Searching for Identity: Finding Words

First published in the Winter issue of Resource Center for
Women and Ministry in the South‘s South of the Garden.
December 2021

The right wing blames leftist indoctrination for an apparent exponential increase in the number of people who identify as transgender in recent years. The left prefers to attribute acceptance and reduced stigma.

Flag from the Winter 2021 issue of South of the GardenWhile the latter offers some truth, additional factors influence how people identify along the gender spectrum, including words.

Words have always been my stock in trade. But, I never found any for my own identity until very recently. I doubt if I’m unique in that for those my age (and even younger).

I was never interested exclusively in girl things or boy things. I didn’t enjoy watching team sports or excel in any solo athletic endeavors that appealed to me. So, I read a lot, wrote fiction and poetry, and put in many, many hours in the high school theater program. Those activities offer the opportunity to live inside other worlds/times and the heads of different people.

The summer before my freshman year of high school I’d moved with my family from Virginia to Texas, the sixth and final move I’d make with my parents. Although moving every few years I became somewhat of a chameleon, I never really fit in anywhere, especially in the Deep South. I attended high school in what was then a small Texas town where principals patrolled the hallways with rulers to enforce gender conformity by measuring the length of girls’ skirts and boys’ hair.

By the time I made it to college, I was so sick of what passed for education in the United States I only wanted out of the system. I took a ridiculous course load that allowed no time for extra-curricular activities and escaped with a sheepskin after less than three years. If there were resources then on the University of Washington campus for people who were not cis and/or didn’t fit within the gender binary, I never knew about them.

I started my writing career as a reporter in eastern Washington and I used initials in my byline to avoid gender bias. When I moved to a newspaper in West Virginia, a woman calling about a piece I’d written, exclaimed that I wrote like a man, intending that as a compliment. At my last newspaper reporting/editing gig in Indiana, I got calls for Mr. Goldhaber and mail addressed to Frank or Fred. Since I wouldn’t tell anyone what the F. stood for (I’d used my middle name since college) folks in the newsroom just started calling me F.I.

In Illinois, where I first went into business for myself, the initials became a good way of separating personal from professional identities. They also proved a useful tool for dodging sales calls. The staff knew that anyone asking for Mr. Goldhaber didn’t get put through. I once got a taste of what the team put up with when I was the only person in the office during a lunch hour. The caller for “Mr. Goldhaber” insisted he knew me personally and would get me fired for not putting him through. I had to mute my end so he didn’t hear me laughing.

When I moved to Oregon a quarter century ago, I discovered I’d landed in the first state that would allow me to put just my initials on my driver’s license. That and my Social Security card allowed me to get a passport with those initials. (At the time, the U.S. government did not issue passports with any initials at all–full names or nothing.) I stopped telling people what the letters stood for.

My first exposure to the concept of transgender identity was discovering Christine Jorgensen‘s biography in one of my parents’ large, crowded bookshelves. But, her story never resonated. I wasn’t AMAB and I’d no desire to embrace femininity. I never felt a need to transition. I just had no definition for myself.

Once I stopped working for other people at the beginning of this century, I ceased wearing skirts and dresses most of the time. I donated the bulk of my working wardrobe to Dress for Success in the early aughts and only donned skirted apparel for weddings, funerals, and author reading/appearances.

With clothing manufacturers moving production offshore, I avoided giving them money by buying exclusively at thrift stores. I shopped for convenience (pockets!), comfort, and durability. Clothing made for male bodies ranked better in all three. Soon the only clothing I owned that was specifically female were items needed to support my tits. In 2019, for the very first time, I attended a formal wedding wearing slacks which I topped with a silky shirt and a brocade vest, all purchased in the men’s section of the thrift store. It was liberating.

But, my body shape and voice–which fluctuates with weather, pollen count, and mood–register as female. So, most people read me as female. I did not believe I “qualified” as transgender.

I have friends who have medically transitioned from FtM and MtF. While I understand, applaud, and support their decisions, I’ve no desire to modify my body or even to take hormones.

But, having adopted they/them pronouns, as awareness has grown and corporations recognize the need, when people assume I’m female I use that as an opportunity to educate them on why they shouldn’t do so. As I explained to one customer phone service representative, you could have just ruined somebody’s day by misgendering them the way you misgendered me.

Recently, several external influences helped me finally, in my early sixties, choose words to describe my identity.

In 2017, the state of Oregon became the first in the U.S. to offer a third-gender option on identity documents. I changed my drivers’ license gender to X the next time it came up for renewal, two years later.

Meanwhile over the past two years, the number of trans and non-binary individuals in my social media feeds grew because of their strong presence in racial justice protests. Many of them are very young and secure in their identities and for the first time I saw various memes that say “Non-binary people do not owe you androgyny”. I wouldn’t call that life changing, but it did give me words to embrace who I am, how my brain works, and how I maneuver through society, separately from how my body looks and my voice sounds.

So finally now, after more than six decades on the planet, I have words for my identity: gender non-conforming and xgender. There is a peace in finding that piece of myself I didn’t really know was missing.

Of course, children born in this century arrived in the world with terms such as genderqueer, gender fluid, non-binary, etc. already available to them. As they establish their individuality, and discover their own identity/personhood, they have words to describe how they fit along the gender spectrum. So too do young adults who grew up in repressive environments and who, even if they are not allowed to express their identity at home, have those words available for them to use once they move out on their own.

Those words convince the right wing that they’ve been indoctrinated. But, in reality, they are words that allow them to embrace their own identities with pride.

National Day of Mourning

First published on The Big Smoke.
November 24, 2021

This week in the U.S., those who can afford it are traveling, shopping, and cooking in preparation for a manufactured holiday that (in reality) celebrates the damage done to the lives and society of the Wampanoag Tribes after the English arrived in Plymouth. Incorporating recipes developed during the U.S. occupation of Mexico City, it was proclaimed into existence by a president who only “freed” the slaves to “save the union” not, as many believe, because he was an abolitionist.

Those who don’t have the resources will, if they have homes and kitchens, line up for boxes of food they can cook. If they’re houseless they might queue up at whatever charities are handing out paper plates filled with slices of turkey, or a vegetarian equivalent, stuffing/dressing, potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie for which they’ll be expected to pray to a god they may not believe in or show their gratitude in some other demeaning way.

Painting of Trail of Tears for the Creek People showing Indigenous people on foot, horseback, and in wagons being forced to travel thousands of miles from their homeBut, for many Indigenous peoples and their allies in the U.S., Thursday is the National Day of Mourning, a reminder of genocide, theft of Native lands, and erasure of Native cultures–a protest against the racism and oppression that Indigenous people continue to experience.

The United States was built on the backs of enslaved Africans and the blood of Indigenous peoples. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights all were written to impose and maintain white supremacy. Congress was designed to favor states allowing slavery. The Electoral College exists to give slave-owning southern and rural red states a greater voice in electing the president. And the police forces throughout the country were developed from slave patrols to protect the property of white men.

Every acre of land occupied by settlers was stolen from those who lived here for millennia before Europeans arrived. Colonialists perpetrated the World’s Longest Holocaust, the slaughter of more than 100 million Native people. Intentional and unintentional methods of murder included blankets deliberately tainted with small pox; bounties paid on scalps sliced from the heads of Native men, women, and children; wars and massacres; thousands-miles-long forced relocations during which thousands died from disease, starvation, and hypothermia; and exposure to yellow fever, measles, typhoid, and influenza. Many of those who survived were enslaved, raped, imprisoned on often desolate reservations, and/or had their children stolen.

This genocide, theft, and erasure continue to this day.

  • Thousands of Native women and girls are reported missing or murdered each year.
  • Four out of every five Indigenous people experience violence in their lifetimes.
  • The Navajo Nation suffered more COVID-19 deaths per capita than any U.S. state.
  • Chemawa Indian School just east of Keizer, Oregon, one of the last four off-reservation boarding schools run by the federal government, is still killing Indigenous students.
  • Artificial “national borders” separated families and cut off trade routes in existence since long before Europeans invaded. “Prehispanic inhabitants of North America lived in a world that stretched from Canada to Panama,” anthropologist Mikael Fauvelle notes. “Goods traded included food (fish, pine nuts, meat), tobacco, beads, shell products, furs, basketry, minerals (obsidian), and textiles, as well as feathers and birds.” Lee Edward Littler, Public Educator at Elden Pueblo Public Educational Project, writes: “Exotic items clearly imported from Central America have been repeatedly uncovered in the archaeological records within the traditional territory of the northerners collectively known aptly as the ‘Pueblo’, or town peoples.” Yet Indigenous peoples attempting to cross the U.S. southern border–fleeing violence, natural disaster, economic destitution, and/or a pandemic–are routinely assaulted, arrested, raped, sterilized without consent, imprisoned in inhumane conditions, and have their children torn from their arms, caged and, because no one is keeping accurate records, handed over to white people for fostering and adoption while they’re “deported” south.
  • The U.S. government continues to violate Native treaty rights by allowing multi-national companies to build pipelines and mines through and on Native lands and burial grounds, destroying sacred sites and endangering access to clean water while police, military, and private security forces arrest, assault, injure, and kill those trying to protect their land and water.

While the Indigenous Americans lost their lives and their territory to the rapacious plundering of Europeans, Africans were ripped from their homes and those who survived the horrendous conditions during the months-long Atlantic crossing were tortured, raped, and forced to labor under wretched circumstances to mine coal, plant and harvest crops, and build plantations, railroads, wealth for white people, and even the White House.

Many white people in the U.S. would like to believe, and teach their children, that slavery ended in 1865 with passage of the Thirteenth Amendment. But that amendment is carefully worded to allow the continuation of slavery.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. [emphasis added]

That same year saw the enactment of Black Codes which replaced the Slave Codes and became the basis for the criminal legal system in the U.S. These “laws” trapped Black people in slavery-in-all-but-name conditions. Their former “owners” conspired to keep wages artificially and punitively low while the Codes made not having a job a crime. Punishment for such “crimes,” many of which only applied to Black people, was a fine. The inability to pay those fines meant the county court hired out the “criminals” until they worked off their balances. So both the vast disparity in how Black and white “offenders” are treated by the U.S. criminal legal system and the criminalization of poverty began during Reconstruction.

In the week preceding the 2021 National Day of Mourning, we witnessed even more very specific examples to pile on top of myriad others of the inequity on which this country was built and that the “Thanksgiving” celebration perpetuates.

Rittenhouse caricature by DonkeyHoteyThe most blatant example is the acquittal on all charges of the white supremacist teenager who was driven across state lines by his mother to play vigilante and who murdered two BLM supporters–36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber–while allegedly protecting a car dealership. The same right-wing talking heads who called Adam Toledo a 13-year-old man referred to then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, armed with an AK-47 a little boy. His acquittal came after:

  • All but one person of color was eliminated from his jury.
  • Judge Bruce Schroeder, whose cell phone interrupted proceedings playing the theme song from Trump rallies, ruled against almost every prosecutorial motion and in favor of every motion the defense made, including that the murdered men could not be described by prosecutors as victims but that they could be called rioters, looters or arsonists by the defense; called for a round of applause on both Veterans’ Day and the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps for a defense witness, the only self-identified veteran in the courtroom; refused to let the jury see videos of Rittenhouse hitting a girl who was arguing with his sister in June 2020 and stating he wished he had his rifle so he could shoot people he believed were looters from August 2020 as well as still photos of him posing with members of the Proud Boys in a bar, and flashing a white supremacist hand signal, after he was released on bail; and believed the defense claim that increasing the size of a video image manipulated the footage using artificial intelligence.
  • Rittenhouse made a show of sobbing, dry eyed on the witness stand, side eyeing the jury (at 30 seconds) to make sure they appreciated his performance.

Of course the jury’s decision wasn’t surprising to anyone familiar with the white supremacist realities of the U.S. criminal legal system. A 2013 study of U.S. homicides by the Urban Institute found that killings involving “a white perpetrator and a black victim are 281 percent more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a white perpetrator and white victim.” And, although Rittenhouse’s victims were not Black, they were protesting in support of Black lives. “While this trial was not about white men shooting targeting Black people, it was about a radicalized white youth taking arms against those willing to stand in support & defense of Black lives,” said Mac Smiff, owner and editor of We Out Here and chair of Black Liberation & Racial Justice Committee of the NAACP Portland branch among other projects. “The case reminds that defending Black people’s rights is punishable by white violence.”

“The victims were white.” Kendra Pierre-Louis posted on Twitter. “The message is if you align with Black people, however nominally, your whiteness will not protect you. The consequence of that verdict seems designed to erode solidarity.”

As Michael Harriot, journalist, historian, and author of Black AF History: the Un-Whitewashed Story of America, notes: in “the entire criminal justice system…Only white people’s perceptions are made into a reality that everyone else must abide by.”

After the verdict was announced, President Joe Biden, architect of civil asset forfeiture and sponsor/co-author of the 1994 crime bill that resulted in the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Black Americans, told reporters “I stand by what the jury has to say. The jury system works.”

Rittenhouse’s acquittal has further empowered far-right domestic terrorists. They are celebrating and making plans, under the hashtag #WhiteBoyWinter, to hunt Black, Latiné, and Indigenous people as well as Jews and Muslims. They do so with the expectation that, like Rittenhouse, they will be hailed as heroes for such slaughter.

The day after the verdict, Harriot posted one of his famous threads contextualizing history: “A brief history of white vigilantes at Black protests” because of “speculation about what could happen if people like Kyle Rittenhouse are allowed to get away with murder. But, as usual, it’s never ‘if’ but ‘when,'” he wrote.

On the day that Rittenhouse was acquitted, Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt tweeted in response to the verdict: “The work to reform our criminal justice system is evident, it is urgent and I am here for it” for which he was thoroughly ratioed by people pointing out he is “part of the problem“. He did so while his staff was demanding Multnomah County Judge Melvin Oden-Orr send Alexander Dial to prison for preventing a Nazi from injuring participants at a 2019 Portland anti-fascist counter-protest with a hammer. Dial was charged with assault, riot, unlawful use of a weapon, and criminal mischief, despite video proving he prevented an American Guard white nationalist from hitting protesters with the hammer and the fact that “the prosecution was unable to identify anyone as a victim.”

Dial, who acted to defend members of his own community from out-of-state white supremacist invaders, spent more than three months in jail, was required to wear an ankle monitor for more than two years, and incurred tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay bail and pretrial fees. In addition, he was prohibited from attending protests, drinking alcohol, and leaving his house after dark.

As often happens across the U.S., Dial was coerced into pleading “no contest” to a misdemeanor riot charge and two felony assault charges by Schmidt’s predecessor who threatened Dial with Measure 11 crimes and the mandatory minimum sentencing that could have put him in prison for almost six years. Schmidt, who ran on the promise to “make the system fair” including getting rid of cash bail, ignored numerous and repeated pleas from the community and did nothing to mitigate Dial’s ordeal.

Despite acting in self-defense and the absence of any victim, Dial was sentenced to 80 hours of community service, in lieu of a $1,000 fine, and almost three years of probation. Although the terms of the probation only prevent Dial from attending “unlawful assemblies,” in reality he still is essentially prohibited from exercising his First Amendment rights. Portland Police regularly and capriciously declare peaceful protests “unlawful assemblies” and are likely to do so if that would give them an opportunity to arrest Dial for probation violation in support of their white supremacist friends and neighbors from outside Portland who are angered by Dial’s release.

This is just one instance of the vast and outrageous disparity in the U.S. criminal legal system.

  • Two days before the Rittenhouse verdict, an Indigenous woman was sentenced to six and a half years in federal prison for killing her rapist when he came after her the next day. She is just the most recent example. As Brie Loskota tweeted upon learning of the verdict: “Women rotting in prison who killed their abusers in self-defense would like a word”. The “only correct battered woman when talking about self-defense is a dead one,” according to Sue Osthoff, co-founder of the National Clearinghouse for the Defense of Battered Women. “By engaging in violence in order to live, a woman cannot be a victim. Her survival itself becomes reason to condemn her.” Women’s prisons are filled with those who killed in self defense, “at least 30 percent of those serving time on murder or manslaughter charges were protecting themselves or a loved one from physical or sexual violence.”
  • Throughout 2020, thousands of protesters (AP put the tally at 10,000 at the beginning of June and protests/arrests continued through the Fall) were arrested for marching in the streets. They carried no weapons. They murdered no one. Thousands were beaten, shot with impact munitions, drenched in chemical weapons, and arrested on unsubstantiated charges such as interfering with a peace officer, disorderly conduct, and resisting arrest. Of those arrested, the vast majority were released but only after they were exposed to COVID-19 by law enforcement officers who refused to wear masks and often ripped the ones worn by the protestors off their faces. But, many of the protesters were forced to pay out money for cash bail and/or spend time in fetid, filthy jail cells where some, including at least one minor, were sexually assaulted.
  • On August 29, 2020, 48-year-old Michael Forest Reinoehl believed he and a friend, a “person of color”, were about to be stabbed by Aaron “Jay” Danielson, a member of the right-wing Patriot Prayer group and a participant in a violent rally in downtown Portland. In self defense, Reinoehl shot and killed Danielson. Reinoehl never had the opportunity to explain how he feared for his life to a jury. He was executed by law enforcement from several jurisdictions less than a week later. And although those cops couldn’t get their stories straight, they still were absolved of all responsibility for Reinoehl’s death.

“White violence is not just slavery, it’s also abolishing slavery without administering justice and then creating a police force to ensure we don’t come looking for it.” Smiff tweeted last week. “White violence is not just genociding the indiginous, it’s celebrating it with an Autumn harvest holiday.”