The one heirloom I treasure, a talisman, you would never have given me. I found it in a jewelry box in your dresser while we were cleaning out your apartment. A metal lighter case with two bits of turquoise, the only scrap of Santa Fe style I found in your home. It’s an anachronism, a piece of a city where you dwelt but never lived.
Everything else was old country, old country. Books in Hebrew, English, Spanish, Ladino and French; old photographs; your mother’s fur coat. There are heirlooms you would have approved of: the Sephardic cookbook you gave me, your wedding ring, now on my mother’s hand.
I don’t know if you even used the lighter case. I imagine you buying it on a whim one day on the plaza, smoking a single cigarette with a sense of satisfaction, and putting it away, forgetting about it. Now I cling to it with a little desperation, like I hear your voice in click-whoosh of a conjured flame.
I don’t see your eyes in shine of that thin metal. I see you in the ruffling feathers of a sparrow settling into her perch, in the frost crystals that crackle across my window. If you reincarnate, I hope you come back as a butterfly.
I heard that four generations of monarchs live and die in their forest sanctuary in Mexico before they turn north to make their great journey once again. Is any heaven superior? I wish you the beauty of that brief existence, a reprieve from all migrations, home, home, home.
I guess the lighter case gives me the suggestion that you did, once in awhile, open your eyes and behold the strange land where you spent your last years, the country where I grew up. I’m playing connect the dots; you can get here from there, however imperfectly. A sprout’s first tentative tendril, your wavering writing after the stroke, a fragile bridge from your world to mine.
Love could only seldom connect us. Vice, at least, is reliable.
Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition. The prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants. Los atravesados live here: the squint-eyed, the perverse, the queer, the troublesome, the mongrel, the mulato, the half breed, the half dead; in short, those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of “normal.”
— Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera
Before transition, I was a proud outlaw. People grimaced at me in the streets and were rude to me in restaurants. I guarded my heart closely, and I found solace in the knowledge I walked in a long line of rule-breakers, exception-takers, border-crossers.
In the crucible of my transformation to male, I hit a wall of resistance to this queerness. People began to smile at me and pat me on the back. I discovered the pleasures of easy social acceptance–life as a regular guy.
But a terrible fear gnaws at the edges of my good fortune. Suddenly I had a secret. The carpet of straight male privilege could be yanked away at any moment. Suddenly I had something to lose. Mixture of shame, disgust and gratitude at the new-found easy warmth of strangers. In a way, all their kindness was mine by accident. It was never intended for people like me, and it is constantly on the verge of leaving.
Within fear, the gnarled face of hidden resentment. Why me? Why this burden? There is nothing queer about me, I silently protested to a jury box of thoughts. There is nothing wrong with me, I really meant, and nothing especially peculiar in my essence.
And that is true. Trans people are a small share of the population. But there is nothing so strange about us, and certainly nothing bad or wrong. We are simply a few more shades in nature’s infinite palette.
It is the militarized perimeter between male and female that leaves us outcast. That arbitrary line drawn on the human body, a failed attempt to define us out of existence, to will us away like a bad dream.
I suppose we did cross the border, but it was the border that double-crossed us. Arbitrary, unjust, imposed and maintained through violence–that is the nature of borders.
I was born a little gender-variant human being. I wasn’t born a queer, a border-crosser or an outlaw. I was shaped that way by the sex/gender regime. I am a sloping hill carved by weather and time into a jagged cliff. My body is a crime; you can call me a criminal. Our violation is in the very word for us. Trans: across; gender: category. We are rule-breakers, exception-takers, logical impossibilities.
I am as I am. I was born a stranger in a strange land, and now I dwell in a land still stranger. I thought I could go home. But you can’t uncross the border. The crossing itself changes you. You can only cross, be crossed, and crisscross it again.
Hebrew, ivri, one from beyond
I find Sefarad in the heart of Aztlán
No state on the face of the earth is my home
My home is the One who goes where we go
My buddy janitorqueer posed an interesting question to me a couple of weeks ago:
Have you ever come across someone within your own community who you strongly strongly disagreed with? If so, what action or non-action did you take?
I certainly have! This can take a wide variety of forms. As a Jew, I sometimes have strong disagreements with my fellow members of the tribe about Israel/Palestine, among other things. As a trans man, I sometimes have strong disagreements with others under the LGBT and/or trans umbrella. For example, I take issue with all forms of “trans enough,” “subversive enough” and “feminist enough” tests of individuals’ gender identities or expressions.
My responses have varied from situation to situation. The better I know the person, the more likely I am to broach the disagreement. With a solid rapport, even extremely challenging topics can be handled gracefully.
When I don’t know a person well, I usually still try to address the issue. There’s just something that gets under my skin about someone in my own community who holds views I see as harmful to that community.
Sometimes, this goes really well, and we both learn something. Other times, we fail to communicate well. Feelings get hurt, wounds get salted, and we walk away even angrier than we were to begin with.
I love that janitorqueer asked about “action or non-action,” because this is where the latter comes in. When it becomes clear that the conversation is producing a lot of heat and little light, it’s time to walk away. This especially applies on the internet, where we are often quick to judge, slow to listen, and likely to misinterpret and be misinterpreted in turn.
I’ve been in my fair share of debates, and I have little interest in debating anyone now. Treating each other with kindness is more important that proving a point. For trans people, sticking together as a community is an essential part of the struggle for justice.
In an online context, if someone’s opinions drive me nuts and communication is not going well, I simply stop reading anything that they write. That might sound obvious, but it took me years to learn to stop going to blogs that piss me off.
How do you deal with disagreements within your community?
רְאֵה אֶת מַעֲשֵׂה הָאֱלֹהִים כִּי מִי יוּכַל לְתַקֵּן אֵת אֲשֶׁר עִוְּתוֹ
Awareness knocks my mind blank. I drop into the moment, single and crystalline. It really is right now. It’s summertime. I am a barefoot child, long, messy hair falling across my face. I am running down a hallway, my little brother just in front of me. I am holding a baby hedgehog with both hands. I feel the soft fur of its belly, the whirring of its heart. I see the honey-brown curls that crown my brother’s head. I see my knees, skinned and dirty. I see my dirty fingernails, the shiny black eyes and wiggling nose of the hedgehog, its tiny quills, hundreds of them, sharp and perfectly formed.
This moment stands out in my memory, a few seconds of total lucidity. An open-eyed glimpse of life in all its absurdity, endlessly given, invaluable.
The other night, standing in my kitchen, talking to my friends, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the truth that they are real. Really real, with whole internal worlds just like mine. Of course I always knew that, but I haven’t always felt it. We are more like adjacent branches than self-contained individuals, the same life-force animating us all.
When I was a kid I used to think that other people were robots. Literal robots. Or maybe phantoms. I was convinced that at any moment, someone was going to show up and tell me it was all one big, horrible joke. Or maybe they’d tell me I was in hell.
In the summertime, mirage pools formed on the hot asphalt, glimmering mirrors that disappear as you approach them. I wanted to fall into one, to jump through it into the sky of some world on the other side.
I was nine years old when I began really losing touch with my body. I remember looking from my arms to my thighs, arms to thighs, trying to solve the riddle. Something was very wrong. My legs were the wrong shape. There was an constant crookedness to the world in those days, like wearing someone else’s glasses.
There are almost no pictures of me smiling between the ages of 10 and 20. I used to cringe at the pictures; now I chuckle. As weird as it is to see myself dressed as a girl, I am not erased in these images. My discomfort could not be more clear.
These days I am learning to fully inhabit my body. Sometimes I sit naked and very still, just breathing, trying to experience my own form. I could never have done this years ago–too painful. Now all that remains of that heartache are a few scars on my arms and an echo of unbelief, uneasiness. I still feel a disconnect–a parallax. I squint, trying to see myself as I am. I look at my belly, my legs, my arms. Olive skin, fish-belly white on the parts of my body that don’t see much sun. Brown hair growing everywhere like desert grass. My penis looks like a little animal that might live on a coral reef. This is a thoroughly personal accounting of my physical self, divorced from all attempts to present my body for another’s gaze. No comparison to any drawing in a textbook. No measuring tape. No tyranny of memory. I think of people with phantom limb syndrome, whose pain is eased by mirrors that allow them to, say, see an image of their right hand where the left should be. I don’t need any mirrors–I just have to believe what I see.
See the work of God: Who can straighten what He has made crooked?
I forgive you, Adolf Hitler
Because a man accomplishes nothing alone
Because all violence is an expression of pain
Because you are dead
Because my grandmother couldn’t
Because holding the hot coal of hatred is destroying the soul of my people
Because I hope the grandchildren of murdered Palestinians will find forgiveness in their hearts
Because the world cannot be improved by any more hatred
Because it is the greatest taboo
Because you were riding the runaway juggernaut like the rest of us
Because there is blood on all of our hands
Because forgiving is neither forgetting nor affirming
Because forgiving is healing
Because hatred kills the living but will never raise the dead.
My grandmother died about five months ago. I’m still reeling. She was a big part of my life–she lived with us when I was growing up and was one of my main caretakers. She gave me many gifts and burdens: our Sephardic heritage, her experience of the Holocaust, her lifelong struggle with mental illness.
Today, though, I want to talk about another gift she gave me: her acceptance.
I was scared to tell her about my transition. I’m not sure why. She was a hardcore leftist, and I never heard her say a bad word about trans people. But she an old woman, a towering authority. I guess I was scared to tell pretty much everyone.
I think my mother was the one who finally told her. I have no idea what happened in that conversation, but she never said anything negative to me about being trans. This makes my trans status one of very few topics she did not complain about.
She told me my name was old fashioned. “It is not a modern name,” she said, a little perplexed. “It sounds like an old Sephardi man who keeps the keys to the synagogue.” I took this as a compliment.
She did mess up my name and pronouns from time to time. Then again, she did that to everyone. She had two strokes and forgot more languages than I will ever learn. And she didn’t make more mistakes than anyone else did.
Later, whenever she wanted to bring up my being trans, she would say, “What is this group, how do you say, the one that has no civil rights?” This would lead into a short lecture about the discrimination transgender people face–a set-up to try to convince me to go to law school.
She saw being trans like she saw everything: a reason I should become a doctor or a lawyer. She was not just any Jewish grandmother. She was a true master of the form.
Rest in peace, grandmother.