Monday, March 30, 2009

Ripples

During the past week as I became aware of some of the tension caused by my Bentonville visit, my recurring thought was, “All this fuss over lil ol’ me?” Really I don’t think I’m that big of a deal, but I do understand my presence and my feminine impression was disturbing to many. My goal is to be as accurate as possible in my impression. It will take some time to make all the parts and pieces fit right, and I do have more obstacles than most attempting that impression. As I stated at the end of my last post, I do feel there is a place for me in the reenacting world.

As my northern supporter stated very well, one of the problems facing living history groups is that of accessibility. The entrance cost is quite high especially for women with the many layers of clothing required to come close to the period correct look. I myself had to buy a corset (which arrived this weekend from Abraham’s Lady… thank you!), a bonnet from Timely Tresses, some passable boots, and the pantalets. For someone still quite underemployed, that is quite a haul. I have no idea how I’ll do a second dress or bonnet. I have to make do with what I have. I’m not complaining as I feel lucky to put one outfit together.

The Bentonville trip reminded me of my first few months en femme. I had a makeover done for my first outing with Kappa Beta, but my second time was a minor disaster with the makeup and hair. I’m sure I looked like an extra from the Thriller video. I’ll never forget though that no one screamed or fainted. A few asked if I was ok. As I was leaving, Sherri Carmichael simply said, “Let me give you a few makeup tips before the next meeting.” She did, and I still use many of her techniques today. About six months later, I could look in the mirror and see a somewhat attractive woman looking back.

The point of the above tale is to illustrate that Sherri, instead of berating me for a clearly shoddy makeup job, chose to help me. Over the years, I have come to understand better why she did that beyond just being a nice person. She gave back because someone helped her out when she was starting out. I feel compelled to do the same for the new girls. Even more than that though, I want them to feel the joy, fulfillment, and sense of discovery that I have enjoyed over the years. I don’t want to keep this to myself. If another person is meant to be out as a transgender woman, I don’t want to create barriers. Being TG is hard enough without me being elitist towards another girl coming out. I would prefer to help them overcome the numerous obstacles.

A quick word about my transgender life... I did not choose to be this way. However once I discovered through prayer and spiritual life that my Creator endowed me with this gender gift, I have chosen to embrace and celebrate that gift. My life is much fuller and richer as Stephanie. I would be cheating myself and the world if I chose to deny my feminine being. As my friend Pamela Jones says so well, “This is not something you do. It’s who you are.”

My last post has generated by far the most comments of any post on this blog to date. The one telling point from those critical of my presence at Bentonville is they feel I have no right to be at reenacting events. I actually appreciate Ms. Sands’ comment as it contains some helpful advice. I can work with that. Jan approached me at Bentonville in a beautiful way to guide this new girl. She thinks I can do it. My challenge to those who think I don’t belong is how much you enjoy and get out of living history. Why do you do it? Do you want others with a genuine interest in reenacting to experience the same? Do you want to help grow the hobby?

Believe me when I say my interest is genuine, and my commitment is real. Could I have waited until I passed a little better or had a better kit? Possibly, but I have waited long enough, and I am not about to make any more excuses for why I can’t do this. This is not a lark or a fleeting fancy. I am committed to seeing this through. I would ask those who see me at future events and are not sure about me to give me ten minutes of their time. Those who take the time to chat and know me (and me you) as a person generally like me. They may not agree with my lifestyle, and I have no problem with that. However, sharing our stories has a way of breaking down barriers and fear. I usually find common ground in the reason we’re there in the first place: history! What a crazy concept!

One final word about CONS. I am deeply saddened about what has happened. I have finally come to peace about not being responsible for the breakup of CONS. Any group that really is dedicated to each other and its community will find a way to work through problems and stay together. Conversely, any group that wants to split will usually find an excuse to do so. I was that excuse, but not the cause. I can live with that. I would hope that the various fragments find ways to continue furthering living history. The main cause is too important to get lost over minor quibbles.

So my journey continues. Life is nothing if not interesting. It is my sincere prayer that the ripples that we all leave guide us down the proper and correct path and affects us all in a positive and constructive way.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Step Forward Into the Past




Update (March 29, 2009): I generally do not accept overly negative or anonymous comments. However I thought some of my readers may find the opposing viewpoint interesting. I will have a response of sorts to post soon. Oh, the name is Stephanie Marie :)

Yesterday (March 21), I attended my first reenactment in female costume at the Battle of Bentonville. It was an experience to say the least. I knew it would be an education stepping out as a transgender woman into a mainstream and somewhat conservative environment. I was shown much kindness particularly by my fellow reenactors. Many of the site visitors weren’t quite sure how to approach me. However the staff was completely supportive of me and helped in so many ways. Much like my first Ghost Walk at Latta Plantation, I will learn from where I am lacking.

I spent Friday night at a hotel in Smithfield, NC. Still needing some passable boots for a Civil War era civilian woman, I ventured to the outdoor outlet mall. Most of my outings over the years have been in urban areas. Ninety percent have probably been in Charlotte, Greensboro, or Atlanta. I had some concern about how I would be perceived in a smaller town in a conservative region. A few years ago, that concern might have prevented me from venturing out en femme. Now it’s just an afterthought. I visited six shoe stores in the mall and finally found a pair of perfect black plain square toe boots at Easy Spirit. I finished with a trip to CVS for some lipstick and other supplies. Every place I went, I was treated with courtesy.

One issue getting ready for my trip the next day was one of luggage and clothing logistics. How much of my costume could I get away with wearing without creating a driving hazard? What could I pack reasonably into one suitcase that I could drag to the changing room at the battlefield site? I ended up wearing my pantalets underneath my long green broomstick skirt (which doubled as my petticoats), a waist cincher (still waiting on the corset), the new black boots, and a white cotton chemise under my long sleeve green sweater. I stuffed my hoop skirt, dress, and bonnet into the suitcase. Whewww!

Arriving at the Bentonville site, I looked up my reenactment group, Citizens of the Old North State (CONS) and found several working in the kitchen. My email contact had told them I was coming, but I don’t think she explained I was transgender. I’m sure I caught them by surprise that yes, I am doing a feminine impression. I met Lora, CONS’ contact with Bentonville, and Hilda initially. Lora set me up with the changing room.

Putting on the dress is always an emotional experience. I’ve written before how wearing the formal dresses reminds me of a time when living the feminine life was just a far off fantasy. Putting on the Civil War era dress brings similar feelings, but it goes even deeper. The costume does take a bit more time and effort to put on. Once you are done and you see yourself in a style of dress that hasn’t been worn in over 140 years, it really puts you in a different mindset. There simply is no modern equivalent. One day I will write more about the feeling of wearing the full Civil War era women’s dress. I think every woman should do it at least once.

The first couple hours were spent chatting with Lora while she served breakfast and cleaned up. I helped where I could, but Lora has the period cooking down to a science. I must admit to a bit of nervousness knowing I had surprised the group with being transgender. My voice is a work in progress while my feminine period look still needs to be developed. As much as I don’t want my transgender life to be a central issue, it does take some adjustment. Add to that being the new person in the group searching for a role, and the initial awkwardness was amplified somewhat.

I do believe God sends His angels when you need them, and sometimes they take the form of humans. My angel was a lady by the name of Jan. She struck up a conversation with me after noticing me struggling a little bit with my hoop skirt. Jan complimented me on my dress and offered me a few pointers on walking and some other period correct accessories. This is the type of conversation I enjoy so much. Jan and I spoke for awhile as I wanted to pick her brain for more reenactment tips. It brought me out of my shell as I realized this is why I like reenacting. It’s the people, the stories, the shared experiences, the knowledge, and they all love giving freely of themselves with fellow reenactors and the public.

The rest of the day ended up being quite fun as I walked around the grounds chatting with many of the display artists and site volunteers. One lady, Jennifer, had a wonderful display of care packages sent to soldiers. Another pair of ladies dressed in all black showed off mourning photos, jewelry, and other related items. If a period photograph could tell a thousand words, it goes to show how much we have in common with our ancestors.

I also have to commend Lora and her son Wesley as they did a fantastic job on a television news interview with the local NBC affiliate. As much as I preach education for us in the TG community, reenacting faces obstacles as well. Many people see it merely as dressing up and playing with old guns. Lora said so very well that it is one thing to read history from a textbook. It’s another thing to step into their shoes and hoop skirts and attempt to live their lives. I couldn’t agree more!

One incident almost put a damper on the day. After chatting with a couple of the site volunteers inside the Harper House (which was used as a hospital during the war), I was approached by a man (probably in his 30’s) outside who asked if he should call me sir or ma’am. I replied ma’am initially thinking he was joking. He then asked if I realized there were children around and if I was being a good example to them. I tried to give a 15 second synopsis of my TG life (impossible!). He repeated his question to which I responded, “If I am the worse thing they see, then they will have lived a good life.” He thought that was a good answer, wished me a good day, and left.

I have mixed feeling about the above encounter. While I would like to “educate” as many as possible, I realize it is not always possible. My very existence and life is very different than the norm particularly in this community. I literally may be the first TG person many in the crowd have ever seen. I am also concerned that a snappy comeback is not always the best solution even though it worked here. I like to approach such encounters with humor and fun. If I can come across as a genuine person, then I’ve won. I was upset for about ten minutes. Lora thought I handled the situation well. One of the site volunteers also checked up on me which I very much appreciated. It had been too good of a day to be upset over one incident.

So all in all, it was a good day as I spent eight hours in the past (about 9am to 5pm). The weather was beautiful (a bit windy), and the large crowd attending the reenactment seemed to enjoy the festivities. I learned quite a bit. Even with a few missteps and much to grow in on many levels, I now have the reenacting bug. This is not a lark or a fleeting fancy. I feel I belong and have much to contribute. Living history for me is the perfect convergence of my feminine and social being. It’s hard to put into words, but it just feels right. I want to grow and express myself in a way that shows both the transgender and reenacting community in a good light. My education continues, and it will never end. That is the way it should be.