‘The Pearl of Africa’: A story with heart

I’ve just watched “The Pearl of Africa,” a lovely, intimate documentary by Swedish filmmaker Johnny von Wallström about a transgender woman who left Uganda for her safety after being outed in a national newspaper. (A free web series is here.) The backdrop of this is the Anti-Homosexuality Bill signed by President Museveni, which called for severe punishment and even death to gay people. It was later overturned, in part because of the negative international reaction it attracted, but homosexual acts remain illegal and LGBT people are still hugely stigmatized. Meanwhile, activists have rallied and there is, at least, a supportive community.

But this isn’t a film about activism. It’s a love story about Cleopatra Kambugu and her boyfriend, Nelson. Cleo and Nellie’s chemistry will stir your soul and melt your heart. They were in their 20s when this was filmed. The scenes of them tending to each other, flirting, and idly chatting are so tender and romantic – they captivated me. Nellie accompanies Cleo to Thailand to have gender reassignment surgery, and they’re now living in Kenya. Seeing them together will make you happy. That’s a crucial way to build allies.

And, yet… I’ve read interviews with the filmmaker (my favorite is here) and he notes various criticisms and why he wanted to focus on Cleo and Nellie’s relationship. I understand that and it’s his choice.

But I’m sorry he didn’t include two important questions.

Q1: How did Cleo afford the surgery? For that matter, the couple doesn’t seem to have an income, which I wondered about throughout the film.

Q2: How did they end up together? In my experience and from everything I’ve read, most (not all!) transwomen identify as lesbians and those who don’t often have a difficult time finding men to be with. Nothing right or wrong with that, just is.

So to me, an above-average-invested viewer, those omissions were glaring. But beyond that, for the regular viewer, I think the background would have informed and illuminated. Here are the answers.

A1: Cleo’s surgery was financed via crowd-funding initiated by the director. I think this should have been disclosed, both for ethical reasons and because individuals’ donating is evidence that Cleo had supporters.

A2: Nellie is attracted to transgender women. In this awesome and open interview with Cleo, she says Nellie struggled with that, wondering what it was all about. With this knowledge, viewers would have seen a deeper version of Nellie and learned a bit along the way.

As a journalist, I definitely lean toward disclosure. As a writer, I know that when creating work, it’s as much about what you leave out as what you include. Those personal decisions create the body of work.

Overall, this is a beautiful film. Viewers will want to sign up as members of the Cleo and Nellie fan club early on. I hope the light continues to shine on them and that one day Uganda will embrace all their humans and Cleo and Nellie can return home. (If you want to learn more about the situation in Uganda, visit Sexual Minorities Uganda, a rights group there.)

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‘From This Day Forward’ moves families forward

Selina and I recently watched “From This Day Forward,” a lovely documentary by Sharon Shattuck about growing up in a small town in northern Michigan and having her father come out to the family as a transgender woman named Trisha when Sharon and her sister were young.

The film, inspired by Sharon’s wedding, delved into the family’s past and present and included the drama of what Trisha would wear to Sharon’s wedding.

One of the things I loved about Trisha is that she’s not girly. Almost every transwoman in the media and many in real life are ultra-feminine. So it’s refreshing to see a transwoman being a tomboy, or just not super feminine dressing.

Her wife Marcia initially planned to divorce Trisha, but then said she couldn’t leave. While this was nice in many ways – her love for Trisha stayed strong – it also made me sad because it seemed in the film that neither one was living the life they fully wanted to lead. I say this because Trisha ended up not wearing a dress to Sharon’s wedding, while earlier she had said it was the one thing she wanted. She did, however, say the wedding was the happiest day of her life, but still, I was fixated on her not feeling able to wear a dress. But, seriously, who am I to judge?

For Sharon’s part, I wish she could have embraced Trisha fully, but I totally understand and empathize with why that’s difficult. Her reactions are so realistic. Yes, she’s an intelligent, liberal, independent woman, but it’s still difficult. She misses her father, she cares about what other people think, she feels a little bit weird. (I also really enjoyed reading this Q&A with Sharon, which delves into a little more of her thinking.)

I’ll admit that my initial takeaway after watching this was sadness that Trisha didn’t seem to allow herself or be allowed to fully be Trisha. Selina had the same reaction. But then the more I thought about the love and compassion and empathy that all family members shared, I realized it was my own biases talking, and really this film underscores everything I believe about families in transition (which is why it’s now included in my resources).

When people ask me for guidance, I always say, whatever you choose to do, please stay respectful, loving and open-hearted. And that’s exactly what this family did. They’re wonderful role models and I’m grateful they opened up their lives in such an intimate and vulnerable way.

And here’s a cool postscript. Read this update from 2016, which includes Sharon talking about a screening they did in her hometown. “It was like we spent my entire childhood bottled up, no one acknowledging the elephant in the room, that we were a transgender family, and once people in my hometown knew that it was okay to ask us about it, they couldn’t stop! I just felt an overwhelming sense of support, of love from the community, and that was very encouraging.”

Thanks to Sharon for making this film and to PBS/POV for featuring it on TV. There is tons of info on both Sharon’s site and the POV site on how you can view it.

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Every coming out is a new challenge

I wrote the below “letter to the editor”at the News & Observer, the paper based in Raleigh, North Carolina, home of the legislature that passed the onerous anti-LGBT law, called HB2.  I just 30 minutes ago read how PayPal has announced plans to not build a 400-person expansion facility in Charlotte, NC. Let’s see what the happens next. I’ll let more politically in-the-know people hash this out. Meanwhile, I’m going to get personal. This letter wasn’t difficult to write. I’ve been in the media many times before. What was difficult was posting a link to it from my personal Facebook page. Every time I do that, it scares me. There are people where we live now who don’t know or rather I don’t know what they know, and so each “coming out” is difficult, no matter what.

The people who love Lina and me, and thank goodness there are enough to make us feel very safe and secure and cared for, think we are just people they love. They forget, for the most part, about any weirdness. But it’s the people  who don’t “know” us that it’s more difficult with. It’s not a huge deal, or I wouldn’t have posted, but it’s still a “deal.”  People who say “I don’t care what anyone thinks of me” are people who I don’t believe are being honest wtih themselves. I say: It’s OK (and normal!!) to care what people think of you, but not healthy if that controls your life. That’s my take, anyway!
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
MARCH 25, 2016
Diane Daniel: Strange bathroom fellows

My wife and I left Durham to live in her homeland, the Netherlands, in 2014. Because she is transgender, having once been my husband, some people assumed we moved because the Dutch are more liberal and that we had been discriminated against in North Carolina. Quite the contrary.

We were accepted, embraced and treated like we had been before the big change. Even after I wrote about her transition in The News & Observer back in 2012, nobody showed us any malice, though my car mechanic did stop flirting with me, which I didn’t mind.

Things sure look different today, with the law Gov. Pat McCrory signed. If I have this straight, no pun intended, my wife, who is a woman and who looks very much like a woman, is supposed to now use a bathroom designated for men because she was born a man? And, for that matter, the transgender men I know, the ones with the deep voices and beards, should now share space with me in the women’s restroom?

Of course, we all know that bathrooms aren’t the real issue, or the only one. But until this is sorted out, can you hand me some toilet paper, Ralph?

DIANE DANIEL, VELDHOVEN, THE NETHERLANDS

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The power of ‘renaming ceremonies’

I enjoyed this article just out in the New York Times on “renaming ceremonies” for trans people – a time to state, “this is my new name and my new presence.” It’s a recognition and a validation. It’s especially meaningful for those who don’t have reason to make a big announcement to work, family, etc. In general, rituals of all kinds can be very important and add depth to events that can otherwise get lost in the shuffle of life. Of course rituals forced on us can also work in the opposite direction, but let’s focus on the positive!

Selina and I made our big announcement in a coming-out later. I’m not sure she would have wanted a renaming ceremony. I do think that if the transitioning person is married, a renaming ceremony could be a difficult event for the spouse. As I’d mentioned several times, there is an agonizing period during a couple’s transition where the “spouse of” is grieving their partner and the person transitioning is celebrating a long-awaited wholeness. Both reactions are normal and valid and the only “solution” I see is empathy and time. So I do hope that those with partners (not the majority, admittedly) will consider all sides.

Other rituals can be planned as well. For instance, Selina and I did talk about perhaps renewing our marriage vows as wife and wife, but clearly it’s not so important to us, because we’ve done nothing about it. While writing this, I realized that Selina’s rebirthday is coming up soon, on Nov. 16. I think I might have forgotten it – and so would she, I’m guessing. She’ll be five! I guess we’re not so big on ritual ourselves!

Posted in Family, Friends, Marriage, Out and about, Transgender | Tagged | 2 Comments

Get your U.S. Trans Survey in today!

I’m proud of Selina today because she took an hour-plus of her time (one hour, 20 minutes!) to complete the U.S. Trans Survey, the largest survey ever devoted to the lives and experiences of trans people. If you are or know anyone eligible, please encourage them to contribute to this very important contribution to trans progress. And, yes, of course it’s anonymous.

The current survey is the follow up to the groundbreaking National Transgender Discrimination Survey, which was conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National LGBTQ Task Force in 2009. That earlier one examined the lives of over 6,400 trans people in the U.S. The results were released in a 2011 report called “Injustice At Every Turn.” As the single-most cited study about trans people, it has changed how the public understands the challenges facing our community.

With all that has changed and all that work that still needs to be done, the 2015 USTS is a much-needed update to this important study. It’s being conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, the nation’s leading social justice advocacy organization for transgender people. Topics include experiences with education, housing, employment, health, and many other issues that affect trans lives and experiences. (Selina calls it “very thorough and definitely useful.”) Going forward, the survey will be conducted every five years. (I don’t think it will ever again have to be called “Injustice at Every Turn.”)

The survey will be available until at least Sept. 21. I assume they’ll close it when they have enough respondents. A great listing of frequently asked questions is on the survey site. So check it out to see who it covers and how, and get going!

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Many views of transition from partners’ perspectives

I’m so happy to have another resource for “partners of,” the new book “Love, Always: Partners of Trans People on Intimacy, Challenge & Resilience,” edited by Jordon Johnson and Becky Garrison, published by Transgress Press. (My Boston Globe piece was reprinted here, with an epilogue from 2014.)

Not surprisingly, love is at the core. But what really struck me, and what I find interesting about my own story, is how many people who feel some gender/sexual preference fluidity, whether they realized it or not, ended up with like-feeling people. How the heck do we find each other?  One couple even married as woman and man and ended up as man and woman. Several straight-identified ciswomen (women born that way) fell in love with women, who became transmen. It’s uncanny what we sense.

But … not all of us. Which is why, while I will certainly recommend this book to others, I think it might freak out the typical women who write to me because perhaps they won’t see much of a reflection of themselves in this book. Also, it’s heavy on the F-to-M side, which is fine but raises different issues (and similar ones too, of course). My blog and articles attract straight women between 30 and 60 who had no idea their husband wanted to be a woman or knew only a bit about it and then, BAM.

They look to me and other women who have stayed with transitioned partners and want to know, “how, how did you do it?” And, more importantly, “can I do it too”? They have never thought of gender as non-binary. Frankly, that notion challenges me even though I know it to be true, have my own fluidity about preference, and fully support the notion/science/feeling. But it makes me squirm in my seat a little.

Anyway, here’s what I always say to these women, and in fact here’s part of an email exchange I sent just today with someone I’d corresponded with earlier:

From the “wife of”:

When I first found out and started to research all I could find was that the marriage did not survive ultimately. That is my fear. But then I came across your article and it made me feel like there is a chance that if your marriage survived mine could too. If you don’t mind me asking how did your marriage survive?”

My answer:

Hi Jane,

Look at the articles in my website and you’ll see my feelings of how my marriage survived. Also look at the resources — they’ll lead you to many stories and resources. Some marriages survive and most don’t. It’s really what works right for YOU. And it’s also a process. Your feelings will change over time, sometimes a few times a day! It’s such a personal decision based on different variables that that is the best answer I can give! I hope it helps.

Back to what my readers can get from “Love, Always”: I’d send them to Leslie Fabian’s essay, which includes a great tips sheet that focuses on maturity, empathy, being vulnerable and taking care of one’s self. That is so critical. Which is why I tell every “wife of” that she is as important as the transitioning person, even more important because it’s HER life.

Most essays in the book are either uplifting or exploratory and all very real. One, from my perspective, made me sad. One “wife of” had this to say about her marriage to “Dez,” who was starting to move from cross-dressing to transitioning when she basically asked him to stop: “The only thing I can say is that I have set boundaries and Dez has complied and appears to be very happy.”  It would not be my advice. Then again, I’m being judgmental and what I LOVE about this book is pretty much every experience is laid bare, and who the heck am I to judge any of them? Yuck. Ugh. Stop it, Diane.

Buy the book, read the book, and be reminded that we partners have needs as crucial as those transitioning, and that we humans are not only a rainbow of tastes, we are a box of 64, plus. In the end, we still have more in common as human beings than anything else. Let us do our best to keep our minds and hearts open!

Posted in Books, Coping, Family, Marriage, Out and about, Physical appearance, Public reaction, Romance, Surgery, Therapy, Writing | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Thank you, Bruce Jenner, Diane Sawyer and ABC

So far I haven’t been able to access the Bruce Jenner interview here in the Netherlands, but of course I’ve read much about it. There’s a nice little recap on ABC and a really great overview by Gabriel Arana at the Huffington Post. Everyone is saying it’s the most respectful interview conducted with a transgender person. Not only does it serve to educate, but it has elicited much support and love.

Still …. we have a long, long way to go until transgender people are freer to be themselves. What about those who are not famous, who don’t have money for the beautifying treatments Jenner has had, etc. etc. I’m not complaining, just reminding. This is progress, big progress, but we’re nowhere near done.

I should add that, as usual, when these issues surface, I’m contacted about an interview for a segment about “wives of.” This time it was the CBS show “The Insider,” which emailed me the other day. Living in Europe is my easy out, but I also have a big fear of such an interview turning sensational. (I’m used to controlling my own message!) That said, I would consider it, because of the good it can do. So thanks to Bruce and Diane for keeping the message about empathy, education, and love!

 

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