Monday, November 17, 2008

My ride on the transgendered rollercoaster

I try to avoid cliches, but "learning curve" is tempting, if only because I still feel the reality of that piece of language. Sometimes, it's like your strapped into a rollercoaster, going straight up - helpless. Learning all the way.

That's the way it's been with me and the transgendered phenomenon. I got there the same way I've gotten into so much of what I've learned in life: I wrote my way into it.

I was in a band with a guy who killed himself. He haunted me from the grave. I decided to try to write my way out of it. I started a novel, based upon the dead guy and the other people we had known together.

Writing his girlfriend into the novel - he killed himself, in some sense, over a girl - I came up with a line, or rather it came to me, about a butterfly landing on her sweater, "right where the rest of her tit will be when it's finished growing in."


The dead drummer I had known in life had a girlfriend who was all girl. The dead drummer in my novel - I discovered, much to my amazement - had a girlfriend who was only gradually becoming a girl. Or she had always been a girl, despite being born a boy, and was only gradually arranging her physical form to match her soul.

From that point on, I have been strapped into the rollercoaster, straight up on a learning curve.

To complete the novel, to make sense of the character, I read transgendered memoirs by Calpernia Addams and Jenny Boylan, amazing books. I corresponded with them both. Then I set about to meet actual transgendered people.

This is much easier to do if you are a journalist, which gives you a passport into the lives of other people. I researched and wrote a preview of a young transgendered musician coming through St. Louis with the "Tranny Road Show," Tona Brown. I met her at her local gig. I helped her get more press after she got back home in Hampton Roads, Virginia. We became pretty good friends.

I'm thinking about Tona tonight because she emailed me a flyer about a Transgender Day of Rememberance on Thursday, Nov. 20, in Hampton Roads. It's part of a national effort to bear witness to violence against transgendered people, though I don't know of anything happening here in St. Louis to support it.

That was the least pleasant part of my learning curve: learning the shocking prevalence of the most brutal forms of violence committed against transgendered people. This comes across so strong when you research this stuff - when you get on this rollercoaster - that I wrote it into my novel. The dead drummer's transgendered widow studies her "transition" with another trans woman who runs a nonprofit that, among other things, bears witness to the rampant violence visited upon this community.

Most of us have felt a misfit at one time or another in our lives. There have been times for me that race was an irrational barrier, and I couldn't imagine why I had been born "white" or why any of us have to submit to these arbitrary divisions based upon continental ancestry as inferred from your complexion, facial features and the texture of your hair.

But born into the wrong gender? Whoa, Jim. Learning curve. Straight up. Straight down. I'll bear witness to and remember anyone who has survived that confusion - or who didn't survive it and died at the hands of people who will kill what they don't understand or most fear in themselves.


Photo of Tona Brown by Wiley Price

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