We Are All Orlando

I feel so utterly deflated and numb by the hateful and horrendous events that have unfolded in Orlando.  I am in pain.  The wind has been taken out of my sails.  I am angry.  I am depressed.  On an emotional level, it brings front and center the same array of feelings I experienced when I was working in Manhattan on September 11, 2001.  At its best, it is disturbing; at its worst paralyzing.

Innocent, vibrant lives were taken far too early.  Bright lights of hope for a better, more loving tomorrow snuffed out in the blink of an eye and in the muzzle flash of an AR-15. One hundred and two families forever changed by the horror of that night seared into their memory.  As I write this, there are some parents that still do not know the whereabouts of their children. I pray for them.  I pray with them.

This was not ISIS; this was not some quasi-radicalized terrorist.  Quite the contrary.  This was an act of pure, unadulterated hate.   The kind of hate that blinds and eviscerates the soul of the person who embodies it.  That was Omar Mateen.  By all accounts thus far, he calmly and unemotionally stalked his prey and carried out his perverse plan, unaffected and unmoved by the cries and pleadings of his victims.

When I woke up Sunday morning, the news had broken, but the extent of the carnage had yet to be revealed. It wasn’t until I reached the park in Brooklyn where I was being taped for a Logo series that I found out from the production team that 50 people (50 people!!!!) had perished. My heart immediately sank, and I suspect it will remain heavy for a very long time.  Tears come rather easily.

Because you see, I may not have actually met – in person – the patrons of The Pulse nightclub, but I am intrinsically connected to them.  They are, for all practical purposes, my brothers and sisters.  They are, in a very real way, a part of my family.  We share a common bond, a common thread – we are all unique.  In one form or another, we have let our freak flags fly high and wide.

We have suffered the indignities of those who choose hate over love and throw their version of the Bible at us at every turn.  We have felt the loss of loved ones and friends who either could not, or would not, see past what they did not understand to the loving human being that lies within.  We have struggled with that strange brew of excitement and sheer terror that comes with – finally – revealing our true selves to our co-workers and hoping we won’t be fired on the spot. We felt the exhilaration of the immense weight lifting off of our shoulders when we weren’t.  We all have slowly opened up the door of our very dark closet to embrace the light of day that was always waiting outside – for all those years.

The South African Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu calls this connectedness Ubuntu.  He describes it this way, “‘It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. . . They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed, diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are.” 

Make no mistake . . . there is a disturbance in the force.

But lest we forget, this is Pride Month – it is our time to hold up our heads proudly and demand that we take our rightful place in society. Our voices, though perhaps temporarily weakened by the tears we shed and the cries of justice we shout for our brothers and sisters who perished in this horrific act of hate, must never be silenced. In fact, we must be louder and prouder and queer-er than ever.

We must be seen.  We must be heard.  We must be strong. 

We must be fearless.

Sure, do it for yourself and for those closest to you – the ones that love you unconditionally and celebrate the awesome person you are.  But more importantly, do it for your brothers and sisters in Orlando – both the perished and the survivors – because they are an elemental part of your family.

We need to hold on tightly to each other and our allies and love each other like we never have before. We do so to honor and celebrate the lives of the fallen and to remind ourselves that we are amazing points of light that will never allow our collective flame to be extinguished.

We stand in solidarity with Orlando, because we are all Orlando.

Orlando_Pulse

Stephanie Attends The Official White House Welcome Ceremony for the Pope

I had the honor, this past September, to be invited by The White House to attend the official Welcome Ceremony for Pope Francis’ first – ever visit to the United States. The invitation, which came via my association with PFLAG National, was quite an honor indeed and a personal highlight for me. It was made even more special because I was able to share the moment with my spiritual director, Sister Monica. Sister is a trailblazer in her own right, as she has – for a number of years now – ministered to the transgender community, albeit under the Vatican’s radar, but interestingly enough, with the full support of her order.

Representing PFLAG was our Deputy Executive Director, Beth Kohm, our Operations Manager, Paul Rocco and our Manager, Field & Policy, West Region, Cesar Hernandez. Being able to share this moment with members of my PFLAG family as well as with Sister Monica made for a day that I will never forget.

 

Tipping the Scales of Acceptance – A Pride Month Reflection

As the month of June – Pride Month – comes to a close, I feel compelled to pause and reflect for a few moments on where the transgender community finds itself at this moment in its history. The setting for this missive is the beach at Asbury Park, New Jersey where I am taking a break from the blur of activities, events and speaking engagements that come along for the ride when the calendar turns to June. The warm sun and comfortable breeze make for a delightful afternoon where I can be alone with my thoughts. I am a part of a diverse mix of beachgoers on this day: gay, straight, families, young, and old peacefully coexist in a swirl of laughter, animated conversations, Frisbee and volleyball. That’s why I love coming here. I feel like I am part of a family of sorts. The new season, my favorite – summer, has arrived and everything in the world is in perfect alignment.
Ah, if it were only that simple! Depending on your particular point of view, you might agree with that perspective, or vehemently disagree with it. Put in the context of the equal rights of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, the world seems anything but perfect. While I will acknowledge with deep appreciation the recent strides the community has made: the pending executive order that provides protections for transgender workers with regard to contractors doing business with the federal government, Medicare providing coverage for transition-related healthcare and the Time magazine cover that featured the image of Laverne Cox along with the title “The Transgender Tipping Point – America’s next civil rights frontier.” Well, I’d say that we are making quite a splash – and good for us!
While I am genuinely thrilled by these developments – and how can one not feel just a bit giddy about the “air cover” that the Time coverage provides, I must cop to a more than mild sense of concern about what still must happen for transgender and gender non-conforming people to have a level playing field from which to live their lives. Vast differences remain between my community and the rest of society when it comes to housing, employment and healthcare. You may have seen the numbers, they are frightening, frankly, but what’s more frightening is there are many outside of our community that do not know. You can argue the point that they do not know because they choose not to hear. I have a different perspective: they do not know because they have yet to be reached by us.

That is why I do what I do. It begins with a very simple premise: Education. During this Pride Month I have seen first-hand what the power of education and simply telling your story can have on an audience. It’s about connecting with people on a very human level. It’s about changing hearts and changing minds. What I don’t know is what preconceived notions existed within each person as they enter the room to hear me speak. What I do know is that they left the auditorium with a much different view of what a transgender person is all about. About how human we are, and that we are, in so many respects, no different than they are. Yes, we have our own set of unique challenges, but we are no less human because of them.
How do I know this? Did I suddenly become telepathic? Not at all. I know this because they told me. They told me with their voices when they came to speak with me after I finished my program, and for others they told me with their eyes, their expressions and their smiles as I spoke. Education. It forms a foundation of Understanding. That, in turn, sows the seeds of Acceptance.
It’s about time a wider and brighter national spotlight has been cast on our community. For us to have our voices heard we must step out of the shadows and share our stories. They are so amazingly powerful. But before that can happen we must “own” who we are – individually and collectively. As I was once told by someone a long time ago, “you cannot expect others to accept you, without first accepting yourself.” The conversation must be broadened. The narrative must expand. Tipping point? I’ll buy that, but in my humble opinion it is up to the transgender and gender non-conforming communities to up our game and continue to advocate for what we intrinsically know are ours: our civil – and human – rights. We control our own destiny, we can shape our future, we possess the power to tip the scales in our favor by the power of our Authenticity.

 

Happy Pride!

 

Individual Acts Of Courage

Baseball and Running.  Running and Baseball.  For those that know me well, these two things are major aspects of my life.  Important and interchangeable.  They color my world in many different, yet positive ways.  They create spaces of childlike joy, relaxation, contemplation and spiritual introspection.  As I write this, on the morning of Patriot’s Day and the 118th running of the Boston Marathon, I find that in the past week there has been an interesting convergence of the two.  Permit me to explain.

Earlier this past week, Jackie Robinson Day was celebrated across all of Major League Baseball.  For those of you who may not follow baseball very closely, or perhaps do not consider yourself a fan, it is a day when Jackie’s life is honored and celebrated:  not only as the first African-American to break the color line in baseball, but of more importance to me, of how he dedicated his post-baseball life to advocating for the equal rights of Black people, at a time in our country’s history when the civil rights movement was, arguably, in its infant stages.   But that didn’t matter to Jackie.  He used his celebrity to convey a message of equality for all wherever and whenever he could.  In short, he put himself out there to create a better world.

Not so suddenly, his accomplishments on the baseball diamond were moved to the background in the pursuit of what he firmly believed was a much more noble and important goal.  The quote attributed to him that will always resonate with me is the following:

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”

What I admire so much about this quote is that Jackie felt he had a higher calling.  I believe he knew his place in history.  He didn’t just embrace it, he ran with it – and in so doing he changed his world – and the world we live in today.  An individual act of courage – repeated over and over again – that transformed him into a catalyst for the change that was so desperately needed in our country and in our society.

Speaking of running, there’s this little race in Boston that happens on the third Monday of April for the past 117 years that many people have anticipated with great fervor since last year’s tragedy.  It was difficult, neigh impossible, to avoid the stories of courage that permeated the media leading up to the race this entire week – and rightfully so, as far as I am concerned.  Services highlighted individual acts of courage and inspiration amongst the victims, first responders, runners and spectators alike.  We know the stories, we remember their faces.  They have filled our collective consciousness in the year that has passed.  One more touching and moving than the other.  “Boston Strong” personified over and over again before our very eyes.   Multiple acts of courage and humanity repeated over and over again that I hope have become a catalyst for change in our society.

To my way of thinking, there is much we can learn about our humanness from the inspiring stories that emanate from Boston and from the man who proudly wore number 42 and batted second for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The parallels to me are very apparent. The victims and their families, didn’t complain.  Neither did Jackie.  It would have been exceedingly easy for both to embrace the victim mentality and say for all to hear:   “woe is me” – and most of us wouldn’t have batted an eye.  But the fact is they did not, they picked themselves up and got on with their lives.  They endured.  They did the hard work when no one was watching.  They grew stronger.  They thumbed their noses at the challenge put before them and persevered – no, make that – triumphed.

As I finish this piece, watching the coverage of today’s Boston Marathon in the background on television the feelings of joy, triumph, perseverance and healing that are projected from Boylston Street and along the entire route are palpable.  It’s time to move on: we’ll never forget, but it’s important for our spirit and for our soul that we turn the page, take a deep cleansing breath and perhaps, just perhaps, approach those we encounter in our lives – however different they may seem than ourselves  – with dignity and respect.

My Journey Through the Gates – Revisited

For my first blog post from my website – I wanted to share a piece that I originally wrote back in 2005 when “The Gates” installation was in Central Park.  Some of you who lived in and around New York City at the time may recall them.  They received quite a bit of coverage in the media – both good and not-so-good.  Nonetheless, for where I was  at the time – eight months from my coming out at work and being one hundred percent “out” as my true and authentic self – their presence moved me on a very metaphorical and visceral level.  They prompted this essay, which after reading it through for the first time in years, is just as relevant (if not more so) today then it was when it was written nearly nine years (what???!!!) ago.  It is my Easter gift to you and I hope you enjoy reading it and, hopefully, taking a piece of it with you. . .

 

I came upon “The Gates” today, almost by accident.  I had seen the grand unveiling on television a week or so before, and quitehonestly had forgotten all about them since.      Although impressed by the sheer enormity of the physical display, I was even moved more than I could ever have imagined on a much deeper, more visceral, level.  It’s as if Central Park has been bathed in a bright shade of saffron at every turn.  As I entered the park at Columbus Circle the lunchtime crowd of business people and tourists overwhelmed the grounds at the foot of the Maine Monument, but I soon noticed that this teeming mass of humanity flowed easily up, down and across the park’s paths as they gazed, gawked and otherwise absorbed the sheer enormity of the spectacle before them.  It was an unusually warm and pleasant winter day.  You could actually feel the first hint of spring in the air, and everyone that I passed looked as if they had embraced this temporary break from an otherwise bleak winter season with refreshing joy.  I thought that perhaps all of Manhattan had taken a collective deep breath, as if to purge the winter doldrums with one mighty blow.

It is against this rather festive backdrop that I find myself at peace for the first time in my life.  No delusions, no self-convincing, but honest to goodness serenity.  Imagine that!  After what I had endured in the past year and half, well, it’s actually more like four decades and a half; I am finding it difficult to absorb the notion that I may actually be at a place of inner peace.  Is this what my future holds?  Can this long-elusive congruence truly be everlasting?  Suddenly, a swirl of feelings coursed through my entire body.  Pulses of energy jumped from vein to vein inside of me. I had to stop myself in mid-stroll and brace myself against one of the gates themselves. Is this what being “my true self” really feels like?  I had read many an eloquently written account of this phenomenon by other transgender women whom I admire, but none of that could have properly prepared me for this moment.  It was as exhilarating as it was overwhelming.

In an instant, this deeply personal and introspective moment captured the essence of a lifetime of self-imposed pain and anguish.  The guilt, the shame, the denial, the lies and half-truths all came crashing together in one giant swell of emotion.  As the intensity of my realization strengthened its grip I began to cry from behind my sunglasses.  As my tears turned into sobs, my vision became blurred and I glanced all around to make sure I wasn’t making a complete spectacle of myself.  It was then that I was stricken by the immense metaphor of my surroundings . . . The Gates . . . The Journey . . . My Journey.  Must I pass through every gate to ultimately embrace that which I have always known myself to be?  Are there rules for such things, or is this something you just feel?  Could this be what I am feeling now?  I quickly found a nearby bench so I could sit down and allow myself a few moments of composure to reflect upon the enormity of my epiphany.

If I truly accept the notion that it is my destiny to live my life as the woman that I believe God intended for me to be, am I prepared to deal with all that it changes in my life?  For I have learned that being true to one’s self, in my case my womanhood, not only effects me but also those around me—my son, my siblings, my friends, my colleagues—just to name a few.  The simple fact of the matter is that when a transgender person decides to transition, all of those people who are a part of his or her life are also being asked to transition as well.

As you might imagine, it is difficult–-in some cases next-to-impossible–-for them to grasp the fact that the person whom they have known for all these years will be fading away, never to be seen again.  But is that really true?  I owe a debt of gratitude to my former male self for helping me shape the woman I am today.  I feel that there are many positive facets of my personality that have come from him – my wit, my sense of humor, my business acumen – just to name a few.  It would be inappropriate of me to just blatantly toss them aside in my quest to become more female. Besides, women possess many of those same traits, don’t they?  While my outward appearance has most certainly undergone a rather dramatic change, the fact remains that the essence of me remains unchanged.

Why does embracing one’s innate gender identity have to be so complicated – so controversial?  I just want to be myself.  What’s so wrong about that?  My transexualism has never been a sideshow act of the sort one sees with disturbing regularity on Jerry Springer, but rather a deeply personal and introspective journey.  One that is very different for each person that embarks on such an odyssey.  But to be sure, the entire concept of gender is so engrained in our culture, so polar at its very core, that the slightest divergence or variation has many people running for the exits screaming this simply cannot be.  Well, I’m here to tell you that it most certainly can.  Think about it for a minute.  At the moment of your birth the doctor slapped you on the butt, took a peek between your legs and – voila! – declared you either a girl or a boy . . . how tidy. . .

To be sure, I’ve had people say to me, “but you’re giving up your male privilege, doesn’t that bother you?”  Maybe it’s just me, but I’d much rather have doors opened for me, be allowed to get on and off elevators first, and order first in restaurants.  Frankly, much of the chest thumping, backslapping false bravado I encountered as a guy is simply not where my head is at anymore.  Actually, it never really was there to begin with.

You know, all I ever really wanted was to be a member of the sorority—the sisterhood.  As my own personal journey of transition progresses and I am out and about in the world as Stephanie, I can feel myself embracing the unique relationship that women have towards their surroundings, those they come in contact with, and each other.  For example, many of the women I encounter on the streets of Manhattan always have a smile or a knowing glance for another while they are checking out the outfit you’re wearing!  I have found this perspective to be vastly, and refreshingly (thank God!) different than that of men in our society.  When I pass by a group of ladies outside a restaurant that have just finished their lunch together, it’s all about warm hugs goodbye and animated conversations all around.  It’s so obvious that they truly embrace each other’s lives, and most importantly, their friendships – their connectedness – with one another.  

I am truly blessed to have girlfriends such as these in my life– both transgender and genetic females.  With all of them, especially my genetic female girlfriends, it has never been about my gender identity, but rather about the whole person that I am.  They possess that perhaps all too rare combination of sensitivity and insight to see past the outer me and embrace the inner me.  I am eternally grateful for their love, support, understanding, and acceptance.

I lived the first 40-plus years of my life as a man, with all the roles society places on men in our culture—husband, father, brother, manager, breadwinner, alpha male.  But it was all a charade, a finely orchestrated act, because I was too petrified to confront my innermost feelings—feelings that I experienced each and every day of my life that kept saying in a not-so-subtle way that I was different.  It became a constant drumbeat in my brain, day after day and night after night.  I tried to run from it, to bury it and lock it away in a continuous series of macho endeavors—and I became good at it, really good at it.  Step right up and receive this year’s lifetime achievement award for successfully pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.  No one, and I mean no one, had a clue.

After all, this was what I was supposed to be doing at these various stages of my life anyway, right?  This was what everyone was expecting of me.  It didn’t much matter if I felt like the proverbial square peg in a round hole, feeling like a woman deep down inside wasn’t normal!  So, I fought the good fight and kept up appearances because I didn’t think I had much choice.  But one can only do that for so long before it begins to take a psychological – and physical – toll. I reached a point where that little Pandora’s box in the deepest, darkest recesses of my brain, the one where I had successfully compartmentalized my true self all those years, was about to fly open – never to be closed again.

Once it did I thought for sure I faced nothing less than total Armageddon . . . my life is over . . . everything is crumbling around me . . .there is no tomorrow.  For a while I felt as if I was perched on the edge of an enormous cliff, so high that I could not see the canyon floor below.  It is hard to put into words, but when one locks something away like that for so many years and further buries it with almost constant doses of shame, guilt and denial – and then lets the secret out – well, I think you get the idea.  It calls to mind a lovely passage my therapist shared with me from noted author and diarist, the late Anais Nin:

“And the day came when the risk to remain

tight in a bud

was more painful

than the risk it took

to blossom.”

Having sufficiently composed myself enough so that I could once again watch the passersby come and go, my mind continued to race trying to process the flood of my past, my struggles.  I allowed myself to ponder the vision before my eyes—the multitude of gates that seemed to encircle the Sheep Meadow.  Perhaps the gates do not represent where one is headed, but rather, where one has come from.  A gate (actually three, to be precise) that represent my failed marriages.  My valiant, yet ultimately unsuccessful attempt at trying to live a “normal” life and purge myself, once and for all, of what I believed at the time was a dreaded disease.

But the point is I have passed through them and continue to move forward – to becoming the woman I always knew I was.  I feel as if I have finally mustered up the self-esteem and self-confidence to face the world, once-and-for-all, on my terms: as a parent, a friend, and a sister.

I have reached a place where I thank God each and every night before I go to sleep for making me the unique person that I am.  I consider myself immensely fortunate to have been given the gift of a life in two genders.  I pray that those who may take issue with who and what I am will one day recognize the rather obvious and compelling fact that I have felt all along – I am happy.

If you haven’t already figured it out by now, I consider myself a very spiritual person.  I believe that one cannot embark upon a journey of this magnitude and not possess the belief that some sort of higher power guides their daily life.  For me, it is exactly that spirituality and the daily presence of God in my life, which has everything to do with my progression as a woman.  Their comforting and reassuring embrace has combined to create a perpetually burning flame within my soul that propels me forward on my journey to become my true self.  It is that flame, that feeling emanating from the center of my being, which tells me this is where I must go, where my destiny lies.

Finally composed, I stood up and immediately felt a warm breeze blow back my hair and encircle me.  The sunlight seemed to shine directly through the curtain of the gate I was under, as if to illuminate only me.  I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled as if to let go-for the last time-the demons of self-doubt and anxiety that had taken up residence inside of me for far too long.  Suddenly, a broad smile came across my face as I thought to myself, “it’s going to be okay, I will never be alone.”

As I turned and found my way past the Tavern on the Green and headed out of the park to face my future, I made certain not to re-trace my steps through any gate I had previously passed under.  I will not go back from where I came.  I will remember and not forget, but more importantly, I will learn . . . and grow.