Waking Up (Excerpt)

A new piece I’m pleased with for now:

I haven’t thought of that room, that apartment, that period in my life for a long time, but the other day for whatever reason Sinead O’Connor came up and I found myself watching the video for “Mandinka” and was so overwhelmed by how incredibly sad it made me not to be young anymore.

It’s been happening a lot. I don’t think I’m sad about getting older; that’s just what’s what and I’m honestly kind of pleased and surprised to still be alive at 50 having used up too many of the ‘god watches over fools and drunks’ passes allotted me. 

But my 20s were spectacular.

NCOD Thoughts

Photo by Quentin Washington / Nate Wolff and me outside City Hall under the pride flag.

The idea to celebrate National Coming Out Day came from a couple of places: the sense, first of all, that it was long overdue that this city, which is generally welcoming, make that apparent. I’ve been here for a decade and although there are always jerks – everywhere & not just here – the majority of people here have wanted to learn more about LGBTQ lives.

Plus there’s a lot of us here.

I’d just been in NYC in the week leading up to the 50th annviersary of Stonewall when the city, via an innocent interactive “What’s Your Question Wednesday” Facebook post, mentioned “Selfie Day” – a day of civic engagement nationwide, when people come take selfies next to City Hall. My friend Nate Wolff asked, “Why hasn’t Appleton ever done anything for pride?” and the answer we got was dismissive and condescending. I posted in response about the importance of pride as did quite a few others, and what became clear was that the person doing the communicating for the city and the mayor was not up to speed on the city’s policies or the mayor’s emphasis on creating a welcoming, inclusive city. The city had done things; we just hadn’t heard much about them.

So there were meetings with Mayor Hanna and with the city’s diversity coordinator, Karen Nelson, who promised they would do better for the next Pride month. But a lot of LGBTQ people were upset and wanted the communication guy’s job, to be honest, so I suggested that they maybe had to do something sooner. A lot of universities do things in October precisely because most schools are out in June, so I thought that might work. It would be a day, not even a month, and it would be a good trial run for the next Pride month.

I knew that SCOTUS would be hearing arguments about LGBTQ employment discrimination the same week and I figured we would either all be very, very worried or maybe feeling relieved, so it might be a good day for LGBTQ people to feel the support of local businesses and to celebrate ourselves.

It feels like we’ve reach Mach 1, broken the sound barrier. As I said, the city has long been affirming of LGBTQ rights: we have a great NDO that includes gender identity & expression, big employers like KC and Goodwill who employ LGBTQ people, and a few colleges and nearby cities that are affirming. What we didn’t have was visibility.

Do you have a flag? Eddie Izzard once asked, and it turns out, most businesses didn’t. So I told the city I’d fundraise the money to buy them; I’d fundraise to pay people to canvas businesses; I’d fundraise to pay someone to design a logo, and the rest is history.

It’s hard to explain how big a deal it was and how big a deal it really wasn’t. The impact was tremendous. The excitement and enthusiasm of local businesses and business owners was tangible. It took an unusual alignment of bad communication, timing, anger, and impatience. It took a diversity coordinator – an office of one – who very much wanted to do something, and a mayor who backed her.

It was a lot of work, a lot of administration, a lot of emails, a lot of willpower. I was lucky to have a co organizer who owns a car because I don’t.

It took, to no small degree, the loss of a former student who both me and Nate loved and respected tremendously. Zac Presberg’s memory is what kept our fire lit. We did it with him in mind every minute, and made sure we added voter registration to the work, in his honor. We both miss him, very much.

Walking from Lawrence to City Center on Friday afternoon was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced here. I’ve been here 10 years and I’d never seen a pride flag up anywhere other than the local gay bar; in Brooklyn, nearly every bar has a rainbow decal or flag up somewhere. And I’ve known so many students at LU who needed to see them, so many adults who needed to, so many young people. Too many. This area has lost far too many young people to suicide due to bullying; one of the first times I was called on to do some education for local leaders was because a young person had taken their own life.

Some days there is way too much pain and way too much loss and way too much worry about the future. I have been worrying about gay people since I was very very young and people only assumed I was queer because of my gender. I have been married to a trans woman for nearly two decades and in that time things have gotten better but lately they are getting worse – a lot worse, and too fast.

Activism can be lonely work. We’re not normal people. But I have had so many people in Appleton and elsewhere who have said the right thing at the right time or posted the right meme at the right minute. So walking down College Ave, the main drag in Appleton, to see shop after shop after shop with a flag up felt like a homecoming for this activist. Appleton has never quite felt like home to me, and New York always will be, but for those few minutes, walking down that avenue, remembering all the people who were excited to receive their flag and who asked if they could put it up early and if they could keep it so they could put it up in June made me realize that I am more of this place than I ever thought.

I’m guessing that other LGBTQ people felt the same way. In fact I know they did. Even some who aren’t here, the Appleton queer people who grew up here but left told me they were moved that their hometown had done this, finally. The person who watched a friend get gay bashed posted that her same friend would have been happy to see it. Former students told me. Older lesbians told me. It’s difficult to put into words how a simple gesture like a flag can suddenly make you realize that there are people who care, there are people who know how hard it is, there are people who don’t know but want to help however they can.

It’s not legislation. It’s not a cure. It’s not an end to the violence. But it is meaningful, and it is comforting. While I was walking that avenue with tears in my eyes it was perfect.

Thank you so much to so many people who helped, encouraged, volunteered, celebrated. Thank you to Tim Hanna and Karen Nelson, of course. But Nate Wolff (Team HellWolf is now a thing), Kathy Flores, Nick Ross, Vered Meltzer, Reiko Ramos, Nik Shier, Cory Chisel & Ade Denae, the good folks at Rainbow Over Wisconsin and their board, & everyone who donated time or money or just sheer fucking enthusiasm: it was so easy to ask and so hard to imagine but here we are, through the sound barrier, and now we figure out what next.

Love to you, Appleton, and your shitty cold weather and warmer hearts: you did good.

National Coming Out Day #outinAppleton

An open letter to the City of Appleton:

National Coming Out Day is celebrated annually on October 11th. This year, Nate Wolff and me and the City of Appleton decided to celebrate it in a big way because our community is feeling hurt and under attack. Deaths of trans women are epidemic, youth suicides are on the rise, and this week, the Supreme Court of the US is deciding on cases that could change our right to be who we are, to have a job, to exist with dignity.

Traditionally, National Coming Out Day is when LGBTQ+ people who are out already think about what it took to tell people they are LGBTQ+ and what it means to live their lives out of the closet. But more importantly, it’s a day for all the people who aren’t out, the invisible members of the LGBTQ+ community.

When you put up a pride flag, for National Coming Out Day or in June for Pride Month, the most important message you are sending isn’t necessarily to the adults who are out and have been out. It’s for:

  • the gay men who work in education who still face significant discrimination.
  • religious people who know they would not be welcome in their place of worship as themselves.
  • working class and poor people who can’t afford to be out due to the risk of unemployment and housing discrimination.
  • parents who don’t want to be judged unfit because of their own orientation.
  • transitioned trans people who are accepted as the gender they are and who don’t want to be considered less of a man or a woman because of how they were designated at birth.
  • those who are most marginalized by other aspects of identity such as race and who face greater risks of violence and discrimination.
  • people who don’t identify strongly ‘enough’ in any identity to come out in one.
  • people who worry their families won’t accept them, who worry about losing lifelong friends.
  • people who are in a heterosexual marriage or relationship who don’t want to hurt the person they are with and are raising children with.
  • trans people who can’t be out in the military.
  • people who don’t want to disappoint their parents and families, no matter their age.
  • new immigrants who don’t want to lose the only people in their community who share their culture and speak their language.
  • parents with adult children who adore them and who they’re afraid of letting down.
  • people who use different pronouns at work than they do in their private lives.
  • people sleeping in shelters terrified to lose a place to sleep.
  • couples who never feel safe holding holds in public.
  • anyone whose access to medical services or mental health care might be hindered.
  • those who are financially dependent on someone else.

But most importantly, your visible pride flag is for the young people who are LGBTQ+, who can’t come out, or be out, because they have so little autonomy in their lives, who don’t get to choose who their parents are or what their religion is or even where they go to school. It’s for the young people who are bullied because they are different and no one at their school is helping. It’s for the young people who worry about disappointing their mom or dad or grandma or uncle, who think it’s impossible to live a happy, productive life as an LGBTQ+ person, or who believe there is something wrong, or evil, about them because of who they are or who they love.

So often events like this feature the people who are out – who are organizers, activists, small business owners: the people who have already navigated coming out and being out and have found some happiness or success in life. But this event is not about us and never has been. We come out in order to tell our young people that they can be loved, feel safe, have a job, be successful, have families. We come out so they know their elders are out here loving them even when we don’t know who they are yet. We come out so they know we’re here and that someone cares about them living their lives to their fullest potential. We come out so that those young people live to be adults because too many of them don’t.

We come out because we can and we know others who can’t, won’t, shouldn’t – yet, or maybe ever.

That’s why you put up a rainbow: it is a promise to all the invisible LGBTQ+ people that you understand they exist, that their lives are not easy, and that they are loved and valued and celebrated.

Happy National Coming Out Day.

Witness: Rachel See at SCOTUS

My friend Rachel See of NCTE was in the courtroom today and wrote this compelling observation about what it was like.:

I don’t think I’ll be able to forget the look I saw from the bench. Near the start of the first case, Justice Kavanaugh looked up from whatever he was reading and seemed to stare straight at me. Straight through me. I met his gaze for a few moments, and then I realized that Aimee Stephens was sitting immediately behind me.

I don’t know what was running through Justice Kavanaugh’s mind. He asked a single question this morning, about whether the statute used the literal or the ordinary meaning of the word “sex”. I feel incapable of reading those tea leaves.

But in those few lingering moments, feeling his gaze upon me, I felt literally judged, as a trans woman, by a man in a position to affect the lives of me and my family and friends and the 1.4 million trans adults in America. A man with the power to declare, as Justice Sotomayor suggests the Court should say, that “invidious discrimination” against LGBT people must stop now, and that courts can and should use the broad language of Title VII to do so. But also a man with the power to declare, as our adversaries would have him say, that sex assigned at birth is destiny, and that an employer can dictate where you pee. And, by extension, someone with the power to declare that “invidious discrimination” against LGBT people will be permitted by the law, and even be encouraged in the name of “religious freedom”.

It is the most-uncomfortable I’ve ever felt in a courtroom. My heart goes out to Aimee Stephens, who felt the true focus of that gaze and the scrutiny of the Court and the media and all the vile hatred that we see on Twitter and “in the comments”. Aimee looked so tired this afternoon; who wouldn’t be tired, under all that scrutiny? I can’t imagine what she’s been through these past months, and I am in awe at her quiet strength and perseverance.

For all the discomfort I felt from Justice Kavanaugh’s scrutiny, the message I want to deliver to my trans and nonbinary friends is that you are seen by people who love you. You are seen by people who look upon you with friendship, with compassion, with love. By your chosen family, by allies, by people who will fight for all of us. In a few months we may very well lose at the Supreme Court; win or lose on these cases, the fight will continue. And we will not be alone, because we exist. We are seen. We are loved.

Sorted by Jackson Bird

I’m actually a little surprised – and very excited – to report that I just read a new trans book I really liked: Sorted by Jackson Bird. Not to be a jerk, but the prospect of YETA (Yet Another Trans Autobiography) usually fills me with dread. I’ve read way too many of them and they tend to repeat themselves.

But this one I liked. I was only vaguely familiar with Jackson Bird as I’m not much of a YouTuber – I prefer reading over listening or watching things for info – and while I expected this to be the regular I was born / my gender wasn’t right / some bad shit happened / I transitioned narrative, it wasn’t. Overall it’s a great introduction to trans identity: Bird’s voice is engaging and warm and funny, and his informational sidebars – on things like hormones and pronouns – are pretty much on the money, brief, well worded, and smart.

There are still too few autobiographies by trans guys and even fewer by trans men who attempted – much less thrived in – a very feminine presentation. There was Matt Kailey’s Just Add Hormones – rest in peace, Matt – and … and …. you get my point.

Bird’s telling of his story articulates an important generational difference: his work unraveling his gender identity comes before and during his complications with sexuality. For those of you who are older, or who have only read narratives of older transitioners, this book is a good way to change your perspective on how people experience trans identity, and to put aside some presumptions about how people come to realize their need to transition.

(Personally that’s still a puzzling thing to me: so much of what Bird describes is so similar to my experience except for that “oh, I’m a man” moment. I am trying to write about being gendery/non binary but not trans in the new book, promise.)

If you’re on the feminine spectrum of things, this is a good book to see how the other half lives. If I’ve got any criticism, it’s that there’s a lot of privilege being expressed, but I also think he’d be the first one to admit as much.

Check him out. He’s got a bunch of videos but I liked this one especially for demystifying the sexual orientation/gender identity issue:

My New Website

Hey everyone! It’s long overdue but I’ve just updated my professional website Helen Boyd Books where you can find my bio, info about the books, lectures/talks I’m available to give, and all sorts of other things.

Please do share the site with people who are in a position to hire me as a speaker, trainer, consultant, tutor… whatever it is. I’m good at a lot of things and I’m not teaching very much anymore and so could use the gigs.

Look at this handy dandy list of talks I can give:

  • Trans Etiquette 101 : How to Navigate Trans Identities and Pronouns
  • Co Conspirator to Transland: How To Ally
  • A Brief History of Transland: How Trans Identity Became Visible
  • Trans Relationships: Love Is Not All, Actually
  • Becoming Queer: Chosen Families and LGBTQ Life
  • Becoming Poly: It’s Not Pie
  • Trans Inclusive Feminism: Or, Why Trans Women are Women
  • Writing in Private, Publishing in Public: On Writing Memoir
  • Non Binary Identity: Emerging and Eternal Genders

OR I can tailor one to your group’s needs.

I’ve also gathered a bunch of video, links to interviews & articles, lists of my published writing, and descriptions of the books = basically everything you’d want to know about me as a writer and speaker.

18 years later.

i. sitting in the top observation deck in one of the seats that was in the windows and looking straight down between my new boots feeling suspended in light and sky and seeing all the way to pennsylvania, hundreds of feet above the ground, sitting on a few strips of metal and a masterwork of engineering

ii. passing through one day and stopping, briefly, to watch tibetan monks create a sand mandala — the image of which i meditated on for months after

iii. going to see radiohead at liberty state park across the river, concert tickets bestowed as a wedding present by our awesome friend michael because we’d never seen them. i danced the whole time, watching them framed by the lady and the towers, and that night my brand new husband expressed surprise and admiration that anyone could dance to 2+2=5 as we changed trains on the ground floor of marble and tall ceilings high on the music and the night and the stars and the 3rd encore oblivious, utterly, joyously oblivious of the scenes that would unfold in that same space not too much later

iv. the word welcome in hundreds of languages on the tourist elevators, very 70s design, different fonts for different languages, a comforting barrage of welcome wilkommen bienvenido bienvenu welcome. now step to the back to let another 400 people on.

v. i was supposed to do a reading that night. i have no idea if i ever did it, whether it was canceled or rescheduled.

vi. i was supposed to see a firewater concert that week and when it was rescheduled everyone was excessively, pathologically drunk and screaming the lyrics along with everyone and tod a. he’d go on to write “electric city” — his brokenhearted goodbye to his town: shine electric city shine like six thousand wings in the sky over the scene of the crime

vii. going up through the utterly familiar penn station to walk into a corner full of crowds and sunshine on 32nd street with men in full riot gear, army men with big guns, and knowing already that nyc would be ruined maybe not immediately, but eventually, somehow, for me.

viii. watching my jewish neighbors hold hands around the local muslim middle school and form phalanxes around the kids so they could get safely to their parents, buses, subway stations. oh brooklyn.

ix. walking into my office months later and seeing on my whiteboard 9/11 computer mendel noon. he lived because he was dropping one of his 13 children to school that day. i quit not long after, & not well. i’m still friends with mendel.

x. i still look for them when i’m home and have to remind myself that the new one is there instead and wish deeply for the multiverse where it isn’t & they are, instead, still.

This Labor Day, Support An Artist’s Labor

As you all know, I’m on Patreon these days to support my writing, but I am also on there to support other people who do great work. Maybe you like some of these people — if so, do sign up to support them.

For Harriet publishes and amplifies the stories of black women.

Hanne Blank gives you reasons not to quit.

Iljeoma Oluo writes angry words. (She’s the one who got swatted a few weeks back and would, no doubt, appreciate your support right about now.)

Does Julia Serano need an intro here? If so, she’s the one who wrote Whipping Girl.

S. Bear Bergman wrote Butch Is a Noun and is always full of gracious wisdom.

Sophie Labelle makes all those cool trans comics, Assigned Male, that you all share all the time and rarely credit. If you do, sign up.

Eli Clare is the author of Exile & Pride and writes poetry about gender & disability.

Scott Turner Schofield is telling trans stories at Becoming a Man in 127 Easy Steps.

Tristan Taormino writes queer things about sex positivity and is currently writing a memoir.

Wear Your Voice is a collective of black feminists whose voices are essential for me.

Jon Hakes is a local friend, scifi writer, & the one who convinced me to sign up for this thing.

Nebal Maysaud is a former student and a composer of color.

So there you go. A bunch of cool people doing cool things and whose labor benefits your life maybe indirectly: by providing me with insight, company, and solace with their own work.

Activism, Crankiness, & Enthusiasum

This piece was partly inspired by the awesome work of Scott Turner Schofield.

Tomorrow I’m going to be handing out flyers delineating Chick Fil A’s anti LGBTQ donations to people waiting in line for one of their restaurants to open. If you’re in Appleton, feel free to come by the line outside Chick Fil A around 4PM to cheer us on, make a donation, or help hand out flyers.

I don’t feel particularly strongly about this boycott, because I’ve never had Chick Fil A & don’t care to, and because I think the whole corporate overlord / factory farming monolith is heinous in general, but I met a new, young activist who was inspired to act so I got involved. A lot of times I do so to make sure no one gets hurt; to make sure the action or protest is appropriate for its audience; and to make sure, too, that a young activist full of fire becomes empowered. It’s one of the ways, as an older activist, I can do the work without always having to storm the castle myself.

If you don’t have a younger mentor to teach you, you get old and bitter fast, anyway. My knowledge and caution benefits him; his enthusiasm and energy benefits me. Win-win.

What I’m thinking about today, however, is how much lateral hostility or general crankiness there is within activist circles, and specifically within LGBTQ ones, so I want to offer a little advice because I have seen myself do some of these things in the past and they were not best practice nor my best self.

When another member of your activist community wants to do a thing and you think it’s unimportant or inessential, you don’t have to volunteer. You also really shouldn’t be down on the person or the event or the cause: you can just say “My plate’s too full right now” or “not my kinda gig” to excuse yourself from having to participate.

What you don’t have to say is: “but there’s so many things to do and why are you doing this?” or “this isn’t important (implied, to me) so it should be to you” or “it won’t make a difference so why bother?” Apathy is more infectious than anything, and it lets people off the hook.

I say all this as a cranky, older activist who has a tendency toward eyerolling someone else’s enthusiasm and energy; some of that, perhaps, is organic to now being 50, but it’s also something to work against – no matter how organic it is. It is very easy right now to look at the world and not know where to begin, or what might make the greatest impact; I find, in general, that activists are often only working on their own cause, holding onto decision making power when it comes to money, and lacking the ability to support other people – usually people with less power in a system that’s benefitting you – to do what they do.

In future, when someone says “boycott chick fil a” you might, instead, want to say, “not my gig but go do the thing.” Or ask why the person putting so much time and energy into something is doing what they do. Similarly, you can find a thing, instead, that inspires me: start that fundraiser on FB.

When I first started doing this work – advocacy or activism or whatever you want to call it – I’d get roundly criticized or come up against general malaise and feel like shit for a week. What I learned to do was ask myself, “what have they done?” and more often than not I found a lot of criticism comes from people on the sidelines who are not doing a damn thing, who never put themselves in a position to be criticized or censured, and who don’t, in general, show up.

So for all of you activists out there who are well aware of how much criticism you can get just by speaking out or planning an event, fuck ‘em. Until you’re being criticized by people who do as much as you do, please tell the keyboard warriors to show up or shut up.

Everything counts; everything matters. Supporting others who are doing things even when you can’t is far more important than letting your own guilt or shame cause you to criticize anyone trying to make a difference.

I’m writing a lot more on my experiences with activism and advocacy on Patreon, and in the new book.