The War is Never Over. The Revolution is Never Won

I am an unreconstructed Flower Child, matured and mellowed a bit, but I have never surrendered to what seems to be any version of “normal” USA culture. Back in the 60s and 70s we “freaks” felt that we were instigating tremendous change, and we were, but these battles have to be fought again and again, generation after generation. Of course, there is such a thing as progress, and nobody can deny that there has been much positive change in our culture’s way of treating women, minorities, the poor, LGBT folks, immigrants, and other “others.” Nonetheless, the battles rage on, sometimes hotter and sometimes cooler, but they never are over and done with.
Mass murders in a Southern church are a reminder. The never-ending flood of black-on-black violence and police-on-black violence is a reminder. The rude, disgusting misogynistic comments in mass media and social media about Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton are a reminder, as are the equally ugly and hateful blathering of Donald Trump and the Brown Shirt/Hitler Youth-type behavior of many of his supporters. North Carolina’s HB2 and similar legislative actions in other states, whether passed, proposed, or pending, are a harsh reminder.
I was a witness to the so-called Stonewall Riots and the birth of the Gay Liberation movement in New York in 1969 (see my Facebook Note from 2010 titled “The Queens are Bashing the Cops”). While I am thrilled that our country has finally granted the fundamental human right of marriage to same-sex couples, it is clear that there is still an abundance of potentially violent hatred against anyone queer, and this current rash of anti-queer legislation and litigation are simply the more civil expressions of that hatred. Beneath the veneer, violence is on the prowl, and whether it is fully expressed or not, it is hurtful.
No sooner had North Carolina’s HB2 been announced I found myself awakened by my transgender spouse one morning, as he told me of a terrible nightmare he had just experienced. In the dream he was traveling to see friends in North Carolina and, as a result, a woman was murdered in a woman’s room simply for being Rob’s friend. This past weekend we were, in fact, traveling in North Carolina to visit friends. On three occasions we were out in public places when Robin experienced nature’s call. Two of these occasions occurred in fairly hip restaurants in a college-town urban setting. In one of these cases, there was an available gender-neutral loo available for folks with physical disabilities, so he chose that one.
The third occasion was a very different situation. We were on farm in a very rural area. Many farms rely these days on various forms of agri-tourism to supplement income, and that was the case here. A large dairy farm has opened a popular ice cream parlor to promote their rich Jersey milk products. It was a sunny, warm Sunday, and the place was crammed with families bringing children for a treat. There were lines for ice cream, a crowd of kids waiting a chance to pet the cute Jersey calf, and, of course, there was predictable demand and use of the two gendered restrooms. I’ve been married to Rob for over 34 years, so even if he hadn’t felt the need to talk about it today, now that we are back in Virginia, I would have known that this situation had rattled him.
It seems that an awful lot of people still seem to feel it is quite okay to rape women, to roll queers, to beat up folks who support a different politician, and to assault a person whose looks don’t conform to someone’s notion of what is properly gendered appearance or behavior. In just the past week the news has reported on two different women being roughed up in public simply for looking a bit butch. This shit is real. If you are a friend or relative of a GLBT person, please understand that the rabid hatred being floated in the news, the social media, and in the state capitols of this country has real-life effects on people you love. Be sensitive to this and be ready to be supportive if you can. Offer to go into public places with a gender-non-conforming person. Speak up loudly when you hear bigotry spoken. Offer hugs, even if they don’t seem immediately necessary.
There is a strong effort in the land by millions of people to revitalize a romanticized golden-age vision of the 1950s. There was nothing golden about it that dark era of coat-hanger abortions, repressed sexuality, racist lynchings, patriarchal dictatorships in the home and the office, and queer-baiting gang-rapes. I was there, and there was nothing there that I would ever want to return to (except, perhaps, for a Republican Party led by the wisdom of Dwight D. Eisenhower). I hope that we are simply witnessing the death-throes of a tired old order, but we must be vigilant. Revitalization movements often die away quietly, but they can–as in the case of the Third Reich–light a spark that turns into a conflagration. It’s not just about politics–not by a long shot. No matter who you vote for, the cultural wars must be fought every day, again and again and again.

I’m Glad My Husband is Gay!

Parts of this article first appeared in the essay “Transitions,” in War Baby: Talking About My Generation by L. Daniel Mouer, Createspace 2011. The present version has been updated for inclusion in Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge and Resistance , edited by Jordon Johnson and Becky Garrison, Transgress Press.

“Dan does the cooking and I fix the toilet when it breaks. It’s a good thing we found each other, otherwise, we both would have had to go get a ‘sex change’.” That’s what my wife, Robin, used to tell folks. The truth is I have never thought about getting a sex change. I’m not shy about allowing my “feminine side” to show, but I am quite happy with the body in which I was born, and I cannot imagine wanting to trade in my “parts” for a woman’s, nor have I ever felt tempted to dress in women’s clothes. The day I first asked her to think about moving in with me, she glared at me accusingly and said, “I hope you don’t think I would strap on an apron and turn into Suzie Homemaker!” To that I quickly responded that I hoped she didn’t think I was offering her free range in my kitchen!

Rob and I have been married for 33 years. I’m sure that one of the things that attracted us to each other is that neither of us are entirely conforming to anyone’s notions of gender norms. I first met her in 1978. We were married four years later. We worked together in the same profession, watched our son grow up and give us grandchildren. Twenty seven years after our first meeting, my wife confessed to me that she is and always has been a guy, and that it was her wish to alter her body, with hormones and surgery, to look more appropriately masculine. My wife wanted a “sex change.” Unless you are someone who has heard something similar from your spouse, that must sound like the punch line to a very bad joke.

Many years ago Rob and I each took an online quiz that had been generated by one of the big English universities. The goal was to identify if one’s brain is more “masculine” or “feminine.” Well, I used to joke that Robin probably had more testosterone in her veins than I did, so I had little doubt that she would score more manly than I would be on that test. I was right. Her score put her in the “very masculine” category, while I landed smack in the middle: equally masculine and feminine in the views of then-contemporary brain science.

As a child I had felt restricted and oppressed by traditional gender norms. They never made sense to me. There were things I enjoyed doing that were “girly” things, and others that were “masculine.” I was never very interested in sports, at least not until my senior year in high school, and that, alone, is enough to make your masculinity suspect when you grow up in a sports-obsessed town like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Robin has always been “one of the guys:” no dresses, no make-up, never even close to being “girly.” I am quite happy with our flexible and often-reversed gender roles, and I never found Robin to be less attractive for being butch. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m attracted to strong, capable, straightforward women. Similarly, I find men more likable if they also have a “softer” side: guys who aren’t afraid of being emotionally vulnerable. Gender extremes, in either direction, are a turn-off for me.

I was stunned nonetheless when Robin finally sat me down and informed me that he is transgender, that he sees himself as a man and has never been comfortable when others view him as a woman. What’s more, he wanted to have surgery and to take hormones to physically change his appearance from female to male. (In this paragraph, my “wife” becomes my “partner,” “husband,” or “spouse,” and “she” becomes “he,” for that is the way I now know him.) This announcement came sometime in 2004. My initial reaction was predictable. My brain screamed out “No! No! Hell no! This cannot be real!” But, at the same time, I had come to know Robin well enough over the previous 25 years that I knew he was telling me the truth. This was not a whim, fantasy, or delusion. And at that realization, I began to catch up on my inadequate understanding of the mysterious world of gender identity

Over the next many months, I read every book and article I could find on the subject of transgender. I joined online support and information networks. I am a scholar by profession, and I knew I would not be able to relax with this idea until I had learned enough to consider myself a minor expert on the subject. Of course it was not an entirely new subject to me. As an anthropologist I had been teaching students for years about the cultural relativism of gender norms, and the ways various cultures deal with non-conforming gender behavior or with individuals and groups who blend or border-cross gender categories.

Robin and I frequently discussed the implications for our relationship, both between ourselves alone, and with a couple’s counselor. I could not promise Robin I would find him attractive as a lover. I have no prejudices against homosexuality; I think of myself as being at least capable of being bisexual, but I was facing the reality of becoming half of a same-sex couple, socially as well as sexually, and that is just not how I have ever seen myself. We live in (and were married in) a state that had passed a constitutional amendment banning anything that even smells like same-sex partnership, let alone marriage.

For nearly a year I learned, listened, talked, cried, thought, felt and imagined myself living not with Robin, my wife, but with a guy with whiskers, a flat chest, and a deep voice. No matter how strange it felt, I simply kept coming back to the same answer. I know this person, I love this person, and we had come through way too many serious difficulties to allow a “sex change” to put an end to a good thing. We decided to go ahead with this transition and to tell the world: “We are now husband and husband, partners, two guys who are in love and we are married.”

Rob and I are equestrians. We spend a few days a week out in the country where we board our horses and where, over the years, we have made many strong friendships. We worried the most about coming out to the barn gang. We were afraid they might not be quite as open to the changes we were about to announce as our academic friends back in the city might be. The year was 2005. Brokeback Mountain had just been released and talk of gay cowboys was in the air. That day Robin and I showed up at the barn, and the first person we told was our dear friend Susan. She’s a deeply religious “country girl,” with good old-time values, and we were really worried this just might not go too well. Robin was very direct. He explained that he feels like a man and he was going to go through the process of changing his body and his persona to reflect his proper gender. I mentioned that we would now be a same-sex couple. I was standing behind Robin and wearing a wide-brim straw cowboy hat that day. Susan seemed a little flustered. At first she just muttered that it really wasn’t any of her business, but then curiosity overcame her and she asked, “But why?” I couldn’t resist. I said that now that I had seen Brokeback Mountain, I really wanted to be a gay cowboy, and now I was going to be just that!

Susan looked at me oddly, trying to understand what I had just said, and then she started laughing. It was a nervous laugh, but she laughed. By our next trip out to the barn two or three days later, everyone knew that we were undergoing a transition. The gang had decided on their own that Robin would, from that point on, be “Rob,” and to this day it remains so. We needn’t have worried about losing friends, because they are, truly, good friends and good people. So Rob started on hormone treatments and we went off to San Francisco for three weeks to have his body altered. We tend to think of it now not as changing sex, but more as a “gender correction.”

Over the years since Rob first came out to me, I have come to know—online or in person—many dozens of transmen and transwomen. It is statistically rare for a person to be so transgender that they seek to undergo the transition across the sexes, but it isn’t as rare as most people might imagine. My transgender friends are a cross section of the North American population (with a sprinkling of Europeans and Aussies for spice). There are elders and juniors, war heroes, artists, construction workers, teachers, and engineers. Among them there are a few who have serious emotional or psychological problems that have been brought on by, or aggravated by being “trans,” but most of them are as sane and levelheaded and “normal” as all the rest of the folks I know in this life.

I have become an advocate for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered (GLBT) people, and my passion for the cause has helped keep me active in these years of my retirement. Much of GLBT activism these days revolves around the right of same-sex marriage. That is one cause I feel I must support, if for no other reason than because my own marriage was threatened by the hateful public backlash stirred up by religious zealots and political reactionaries. However, my main focus is on doing whatever can be done to stop the emotional and physical violence that comes down on GLBT people from the time they are young children. Every year this world loses good folks to ignorant violence and to the suicide that many people choose as an alternative to their own persecution and social isolation.

I’ve become proud to think of myself as a member of the GLBT community, but it took me a while to get here. Early in this transition, when Rob and I were in San Francisco for his surgery, another friend who was married to a trans person took us one evening to an event at the large community “gay center” in the Castro District—arguably the “capital” of gay America. There, for the first time, I heard Robin and I being introduced to strangers as each other’s “husband.” It sounded odd, but it was also liberating: a way of chipping away at the tyranny of gender roles in personal relationships. When we were back home in Virginia, one old friend asked me if I now feel like I am gay. My response came quickly. “I don’t know about me,” I said, “but I’m sure glad that my husband is gay!”

Making the actual transition was nowhere near as difficult for us as I had feared it might be. Friends and family have mostly been respectful and accepting. If not, they have kept their reservations to themselves. There are personality changes that go along with transitioning. Some of those are no doubt due to hormonal effects, but others are simply the result of the trans person allowing their “true self” to emerge in ways they could not do in the past. Because Rob was never a girly-girl, those changes have been minimal for us.

For some folks the thing that kills a relationship in which one partner is transitioning is s-e-x. I admit that I preferred Rob’s former body style, but we have also found ways to enjoy learning some new tricks. Folks who are very strictly heterosexual may find transitioning to be a game killer, so if you are facing a relationship with a trans person, it’s good for each partner to be very clear with themselves and with each other about what lines can and cannot be crossed. It helps to keep in mind that all of us experience changes in our own sexuality, our attractions and preferences, and in what we can or are willing to offer our partners when it comes to sex. Any long-lasting relationship faces challenges from aging, injuries, and illnesses, among other things. A partner’s “sex change” may not be the greatest challenge any of us face in our love lives

I have learned that in many cases, a transgender person is often in a very big hurry to go through a full transition once they have admitted their condition to themselves and have kicked down the closet door and informed family and friends. The problem is this: The trans person has at least had clues about their gender issues since they were young, but for we partners, friends, and family, this is a revelation that takes time and patience to adapt to. I find myself cautioning trans friends to slow down and give their loved ones time to catch up to this runaway freight train. Rob was willing and able to do that. He was able to say that transitioning was extremely important to him, but so was my love, our relationship, and our sex life. So he was able to give me the time I needed no only to learn what I needed to learn, but to imagine my own changes and to even come to look forward to them.

Now, after living nine years as the partner of another man, I think about what has been the most significant change in our relationship. From the moment we made the decision to transition, it seemed as though a huge weight had melted away from Robin’s shoulders. Rob shed a lifetime of pent-up anger and frustration. There are problems, to be sure, but they are no worse than, and little different from, the problems that any couple faces after thirty-three years of marriage. So far, they seem insignificant in the face of three decades of mutual trust and love.

Pink or Blue? A War Veteran Learns to Knit

This essay was first published, in an earlier form, in “Genderwonky” on Blogger.

My mother taught me to knit. Mind you, I didn’t learn how to knit from my mother, but she taught me nonetheless. She also taught me to sew. I don’t know why. My brothers weren’t taught these things, as far as I know. I don’t even think my sisters were. Maybe I was the only one who seemed interested. Maybe I just tended to hang around Mother too much.
I think I was probably 9 or 10 when she taught me to knit, but I didn’t actually begin learning how to knit until I was 58. I enrolled in knitting classes at a local knitting shop. Richmond, my hometown, has at least five knitting shops. For reasons I can’t fathom, I chose to take lessons at the oldest, best established store in town: the “West End” shop, whose habitués are mothers of children enrolled in the city’s exclusive local private academies. They are the wives of lawyers and doctors and politicians—no that’s not quite right. They are the wives of judges, chief surgeons, and governors of the Commonwealth. I drive to my lessons in my ratty little ‘72 Beetle. They drive in humongous Lincoln Town Cars, 700-series Beamers, and Range Rovers.
There are other places to learn knitting and to buy yarn. There’s the store with all the high-fashioned glitzy yarns and the workshops taught by international knitting stars. There’s the newer shop full of hip, high-end luxury fibers, all natural of course, down in what passes for Richmond’s version of Greenwich Village. Then there’s that newer shop with the laid-back, crazy, funny women who smoke too much and, I wager, keep bottles of whiskey or brandy tucked away with their stashes. They are fun-loving yarn-addicts, pure and simple. But, for reasons still unclear to me, I wound up in the high-brow shop with the tennis-club and equestrienne set. Go figure.
Let’s make one thing very clear. I am the only man taking these lessons. I continually hear rumors of other men who knit, but, so far, they are just rumors. “Lots of men knit these days,” says one of the shop’s owners. “But Dan’s the only straight guy, isn’t he?” Straight guy? But I knit! Some would say I can’t be straight by definition.
I point out to all who will listen that men do the knitting in Peru, that men were traditionally knitters at various times in “The Old World,” and that male soldiers in World War I routinely knitted their own socks! I get quiet, knowing smiles. No sense trying to tell anybody anywhere anything about gender. It is, after all, completely “natural,” and everyone knows all about it practically from the day they’re born.
I am working a cable row in the front on my alpaca sweater. I hope to complete it by the time it’s cold enough to wear an alpaca sweater. The ladies of the shop love to talk about the multi-colored socks I knit myself last year. “He even wears them,” one hastens to add. While I quietly knit away, my teacher, the shop ladies, and the other students all talk about babies. Always. Someone at the table is always knitting a baby sweater, or baby booties, or baby blanket, or a baby hat. Sometimes these items are being knit from a pure-white soft cotton or washable wool. More often, they are either pink or blue.
The talk invariably turns to when “the baby” is due, and whether the mother or grandmother in question yet knows “what it is.” That means, in case you didn’t get it, whether the fetus in question is on its way to becoming male or female. Even in this day of sonograms, lots of people don’t know. The parents-to-be all know, but they’re not saying. So even the expectant mothers are not revealing the big secret: they knit in white, or they make one item blue and one pink… “just in case.”
“Why don’t you make something green? Or purple?” I ask, playing the devil’s role, of course. Nobody bothers to answer. It can’t possibly be a serious question. I don’t follow up, because I’ve tried dozens of times. That conversation just doesn’t go anywhere, and, anyway, I’ve just dropped two stitches in the middle of a “cable back,” and that demands all my attention.
When the conversation isn’t about babies, which is rare, it’s about the older children: the boys in St. Benedict’s and the girls in St. Catherine’s. They don’t talk about the students’ grades or their sports accomplishments. Instead they discuss their summer art programs in Florence, and their intensive language programs in Moscow, and their pending appointments as congressional pages. But the real concern is not for this ascending generation, but for the babies, for what is being knit for them, and “what they are.”
Doing It In Public
My cousin recently needed someone to accompany her to the hospital for a surgical procedure. I knew I’d be stuck in the waiting room for three or four hours, so, naturally, I took my knitting. As time passed, other patients and their drivers/helpers/loved ones arrived. And every so often one would have a bag of knitting. Each of these knitters gravitated to my side of the room, made friendly inquiries about what I was making, gave their compliments, then took up an adjacent seat. After a couple hours, we had a phalanx of knitters, all sitting along one wall of the waiting room, chatting away merrily.
Knitters don’t just knit when they get together. We shared knitting stories. We shared knitting tools. We commented on color combinations and yarn choices. All the other knitters were women, of course. One of them noted my wedding ring and asked me if my wife were also a knitter. Of course I (and all the other women) took her question to really mean, “So, are you married or available?”
And so I comfortably lounged away a few hours, surrounded by women of all ages, knitting, knitting, knitting. Were I to suddenly find myself single, it would never dawn on me to go seeking company in a bar, when I could find myself a corner in any public space—say, a Starbucks Café—open my knitting bag, and soon have plenty of company.
Of course, not everyone is happy to see a man knitting in public. There is clearly something odd, suspicious, maybe even frightening about such a scene. I remember one time taking my knitting to the clinic at the VA hospital. It always takes my doctor way more time than seems reasonable to see me on appointment day. No sense complaining, though. I might as well just plan on getting some knitting done. And so I do.
On the day in question, I noted that my knitting had just the opposite effect as what I had experienced the day of my cousin’s surgery. I soon found I was sitting surrounded by empty chairs. Other patients were giving me a rather wide berth. But then, none of the other patients was also knitting. You see, most of the other patients were men: men my age or older. Men wearing their veteran’s hats, their combat colors, their manly accomplishments on their proverbial sleeves. These guys don’t knit. Or, if they do, they damn sure don’t do it in public! I’m the odd man out. I’m also a war veteran, and I’m wearing my colors, too. My combat engineer’s hat is set off nicely by the colorful stripes in my latest silky-soft scarf.
Finally, into the waiting room came a couple. They were much younger than I. Both were wearing some indications that they were in or had served in the military. I later learned they had both served in Iraq. She carried a knitting bag. After registering at the desk, she walked directly over to me, asked about my project, asked if she could join me, plopped down beside me and pulled out her work. Her partner—her husband, I soon learned—stood across the room glaring at me. He stood! He couldn’t even bring himself to sit. My knitting companion kept gesturing to her hubby to come join us, but he insistently stood and glowered.
After a few minutes, a nurse appeared and called the wife’s name, then took her back into the clinic to test her vital signs, etc. The man slowly approached me. I stopped knitting, met his eyes, and held my hands with the #3 needles angled just enough to suggest that they could serve as defensive weapons if need be. (For some reason, I tend to knit a lot of things with sporting weight yarns and small needles. For once I wished I had been working on a bulky Icelandic sweater. I would have been holding # 13s instead of # 3s!)
He stared into my soul and, I suppose, something he found there told him I was not really a threat to his marriage or his masculinity or anything else. Or perhaps he decided I was too dangerous, or too deranged, to tangle with. He grabbed a hot rod magazine off the rack nearby and walked back across the room to sit by himself.
What would happen to our planet if, all of a sudden, infant girls were swaddled in baby blue blankets? And what disastrous consequences could ensue if baby boys came bedecked with little pink pom-pom hats? What in the world can the world possibly find frightening about a 6’2” 200-pound man with a bag full of wool and knitting needles? What in Heaven’s name leads some people to a murderous rage at the very thought of a man in a dress and panty hose?
A former high school friend is a highly accomplished and respected poet. He’s 60 years old and holds a professorship at an major New England university. He has published numerous books and won many awards. Lately he has been writing to some of us, his former classmates, online, pouring out his heart full of hurt and his still-hot fury about how he was treated by the bullies in high school nearly a half-century ago. I, myself, harbored a fantasy of taking a baseball bat to one punk’s head for more than 30 years for beating me up and calling me a sissy. A recent study suggested that the rash of violent school shootings we have experienced in this country over the past few years were almost all perpetrated by boys who had been bullied and hounded and terrorized for not meeting some arbitrary norms of masculinity. In our culture we seem to think that violation of gender codes is an egregious offense upon society, punishable by torture and death.
It starts, innocently enough, by choosing to knit pink or blue. It proceeds from there by making girls who would rather have a Jedi’s light saber play with Barbie dolls. And if the gender variance hasn’t been shamed out of our children by the time they reach high school, we find it acceptable to let society’s goons try to beat it out of them. Besides schoolyard bullies, we have skinheads, good ol’ boys, queer-rollers, tranny-bashers, and many other sorts of “concerned citizens” waiting to finish the job. Call me Pollyanna, but I think we could end this sort of violence by knitting the rainbow for babies without first stopping to inspect their plumbing.