Saturday, December 31, 2016

Magical Realism

The lights dimmed, and the church, filled beyond capacity, became quiet. An hour earlier I had dropped my mother off at the side door on Adams Street, which runs parallel with the large brick and Gothic inspired building. Adams Street is one of the primary roads through one of the thirteen villages of Newton called Nonantum, but known to most as “The Lake” where the colors of the Italian flag are used instead of double yellow lines, painted down the middle of many of the roads in this historically blue-color neighborhood, just across the railroad tracks and turnpike. 

My mother had agreed to be one of the readers for the four o’clock Mass on Christmas Eve, and I volunteered to drive her and attend as well. As the service was geared for families and children, it had become one of most popular attended events of the year and the parking lot and adjacent streets would be filled long before mass was scheduled to start.

Our Lady Help of Christians Church, or Our Lady’s for short, was dedicated in 1881 and is located at the corner of Washington and Adams Streets. The congregation, founded in 1872, was originally known as St. Brendan's, due to the ever increasing population of Irish Catholics in the Boston area. The large chapel can seat over 1400 people, which came in handy when Mother Teresa visited in 1995. It was also in this church that I received my Baptism, First Communion, Confession, and Confirmation, four of the holy sacraments. In addition, I’ve visited Our Lady’s for Christmas Mass each year until I was in my early 20’s, as well on many other special occasions, like each of my sister’s weddings, family christenings, and several funerals. And while I wasn’t around for it, my eventual grandparents, who had only recently emigrated from Canada, were married in the lower chapel nearly 90 years ago. That’s a lot of history with a church, especially for someone who considers herself to be an atheist.

With the church now darkened, and only the final pray and recessional hymn remaining, the choir began singing Silent Night. From where I sat, nestled at the end of a pew with a family I didn’t know, but who were gracious to let me join them, I could see my mom sitting at the back of the alter, surrounded by the other readers, Eucharistic ministers, and choral members, and she was singing too. I joined in, and for a moment I thought I could hear her voice, her strong and proud French Canadian voice, over the thousand other folks singing, it was like she was singing to me. Silent Night - holy night - all is calm - all is bright – round yon virgin – mother and child…

And in that moment, my emotions rose to the surface, and I had to stop singing. Tears dripped from my eyes and fogged my glasses. I reached for my black handbag and grabbed a tissue, hoping the people around me didn’t notice. I don’t know why the moment got to me so, maybe it was the thought of how much my parents have been through this year, both facing significant health concerns, my dad unable or unwilling to attend mass in a wheelchair, my mom facing his death, her own, was this their last Christmas together? I don’t know, and I don’t think they know either.

Or maybe it was my own insecurity, separated from my girlfriend who was attending a separate mass just ten miles away, huddled together in a church pew with her two boys and her ex. I felt alone, disconnected and removed from the other parishioners who filled the seats and lined the walls, dressed in their Sunday best, who believed in the magical realism of Christmas, praying for the promise of tomorrow and the all that the New Year may bring.

I looked up to the large faded mural above the alter which depicted the crucifixion of Jesus and closed my eyes. I saw all places I used to go, when I was young.



Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blame it on Tennessee

The other night, after watching PBS NewsHour, which included a tribute to John Glenn, one of America’s first astronauts, and before turning to NBC’s Thursday Night Football, I fell under the spell Magic Moments: The Best Of 50s Pop, a rebroadcast of a concert from 2004, used as a filler and fundraiser more than once. The show featured stars, now in their golden years, singing their hits from the days of poodle skirts, penny loafers, and greasers. I’m a helpless romantic, and while I was impressed by host Pat Boone’s youthful enthusiasm, I was fixated on co-host Phyliss McGuire, of the McGuire Sisters, and her less than subtle plastic surgery, especially her enhanced, and slightly asymmetrical lips, sincerely wondering if that was my fate in 30 years time.

But before I could dwell on what might look like for me, she introduced the first act, “Patti Page, the Singing Rage”. Patti Page was the best selling female artist of the 50’s, and when she took the stage ensconced in a blue glittery gown, she was meet with a thunderous applause. And while some of the clapping was embellished during post-production, I felt it was appropriate; like it was her fans, applauding from the grave.

Her first song was her biggest hit, Tennessee Waltz. I know it only because it was featured in one of my favorite films, The Right Stuff. The movie, based on the Tom Wolf novel, is the story of the Mercury Space program in the 1950’s, which includes, John Glenn. As she began to sing, my mind wandered, traveling to place and an idea I don’t recall ever thinking about. How often does that happen? I thought about dancing with my dad, like at my brothers and sisters weddings, my cousins weddings, and even my own wedding some years ago. It was emotional.

And while I feel so fortunate to have shared the dance floor, on more than one occasion, with my beautiful mom who sometimes wore a cerulean blue dress, I haven’t had that opportunity with my dad. It’s not like he wasn’t there, he was, but I grew up and attended most of those events as man in my parents’ eyes.

Friday night I attended our Bangor Holiday event for work. It’s a simple affair compared to our annual Gala, we show up, organize the function room, have a few drinks, nibble on appetizers, give some awards away, talk about our work, and ask for money. It was my job to talk about our work with our guests, both from the stage and amongst the crowd. I’ve been doing these events for nearly three years, and in that time, grown confident in myself as a woman, and as an activist and public speaker. But I was thrown off Friday and felt more vulnerable than most nights. Was it my speech, which addressed some of the disturbing trends we’ve seen in the aftermath of Trump’s election? Was it the guest who misgendered me after finding out we were born in the same hospital in Boston? “He was born at St. Elizabeth’s too” she called out to her friend. Maybe it was the reminder of the Pulse massacre, mentioned during one of the other speeches. Either way, I didn’t see any of them coming, like a comet or meteor crashing into our atmosphere without warning.

I also don’t know why the thought of dancing with my dad got to me so. Maybe it’s the season, it’s dark in Maine in December, the days are short and the nights are long and cold. And while I often catch myself ogling at the star filled sky, I’m reminded how small I am in this world, and on most nights alone as well. My parents have aged right before my eyes, and as I face their mortality this Christmas season, maybe I’m afraid of my own.


Sunday, November 27, 2016

Thank You



Dear MaineTransNet Community,

Thank you.  It is with a degree of sadness as well as a humble sense of satisfaction that I write this thank you letter to the MaineTransNet community.  I’ve been connected to MTN for nearly eight years, first as a trans person in hiding, looking for answers, then as a volunteer and group facilitator, and eventually becoming a member of the board of directors in 2013, which included serving as both as vice president and board president. It’s been a privilege to work with a great team of committed board members and volunteers, trans and allies alike, to ensure the sustainability and vitality of the organization.
 

I’ve always put trans people’s needs front and center in my role as board president and found great value in listening and getting to know community members. In the summer of 2015 the board created a list of goals to work towards as an organization. Included in that list were these key items: increase outreach to under served community members, improve communication, focus on leadership development, secure a dedicated office, and become financially stable.

I know in the aftermath of the election, many in our community are scared, rightfully so, and there remain many unanswered questions, but I’m pleased (if that’s the right word) to report MaineTransNet is in a better place today than when I arrived.  This is not to say the organization was in a bad place two years ago, as we were fortunate to have excellent leadership prior to my tenure as well. But with the hard work and dedication of some incredible people, a few timely grants, and ongoing partnerships with like-minded organizations, we achieved the goals we set for ourselves 18 months ago.  And while I know our organization is far from perfect and their remains significant areas for improvement and growth, our community is growing stronger everyday.

On December 1, my term as board president will come to a close and current board treasurer Quinn Gormley will become the new president of MaineTransNet. I couldn’t be happier for her and our organization.  I know most of you already know that Quinn is a smart, passionate, and devoted individual and she will make a superb leader. As treasurer she has worked tirelessly to focus our attention on becoming financially sustainable. I am assured that with the ongoing guidance from the board of directors and people like you; MaineTransNet will continue to be the safe place for Maine’s Trans community to turn to for lifesaving support, education, and resources.

Thank you again for allowing me to serve this beautiful and brave community; it’s been an honor. 

Sincerely,

Gia Drew

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Sunday, October 30, 2016

Everyday is Halloween


On Friday we learned the US Supreme Court will review an appeals court ruling concerning a Virginia school district’s policy that discriminates against transgender students, in this case, high school student Gavin Grimm. The policy prevents him from using the boy’s restroom. Many of us doing trans justice work have been following this case and many others across the country where governors, legislators, and even members of our own community, have been sending anything but mixed messages to transgender people, especially transgender youth, about our human rights and dignity. 

As a middle-aged transgender woman I’ve been relatively fortunate in my journey, and even though I’ve been discriminated against, felt terribly alone, and made to feel like a freak, I’m still here.  While the path as been challenging, I have a job, a roof over my head, friends, family, and a partner who gives me love, despite the fact that I’m a demanding princess. There are times I feel guilty that my life is good, especially when I hear so many stories of heartbreak, hate, abandonment, violence, ignorance, and shame. I think what gets to me most is people’s indifference, their silence.  But I understand, talking about transgender issues can be difficult, especially if you don’t know what to say or if you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. But trust me, saying nothing is worse.

In 22 days, many around the world will gather for Transgender Day of Remembrance. November 20th is TDOR, the annual day to recognize, remember, and celebrate the lives of Transgender individuals murdered the previous year. I vividly recall attending my first TDOR, standing on the cold bricks and cobblestones of Monument Square in Portland, Maine. I felt relatively safe in the dark, illuminated only slightly by the flicker of the small Passover-like candles lit in memory of people I never met, but felt intimately connect to. In less than two months, I would embrace my identity as a trans person and begin a very public transition as a high school teacher and coach.  Attending TDOR was a wake up call for me. As a privileged white girl preoccupied with the fear of loosing my job, spouse, friends, and family, I hadn’t given all that much thought to the idea I could be killed for being myself. But I knew I couldn’t go any further if I didn’t step out of the shadows and begin living.

Last year we read the names of more than 250 transgender individuals, killed for just being themselves, and that’s only the reported cases. In the US alone, there were 21 reported murders, 19 of whom were brave and beautiful trans woman of color. The intersections of race, poverty, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, colliding and cutting short lives and dreams at a moments notice. The number of murders in the US this year has already surpassed 2015.


So with the impending Supreme Court case looming on the horizon, I’m afraid this Halloween weekend, not because of what they will or wont do, but because I know regardless of their decision, it’s going to take more than a court order to change the hearts and minds of many people, including elected officials, school board members, and yes, LGBT advocates as well, some of which don’t see us completely as human beings, but as monsters, or worse, bargaining chips, a threat to people’s safety, privacy, or funding.   Unfortunately, as we’ve learned from other civil rights battles, it may take years (and in some cases centuries) to see the promise of progress and feel free from the stubborn and thorny grasp of bigotry and greed. In the meantime, I’m going to keep stepping into the light, even on the darkest of days. 

Friday, September 30, 2016

That little Candle

This week, Rosetta, a European spacecraft, crashed into comet 67p, also known as Churyumov-Gerasimenk, after a 12-year journey across time and space. Rosetta lost contact with Earth forever, bringing the historic mission to an end. The team in Darmstadt, Germany, who had been working on this project for decades,
clapped, embraced, and shed tears as the craft crash-landed on the comet that was traveling at 84,000 miles an hour. Ironically, Rosetta, was only traveling at a speed of 3 ft per second (walking pace) as it was embraced by the traveling cluster of rock-like material and dust originally from the Kuiper belt, a disc of remnants beyond our planets, formed after the birth of our solar system.

For me there is something tragic and captivating about this story, especially the thought of Rosetta’s slow demise onto the surface of the racing comet, speeding across the universe, picking up wearing travelers, like gravity’s angel. 

                                                      _______

I had the good fortune to spend last Saturday afternoon with my girlfriend and her two boys. Thanks to my dad, we had tickets to the Boston College football game at Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill, an area in Massachusetts best know for the Jesuit college, part of the Boston Marathon route at the top of Heartbreak Hill, and a mall. Chestnut Hill is also part of three municipalities, Boston, Newton, and Brookline, and three different counties, Suffolk, Middlesex, and Norfolk. Talk about identity crisis.

Anyway, it was a picture-perfect early fall afternoon, and while the game was a snooze, BC squashed Wagner State 42- 10, there were a few moments that I can’t stop thinking about.


My girlfriend’s kids are in elementary school, and just a few years apart in age. We’ve been dating eight months now; in fact that Saturday was our anniversary. I knew going into the game that we probably weren’t going stay the entire four quarters. The boys are young, and I don’t have remotely the same interest in college football that I had when I played football as a youth or even when I coached early in my teaching career, but the boys love sports and we thought this was something fun to do together. It was.


Traveling to the game and walking around the stadium past tailgaters and college students was nostalgic for me. As a kid, I remember coming to a BC game for the first time when I was about the same age as the oldest of my girlfriend’s boys. It was special then and still is. My dad graduated from Boston College in 1955 and one of my brothers did too in the 80’s. Because we lived just a few miles from the stadium, our family went to and still goes to home games every year. This was my first time going openly as a trans woman, which sounds weird to write, but for me it was significant.


Two things stand out from that afternoon. The oldest of my girlfriend’s boys is an athlete and also sensitive, he holds my hand in crowds or when we’re crossing the street, and that was no different last week. He also leans on me when we’re sitting as group, which I find endearing and comforting that he trusts me. That happened too. But what really caught my attention were his questions. After each touchdown or score, the BC cheerleaders tumble across the end zone, with the final girl doing round-offs, flips and twists as an exclamation point.

As we watched, he asked, “Gia, were you ever a cheerleader?”


I smiled, and let the thought sink in “no, no I wasn’t, but I’m sure I thought about it." I paused. " but I did do gymnastics until the 10th grade”


With not much of a reaction from him, he asked another question just moments later, “When you played football, did you wear long sleeves under your uniform when it was cold?”


“I guess” I stammered, not knowing he knew I played football.


It took me a few moments, but then the gravity of what he said, eventually hit me. He was able to hold two somewhat opposing thoughts in his head, someone could be both a cheerleader and a football player, plus he was also concerned about football players being cold and being able to perform with long sleeves, that was sweet.


Sitting on a cold metal bench
under a brilliant blue sky, the game had been momentarily interrupted by a child’s wonder and innocence, colliding like a spacecraft landing on a comet. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Playing with Dolls

When did you know?  When did you know you are the gender that you are?  You know, when did you realize you’re a boy, a girl, a man, a woman, or something else?


Can you recall that moment in time? Do you remember what year was it? How old were you?

No? I didn’t think so, but don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Most folks don’t know and the majority of people I’ve asked have never thought about the very idea, people just accept what they’ve been told. Humans are very compliant.

But if I asked a room full of trans folk, I’d get a completely different response. Hands would fill the air.  “Oh, I remember, it was when I was four and….”

Why is that you may ask. That’s an honest question.  It’s probably for many reasons. Perhaps we were corrected, or we notice a difference in our bodies, or were told were not who we think we are.

For me, I’ve known since I was very young, I was probably three or four years old when I realized I was more like my sisters and mom, than my four older brothers, and my dad. I liked their clothes, jewelry and makeup, playing with dolls, cooking, and hanging out with their friends

Don’t get me wrong, I liked doing some “traditional boys” thing too, and still do, and I was definitely praised for doing them, the more masculine the better.  You can never underestimate the power of positive reinforcement.

But for some reason, I knew my attraction in girly things, feminine things, was wrong. But don’t know why.

Did I pick up hints from my surroundings and society that what I was doing was wrong? Was I corrected like so many young trans kids or feminine boys?

“Don’t let me catch you wearing that again or else…."

While it’s pretty hazy looking back nearly fifty years now, I do remember some special moments from my youth. You see, I grew up in a house with nine people and a cat, or a series of cats, (Sandy, Roosevelt, and Ashley). And I shared a room with my younger sister till I was twelve.

While it was often chaotic, there were some bonuses living in such a full house, especially when six of us were going to elementary at the same time. Getting dressed for school was left up to each of us, I guess so my mom could focus on making six peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, sign any permission slips and iron my dad’s shirts. 
My fascination or fixation for feminine things continued, but I told no one. And for years, I stole and wore clothes from my sisters and my mom, not really understanding why.

I remember the first time I wore my sister’s underwear under my boy clothes to elementary school. I felt like a criminal. By the way, they were white with a satin ribbon trim.

In fact I wore girl clothes, underwear to be specific as much possible, even under my little league uniform on several occasions.

There was one game where I slide into second base, only have my baseball pants rip open at my hip reveling underwear taken from my mom’s dresser just hours earlier.

I played the rest of my game holding the rip together with my right hand terrified someone might see my secret if I had to field a ground ball.

Puberty arrived and as you might imagine, it was hell. If you’ve ever seen the film, American Werewolf in London, you might recall the scene where the main character transforms from human into wolf. It’s portrayed as the most painful and terrifying metamorphosis. That’s what I felt like as my body began to betray me.  

As my body became more masculine I found that I needed more time and space to be a girl outwardly, but in a house with nine people, one full bathroom, and no locks on any doors, being a trans teenager in secret was a challenge.
So I looked for other options to express myself in safety. I often would sneak out at night and walk around my quiet suburban neighborhood dressed as girl. I also started watering the plants and feeding the cats of my neighbors when they went on vacation.  What I realized when I got inside, is that I had their whole house to myself, so guess what I did?

That’s right! I dressed like the girl I wanted to be, now for hours at a time in the relative safety in my neighbor’s house. I would bring a bag of clothes, and even tried on some of my neighbor’s clothes, she was a little more risqué than my mom. These adventures in cat sitting continued for a few months, but since I was only 12 and wasn’t good at covering my tracks. I got caught.

At dinner, my dad let me know we needed to talk about something. We met in the back yard. I knew exactly why I was there. I had noticed my neighbor’s minivan in their driveway earlier that afternoon, indicating they had returned from their weekend trip and must have found something out of place. I sat across from my parents on that warm summer night and never felt so alone.

They confronted me about what I had been doing at my neighbor’s house and also informed me that they found my stash of women’s clothes under my bed. I could tell they were humiliated and embarrassed.

Dumbfounded, they asked why? Why are you doing this? Why are you acting this way?

Mind you, this was 1980.

There was little or no information about being trans out in the world, no Internet or YouTube. Laverne Cox wasn’t be born yet. And while Caitlyn Jenner was on front of the Wheaties box sitting on my kitchen table, it wasn’t because she was trans. She had just won the gold medal at the Montreal Olympics and was the greatest athlete in the world.

Not having the language or knowledge to explain myself, I just said, “it makes me feel good and I’m happy when I do it.”

They didn’t know what to do with that response. Well, you’re going to have to apologize to the neighbors; they’re waiting for you.

Ugh. I walked across the street to my neighbor’s.

They were waiting for me. With my head looking at the ground, hiding my embarrassed face, I apologized. You know what, they seemed to be okay about it. I shouldn’t have been surprised. They were more liberal and younger than my parents and I had been using their first names since they moved in.

I returned to my parents who were still in my backyard waiting. While they were satisfied with my apology, they were still visible agitated and confused by my behavior.

“Well, do you want to talk to someone about this, how about a priest? “

Too embarrassed.  I replied, “Do I have to... I promise never to do it again”


Sunday, June 12, 2016

Words are Not Enough


This the text from a speech I wrote for tonight's vigil in Portland, Maine, as the spokesperson for EqualityMaine, in response to the tragedy in Orlando. 


Hello, my name is Gia Drew, and I’m honored to work as program director at EqualityMaine, and humbled to work on behalf of all of you, Maine’s LGBT community.


I’m also a very proud bisexual transgender woman!
As many of you know, EqualityMaine has been working to secure full equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Mainers for 32 years. We are committed to ensuring every member of our community feels safe and welcome in every aspect of their lives, at every age and wherever they may be in this beautiful state.

This morning I awoke with the promise of enjoying this spring day at home, possibly going for a bike ride, and even getting my hands a little dirty in my garden. That all changed when I learned of the shooting at Pulse in Orlando. I immediately texted my girlfriend in Boston. “hope you are you okay - thinking of you - hug me”
She had heard the news too.  “Wish we were together - I’m angry more than anything”  
I knew what she meant, I was angry too. “Go, go, get out and breathe the air.”

“I love you”

“I love you too”

25  years ago I was living in Boston. I was 24, recently out of college, and I was walking down Boylston street with my boyfriend, Kevin. But we were both afraid to hold each other's hands in public, and it wasn’t until we were inside Club Cafe, yes it's still there, that we felt safe enough to so. So we did, and as you can imagine, we also kissed and danced. And in the words of President Obama, who spoke earlier today, we were living. For many in our community, clubs have always been be our safe haven, they are the places we go to celebrate our identities in safety, to dance, laugh, kiss, hook-up, and have a drink. They are places like Pulse in Orlando, and here in Maine we have Blackstone's, Styxx, Flask,Maine Street and several others.  

So the news this morning was startling, like a home invasion. Someone broke into our house and killed members of our family. Like you, I’m angry, I’m sad, I’m scared, and i’m in shock. I don’t really know what to tell you, other than we will not hide. We will not go back in the closet, never!

As you know, it’s pride month. And we will be out and proud, and celebrating our identities and the diversity of our community together all month. We were already at Central Maine Pride in Waterville last weekend, yesterday, we were at Pride events in both Belfast and Bar Harbor, we’ll be Pride Portland all week, and next week we’ll be at Bangor Pride.

Our hearts hurt as we think about all the lives taken from us this morning and our thoughts are with the families and friends who are grieving the loss of their loved ones.  We stand united with the gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, and latin-x communities of Orlando.

Yesterday at Belfast pride, I met so many wonderful people who were thrilled to finally have a pride event in their part of the state. There was a young girl, no more than 10, who came up to our table with her dad. We talked a little about what EqualityMaine does, then she interrupted us to tell me she had come out at school this spring as bisexual. “Cool! I replied, “Way to go!”  

So, as we grieve and mourn as a community,  I think of all the young people, like the girl I met yesterday, who should never feel ashamed about they are or have to worry about their safety in this world. We are committed to all of you -to your well being - young and old, wherever you live in Maine.

I know today is hard, but we have each other. So, hold each other’s hands more tightly, hug a little longer, kiss with more passion, look into each other’s eyes more deeply, dance like you’ve never danced before, and listen with more compassion than know you had, because so many of us are in pain and just need to be heard or hugged or both.    

Yes we are hurting, but together we are strong. We are, after all, family.