Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dance Bliss

And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

Before I ever started contra dancing, I could not understand the joy imprinted on a dancer's face. Otherwise normal people came to life when paired with a favorite partner surrounded by familiar sounds. Couples moved as one knowing the other's steps and moves intimately. What seemed like chaos with a few dozen couples moving around a dance floor was actually a carefully orchestrated merry-go-around. I watched, but I just... didn't... get it.

Of course, I was only eight at the time wearing a 1970's era powder blue monkey suit (I think it's called a tuxedo in polite circles) watching my grandparents ballroom dance. I have shared the story of being mesmerized by the women's beautiful dresses, but the dancing itself was still a mystery to me. Part of it may have been put off that the dances resembled something out of Lawrence Welk whose show was quite popular with the older crowd at the time. Also men didn't dance that way. It just wasn't cool. Never mind the fact that I was a long way off from even beginning to understand my feminine identity. I had no idea I was looking at a bit of my future in the dancers' happy expressions.

Fast forward to my discovery and beginning of contra dance. I liked the live music, the friendly people, and the twirly skirts. It also seemed accessible and relatively easy to learn. What I learned over time is that the steps are fairly simple, but mastering those steps with a few hundred people is an interesting and fun challenge. It creates a sense of community which is one of the defining aspects of contra dance.

A few months into contra dancing, I switched from exclusively dancing as a follow to dancing both roles. I just wasn't finding enough willing partners, and I wanted to increase my choices of dance partners. I was fortunate enough to learn in a workshop setting where all the moves were slowed down. The workshop was not designed to be a gender switch situation. It just worked out that way for me. Many long-time dancers say that the best dancers do both roles often and well. Even though I didn't plan it that way, I agree that it helps me immensely.

After almost a year of dancing, there was a moment at the end of one dance where something clicked for me. I did most of my moves at the same speed which was too fast. It took me a long time to learn to listen to the music and let it guide me in my moves. This affected me most in the swings which is a part of almost every contra dance. In this particular dance, I heard the music slow down which told me to slow down the swing at the end of the dance. For the first time, I let the music move me into a special moment with my partner. It was like the music was telling me to savor the last swing of the dance, make it slower, and show your partner that you enjoyed the time spent together. It was a wonderful shared moment. I had also crossed over into dance bliss.

Contra dancers, especially women, often speak of dance bliss and dance trance. It's difficult to put into words, but you know it when you feel it. I have told friends how some music moves my body, and some music moves my soul. Dance bliss for me is when the music does both. I have even felt it when waiting out at the top of the hall in front of the band and letting the music's energy wash over me. It is like the musicians have tapped into my emotions, my feminine soul, and are making the music just for me. I have also heard contra dance musicians speak of how the dancers move them too. I like that we can give some of that positive energy right back.

Usually your partner is right there with you too. It is a great feeling when you and your partner are truly dancing with each other (and by extension in contra, your neighbors, your line, and the entire dance hall). It takes two attentive dancers to recognize how the music is affecting the other and just go with it. I felt like for so long I had missed those cues. Now I take advantage of flirty moments and playful opportunities with my partners and surrounding dancers. I am much more open to adding to the dance experience. It all creates many more moments of dance bliss.

You may think that this is only possible with familiar partners. It is true that it is easier to read friends and long-time dancers. However, Sunday at the Cranberry School in Elk Park, NC with the Great Bear Trio playing, I was dancing with a first time partner who said, “Isn't this band great?” All I could manage was an affirmative nod because the music was so good I didn't want to interrupt it with extended conversation. I wasn't even clapping during the Petronella twirls. It was that good!

Many studies have shown that dancing is beneficial for your health both on a short and long-term basis. The combination of good live music, movement, socializing, and most important, human touch keeps your mind, body, and soul active and alive. It also leads to moments of pure happiness and joy that can be shared with others around you. You leave your worries at the door and enter a place where you can experience the acceptance and warmth that is so lacking in the rest of the world.

So maybe my grandparents were onto something. They both lived long, healthy, and productive lives. Their choice of dancing wasn't my thing, but I found my thing many years later. It took a few months of dancing to experience and understand the feelings the other dancers already had. When it hit me, it hit me hard, and I keep going back to feel the dance bliss in new and exciting ways. It is hard to describe to friends who don't dance, but they can definitely see the effect it has on me. That may be the best advertising of all.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Fire on the Mountain

It has been a frustrating few days for the LGBT community in North Carolina following the approval of Amendment One in North Carolina. The count was 61 percent for, 39 percent against with just over a million people voting for it. As usual with amendments involving gay marriage, the polls were a few percentage points too optimistic. While the number was overwhelmingly for the amendment, it is not the worst defeat involving gay marriage amendments, not by a long shot. That does give some hope for the future.

So what went wrong? The first thing to understand is that the pro-amendment forces in North Carolina have been planning for this vote for several years. They literally prayed for the opportunity, and it was gift wrapped to them in the 2010 election when the Republicans took over the state legislature after 140 years of Democrat control. They also have the experience of 30 state victories to draw from nationally. In fact, most of their funding came from non-profit groups outside the state.

The pro-amendment group also had the numbers from day one. They only had to protect the lead which any coach in sports will tell you is easier to do than coming from behind. It's like running out the clock in football or having a one goal lead in the World Cup. The polls showed some movement in January and February from a 40 point difference to at times under 20. However the poll numbers did not change much in the final month. The final 20 percent just did not budge.

Also, the pro-amendment forces had more collective passion. I'll get in trouble for saying this. Those who voted for the amendment felt like they were voting to defend their personal beliefs. It was a holy task in their mind to hold the line against the liberals, the press, and the LGBT community. They felt quite motivated and justified in making their vote. There was plenty of passion within the LGBT community, but it is difficult to carry over to an otherwise apathetic non-voting population. This primary had an even larger turnout than in 2008. Yet about four million (almost 2/3rds of registered voters) chose not to have their voice heard. Voter apathy may be an even greater battle that every campaign fights. For the anti-amendment forces, the problem was in making people who rarely vote change their habits and care enough to vote against the amendment.

The pro-amendment campaign also countered with some well-timed and simple messages. That is the nature of politics. Keep your message simple, and repeat it often. In the final weeks, it was enough to keep their people in line by saying the harms of the amendment were “lies.” Also don't underestimate the importance of Billy Graham's statements the weekend before the vote. His voice carries much weight in this state. With his announcement in support of the amendment, his association sponsored some last minute ads. So it wasn't just an opinion. It was an “all-in” from his organization.

With the above, my analytical side tells me we in the LGBT community were fighting a losing battle all the way. Having observed many campaigns dispassionately over the years, I knew the numbers not moving in the final weeks was a bad sign. We had reached the threshold of support in the short term. The pro-amendment groups kept the conversation about gay marriage and religion. It's a battle that cannot be won over the space of a few months especially with the vote during a primary.

It is wonderful that we against the amendment initiated a conversation in North Carolina to make people think more deeply about the amendment, and by extension, the LGBT community. However, when a vote is involved, discussions rarely end well. The talk has turned nasty and divisive in every state where a vote concerning gay marriage has been taken. Since the same side has won every time, they cannot understand the fuss. Meanwhile the gay community is hurt and frustrated because rights are taken away for no good reason. Politicians know how to use this as a wedge issue, and we fall for it.

While my head can fathom the reasons for the vote, my heart can't. It seems simple to ask people to look beyond their own personal beliefs. Gay marriage doesn't ask anyone in the non-gay community to give up anything. Yet they have no qualms about denying it to others despite the non-gay community's failure with marriage in recent decades (high divorce rate, adultery, etc.). I think of the John Edwards trial in particular. That man is the scum of the earth. Yet he can remarry. Shouldn't I be able to vote on his suitability for marriage?

Also the pro-amendment groups wouldn't even acknowledge the issue with the language of the amendment. They claimed they weren't aware of issues in other states with similar language, and they had no desire to find out. The phrase “domestic legal union” is clearly problematic, and the state will spend years in court determining everything from domestic partner benefits to child custody rights to domestic violence laws. This could have been easily avoided, but the pro-amendment forces knew they could be greedy and use North Carolina as a test case for that language.

I'm left with conflicting thoughts regarding my home state. I still have no desire to move, but my strength of conviction on that thought has been greatly weakened. I wrote on Facebook the opening line from the wonderful Marshall Tucker Band song, “Fire on the Mountain:”

Took my family away from my Carolina home...

The song fools you with one of the most beautiful instrumental openings in popular music and then segues to the lyrics which tell of a man's quest for gold and riches which eventually leads to his death. He left his home to look for something better and instead found greater hardship. That is the nature of life. We risk much for something better even when what we have is pretty good. Also there is the idea of the grass is greener elsewhere. After all in my case, there are 30 other states with gay marriage bans in their constitution. There aren't many choices.

The easy path is to dismiss North Carolina as a bigoted and backwards state and use that as an excuse to move. Reality is always more complicated even for folks who favored the amendment. My life is full of examples of people looking past their pre-conceived notions and giving me a chance. Some of them have become best friends. It wouldn't have happened if I stayed home in a closet, if I worried too much about offending others, if I thought I didn't present well enough. I have plenty of excuses to not be out there and live life as the real me. I could use the amendment results as one more.

However the benefits of being out are so numerous. I have spoken often of the friendships and life experiences. I grow more with each one. I wrote two days after the amendment on Facebook:

Enough of the pity party. It's on to the next thing which is to keep on being out and visible in a positive way. Just know that I am happy to have so many good people in my life. I feel very loved, and no amendment vote is needed to prove that.

I have plenty of reasons to stay and build on the progress that has been made. The amendment vote is quite the setback to be sure. It is a long journey, and we'll find better things down the road even in North Carolina. The Marshall Tucker Band song comes from the album, “Searchin' for a Rainbow.” Seems appropriate, doesn't it?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Reluctant Voter

I've had this HP Pavilion laptop going on five years now. It still has Windows XP and is getting a little worn around the edges. It stutters a bit running the recent videos, and it definitely will not run the latest games. The only upgrade was to the memory. The hard drive is only 60 GB. I like it that way as it forces me to carry only essential programs. I also enjoy it for the times when I want to write away from my desktop or play an older game. The screen is plenty big, and it has wireless. I use it still for my history presentations as it can hook up easily to another monitor. It does exactly what I want it to do.

With this laptop, I have carried on a tradition similar to the stickers on a college football player's helmet. Every time I vote, general election or primary, I put the "I Voted" sticker on the laptop. I rarely talk about political stuff. I am the typical independent who has become more dismayed with both political parties in recent years. Still I vote because I believe it gives me the right to complain even if I vote “none of the above.”

This primary I was saddened to vote on a constitutional amendment in North Carolina. Voting for a candidate is quite risky because, despite their campaigning, you are never quite sure what you will get from that person. That is the nature of politics. Voting for an amendment is quite different because the constitutional law usually takes effect immediately. A well-educated voter should have a good idea of the future impact of a well-written amendment. A poorly written amendment leaves the door open for widely varying interpretations. The voters have no more certainly than if they were voting for a person.

The proposed amendment being considered through May 8 in North Carolina is written on the ballot as follows:

Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.

The language of the amendment is a jumbled mess. While I was against the amendment from day one, I have become more disgusted with the legislators who wrote and forced this through. The phrase “domestic legal union” is the big issue. White the authors and supporters of the amendment claim it is about protecting the institution of marriage and outlawing same-sex marriage at the constitutional level, the language extends far beyond that intent. It applies to any couple who is not married. It has potentially disastrous effects on health benefits, child support, domestic violence, and end-of life decisions just to name a few issues.

At a recent discussion on WXII in Winston-Salem, it seemed for a few minutes that the amendment supporters were happy with the ambiguous language. They wanted the courts to be bogged down for the next several years deciding what a “domestic legal union” encompassed. It was a chilling moment as it seemed they had left their talking points and briefly exposed how they really felt about the gay community. Quickly they retreated to their Biblical doctrine. It is important to note that most other state amendments say that “the only marriage that will be recognized...” While I am not thrilled with this, it at least protects opposite gender couples who are not married.

Two points have stuck with me over the several months since the amendment was put on the ballot. The first is that a constitution should be used to grant rights, not take them away. This is one of the major problems with Proposition 8 in California as it took away rights that had already been granted. The last North Carolina amendment restricting marriage was in 1875. It prohibited marriages between whites and blacks. Is that the legacy we want?

Second, I respect the religious opinions of those who are against gay marriage. I believe there can be an honest conversation amongst people of faith concerning Biblical meanings and interpretations. I believe we can even agree to disagree. The problem comes when one group's beliefs intrude on the others' rights to equal protection under the law. Numerous straight couples have come out from many different backgrounds saying gay marriage does not affect their marriages. If we have learned one thing during the gay rights movement, it is that gay couples have the same issues, dreams, hopes, desires, and life choices as straight couples. Are we so hung up on the relatively small differences that we cannot see the similarities?

With a heavy heart, I voted no to an amendment that I believed should not be there in the first place. The potential harms are so great. I only touched on a few here. I love living in North Carolina. Even if the amendment passes, I will not leave as we will get it right eventually. History though will look on May, 2012 as either a turning point or a step backwards. I am a bit selfish as a transgender woman when I see hope for my gender variant brothers and sisters if the amendment fails. I also realize much work remains no matter the result. Borrowing from that great speech almost 50 years ago, we will look at “the content of their character,” and the dream will be that much closer to reality.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Operation Beautiful

I did want to say hello to everyone checking in from Operation Beautiful and also thank you to Caitlin for sharing my story. I had long felt the positive sticky notes had a wonderful effect on so many beyond the intended audience. That is why I felt so moved to take a leap of faith and write in. I never know the response I'm going to get when I “out” myself. It is usually pretty good as the world at large is becoming more aware of transgender people. I have been fortunate to meet people like Caitlin who see people and look at what they can be with just a little encouragement.

Many of the past stories in this blog are about reaching out and talking about my story. It is always a scary move, but I learn and grow so much each time. I make new friends and create connections that others may not have tried. I am often pursuing the “path less taken” whether it be Civil War reenacting, contra dancing, or the Ghost Walk. I love having friends in the mainstream who know me as Stephanie above and beyond my gender identity. I feel very lucky to live in a time and place where it's possible. Not easy, mind you... but possible.

Let me give a little extra background about the story of being asked for a dance and then dropped. This has happened twice. The time I shared was relatively easy to bounce back from. My friend Rima was right there to help me. I was in a supportive group where most everyone knew me. It was an obvious case of one bad apple. And of course, Diane's “beautiful” words so made my night.

The second time was a bit more disheartening as it occurred in Knoxville. It was the furthest I had traveled away from my home dance in Charlotte. I was already in line when the guy read me and left me standing on my own. I looked around, but I didn't see anyone I knew. I slinked to the chair on the sidelines and sat out the next three dances. No one asked me to dance. I almost went straight home that night, but I'm glad I stayed. I met some nice people, and Rima found some leftover Valentine candy with one that said “You go, girl.” That made my weekend!

I am glad that I have never been outed during a dance as that could be a potentially dangerous situation. It is hurtful, and yet I think of the people who have made it all worthwhile. I don't consider myself my activist in the traditional sense. I am fairly introverted and certainly not “in your face.” There are dance friends who I have never discussed my gender life with. I respect those boundaries as I am at a dance, reenactment, or another event to enjoy those activities, not to talk about me. Of course, conversations do start up, and I'm always happy to discuss those issues with those who are genuinely interested. I don't force it... much!

So welcome again to my sporadic blog. I hope to update every week with stories of history, dancing, gender stuff, and other musings. I rarely get political although I will pass along stories from other blogs. Feel free to write with questions. The email address is in the profile link. Let me leave you with a quote from George Eliot and often shared from my late friend, Pamela Jones: “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” I think I may put that on a sticky note!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Kind Word

“I love your dress.”

“You look really nice tonight.”

“You're wearing the dangly earrings!”

“Hello, gorgeous!”

“You are really beautiful.”

I've had all of the above said to me as Stephanie, some in the past couple of weeks. A genuine compliment is so powerful particularly in an otherwise harsh world. For me, many of the compliments are to my female presentation which makes me feel more feminine, and that is a very special gift. That is part of the beauty of the kind words because my close friends know my struggles in showing the real me with a body that doesn't match.

A few years ago at one of my first formal mainstream outings, I was wearing my favorite strapless floor length dress and had already gotten many compliments. It made me feel very good, and I wanted a way to return a bit of the positive karma... a sort of nice pay it back. I got the crazy idea that I would pick five women who were wearing dresses I thought were nice and tell them how much I liked their outfit. I wasn't sure how it would go particularly coming from a transgender woman. Would they think of me as a guy hitting on them? Each time, I made it very quick in passing, and every time, it brought a smile to their face. They seemed to accept me as a woman giving another woman a compliment. That was as empowering to me as the kind word was to them.

Much of what I've experienced is learning to be accepted as a woman. Even if my appearance is not perfect, I hope my actions and demeanor show my true feminine self. I could go into a long dissertation about how men are competitive when meeting other men or women are more nurturing. While not always true, I have found women more willing to help build each other up. This is especially true with many of my dance girlfriends, but I have had beautiful interactions as well with complete strangers just passing by. It is another confirmation that I fit better in a woman's world.

One of my favorite daily websites the last few months is Operation Beautiful. Caitlin, the owner, started posting positive sticky notes in the women's room and other places. It has become a bit of a phenomena encouraging girls and young women to help bring out the inner beauty in each of us. What often brings me joy is they are not just empty inspirational phrases. The notes simply help us see what is already inside of us. Sometime it's hard to see our uniqueness and yes, even our flaws as gifts. It took me a long time to embrace my gender gift. It is difficult in a world that demands perfection and conformity. Yet how dull life would be if we didn't pursue our special talents and abilities.

A kind word... it's ok to say and write. We need more of them even for the men in our lives! Do it in a genuine way. Lift someone up and help them see how much they have within them. In the meantime, I think I need to buy some sticky notes!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Transitioning Between Communities

The word “transition” can mean so many things. In the transgender community, it is usually meant as a catch-all phrase for those moving from one gender presentation to the other. It can mean some combination of hormones, therapy, cosmetic surgery, full time living, etc. In reality, it is at some level revealing more of your inner self in your outward presentation. It can be full of unexpected twists and turns. One that I did not think would ever happen is my near complete departure from the LGBT community.

For the first eight years of being out as Stephanie (1998-2006), I was fully content to be involved in the transgender community with occasional forays into the gay and mainstream world. With some periods of inactivity, I was happy to have friends with Kappa Beta in Charlotte and help the new girls where I could. Essentially, my life was a couple days a month being Stephanie and the rest being “that other guy.” At some point, I realized being Stephanie was more than the clothes and make-up. It was about being who I am and not just doing feminine things.

Other the next few years, I became more involved with the local LGBT community beginning with the formation of the Charlotte Gender Alliance (CGA). I liked CGA as it was more about support for those transitioning. I also returned to Southern Comfort Conference (SCC) in Atlanta in 2006 and was so impressed with the advances that I offered to volunteer in the technical side.

In February 2007, several transgender friends and I attended the HRC (Human Rights Campaign) Gala in Charlotte. I understand it was one of the largest representations from our community at the time. After dinner and the speeches, our two tables split up and began mingling and sharing our stories. I wore my strapless pink dress that night and felt on top of the world. I even danced a bit that night. It was not a pretty sight, but I loved every minute. More importantly, I felt I had connected with many attendees. We appeared to be making progress.

The cruel reality of our position came crashing down when gender identity language was removed from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the fall. Just a few weeks earlier, Joe Solmonese spoke at SCC promising HRC would not support such a bill. That promise was broken when, with HRC support, ENDA was written only to add sexual orientation to job discrimination laws. It passed the House but never went to the Senate. The bill has never returned to the floor for a vote. The events were even more shocking considering HRC signed many memberships while at the 2007 SCC. No apology has ever been given directly from HRC to anyone involved with SCC since that time.

Still I was committed to continued involvement at the local level in Charlotte. I especially enjoyed organizing events at the LGBT Community Center where transgender people could speak and discuss issues in a welcoming environment. I was also working at mainstream events including the Ghost Walk at Latta Plantation. My love of Civil War reenacting was growing, and I wanted to find a place where I could present as the real me. That search is still ongoing. Fortunately I have many online friends who are quite supportive.

In March 2009, I was introduced to contra dancing. I never thought I would fall for something as hard as I have for this. Even more importantly, I never would have imagined that I could just be me. The combination of acceptance, great live music, aerobic activity, and twirly skirts drew me in. I even began to make girlfriends who could help me with feminine advice. It's something that I never had before, and it's been a huge boost to my presentation.

In the meantime, the LGBT Community Center was tightening its affiliation with HRC, and I was having more arguments about ENDA and other transgender issues. Often, I was told to “get over it.” For the record, I will never get over my trans sisters and brothers committing suicide because they can't find a job. It was difficult going to meetings at the center knowing they supported an organization that had treated my community with utter disregard. Eventually, my voice was no longer effective as no one wanted to hear what I had to say. That is usually my cue that it is time to do or go someplace different. Will I be back? I'm sure I will, but I can't say when or where.

In contrast, my time at contra dances and reenacting is rewarding and important although not for the reasons some may think. I am not at the dances to expose the world to transgender people. I do hope I am being a good representative, but I do that wherever I go. I'm always happy to talk about my life as a transgender woman, but that's not my priority. It is unconscionable to me to force myself and my personal issues on anyone. That is not why everyone else is at a dance or reenactment.

I'm at dances to share a fun and amazing experience. I reenact for the love of history and pretty southern belle dresses. Along the way, I help newcomers participate and grow. I make friends with whom I share laughs, hugs, a shoulder, silly movie quotes, and life in general. I get so much positive reinforcement with all the smiles and kind words. With my closest friends, I am much more than the transgender girl. They know it's part of who I am but not all of it. That's a huge step for me in my realtionships.

Both the HRC Gala and the February dance in Charlotte were last night. I know many in the transgender community who attended. I hope their voices are being heard. I also hurt for all of us affected by the Amendment One vote in North Carolina in May. It is an important issue that I hate we have to deal with. Still, I know I was in the right place at the dance as several friends are going through tough times, and we needed to be there for each other. Dancing has a way of making it better. It is hard to explain unless you've experienced it, but it is so true.

Like all life decisions, it comes down to where I am most effective. In one place, I am growing. The other, I was stagnant. In one place, I feel welcomed and even loved. The other place had become toxic. I'm exactly where I need to be.