A Way of Acceptance

I posted an entry in October 2015 about the evolution of acceptance I had experienced by the neighbors on the block where I live, here in New York. It remains of the more poignant pieces of my transitional jigsaw. However ten days ago, one of the neighbors I referred to in that article, passed away, rather suddenly after a short illness. I felt such loss hearing the news as we had become such firm friends over the last two years. If ever I saw him on his stoop I would make a point of chatting with him, and he would usually give me a kiss on the cheek. A kiss that signified much more than friendship; it was complete acceptance. It was lovely being able to reconnect — especially as it hadn’t always been that way. I will miss him. I paid my respects to him and his family at the funeral home a few days later and was greeted like an old friend by his daughter and widow. I was honored to be there and feel so proud to have been in his friendship. So, in honor of you, Angelo, here are some reworked passages of that blog entry again.

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I suppose we all have different ways of accepting who we are. For me, it took many years to accept that I am transgender, and even longer to say it to anyone else. When I moved into my current apartment, in Queens, I was still portraying myself as a man. How deeply I was male I really don’t know, but outwardly to the neighbors I was a man. Once I started presenting as female, it undoubtedly caused a lot of confusion to those on my block. Along with humor, probably, and sneering at the guy in a dress.

I live in a quite traditional area of Queens — as much as anything is traditional in this city of immigrants, of which I am unashamedly one. So it’s quite normal that on one side of my apartment there is a family from South America (I’ve never established which country it is; it never mattered as we don’t talk much to each other though always exchange a friendly greeting) where as on the other side is a family of Italian Americans spanning three generations. One door further down the block an older couple, also Italian Americans, who I guess must be in their 80s now.

I had had conversations with the male half of that couple soon after I moved in as I admired his garden and valued his horticultural advice. However once I started presenting as female, that casual friendship evaporated. He always turned away when I walked by, eschewing any eye contact. It didn’t unduly surprise me, and I wasn’t offended by his actions – just saddened by the rejection. I appreciate the complexity and misunderstanding that being transgender must be to others — especially older generations — but I was just sorry that our little friendship was no more.

Over the next few years I wondered if his rejection had softened. Was that a glint of a smile as I walked past, or just a nod of recognition? Either was a step in the right direction. One day, however, everything changed. I had paused outside his house, ostensibly to admire his flowers, but perhaps more in the hope that there might be a small chat. He asked me about my book, which had come out six months earlier. Apparently the other neighbors in the house between us had told him about it. I was a little surprised, but welcomed the dialogue wholeheartedly. It ended up being quite remarkable.

“I remember talking with you when you moved in,” he said. “You were a man.”

“Yes, that’s right” I replied, ignoring the specifics of when I actually might have been a man or ‘become’ a woman.

“Now you are a woman,” he continued. “So much work you have done… operations and so on.”

“Yes,” I said, “but I am happy. Very much at peace. The sense of calm I have is wonderful.”

“I am a very Roman Catholic person,” he added. I had assumed this, as he had always been a key and visible part of events at the local church, but it also made me have some concerns about what he was about to add.

“This is a miracle.”

I didn’t see that coming.

“God wanted you this way. You were born another way, but God wanted you this way. It’s a miracle.”

I felt incredibly humbled. I don’t consider myself a miracle in any shape or form, but in his mind — in his belief and in his faith — this was his particular way of dealing with something that he had never expected from the neighbor two doors down.

Faith is many things to many people, religion likewise. Our beliefs drive us forward in many and diverse ways. They can also cause friction, wars, and distrust that may linger for countless generations. But not on my block. New York is known to be a melting pot of countless cultures and religions but it still has many divisions. Not on my block. The obstacles to acceptance that I felt in my early transitional days when I left my apartment have gone. Those around me may never fully understand what being transgender is all about — that often confuses me too — but it doesn’t matter to them anymore. Nor me, either.

That is my block.

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A Question of Belief

I suppose we all have different ways of accepting who we are. For me, it took many years to accept that I am transgender, and even longer to say it to anyone else. When I moved into my current apartment, in Queens, I was still portraying myself as a man. How deeply I was male I really don’t know, but outwardly to the landlords and the neighbors I was a man. In the first few months that I presented as female, it undoubtedly confused the same landlords and neighbors. I think it amused others on the same block too as I was then subject to the sort of verbal abuse that every trans person gets.

I live in a quite traditional area of Queens — as much as anything is traditional in this city of immigrants, of which I am unashamedly one. So it’s quite normal that on one side of my apartment there is a family from South America (though I’ve never quite established which country it is. It never mattered as we don’t talk much to each other though always exchange a friendly greeting) where as on the other side is a family of Italian Americans spanning three generations. One door further down the block an older couple, also Italian Americans, who I guess must be in their 80s now.

In the early days of being Nicky, I used to hope that I wouldn’t see any of my neighbors when leaving the house to avoid any awkward eye contact. It didn’t always work. The male half of the old couple used to turn away when he saw me; presumably so he wouldn’t have to see the weird person who used to be a man. The three-generational didn’t seem much more accommodating either; but how is one supposed to greet someone who is now presenting completely differently? Perhaps the best way is to do nothing at all. Maybe that’s what I would have done too.

The biggest surprise in breaking the ice (the ice that I felt was there anyway) came from the most unlikely source: the elder grandmother of the three-generational family. I was out tending the small patch of garden outside the house when she came over for a chat.

“The flowers are looking good! I’m Kathy by the way — what’s your name?”

“Nicky,” I replied. “People call me Nicky”.

“It’s nice to meet you, Nicky” she said. And I honestly felt the same.

In the following years the rapprochement became easier, though still glacial at times. I would hardly talk with the youngest of the three generations (three testosterone-filled boys) and I felt they were probably sniggering at the ‘guy in a dress’ behind my back. And still the older guy turned away when I was walking by. Then, the grandmother of the generational family died. I was truly saddened, not only because she had been the one who had reached out with her own olive branch, but also because she had since become a friend. So I was very much honored when the family asked me if I’d like to come to the funeral. At that point, I could not have imagined a bigger level of acceptance. Although I couldn’t make it to the service, I did go to the wake at the funeral home afterwards. I chatted with the other two generations with warmth and respect, in fact one of the younger kids even started shedding a tear when I asked him about fond memories of his grandma.

The next big step happened around the time of the launch of my book, Tea and Transition. My mother had come over for the launch event, and when we were waiting on the stoop for the taxi to arrive, she started chatting with the neighbors, who were also on their stoop. She got on with them like a house on fire, which again amazed me — though maybe it shouldn’t have, as my mother will talk to anyone at any time. Often she can rub people up the wrong way, but here she was among new found friends. I don’t think it was intentional as such, but I feel that her being here, by my side, for the book launch further legitimized me as a woman in the eyes of my neighbors. Since then, things have gone full circle from the early days. Now I actually hope to see any of that family on their stoop so I can see how they are doing and exchange a few words. I saw the father popping into a bar round the corner last week, and he even asked me in for a drink. I didn’t go, but I will do one day.

However the latest, and maybe the biggest step happened this afternoon. The older Italian couple have started talking to me again, and he doesn’t turn away when I walk by, but this time he stopped me for a chat. I was admiring his flowers and he asked me about my book.

“I remember talking with you when you moved in,” he said. “You were a man.”

“Yes, that’s right” I replied, ignoring the specifics of when I actually might have been a man or ‘become’ a woman.

“Now you are a woman,” he continued. “So much work you have done… operations and so on.”

“Yes,” I said, “but I am happy. Very much at peace. The sense of calm I have is wonderful.”

“I am a very Roman Catholic person,” he added. I had assumed this, as he had always been a key and visible part of events at the local church, but it also made me have some concerns about what he was about to add.

“This is a miracle.”

I didn’t see that coming.

“God wanted you this way. You were born another way, but God wanted you this way. It’s a miracle.”

I felt incredibly humbled as I am not in any way a miracle, but in his mind — in his belief and in his faith — this was his particular way of dealing with something that he had never expected from the neighbor two doors down. For me, I just felt hugely gratified that another gap of misunderstanding had been broached. Perhaps now I could get more gardening tips from him again too — he had given me one or two ideas back in the ‘old days’ but those dried up with my womanhood. Now I feel the ground might be fertile enough for us to continue.

Faith is many things to many people, religion likewise. Our beliefs drive us forward in many and diverse ways. They can also cause friction, wars, and distrust that may linger for countless generations. But not on my block. New York is known to be a melting pot of countless cultures and religions but it still has many divisions. Not on my block. The obstacles to acceptance that I felt in my early transitional days when I left my apartment have gone. Those around me may never fully understand what being transgender is all about — that often confuses me too — but it doesn’t matter to them anymore. Nor me, either.

That is my block.

Caitlyn: Not My Spokesperson

One of the reoccurring questions I am asked when I’m talking about my book, Tea and Transition, is what effect Caitlyn Jenner has had on transgender awareness — or what do I think about Caitlyn’s transition.

I always preface my answer with support — support for anyone transgender, famous or otherwise, who is dealing with gender confusion or acting upon some sort of transition. None of us asked for this when we were dealt the hand of life, and so to reach a point of self-acceptance followed by any sort of transition is a big deal. Some of us accept it with grace and fortitude, while others are not able to make any outward change because of family, society, religion, or any one of countless other restrictive factors that prevent people from being their true selves. So yes, of course I support Caitlyn Jenner, and am glad that she is finding a deeper level of happiness that had previously eluded her.

Yet I am also trying to figure out why support for Caitlyn from within the transgender community seems more muted than from without. Just because other trans people have been through more hardships than Jenner to get to where they are doesn’t make them — or her — any less trans. Still, I don’t feel close to her at all when watching “I Am Cait” as she explains her own personal difficulties while conversing with either of her two personal stylists or when dithering between wearing one $2,000 dress in her closet or another. Yes, her hardship is to deal with paparazzi-dodging while the rest of us do not, but still that doesn’t lead me to a closer position of empathy.

Reality TV is — by definition — not real. I should not be offended by the appearance of more champagne toasts on the program than discussion of issues of substance — but I am. So far (after four episodes) the series has been shallower than Jenner’s first pool party and if it is to really stimulate dialog then it has to provoke a far edgier conversation than her visiting a trans outreach clinic in her black-windowed SUV. The public is not so foolish to assume that every trans person looks or behaves like Caitlyn, but nor should they assume that she is my spokesperson. She is not. Most worryingly, this seems to be a position that Jenner herself is seeking to adopt, or she has presumed to have taken on already. I think it’s terrific that she has met other trans people from all walks of life and she needs to meet a whole bunch more before she can even hope to understand the situations of others. One relevant point from the most recent show was her tendency to refer to trans people as “them” and not “us”. This organic change will happen in time, but only if she wants it to.

I’ve also been considering the term “community” when it refers to trans people like me. I have met countless trans people over the years and one of the pleasures of my day job is that I get to meet trans folk at all stages of their individual transitions. I thoroughly enjoy that but it doesn’t mean that I want to have tea with them all at every opportunity. Personally, I don’t feel the need to be around other trans people to validate my own position. I choose my friends (trans, cis, and everyone else) because of who they are, not what their history is. To do otherwise would be like hanging with other blondes for the reason of shared hair color. Thus for me personally, the term “trans community” is more a loose fellowship rather than a bonded group.

Returning to the Caitlyn factor, I see some new chatter about whether a Caitlyn Jenner Halloween outfit is appropriate or not (CNN). My initial reaction was that it is totally inappropriate, but then the more I considered it, the more it seemed fair. The costume is not mocking being transgender in itself (though if you added a phallus then it probably would be), nor are countless other costumes that play with role reversal at Halloween (sexy nuns, stripper nurses, etc) seriously irreverent to those lives or professions. It’s a day of silliness and should be accepted as just that. Once Jenner was featured on the cover of Vanity Fair, it was unavoidable that parody would follow, even if it didn’t happen immediately. That is the price of fame, and as such, comes with no refund.

The Courage in Being Transgender

One of the biggest surprises to me when I saw Caitlyn Jenner accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award was how eloquently she spoke. A few more “we” references as opposed to “they” ones when talking about transgender people would have been wiser, but she was still standing up for the trans community. These are baby steps for the 65 year old after all.

As cynics continue to question Jenner’s motives and muse over how self-serving they are, others in America wonder whether a celebrity outing herself as trans is the pinnacle of being brave. With an army of stylists at her coattails (or Versace dress in this case), an upcoming TV show to promote, and Hollywood feeding on anything transgender as the latest media trend, the concept of Caitlyn’s bravery is cushioned beyond reality.

Rightly, Jenner raised the huge problem of kids being bullied as they come to terms with their own genders, though her comments come from advisors, not through experience in meeting those people. By her own admission, she had not met anyone else trans until earlier this year. The transgender person you meet at school, work, or on the street is unlikely to have the same glamour quotient as Caitlyn, didn’t arrive to work in a black-windowed SUV, and didn’t have the services of her plastic surgeon—although that could be an arguable blessing.

Many times throughout my own transition people called me brave. I often felt confused and a shade embarrassed when I heard that. I never felt brave, not in any traditional sense, as I was just being myself. For others it requires incredible fortitude, perhaps in the process of self-determination, or in the ability to act upon that sense of identity. Some, sadly, will never be able to get to the stage they desire, whatever stage that is and however deeply they wish to change. Culture, religion and society all play parts in a person’s ability to transition, fear of being ostracized from friends or family is a very real concern too.

A further aspect of bravery is negotiating hardship in getting to where you know you belong, or where you need to be. Arthur Ashe was the standard bearer for that. Last year’s winner of Ashe’s award, Michael Sam, must have run through a gamut of abuse from a male-centric sport as he became the first publicly gay player to be drafted into the NFL. I’m sure he still does. Coming out winner over a dreadful bone marrow disease made Robin Roberts a worthy recipient of the award the previous year. Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali, and some lesser known sporting stars have also received the accolade of the Arthur Ashe award. Caitlyn Jenner receiving that same award strikes a nerve of incredulity in many people—me included.

I welcome that her transition has broadened the dialogue and allowed America to talk about a subject that before was too often below the radar. However speaking as one of the countless other transgender people, we are not Caitlyns, and her celebrity support is harder to assimilate within the rank and file.

The concept of one person being braver than another—especially when in award ceremonies—is somewhat fatuous, though I hope that ESPN and its Disney parent company have not just highlighted Jenner’s journey as a way to attach their own train to the transgender bandwagon.

Call me woman

After Caitlyn Jenner unveiled herself in lingerie for Vanity Fair, reaction has predominantly fallen into two camps: visible support for her as you would earthquake victims in faraway lands (lest you appear heartless), or label her as sassy for showing too much leg. Cut through the media sensationalism and celebrities falling over themselves to support her, and I’m struggling to find the voice of reason.

Above and beyond my own transition, I have always tried to clarify one of the biggest misunderstandings about being transgender: that sexuality and gender definition are two distinctly different things. And so a provocative image of Jenner in a bustier for a magazine front cover has done nothing to enhance the public perception of those differences. We don’t need to come across as frumpy, but this was a few inches of skin too far. Caitlyn herself must be delighted with the images as she looks stunning, yet for the rest of us trying to explain that transgender women shouldn’t be perceived as vampish, it was a retrograde step.

There is also a growing presumption that we need to re-write history as a consequence of Jenner’s transition. I appreciate that pronouns are tricky (I still get friends and relations calling me “he” by mistake, even though I have been “she” for several years) but the things that I did as a man were done in that gender. That past I cannot change. Should the medals that Jenner won as Bruce now be revised as successes for Caitlyn? No, Bruce won those accolades, not Caitlyn. There are many things that I’d have preferred to have done with the benefit of hindsight as a woman in my 20s or 30s but I can’t—I was a man then.

This redefinition seems to be growing into other areas too. In Texas and Tennessee a debate has started regarding changing street names celebrating Bruce Jenner—should these be updated with her new name? This is slightly more acceptable as the renaming is supportive of her transition though doubtless there will be detractors to argue that the names should stay, or even changed to something else altogether. Thus, there needs to be a balance between supporting who Jenner is now and the desire to change the facts to fit with our revised sensibilities.

I also see an unnecessary backlash. I have read of the premise that transgender women are less female because we didn’t grow up with vaginas. (New York Times June 6th, 2015 “What Makes A Woman” by Elinor Burkett). There, the author claims that feminists and transgender activists are on some sort of collision course. I refute that.

To be clear, I wasn’t a suffragette in 1920s Britain fighting for equal voting rights, nor was I a part of the feminist movement in 1960s America. Does that negate my sense of self that I am a woman? Try telling a black activist that they are somehow ‘less black’ because they didn’t march from Selma to Montgomery and you’d get laughed out of town. And rightly so.

I know I was not born the way I am now, but just because I didn’t go through puberty as a 16 year old girl, or deal with monthly reminders from my updated body, or suffer gender-based discrimination in the workplace, doesn’t make me any less able to call myself a woman. I accept that I have fewer accrued experiences in my true gender but that doesn’t lessen their worth. So, please, let’s move away from the “I’m more of a woman than you are” claims—it makes us sound like men.

It is undoubtedly positive that Caitlyn Jenner has revitalized the transgender conversation, and to see a person at peace with themselves as a result of this change is empowering. She has found balance, the rest of us now need to do the same.

The Second Coming (Out)

In one week’s time, my book “Tea and Transition” will be hitting the shelves. Actually it will be slightly longer before I get physical books-on-shelves coverage in Barnes & Noble and the independent booksellers but it will be available on the virtual shelves of Amazon.com from that date, and in multiple formats too. Among the stress and worry of getting the logistics working in alignment, there is another strange additional emotion I’m experiencing too. I’m not quite what it is, but I think it’s about losing some of my anonymity. Of course I want the book to be a success, so why should I not feel the excitement that other people say they are feeling about the impending release? I put it down to The Second Coming (Out).

It was about 5 years ago that my day to day life started in female mode. I suppose my transition began some time before that and then continued long afterwards too, but in these last couple of years I have felt simply at one with myself. No other surgery to do, no further name changes to worry about, everything had been completed. I’d had all of the awkward (and not so awkward) conversations with friends and family, and everyone (with one or two exceptions) who I knew in my ‘past life’ accepted me as Nicky, and not the guy who came before me. I even stopped caring as much if people saw me as a transgender woman or a woman woman. People simply knew me as Nicky (or Nicola if I am being formal) whether or not they were aware of my previous incarnation. So my past was behind me. I was complete.

Writing the book almost happened by mistake. It started when I began experiencing emotions and feelings that I knew would never happen again. It began as a journal, something for my own benefit that I could use to remind me of the evolution that I was a part of. And yes, sometimes I didn’t quite know what was going on, it just seemed to happen. I got caught up in my own evolution as a natural part of who I seemed to be and what I appeared to be becoming. It was only after several months that I wondered if these scrawlings could become something larger, though I had no idea if anyone else would like to read them. I still don’t.

Completing the book made me think more about what I had been through, though as the time line stopped around 2 years ago, I was actually somewhat disassociated from what I had written. Now it was all about the editing process, how to polish what I had written, and of course, getting it out as a real, physical book. Although everything really did happen exactly as I described, I viewed it more dispassionately as a project I was seeing through to completion and not a baring of my soul to the media. I was still proud of the book – and I am, immensely – but I hadn’t appreciated that with the promotion and distribution of it, I would need to come out all over again.

Of course I am grateful that I am being asked to write pieces for the media to tie in with the book release, and now I am working with a wonderful publicist, I am hoping those requests will gain momentum so that I can bring my story to a bigger audience. However with that comes the need to explain myself again, to have to go through all the emotions that I felt several years ago, and to talk about a period of my life that is essentially over. I know, I get it, that’s what the whole dang book is about and I truly do want it to be a success! But with that comes the personal reminder that I am a transgender woman after all.

The working title for the book for much of its writing period was “The Woman I Was”. I liked the slight ambiguity of the wording and felt that it reflected the concept that I was probably a woman before I realized it myself. But book experts advised me that such a title would be too confusing and might even imply that I was a woman before and am now a man! Jeez, I didn’t want to have that association! Besides, the link with tea is far more appropriate.

One of the broader aims that I have is that, in time, we can do without labels and definitions. Society is getting there and these days we rarely say the (black) actor, the (lesbian) actress, the (gay) runner – because there is simply no need for those added words. Yet still we tend to say the transgender actress. Not always, but often there seems to be the need to qualify that the actress is a transgender actress. Having said that, how would I like to be introduced if I am giving an interview? The transgender author? I am that and so it does make sense – especially as that is what the book is about.

Still, I return to the flux of now having to come out again. I really hadn’t expected to do that a second time, but maybe this is beyond that. Perhaps this is the true finishing point as I lift the final veil of transparency.