What Black Women Taught Me About Self Determination Skills

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My lesson in Black women’s self determination skills began during high school. You know, the place where it’s hard to feel a sense of belonging? Being a kid who was different, way different, I congregated with others who felt like outsiders. Some were going through normal adolescent rebellion against problems at home or in school. Others had emotional and psychological difficulties that would  cascade into serious mental health disorders later in their lives.

Then, there was Tee.

Tee was one of very few African-American students at our high school on the northeast side of San Antonio in the 1980s. When we met in Mr. Merrick’s Biology class, we hit off, discovering a shared love of music and movies, including the fact that we were probably the  only kids at MacArthur High who’d seen Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon” twice. She was warm and genuine, and way too together to abuse alcohol or drugs.

I didn’t think about it much at the time, but wonder now how it might have been for her to go to an almost all-white school in south Texas during the 1980s. I imagine her mother telling her something like, “remember that no matter what anyone says to you, you are as smart and capable as they are. Don’t let their ignorance bring you down.”

This is the thing that I’ve since known African-American mothers to teach their children particularly well. They all know that the day will come when someone tries to degrade their child for having brown skin, either directly through a hate-based slur, or indirectly, by questioning their capability. 

The wisest among them also know that one’s dignity and worth comes from within, nurtured by a deep and abiding faith in something greater. That faith is Honey in the Rock*, an unshakable and abiding sense of sweet, pure self-truth that can’t be broken by white supremacy or any other force that’s made by man.

It is that Honey in the Rock that defines what I recognize to be the self-determination of Black women. And though I was raised as a white male by parents who didn’t know to prepare me for being a kid who was different, I knew that I too needed to find my own self determination skills.

Kinships and friendships happen in ways that nobody can explain. They’re just there.

So it was when I started my first full-time job. I listened up when Stephanie and LaFonda asked how it was that only white women from Africa ever won Miss Universe (Miss Namibia won that year), and why the only Black woman who ever appeared in Vogue magazine (Naomi) wore extensions to resemble a white woman’s beauty ideal of long hair. 

And I came to wonder the same thing.

So it was when I transferred to Dallas. I observed it when an Olive Garden waitress became brusque and rude, providing an entirely different level of service when my friend Angela returned to the table from the restroom. The waitress had been very pleasant to me when I was alone, probably assuming that my dining companion was white. 

And I came to understand that white people really did treat Black women differently.

So it was, as I read the works of Zora Neal Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Assata Shakur, Patricia Hill-Collins, Barbara Smith, Safiya Bukhari, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

And I realized that the very strategies these women used for resisting the assaults to their hearts and minds could be my own. I came to know my own Honey in the Rock.

For the very ability to carry one’s head high and maintain a deep and abiding faith in something bigger, higher, greater requires a beginning in which we are able to name and become clear about the nature of injustice in our lives. The systems of white supremacy and transphobia that exist to diminish our strength and possibilities, while sociohistorically and culturally very different, rely on the same tools. 

Shame. Humiliation. Attempting to degrade our worth and lessen our humanity by casting us in the role as less than. Different. Other. These are the tools that are used against us. 

When we begin to understand these tools, they can no longer harm us. We come to know our strength, and we turn to our sisters in struggle to remind them of theirs. And much like the guidance that I imagined was given to Tee by her mother, we tell each other, “remember that no matter what anyone says to you, you are as smart and capable as they are. Don’t let their ignorance bring you down.”

*”Honey in the Rock” was a term I initially encountered in Alice Walker’s work. It’s a widely-used reference with at least one spiritual hymn named after it. There’s also a wonderful African-American a cappella group called Sweet Honey in the Rock  who uses song to convey both historical and present-day human rights struggles. Check them out at http://sweethoneyintherock.org/about/

The Six Things I Love Most About Being Transgender

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One of the most revolutionary things I’ve come to realize about being transgender is that, try as I might, there’s never a day when I don’t think about it. I really do love being transgender, though. When I was younger, I really expected that someday I wouldn’t feel different from other women. I would just go about my business of being a heterosexual woman, not thinking about gender. Just, sort of…doing what straight women do.

A simple desire, you see.

Psychiatrists used to tell transsexual women to think that way when we we went to see them for our psych evals (in order to have sexual reassignment surgery, transsexuals are required to have two different evaluations of the diagnosis that today is called gender dysphoria). In the olden days, the psychiatrists directed us to begin thinking of ourselves as women, not as transsexuals. This way, we would have smooth and easy lives following our surgeries. This made a great deal of sense to me at 22.

If only such direction had been useful or appropriate.

Aside from fueling an artificial us-and-them barrier between pre- and post-operative transwomen, which exists on top of all of the other intragroup feuding that fracture the greater queer community, psychiatric opinion of who I needed to be gave me nothing to either validate my personhood or prepare me to exist within it over the remainder of my life . In many respects, I was being prepared for a life that I would never have.

In fact, as much as the dominant psychiatric discourse wanted us to think of ourselves as women, society has often unkindly reminded us of the ways that we are not. At some point in the last 10 years or so, I finally realized and accepted this fact. Now looking back over my childhood, I’m really glad I wasn’t raised as a girl. There would have been things that were great about it, particularly if I could have been a member of my high school dance team (such a Texas thing). Still, for all the glory that being a Brahmadora would have given me in high school, I wouldn’t be who I am today.

And I like me. I really do!

I like that I don’t need need to hide myself, try to raise the pitch of my voice, or pretend that I didn’t experience life as a boy, a gay teen, a drag queen (like for 2 weekends, but still), and a transsexual woman. As painful as many moments from these times were (see my blog from August 6), why would I pretend that something so fundamental in shaping my worldview didn’t exist?

Psychiatrists believed at one time that we needed to create a story about our pasts that we’d tell people to explain ourselves. Many transwomen still do this. They need to keep their jobs, their relationships, their homes, or whatever else they have riding on a born-as-female storyline. Such is what happens when things like poverty and isolation are on the other side of the door. People pass if they can so that they may put food on the table and sustain their existence. Socioeconomic necessity being what it is, I never begrudge a person passing in order to attempt a better life.

But for those of us who neither pass as natal women nor particularly want to, I offer this.

Do you, my sister.

Be who you are. Live in the freedom of finding and expressing your gender, whether you’re an earthy and natural gal, a painted up lady in stilettos and flashy clothes, or someone whose style is in somewhere in-between. Have gratitude that your struggle is a truthtelling to your spirit. Honor what it’s taken to bring you to today, and make this moment count. Have gratitude.

There are so many wonderful things about being trans that I’ve discovered. Here are a few that come to mind:

  1. I live in truth. I can make big decisions fairly easily because I’ve been making big decisions for my entire adult life.
  2. Having come to love and accept myself, it’s easy to give this to others. I have a lot of friends.
  3. I have true joy in my heart because in knowing myself so well, I know how to create happiness.
  4. I don’t take myself too seriously, and as a result,
  5. I laugh a lot.
  6. I can make strangers smile because I understand that at the end of the day, we are all Other. The person who at first seems so different is probably more like me than either of us is initially aware.

Did I miss any? I hope so! Let me know, and in the meantime…

Do you!

Suicide Survival Strategies for Loved Ones Left Behind

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In honor of Robin Williams, and my Own Father, Jimmy Reicherzer

Losing a person who touches our life even remotely is difficult.In this week’s blog, I’ll discuss suicide survival strategies for loved ones who are left behind.

Robin Williams entertained us on the big screen and in our homes, and while relatively few of the millions of people who adored his work knew him personally, we all share in the loss. Virtually inconceivable for most of us, suicide is a horrifying loss that deepens the closer that we are to the person. Even those of us closest to the suicide though are capable of healing, mending, and knowing peace. To do this, though, we must pass through the hellfire of self-blame.

In the beginning, everyone remotely connected to the deceased wishes they’d said something, done something, or carried out any of a variety of actions. We all take responsibility, asking ourselves what might have been different if we’d only ______ed.

When the person in question is an able-minded adult, people around us will try to offer comfort by saying, “there’s nothing you could have done.” We don’t believe it, though; because of there’s an small, scornful inner voice which tells us “You should have done whatever you could have.”

You’re right, there is everything you could have done!

After all, you had complete and utter control to change the deceased’s thoughts and actions, right? Of course you did, just as you do with everyone and everything around you! People don’t generally makes a life decision without consulting you, first; and they always, always follow your advice to the letter after doing so.

When you tell a person, “Don’t feel sad.” they snap out of it instantly, refreshed with the helpful reminder that indeed they should not be feeling this way. You just weren’t there to constantly follow the other person around, picking up the pieces of life, making the hard decisions, and never allowing her or him to feel rejection, anger, or any other uncomfortable emotion.  After all, every destructive habit ended the instant you learned about it and were there to put a stop to it, didn’t it?

As powerful as you are over other people, you have tremendous control over the complex brain chemistry that’s associated with depression and other mood disorders, too. If the person happened to have trauma memories from before you came along, you in your amazing power could wipe those away. Merely discussing it with you meant that a terrible past, perhaps including abuse and unspeakable violence, is now a clean slate. Even the pain of divorce, job loss, bankruptcy, and other life challenges are gone just with a sly smile and snap of your fingers.

Such a powerful being you are to have so much ability to save people from their own pain!

Once you realize how absurd it sounds to think that you have any direct influence over another adult, you begin to see that no matter how loving you are, how much you give to a relationship, or anything else you did or didn’t do; you really don’t have much power over anyone but yourself.

Ultimately, each of us chooses what we do with the life we have and when and how we seek the help we need. Seeking a trusted friend, a therapist who specializes in our type of life problems, or a support group with people who share our common trait are all choices. The decision to take care of one’s life, not put oneself in risk, or follow a self-care plan when the signs of depression creep up are also choices.

Nobody ever consciously chose depression, or to be placed in traumatic situations. They didn’t choose to be dumped in a relationship, turned down for jobs, or lose all their money. They didn’t choose to become addicted to drugs that started off as recreational.

They did, however, choose their response. Death is one more choice. It’s one I very much wish that no one would make who is otherwise healthy and has more life to live. Yet, they do. My dad did. Robin Williams did, too. As hard it is for me to accept, it was their choice to make.

Try as you and I might, there’s nothing we can do to save people from the responsibility of their choices. That’s even true of the bad ones.

 

The First Time I Knew I Was Other

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The first time I knew I was Other, I was in second grade. I had never heard the word “fag.” I didn’t know what this meant, and at the age of 8, wasn’t aware enough about my own sexuality or gender identity to understand what exactly about me was being called out. In this case, it was other kids at my school telling me that I was feminine by their standards and therefore different from other boys. They decided to cast me as outsider, even though I had only known the skin I was in and didn’t feel especially weird or different. I was just me.

They knew something else, too. They knew the power of words, and fag was the worst thing they could think to call me as punishment for being different. Message received. That was the first time I knew I was Other.

Since that time, I’ve learned from many people about what it’s meant for them to be Other. Childhood stories abound of being tormented because of skin color, accent, a family’s religion or culture, or whether one’s parents struggled financially. For some, Otherness was about a physical quality: a birthmark, scar, or eyes that don’t align. Body size is a huge source of childhood shaming, made worse by the pain of humiliation that still cuts like a knife years later. 

Some of us who experienced Otherness as children did so for relatively short periods and were able to bounce back quickly and integrate it as part of childhood learning.

For others of us, the experience Otherness had a snowball effect that was fed over the years by subsequent experiences of feeling cast out. We became so accustomed to rejection that we came to anticipate it, even seeing it when it wasn’t actually occurring. We adapted our lives to avoiding rejection, knowing well the empty feelings of social pain and isolation, and intentionally withdrawing from situations that could cause them. We avoided risks, missed opportunities, and sometimes even sabotaged ourselves and our relationships out of an effort to avoid pain. 

We may still believe at our core that we truly are less deserving and treat ourselves accordingly. 

As painful as our histories are and as alive as they may be in the present, our Otherness can also be a source of knowing. When we willingly look into the depths of experience and map our stories of who we are and how we came to be, we uncover many things of great value.  Of particular significance for our relationships, we begin to understand humanity at a fundamentally different level. Having examined our own story of Otherness, we become keenly aware of how this looks and feels when we hear it in another person’s story.

When we learn to listen to a person’s story and see their pain of feeling left out as not so different from our own, we can begin dismantling the walls that separate. This is essential for healthy human relationships, and I’ve learned that it’s fundamental to my work as a professional counselor. In my world, no matter how much a person’s story differs from my own, I can witness the humanity in the person’s struggle to be loved, to be accepted, to matter to someone else in a relationship. 

Necessarily, the counseling relationship is one in which each client knows that she or he matters a great deal. 

Empathy is the cornerstone of helping relationships. By being clear on my story and what it’s taken to get me here, I can witness the story of isolation that comes from a person’s experience as Other. More importantly though, I can recognize resiliency that comes from a spirit which refuses to be broken in spite of overwhelming odds.