Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In New York, Living

Like so many other participants who attended last week’s training for transgender organizers, I arrived in New York City on Tuesday evening.  The first part of my trip ended at The Port Authority in midtown Manhattan after a 51/2- hour bus ride from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  After successfully navigating the three flights of escalators I emerged into the perpetual light of 7th Avenue.  With my carry-on bag and over packed suitcase filled with way too many shoes, I started walking south to my waiting hotel and the other conference participants 20 blocks away. In New York people don’t get out of the way and they rarely smile.  I felt like an Atlantic salmon swimming upstream encountering damn after damn along the way.  After five or so blocks, my feet started to hurt and my back ached from sitting for so long, with a little guilt I hailed-down a cab to carry me to my destination, a Holliday Inn on 26th street in Chelsea.


This was the first national gathering of transgender leaders and organizers I’ve ever attended, in fact it might have been the first of its kind exclusively dedicated to one topic.  The New Organizing Institute, known as NOI, organized this unique and ambitious training. They received over 200 applications and only 70 were invited. 
Over a period of three days, transgender and gender nonconforming individuals representing a cross-section of America worked alongside allies, sharing stories and learning new ways of organizing, while communicating our urgent message for social justice and equality.  In addition to NOI, a coalition of organizers and presenters representing several national and local organizations led the training sessions held at The LGBT Center of New York. The shared responsibility was echoed throughout the week, reminding us that the work we do is dependent on building support and asking for help and resources.  

After a marathon first day of sessions, workshops, and sharing stories, we were treated to a panel discussion hosted by GLAAD, called Growing Visibility: Transgender People in the Media.  The eloquent activist Tiq Milan served as the evening’s thoughtful moderator, and he shared the stage with panelists Laverne Cox, Kye Allums, and Reina Gossett. Except for the uncomfortable folding metal chairs, I thought I was in heaven.  
Smart, generous, beautiful, and humorous doesn’t begin to describe the potency of the panelists, who for a change, were trans* people of color.  They can represent me, and the trans* community any day they like. 

At the heart of our work was the investigation of our personal stories and learning how to use them in ways to move others to action.  As I learned during the successful marriage campaign in Maine, people can open their hearts and minds if they hear the stories of their neighbors and make a personal connection to their own lives.  Throughout the training, people shared their stories.  While many were filled with pain and sadness, the underlying theme was hope.  At the conclusion of the second day, I was called up to tell a part of my story.  While I have shared this before, I was still very nervous.  Looking out into the large hall I saw the faces of my community, my trans* family, waiting and eager to listen.  After a deep breath, I began speaking into the microphone.  In the 2 minutes I was allotted, I talked about my first day, my coming-out day, as a high school teacher here in Maine.  And while I didn’t quite make it to the end of my story, I hope I captured, with emotional accuracy, the feelings and anxiety I felt nearly 3 years ago, on a January morning, as I opened my truck door and walked across the frozen parking lot to my school as a transgender teacher for the first time.

Much has happened in my life since that morning, most of which has been rewarding, especially the supportive response I received from students, colleagues, friends, and family.   And while I no longer work as a classroom teacher, my role as an educator has evolved.  I’m pleased that I was part of the marriage campaign in Maine, and I’m proud of the work I do with MaineTransNet, GLSEN Southern Maine, and Equality Maine, but I’m mostly satisfied empowering others to share their stories and create a more peaceful world.  

Before the training ended, I realized I had made friends with many new people. Not only with the 4 others who I shared a table with all week, each of whom were fantastic, but with many of the other 70 or so participants and presenters.  After I failed to complete my story on Thursday, I reacted emotionally and stormed away from the spotlight.  I felt humiliated.  And while I was upset at the proceedings and the person who cut me off, I was even angrier with myself.  The immediate out pouring of support was over whelming and I didn’t quite know what to do with it. On most occasions, I probably would have skulked my way back to my room and hid all night, but fortunately there was a social planned at the infamous Stonewall Inn.  I definitely needed a break from the intensity and unwind a little.   The night was the perfect remedy for my bruised ego.  After a few drinks and socializing, I headed across town to dance.  Led by a special friend who lives in NYC, we stopped at the Boiler Room for another drink before landing at Easternbloc in the East Village.  While it was still early, for New York that is, the music was a perfect blend of contemporary dance mixed with retro pop.  We both knew all the words.  Now at ease and surrounded by a few beautiful divas, I danced past midnight.  But like Cinderella, I lost track of time.  Realizing it was late; I rushed outside and caught a cab back to my hotel. While most of the lights were on, my roommate was asleep.  I guess they were exhausted too.

The training ended on Friday afternoon with a tribute to each other’s courage and kindness, by recognizing that everyone has value.  I imploded during the emotional exercise and left the training shaken.  Before returning to Maine, I spent a few days at my friend’s loft, floating a few stories above a Hasidic neighborhood in Williamsburg.  I arrived at her door like a lost dog looking for shelter.  Recognizing I needed a space and room to breath, she let me collapse for a few hours on her couch before pouring me a glass of wine and patiently listened to my story.

As we looked out one of her windows towards Manhattan, I noticed numerous makeshift huts below, mostly made of blue tarps, scattered across backyards and on rooftops.  I had never heard of Sukkah before.  My friend explained what she knew of the Jewish tradition, and I found the idea comforting as I remembered the joy in my youth building forts in my backyard, under decks, and in the woods, hiding from the world.

After a few days and a several bagels, I felt stronger and rejuvenated; I even did a 10-mile run around Prospect Park in Brooklyn.   I had time to reflect on my training and realized the commitment within the LGBT community and the conviction to find peace and social justice is part of my story.  As I returned to Maine, I noticed that the leaves had changed color while I was away and fall had indeed arrived, seemingly overnight.  As Charles Dickens wrote in Great Expectations,  “suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but - I hope - into a better shape.”