I’d been meaning to ready Jennifer Finney Boylan’s memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, since seeing her story on Oprah when the book came out, and picked up a copy on sale a few weeks ago. I just finished reading Talking Cock, which was kind of a follow up to Hung: A Meditation on the Measure of Black Men in America, which was a belated follow up to A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis. And picked up The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private, intending to finish it this time. Plus I’d read The Riddle of Gender and Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People not long ago, so Boylan’s book seemed like the next logical thing to read.
I’ve been familiar with issues facing transgendered persons for some time now, starting when a friend of mine in college confided in several of our friends about transitioning from female to male. It was a whole different kind of coming out, and I remember being awed by the courage with which he and his partner dealt with coming out to friends and family, and the strength of commitment they showed in staying together through the transition. At the time it struck me as several times more difficult than coming out as a gay man. And after learning even more since then, it still does.
So, while I wouldn’t compare the experience of coming out as transgendered and going through gender transition to the experience of coming out as gay or lesbian, there was a passage in Boylan’s memoir that resonated with me so much as a gay man, and with so much I’ve been reading online lately, I had to put the book down for a minute, think about it, and read it again.
It was after her father’s death, when Jennifer started therapy again, and started seeing a gender specialist who told her at the end of a year of therapy, “Well, listen.Your transexual.The condition isn’t going to go away over time,” and encouraged her to move forward with the process of becoming a woman. At the time, it was an answer Jenny despaired hearing.
That was the last time I saw Carol. I didn’t want to be told I had to be a woman. What I wanted from her was the mystery to a solution.
I wanted to learn how to accept who I wasn’t.
What I felt was, being a man might be the second best life I can live, but the best life I can live will mean only loss and grief. So what I wanted was to learn how to be happy with this second best life.
The phrase “living your best life” is more than a bit worn out, having been used to by self-help gurus to the point of losing whatever meaning it might have had. But the idea of wanting to “learn how to accept who I wasn’t” an “to be happy with this second best life” put things in a different light, and I couldn’t help thinking about how much damage is done, how much violence is done on a personal and social level, both literally and figuratively — in terms of gender and sexual orientation — in the process of forcing, indoctrinating, and/or limiting people only living their “second best lives” as “who they aren’t.”
Back during the Foley scandal, I was pretty hard on gay Republicans, and pretty indifferent to the possibility that some might be outed in the wake of the Foley scandal. So when I saw Dennis Prager’s column condemning the practice, I almost reconsidered my previous indifference.
It is difficult to identify a more morally repellent act – outside of violence – than “outing” a gay person for political gain. Yet, those who “out” gay conservatives defend their actions – and they do so by blaming their victims. The victims deserve it, the outers contend.
Oh but it is possible to think of something more “morally repellent,” though Prager can’t allow himself to consider the possibility. It’s the act of requiring people to live only their second best lives, and for purposes as political as any.
Here’s the thing. When you prefer or even require your homosexuals to be closeted and/or psychologically and spiritually tormented, you do not get to bitch when something like this happens, because you made it inevitable.
It’s requiring people to live their second best lives, or face the loss of jobs, community, and family that’s the more morally repellent act. It’s preferring the Mark Foleys, Ted Haggards and Paul Barneses of the world to kids like Zach O’Connor.
Then, for reasons he can’t wholly explain beyond pure desperation, a month after his Valentine “date” — “We never actually went out, just walked around school together” — in the midst of math class, he told a female friend. By day’s end it was all over school. The psychologist called him in. “I burst into tears,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Yes, it’s true.’ Every piece of depression came pouring out. It was such a mess.”
That night, when his mother got home from work, she stuck her head in his room to say hi. “I said, ‘Ma, I need to talk to you about something, I’m gay.’ She said, ‘O.K., anything else?’ ‘No, but I just told you I’m gay.’ ‘O.K., that’s fine, we still love you.’ I said, ‘That’s it?’ I was preparing for this really dramatic moment.”
Ms. O’Connor recalls, “He said, ‘Mom, aren’t you going to freak out?’ I said: ‘It’s up to you to decide who to love. I have your father, and you have to figure out what’s best for you.’ He said, ‘Don’t tell Dad.’ ”
“Of course I told him,” Ms. O’Connor says.
“With all our faults,” Mr. O’Connor says, “we’re in this together.”
Having a son come out so young was a lot of work for the parents. They found him a therapist who is gay 20 miles away in New Haven. The therapist helped them find a gay youth group, OutSpoken, a 50-minute drive away in Norwalk.
It’s a more morally repellent act to prefer that Zach O’Connor’s parents put him in an ex-gay camp, like another kid named Zach, rather than helping him live something more than his second best life, something beyond “ex-gay.”
Beyond Ex-Gay is an on-line community and resource for those of us who have survived ex-gay experiences. So often healing comes through community and through sharing our stories and experiences with each other.
Our kinship in this journey gives us the opportunity to hear each other deeply, particularly in a world that sometimes scoffs at the many things we have done to change or contain our same-sex attractions and gender differences. Many of us have found healing, wholeness and understanding through facing our pasts.
It’s more morally repellent to teach kids like Zach that they should hate themselves instead.
It’s more morally repellent to teach people that they deserve nothing more than their second best life.
I was reminded of a documentary I saw years ago (because my sister videotaped it for me) called Why Am I Gay, which followed a few days in the lives of various gay people including Michael Callen (of the Flirtations) and members of a christian “reparative therapy” program. I remember the parents of one of the men in the program came to visit him at one point. The documentarian asked them “What if it doesn’t work?” The mother thought for a while and then said, “Then I’d rather he just be alone.”
She’d rather he just be alone. Rather than know love, and perhaps even build a family, because it didn’t fit into her narrow view of who he should be. If he couldn’t be who she thought he should be, than she’d still rather he not be who he was.
What’s always struck me about the whole “ex-gay” thing is that even at their most benevolent, the best they can offer me is this: being gay means that I have to expect less and accept less from life. Being gay means I deserve less from life. I don’t deserve love, I don’t deserve family. It doesn’t even elevate celibacy or “living a chaste life” to the status of a calling, as it might for the priesthood or monastic life. Indeed, a gay man — “chaste” or not — would be barred from both, based on history. At best, it’s a lifelong burden that you didn’t ask for or do anything to acquire. (That’s pretty much led me to believe that any “god” who’d create such a set-up — on the one hand saying that we shouldn’t exist, and continuing to churn us out on the other — would have to be one sick, sadistic son of a bitch.)
… As a confirmed Kinsey six, I’m one of those people the folks mentioned above would rather see “living a chaste life” or one of those people they think should “just be alone.” I’m one of those people that even they are beginning to realize they can’t change, and so they’ll settle for getting us to fit into a box they’re a little more comfortable with. I’m one of those people they’d sentence to roll a rock up a hill only to watch it roll back down again, over and over, like Sisyphus. And they’d have believe I’m better off that way.
One look at my life, one look into my husbands eyes, one look at my son’s smile and I know the “ex-gay” herd has nothing better to offer. Nothing remotely close.
The only reason to sentence people to their second best lives is because they’re second best people.
So long as we remember our place — no sex, no marriage or marriage-like relationship, no family — we’re fine with them. Of course that means understanding that as queers we must accept less and expect less from life than our heterosexual brothers and sisters, because we are less than our heterosexual brothers and sisters. That, in a nutshell is “love the sin, hater the sinner,” which is still pretty much a license to make our lives as close as possible to the hell they say we’re going to, in an attempt to save us from it. Makes sense, no?
On the morning of my 38th birthday, just over a month ago, I took the day off and slept in before going out to enjoy my birthday present to myself (a professional, 90 minute, full massage and a matinee of Dreamgirls). I’d gotten up earlier, dressed Parker and gave him breakfast, and kissed him and the hubby before they went out the door and I went back upstairs to sleep a bit longer.
When I woke up again, the house was quiet. I sat up in bed and just soaked up the silence while I took a few deep breaths. I opened my eyes and the first thing saw was our family portrait on the dresser, with the hubby and I smiling and Parker laughing. Looked around the room, got up and walked downstairs I stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked around.
Then, without knowing why, I went outside and sat on the steps. It was like I suddenly felt such a huge amount of gratitude for my life and everything in it that the house wasn’t big enough to contain it. I have love, a wonderful family, a beautiful home, a great community to live in, and a rewarding job that I enjoy. And I have all of this as a gay man.
I can hardly imagine a better life. But I can imagine a second best life, lived alone or in a lying, loveless marriage. All things considered, the only thing more morally repellent than for someone to sentence me to that life would be for me sentence myself.
And why should I, or any of us? For the sake of someone else’s comfort or sensibilities? To spare them pain or disappointment? Because the only life we’ve been prepared to lead and expected to lead isn’t the one we’ve actually been given? Because the road to our best or, better yet, our most authentic lives is strewn with roadblocks and land-mines, and pockmarked with pitfalls? Who made it that way?
Who fashioned things so that the taking the first step down that road inevitably means waiting, as Boylan puts it, for the world to “explode or begin”?
I think I’d put it differently. When you take that first step towards your authentic life the world tends to explode and begin. And the dust settles. And you get to the other side only to wake up one morning in the middle of your “best life” or something a lot closer to it. Maybe a bit road weary from navigating your way to it, past all the bullshit booby-traps put in your way. But you’re there.
I’m there. That is, I’m here. And I’m staying here.
I haven’t gotten to the end of Jenny Boylan’s story yet (or mine, for that matter), but my guess is that she and her family have made it to their best life together. I hope so, anyway. They deserve it.
But, then, don’t we all?