walls. Mom talked to the manager and he let us into one of the wigwam cabins. I cannot remember much about the inside – just a bed and a bathroom. But you could look up at the top of the teepee and see out because there was a window up there, just down a bit from the peak.
The photo below was taken Dec 6, 1951, just four days after we were there.
I know it is a trite phrase – unconditional love. So easy to throw into a conversation and everyone’s head nods to say they agree with how important it is.
But I think sometimes we do not realize just how much our family and friends depend on that unconditional love.
I think everyone, at least most of us, has days or times when we doubt our self-worth. Family stresses, job stresses, worry about the future can sneak in and undermine our feeling of being worthy of love.
I have been somewhat on the fringe of my daughter’s life these last 20 years, but my love for her has never wavered. Even during the darkest times when I felt my X had so wedged her hate between my daughter and me that we went far too long without communicating or seeing one another, I never stopped loving my daughter.
During those 20 years, my daughter has matured, married a wonderful person, grown in so many ways and now become a mother to a beautiful girl. Along the way, she has grown her professional life and is the primary “breadwinner” in her family. I know that my son-in-law stepped up and became the primary caregiver to my granddaughter, something that many men are reluctant to do. He grew into a great father and my daughter into a great mother. And I know that the situation that developed has put stressors on both my daughter and son-in-law as well as my granddaughter. But they do what they have to do, and I do not doubt their love for each other.
I still stand at the fringe, looking in as much as I can from 500 miles away.
I wish my own situation were such that I could lavish money on them and make it possible for them to not have financial pressures impinging on the way they live. But that is not to be.
So, all I can do is to try to communicate my unconditional love for them all. No matter what happens. No matter if changes occur which upend their lives due to things beyond their control. No matter if the changes come because they must initiate them to move toward new goals and be who they need to be, as I had to do 20 years ago.
I love them all unconditionally. My daughter, my son-in-law, my granddaughter. They are all intricately woven into my being. No matter what happens, I will love them unconditionally until my last breath.
I am still in shock over the presidential election, as I know many are. One of the things I cannot forgive our new president is his unwillingness to serve our country in uniform during the Vietnam War. Last year, I wrote a post about six of my Academy roommates and friends who were lost in that war [here]. Previously, I had written about my first Academy roommate, Jim Steadman, [here]. As a result of writing that post about Jim, I found Jim’s place on the Virtual Vietnam Memorial wall [here] and ‘placed’ that photo of Jim and I studying as lower classmen at the Academy on the virtual wall. To my surprise, I received an email from his daughter, Karin Mae, asking if I were the daughter or sister of Don, because as everyone knows, girls were not allowed at the Academy back in the ’60s. I summoned some courage and simply told Karin the truth, expecting to be rejected by her as I have been by most of my former classmates over my being trans. But that was not the case with Karin. She welcomed me into her story and updated me on the continuing search for Jim, including providing me links to the Owl 08 sites where the search continues today. The image below (borrowed from OWL 08) is of Jim’s grandson, Steady, finding Jim’s name on the real Wall.
This is what service to your country looks like, Mr. President-elect.
Golden Boys forever, Jim.