Institutionalization

I am in a nursing home and have been for nearly 3 weeks.

I am in rehab for my ankle and my foot. I had surgery on 12/18/18 to repair my Achilles tendon and to insert a bovine flap over the wound on my heel.

It has been quite a grueling process and there has been so much stuff stirred up relating to identity. I can scarcely write down my thoughts as I feel so scattered. I feel that my gender, height, weight and mental and physical disabilities have never been so front and center. In my normal day to day life, I try to hide or conceal these markers as it is exhausting to have society constantly remark upon them. I know it sounds silly as many of these identities are fully visible but my point is that I rarely reside in the “physical” realm. I do not want to feel hyper-physical. I teach in academia and occupy the intellectual realm and mental realm.

What does it mean to occupy one’s body? What does it mean to consistently reject the physical in favor of the mental, psychological and intellectual? I think my rejection of the physical deals with inhabiting a tall, fat, gender-variant body. From jump, I deal with very strong gender dysphoria. My body inhabits a physical sex that is alien to me. Taking hormones has done little to lessen this feeling of dysphoria. Being fat and extremely tall means inhabiting a body that society scorns. Perhaps there is an ability to be in denial in regular day to day life about the extent to which these identities define me according to hegemonic society and culture. In here I can’t avoid them. They are put right in front of me and my marginalization is made clear to me.

I will elaborate on the ways I have been discriminated against through the whole hospitalization/rehab journey in a different post. Right now I am simply giving voice to the part of me which feels shame, humiliation and frustration.

I am more than this body. I am an emotional being. I am an intellectual being. I am a spiritual being. All that has been treated through hospitalization/rehab has been the physical. This is the way in which the mind, body and spirit are ripped apart and only one part of a person is treated. This splitting is unbelievably unhealthy. Sadly I am not able to sew these different parts back together right now. I hope to do so when I leave this place. In the meantime, I can feel the positive thoughts and healing vibes being sent to me. I realize this is temporary. I realize in the future I will be able to make sense of this experience. My next entry will have the theme of liberation.

It’s Been Too Long

My life has been very challenging since approximately April 19, 2018. That was when my heel was crushed by a walking boot they had given me to treat my ruptured Achilles tendon. It has now been over SEVEN months since this injury.  currently am working but have to go to the wound Care clinic three times a week.

Needless to say this greatly affected my mood. As someone who already has anxiety and depression, this whole ordeal has made it much, much worse. I have not felt like writing and I have had a hard time concentrating. There is definitely physical pain involved with the wound. It is intermittent and varies in intensity but it is almost always there.

My head space is taken up by the health crisis. The worse case scenario for this is losing my left leg below the knee. I am not an overly optimistic type. I try not to let my mind go there, but it is very difficult. I am set to have surgery on Wednesday, December 12. They are supposed to be repairing the ruptured Achilles tendon and put a skin flap over the wound. The trouble is, there is no guarantee that either procedure will work. I am afraid of the surgery and afraid of the pain that will be associated with both procedures. After the surgery will likely be rehab. I could be in the rehab for up to a month, and this could be over the Christmas and New Year’s Holiday. I am also worried that they will starve me in the rehab in an effort to get my weight down. At any rate, there is a lot of unknown right now and it makes me nervous, anxious and afraid.

I am disappointed that this health crisis has taken me away from my writing. I was in a good place for a while, writing 500 words a day on the key words I had generated almost a year ago. But it is funny how your head space can be colonized by your troubles, taking up space and not even paying rent for the encroachment. It feels good to be writing this tonight, right now. In a more positive way, I have to remember that one word is better than nothing. It would be really nice if I could keep up this tradition again and run with it but I don’t know if that is realistic. Yes, there will be “down time” when I am in the hospital with time to write. But it all depends where my head is at. I can’t seem to just file the health crisis away and carry on as normal. If anyone has any advice or recommendations for writing in the face of crisis, I would love to hear your thoughts.

I’d like to think everything will work out for the best with my foot. But I just don’t know that. It is the uncertainty that is perhaps the scariest part of this. There are so many potential outcomes and it is so out of my control. I am praying and gratefully accept the prayers of others. Shalom.

Sylvia Rivera & Marsha P. Johnson

I love these two icons. They deserve so much credit for social justice and for the trans community in particular. They fought for everyone: prisoners, addicts, homeless, youth, people with AIDS, LGBTQ people of color, sex workers and anyone who was oppressed or marginalized. The work they did was stunning. And it was done while they lived very oppressed lives. They were often homeless. Sylvia struggled with addiction and they both met tragic and premature deaths.

In addition to all of these struggles, their legacy is in trouble. Any person who researches them knows they are brilliant Stonewall activists, creators of S.T.A.R. and legendary! However, the media has been a mess when dealing with these sisters. They have white-washed them and cis-washed them.

White-washing is when Black and Brown people are marginalized or erased to make way for white supremacy. Cis-washing is when cis people make themselves the center of the world and try to erase the work of transgender people.

Through films like Stonewall as well as books and articles, white cisgender people have attempted to erase their legacy and minimize their accomplishments. Many of these detractors have been wealthy, white gay cis men. The reason for their work is because they want to give themselves all the credit. They want to distort the record to make it seem like they did all the activist work during the 1960s and 1970s. This work is reprehensible. It makes me so angry.

Two trans women made a short film about Marsha. A middle-class, white cisgender man comes along and makes a documentary about Marsha that appears on Netflix. They had the money and power to get this feature-length documentary made. Then it takes away from the film made by two trans women, at least one of them a trans woman of color. Luckily these women are persevering and they are going forward with their film and its distribution. I can’t wait to see it and to use it for my classes. The only other film I use is from the 1990s and it is called A Question of Equality: Uprising ’69. It is one of the few that is inclusive of transgender people of color and that does not try to white-wash or cis-wash the events of Stonewall.

What this all shows is the importance of history, of the archive and of documentation. Those in power have no problem distorting history to meet their own agenda. This is a power grab because the framing of history is vitally important. I am not a historian but I am interested in queer history and would like to see more work on trans people, QTPOC and other marginalized groups like poor, disabled and aged queer people. There are so many stories that have not been told. Part of this is because of history itself. It highlights dead, white, euro-american males and pushes everyone else to the margins or eliminates them all together. When I ask students how much they learned about women, POC, LGBTQ folks and PWD in K-12 there are usually very few hands that go up, if any! This is so disheartening to see, but entirely unsurprising, too. This is why writing and grass-roots educational efforts are so important. We have to correct the record. Sylvia and Marsha deserve nothing less.

 

Leslie Feinberg

Leslie Feinberg was a gentle-butch. Ze was, to me, an icon and hero. The world is an infinitely better place for having had Les in it. I miss Les and know there is nobody that can replace Les. Ze was one of a kind.

When I was first peeking my head out of the closet door, I remember that an acquaintance of mine told me that they were going to Provincetown for the weekend. I desperately wanted information about transgender issues. This was before the onset of the internet, back in 1993 or so. So I gave her all the pocket change I had and asked her to bring me back trans books from Provincetown. If anywhere would have them or they would be there, along with the Castro in San Francisco it would be in the legendary P-Town. When she came back she brought me three books: a book about transition and becoming a woman, a book that was a biography by Lou Sullivan called From Female To Male: The Life of Jack Bee Garland. The third book was a novel by one Leslie Feinberg entitled Stone Butch Blues. I read the advice book first because I was very early in my transition and wanted to learn more about what it meant to be a transgender woman. I put the others in my pile of books as I was deeply immersed in school and trying to keep up with my course readings.

One rainy weekend I grew tired of studying and there was no desire to go out due to the weather. And so I went through my pile and picked up Stone Butch Blues. I had no idea what to expect. I read it in one sitting. It is a book that changed my life like no other. It was like holding a mirror up to myself and seeing myself reflected through the words of the novel.

I wrote Leslie a [snail mail letter] and boy do I wish I still had that letter. I told Leslie how much I admired hir writing and how much I would like hir to come to to my campus at UNH to speak. The first time ze called and said, “hi, this is Leslie Feinberg” I almost dropped the phone because I felt like I was talking to royalty. This is totally against Leslie’s frame of reference as a revolutionary communist, but indulge me for a minute.

We were able to have the talk and we filled the house. There were around 200 people in the student center and many of them were young queers like myself who were desperate for the message that Leslie had to impart upon us. Leslie won a standing ovation and many people lined up to buy hir novel and a now-classic pamphlet called “Transgender Liberation: A Movement Whose Time Has Come.” The event was a success and it was great to talk to Leslie in person. Ze was just as friendly and open-hearted as I expected hir to be.

Over the years, I saw Les at various conferences. I saw the video of hir life entitled Outlaw. I saw hir appear on the daytime television talk show The Joan Rivers Show. And most of all I saw hir engage in various forms of activism: around HIV/AIDS, economic justice, socialism, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, anti-incarceration and the CeCe McDonald case. I saw Leslie write about these issues in socialist newspapers.

Once when I saw Leslie doing a reading from hir important book Transgender Warriors, I heard hir talk about being sick. At the time the root cause of the illness was a mystery. Only much later would it emerge that Les was suffering from Lyme disease and co-infections. I was heart-broken to see Leslie’s health deteriorate and how it made it impossible for hir to travel and to engage in writing books. Leslie passed away on November 15, 2014 at aged 65 in Syracuse, New York alongside hir long-term wife/partner Minnie Bruce Pratt.

The legacy of Leslie Feinberg for me is gargantuan. The reason is that Leslie Feinberg taught me to fight back. Ze taught me to revel in my difference as a non-binary gender nonconforming person. Ze taught me to stand up for what I believed in and taught me that no matter how much we had right on our side, the battle was not going to be easy. If I had to name five activist-writers who have made a difference in my life, Leslie would be in the top five. Thanks for all the sacrifices you made for us all Leslie. We will fight to preserve your name and your legacy.

 

Being a Student

The origin of the word student is from the Latin student- ‘applying oneself to,’ and from the verb studere, related to studium ‘painstaking application.’ One might then combine these as proving oneself through painstaking application. The word painstaking is a good one to get at what being a student is like, as does application. You are applying yourself as in putting forth an effort but also applying as in making a formal application or request. The applying that is done to get into college does not stop once the application is accepted. The applying in both senses continues throughout the degree or degrees.

There is a great power imbalance in schools and higher education. The teacher/professor has the bulk of the power and the student has very little. This is why people always talk about a student “sucking up” to the professor. Students feel they have to curry favor with the professor to receive the best possible grade. In my opinion, grades have been the death knell of education. They take the focus of learning away from its best components: curiosity, exploration, engagement, discourse and debate, collaboration, etc. and put them on the letter given out at the end of the course. This makes education about competition and competitiveness rather than learning. It is a means to an end rather than an intellectual enterprise with gifts unrelated to competition with other students.

Neither students nor professors should have to grovel. We should meet each other on equal footing. This is why I like my students to call me by my first name rather than “Dr.” or “Prof.” because it creates greater equity between us. It is interesting to me that some students resist this. I loved calling my college professors by their first name. I understand that it can be taken as a sign of respect, but there are better ways to show mutual respect than titles.

Too much of schooling is based on strict rules and regulations. Assignments become busy work to test knowledge rather than promote exploration of a given topic. True, there are many exceptions and perhaps I am being too negative, but I think education could be so much more. We are stuck in the mud and need to make substantial changes to improve our field. Even if you are an individual who is committed to doing just that, it can be very difficult to do so when you are operating within a particular structure with people with more power than you towering over you. It is even harder for a student to challenge pedagogy. They might do so on an anonymous course evaluation but seldom do they come to the professor to do so because they fear that it might adversely affect their grade. Notice how we come back to the grade once again. I can understand wanting to evaluate a student’s performance, but it has taken on entirely too much importance in today’s academy. Every semester I get multiple grade disputes from students who are angry because they perceive that there grade is too low. On the one hand, I think it is good that students are challenging professors. I just wish it was about something more important, like the pedagogy of the class or the reading list, etc. Why are grades SO important, particularly with millennials? That is something I don’t have answers for but hope to better understand in the coming months because it seems to get worse and worse.

For students there are limitations and possibilities, barriers and explorations. Being a student is not all good or all bad. However, we need to do something about power imbalances between students and teachers and about the central importance placed upon grades. There should be less about being a student that is “painstaking” and more that is liberatory, exploratory, creative and joyful. How will we transform the education system to get there?

Teaching

The most important thing I have to say about teaching is that it is hard as hell. Before I started teaching I had no idea how difficult of a craft it really is. So many of my teachers and professors made it look easy. But as a student, you have a very different vantage point of teaching. You teach a few times a week, assign some papers and test and give out grades. What more to it is there? The answer is: a lot!

With that said, I believe that there are some people who are a natural fit with teaching. I am not one of those people. I struggle with it a lot. I never thought it would be this hard. It truly is an art. You can learn the art over time, but again some people come to understand and embody the art much easier than others. It is also a people-person profession.

I am a die-hard introvert. Some people absolutely hate being alone. I absolutely love being alone. It not only doesn’t bother me, I prefer being alone. I never fully realized how extroverted the profession of teaching is until I taught my first class. I thought to myself: this is going to be interesting. The best teaching to me creates an ideal classroom community. I believe in a classroom community in which the teacher’s power is de-centered. I like to sit in a circle. I like to have discussion-based classes. I like to be one member of the learning community who is on an equal footing and who serves more as a facilitator than as a “sage on the stage.”

Over time, I have gotten more comfortable with classroom dynamics. Every class is different and some are more difficult to manage than others. There is a wide constellation of differing personalities that meld together nicely or that can clash repeatedly. I can never quite tell how a class is going to go. I enter the first day with a lot of nervousness. It takes a minimum of 2-3 weeks to see what a class is really going to be like. There are classes I have really loved and classes I have disliked.

I truly believe that the professor/teacher can only go so far. Can we set the tone? Maybe to some degree, but we need responses. The ideal classroom thrives on an engaged response from students. I tell the students quite candidly on the first day that there is nothing quite as bad as a class where students don’t talk. I make it clear right from the beginning that they are required to speak and be thoroughly engaged. Some obey this directive and others do not, but if at least 50-75% of them do, it can turn into a good class.

I don’t think there will ever be a time when teaching does not give me anxiety. I don’t think there will ever be a time when I think teaching is easy. But maybe the nerves and the difficulty actually help to improve the class. I certainly never take the class for granted nor do I have low expectations. In the 15 weeks that we have, I wanted it to actually mean something. I want the class, or at least part of it, to be memorable and useful. And this goes for both students and teachers. As I said when I started this blog entry, teaching is HARD work. But I have to believe it is worth it and that we make some kind of a difference in our students’ lives.

 

What’s Going On [Part 2]

This foot thing is going to be a long haul. It is so complicated I can’t even explain what’s going on. I finally went to the orthopedist on Friday and what he said was confusing. I have a completely ruptured Achilles tendon. Normally, the response to this is surgery. I have a lot of complicating factors. I have the severe wound on the bottom of my heel and the sides of the heel. This is going to take a long time to heel. Right now I am walking on it which is making it harder to heal. Also, I am diabetic which makes EVERYTHING harder to heal. He feels there would be a lot of complications with surgery and fears recurring foot wounds. So instead of surgery, at least for now, I am going to be fitted for a “crow boot.” I know nothing about it but know that they have to make a mold from my foot and I will have to wear it for a long time, possibly forever, though I hope that is not the case.

This whole issue has been frustrating and worrying. My depression had lifted but more recently it seems to have returned, albeit in a less severe fashion. For some time this has become the “normal” way of life. I have to balance physical health problems with mental health problems. It is a lot to manage. The amount of medications I take alone is so difficult to manage. It is hard not to get discouraged. It is hard not to get frustrated. There are a lot of things I want to do in life and my physical and mental health problems are constant barriers to what I want to do.

To top it off, although classes are over, final grading has begun. I have an extra amount of work this year for some reason and it couldn’t come at a worse time. For instance, this week I have FOUR doctor’s appointments. The amount of time I take with doctors, medications, dressing the wounds, etc. is off the wall. I don’t want it to become the center of my life but it feels like it has. There are so many things to do each and every day and it takes away from things I would much rather be doing.

One of those things is this blog. I am disappointed in myself for not keeping up with my daily practice. Part of the reason has been the health problems. It’s not only the time taken by these problems but also the de-motivating impact that they have upon me. It feels harder to do anything when I could take a nap or just veg out. It definitely is not a happy time in my life and I can tell it is going to be a long haul until it gets better. The other important thing to point out is that it hurts! Both the open wounds and the torn tendon itself cause me a lot of pain and can make it harder to concentrate. It hurts worst when I am walking. I try to keep off it but it is hard to do so when you have things to do and when you are a non-driver. Even if I can’t keep up with my entries, I will try to write these “catch-up” entries that explain what’s going on for me right now.