Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Saying Goodbye to a Friend

Last week, a giant in the local transgender community passed away even though she would not see herself as such. Pamela Jones gave and lived more during her final years on this earth than anyone I've known. During a time when most people are thinking about retiring, she was beginning a new. Her ability to communicate the very basics of integrity and human dignity went beyond labels like transgender. Pamela is truly one of the most remarkable people I have ever known, and her effect on me will last a lifetime.

I will admit I've had a difficult time dealing with Pamela's death. I've known her over 14 years back even before I went out as Stephanie for the first time. We met online via our Geocities websites (remember those?) and emailed for a couple years. We finally met in person in 1999. In recent years, she became a confidante. Pamela was someone I could run thoughts and ideas by without feeling I was being judged. We thought a lot alike about many issues running the gamut from religious to the LGBT community to the Carolina Panthers. Pamela was one of the most principled, centered people I have ever met. It was that genuineness that I think attracted people to her even if they vehemently disagreed with her.

This allowed Pamela to bridge so many gaps stretching even into mainstream circles. She became active with the LGBT Community Center of Charlotte, Equality NC, Sean's Last Wish, and her church, Hold Trinity Lutheran Church. In February 2008, Pamela met Elke Kennedy of Sean's Last Wish at an education initiative about ENDA outside the HRC Gala in Charlotte. This is one example of how putting herself out there opened other doors. I was inspired by her to begin making baby steps into mainstream groups. Contra dancers can credit Pamela to some extent for me being out in that community.

I think of a story Pamela told about being in a church float during the Pride NC parade one year in Durham, NC. A short part of the parade route was open to protesters. While screaming and yelling some very un-Christian things, she smiled, looked at one of them, and mouthed, “God loves you, and so do I.” That story has stuck with me as a way Pamela helped our community by not lashing out or retaliating. She related as a fellow Christian and human being.

Pastor Nancy Kraft delivered a touching memorial to Pamela. Hearing Nancy speak, I felt like Pamela was once again with us. Her words of wisdom have often been quite comforting. Only when Nancy stopped speaking did it really hit me that Pamela was gone.

I miss Pamela dearly. Already several times I have caught myself wanting to email her about something. I went through a job loss back in early June. Even then, she emailed me with encouraging words. She even let me vent a bit. Above all, she told me to take care of me and not to worry about her. That's just how she was. I'm thankful for those who did worry about her until the end. She knew she was not alone.

Some of Pam's websites are still up. I would encourage you to pay them a visit:

http://pamela1nc.blogspot.com/
http://pamrenee.com/

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Lifesavers

At a recent contra dance, one fellow offered everyone in his square a Life Saver candy. It was the second half of the dance night following a thirty minute medley (which was wonderful and exhausting!). I'm sure my breath was less than minty so I was glad to accept a lemon one. Virtually nothing was said as we passed it around, but I thought it was a nice gesture. I'm sure my future partners were quite appreciative as well.

It got me to thinking about acts of kindness that we do for each other as individuals while expecting no recognition. Just doing it because we see a person in need. I'm not talking so much about organized group efforts which serve so well in our community. These are the daily acts that go unnoticed but still affect people in such a strong and positive way. There are no ulterior motives... just a desire to see a person live a better life. In the hustle and bustle of life, I'll be honest in that I don't do the best job of recognizing such opportunities. I think I do a little better in the contra dance community as more situations present themselves. Even there though, I have days when I fall way short.

I think of each act like the candy mentioned in the opening. They are life savers. Call it the Spirit. Call it karma. Call it the law of averages. I truly believe we meet the people we are supposed to meet by simply being out. We are in a position to raise their lives with the smallest of acts. We may never know how a simple smile, a quick touch of the shoulder, or a helping hand will make a person's day. I know it has for me too often in my life on a down day. Someone who thinks no one in the world cares about them may have their spirits lifted. That can save a life!

The contra dances present so many opportunities for giving. People of all ages, backgrounds, and dance experience are thrust together to accomplish one seemingly daunting task... dancing. We ask a partner, form our lines, and listen to the caller walk us through the upcoming dance. Then we dance. It becomes a kaleidoscope of feet walking, bodies twirling, people connecting to the music performed for us by a live band. We combine our individual styles with the group so everyone experiences the joy that is contra dancing. The beginners are helped along with pointing to the shoulders and gentle nudges. Basic style points are taught during swings and other movements. It can look chaotic at first, but I have also have been taken up with the idea that everyone in the hall is doing the same thing at more or less the same time.

Partner asking can also be an act of kindness. You are, in essence, offering a ticket to that person to the next dance which of course happens to be your ticket too. It is an invitation that can be freely accepted or declined although it is customary to accept unless you have a very good reason. Everyone has wildly differing ideas about who to ask. Some stick to people they know. Others do a better job of balancing their dance card. It is usually encouraged to get the beginners involved early and often and also to look for those who sat out the last dance. This leads to greater participation which benefits the dance community in the long run. I think of it as not keeping a good thing to myself. If I have found something that has enriched my life this much, why would I not want to share it with someone who is already there wishing to participate?

Conversely, it is up to the person asked to accept. This is where it can be a bit tricky if the answer is “no.” Maybe the person asked does not want to dance with the person or was hoping to dance with someone else. Taking too long to say “no” pretty much relegates the other person to the sidelines as all other partners are taken by then. Also the person asked may already have a partner. Do they offer a future dance? Then there is, “I think I have a partner.” That one really hurts.

Writing the above reminds me of the acts that make my day but also of those that send me into a funk if I let them. I have been part of both extremes. I know I am not alone in experiencing those extremes. I also realize how easy depression can lead down a self-destructive path. I think of people I have known who committed suicide and wonder what could have been done to take them off that path. I believe that we can do so much for each other early in that cycle by simply being there and being available to help. Before a person descends into an isolation that spirals out of control. Before it is too late to help. As Olivia Newton John once sang, “Let Me be There.”

So is dancing a life saver? I think so. You never know what kind of day any of us has had when we walk into that dance hall. By making sure everyone is dancing, everyone gets a good piece of a very tasty pie that makes the rest of life better. I'm sure there are many other worthy activities that raise the quality of life . Dancing is the one that does it for me. Fortunately, it also does it for my partner, my square, my line, the hall, the whole community.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

In My Mind

You know the song by James Taylor beloved by all University of North Carolina alum. In my mind, I thought this day would never come. I graduated from UNC in 1994 and soon after left for Charlotte to work. I received a piece of paper saying I had graduated with a BA in something, but I felt like there was still some unfinished business. By the time I started going out en femme in 1998, my old life in Chapel Hill seemed like the opening to Star Wars... a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. Yesterday, I returned as the real me and found I still belonged.

When I was a student at UNC, my belief system was much more rigid and unforgiving not to mention extremely conservative. This was my time in a fairly fundamentalist church which viewed gays (and really most of the world) as perverted and sinful. I was only beginning to explore my gender identity which I knew would be completely incompatible with the church. When I was discovered, I felt like it would be the end of everything I knew. In a sense, I was right I was very much wrapped up in the church to the point that my whole life revolved around it. Being separated was one of the best things that could have happened even though I didn't recognize it at the time. I started my life almost from scratch in my final year at UNC and realized there was hope away from the prison that the church had created.

The return all happened as the result of a friendship at the Carrboro dances. Rebecca, like so many in the dance community, has been a strong support to me and a good dancer too. I knew she was involved in LGBT causes at UNC and was on the leadership team for the annual Southeast Regional Unity Conference, a conference that draws from all over the south. I had offered to do Transgender Adventures in History in 2010, but we weren't able to fit it in. This year, under a re-branded name, Gender Pioneers, Rebecca felt it would be a good addition to the conference.

Driving in to Chapel Hill and crossing the James Taylor Bridge, I caught a glimpse of the Bell Tower. That's when it hit me that this was really going to happen. Like anyone returning to their old stomping grounds, I noted familiar sites and changes comparing them to my years on campus. I had been back a few times in male mode for other work projects, but this was special. I found my way to a new parking deck and finally the student union. Poor Rebecca must have thought I had never been there because the interior had been renovated a few times in the interim years.

I have made a habit when doing my history presentation of dressing fairly plain jane (Carolina blue sweater top and blue jeans on this day) before changing into my period dress. This makes the transformation even more dramatic for me. I wrote one of my reenacting friends the night before how putting on the dress does more than change my outward appearance. It affects my mind, body, and soul and takes me to a different place and time. It is such a drastic change from present day clothing particular for women. Rebecca was visibly impressed when I stepped out of the dressing room. It was also nice to receive compliments while walking to the meeting room. You would have thought women had not dressed that way in about 150 years!

The actual presentation went pretty smooth. I wasn't sure how I would feel during it, but it was all pretty normal. I had the largest crowd ever for my transgender history workshop, and I was honored to give it before this audience. I realized this group of students is well ahead of where I was at their ages. They are already figuring it out, living their lives, and making positive change for themselves and others. A big thank you goes to Rebecca and Kelly, another of my dancing friends, for being there. It was nice to talk to the students afterward and get many new ideas. The education continues for me which makes future presentations better.

I hate returning to modern clothes, but at least I had a dance to go to in Carrboro. So that made three outfits for the day! The dance was crowded, hot, loud, and fantastic. It was a perfect ending to a fun day. The dance reminded how far I've come as I hugged, talked, laughed, and danced with friends old and new. A few know what I have told them about my past life. Like the Star Wars opening, it is almost like that time was part of a movie or in another universe. However, it also a huge influence on my desire to be true to myself. I made a decision around the time I came out that I would never let another group make that choice for me. My identity is for me to determine. The friends I have now are even better because they are attracted to the real me, not some character. We appreciate and celebrate each other for who we are.

No longer is my return to Carolina in my mind. It is another item removed from the darkness of the closet and seeing the light of day. UNC still draws me with its southern charm, some good basketball, a beautiful campus, and a growing LGBT community that is light years beyond what I could have imagined on my graduation day in 1994. There is still a place for me in the southern part of heaven, and I hope to return often.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

March 2011 Update

Stephanie with her natural hair and LBDAlmost three months into the new year, and I am beginning to see some turnaround. As usual, it occurs at a snail's pace. However I am making progress towards both the person I want to be and the person I'm intended to be. Call it maturation, an opening of the eyes, a clarity of purpose. They all apply. Just a few short stories to flesh out that idea...

I recently celebrated my 41st birthday. Yes, I'm still counting. The outpouring of love particularly on Facebook was humbling. All the kind words and notes were said and written by friends that I never would have met if I had never come out as Stephanie. My birthday was culminated by my Charlotte contra dance group singing Happy Birthday to me. This was particularly special as the words "dear Stephanie" were part of the annual rite for the first time in my life. I cried tears of joy on the way home. It is moments like these when I know I'm on the right path. Even with all the difficulties of life as a transgender woman, there is a place for me in this world as the real me.

Continuing on the dancing theme, the Charlotte Dance Gypsies held their annual dance weekend, Gypsy Meltdown, at Camp Thunderbird in Lake Wylie, SC this past weekend. Dance weekends are an intense experience on a physical, mental, and even emotional level. I'll have more to write as its a blog post unto itself. Friday night, I went with my usual reddish blond wig. Saturday afternoon, I decided to experiment with my real hair which I've been growing out for about three years now. I liked it so much that I didn't wear the wig the rest of the weekend. The hair still needs some work, but it's a big step to take away the protection of the wig and show more of your real self. I am thankful for all the compliments. I am my own worst critic, but I do finally see a feminine style developing.

Finally, I will be presenting a program called Gender Pioneers at the Southeast Regional Unity Conference at UNC-Chapel Hill on Saturday, April 2 at 3:30 pm. Gender Pioneers is an offshoot of Transgender Adventures in History with more of a focus on the stories of the historical characters. It will be an emotional experience as I have never stepped onto the campus of my alma mater presenting as Stephanie. I have shared the story of being caught cross-dressing by a roommate back in 1992. It was one of my darkest times as I had no idea what to do with my feminine identity. However it was the catalyst to deciding some years later that I would never give control of my identity to a group that did not have my best interests in mind. To come back to UNC and present one of my passions is truly beyond what I would ever have imagined at that time.

A couple of Youtube videos from Gypsy Meltdown. I filmed the first one Sunday afternoon. The second one is from Saturday evening by Michael Simpson. See if you can spot me in it :)