Monday, February 20, 2012

Prejudice, feminism, equality

This past weekend, I ended up doing an exercise my therapist had recommended because I was having a panic attack over a final paper I had to write for one of my classes. I'm smart, and I knew the material, and I had a high grade in the class; however, I was completely freaked out feeling inadequate to the task, as though anything at all I did would cause me to fail. I've experienced this panicky paralysis before, many times, and my therapist suggested that this time, I sit with it and ask what was making me feel that way.

I shouldn't feel inadequate, but I do. It comes from a long history of being treated with prejudice and with ugly assumptions based on stereotypes that were quite hurtful. It started with my mother, who could not allow me to enjoy feeling good about anything I did academically because to her it wasn't sufficiently feminine. Of course, her ideas of what was feminine were sunk in the Deep South of the early 20th century, not the 1970s, but I was the target of comments like, "Why can't you study something more feminine?" and "Enough about your master's degree. When are you going to settle down and get your Mrs. degree?" Since I was focused on physics and mathematics as my main subjects, that simply wasn't going to work. And since I'm very intelligent and hadn't really met a man who could keep up with me at that point, the Mrs. degree wasn't even on the radar.

Add to that a profound sense of gender dysphoria—I never really felt that I was male, but I couldn't stand being female. Everything about my body's changes as I had matured in my teens horrified me, and people's reactions to me simply because of the shape of my body aggravated me no end. I wasn't interested in the kinds of things that other girls talked about, and they generally didn't or couldn't talk to me about things that interested me. I felt extremely alienated from everyone around me, to the point that I wrote a column for the student newspaper in college from the point of view of an alien viewing college culture of the time.

Moving from college to work was a mistake, one pushed onto me by my mother and aunt, and one that I knew I shouldn't have done even as I allowed myself to be forced into it. I became an engineer for the phone company, in a group of male engineers who really didn't want a female peer in their group. My boss, in particular, made every effort he could to drive me off of my job, giving me assignments he would never have given to one of the male engineers, and then laughing when I got into trouble. There was a lot more, and I fought it, but eventually I left Mobile for other reasons as well.

My next boss asked me in the interview if I was a feminist, which at the time was a radical notion with the bra burners and Gloria Steinhem holding forth. I said that I wasn't, but the truth was that my treatment among my colleagues was pushing me that way fast. And working as an engineer was making me feel even more inadequate because there were so many things for which I was unprepared; my background in physics and math was enough to get in the door, but I knew nothing about wiring circuits or testing electronics. I was expected to do so as part of my job, but no one offered to teach me. So I went back to school to begin trying to learn how to be adequate as an engineer.

I got married around this time to an intelligent man who worked for the space program up at Cape Canaveral, and who persuaded me to come work there, too. It was a job as a computer programmer; again, I was hired based on my background in physics and math, not any particular computer skills I might have. Again, I was placed in a situation where I felt inadequate—and my husband fed off of it, "helping" me, so that he could feel more adequate himself. He had a desperate need to not just prove he was the smartest person in the room, but to rub anyone else's nose he could in the fact. It was the beginning of 15 years of hell for me.

We moved back up to northwest Florida, an area enough like Mobile, AL, that I was concerned about how people would treat me as a fellow engineer. I was right to be concerned. The men on the job we'd been hired to fill immediately tried to shuffle me off to a minor programming position, then I moved to a job that supposedly would have used my skills in math and physics, but which turned out to be a continual fight with the technicians and my peers over competence, and the mere fact that I was female in their environs.

I've heard African Americans describe being badly treated because of the color of their skins, and I empathize because I know bad treatment simply because of the shape of my body. I've had people put me down, play pranks on me, and at its worst, throw a cup of liquid nitrogen at me simply to see me jump. I've been told that I was inadequate to do my job (when that was not actually the case), and eventually pushed off on another job I didn't want because the people I worked with didn't want me. My husband was silent through all of this torture, except to complain that it was my problem, something I was doing wrong. He continued to do so until the company did something that ticked him off, then suddenly he was looking for another job.

I was becoming radicalized as a feminist simply because of the mass of bad treatment I had been receiving simply because of my shape and the areas in which my brain worked. I also had gone back to school again because my husband and the other programmers around me often made me feel inadequate because I didn't know the same things they did. I kept at it until I got my master's degree, and suddenly knew more than they did. It didn't always help the feelings of inadequacy, but I could put the degree up in my workspace to show them that, yes, I did know what I was doing.

I became very aggressive in protecting myself from slights and slurs on my being female. I didn't put up with anyone (except my husband, who I couldn't avoid), but my attitude didn't win me a lot of friends either. I had reached the point some feminists did back then of having a real chip on my shoulder, and underneath it all was a growing exhaustion of having to deal with this at all, since I never felt like I was feminine to start with. Or, at least, that being feminine had anything to do with the person I felt myself to be.

About that time, I found about about the possibility of being transgendered. It struck me that it felt right—I didn't feel female, and here was an alternative. But most of the female-to-male (FTM) transsexuals I met said they knew they'd been male all along, which had not been my experience. I hadn't known I was male; I'd simply been uncomfortable with the idea of being female. So I went through years of therapy trying to sort out whether I really was transgendered or not. It didn't help that I was really short—5'2"—and didn't want to trade one set of prejudices for another.

This was also the time when I went through priestess training, and became a hierophant in the Fellowship of Isis. At the time, I didn't think too much about the fact that the group I was in was strongly dominated by women, such that the main group meeting every full Moon was limited to women only. The guys were only welcome on the solar festivals, which now seems strange. Moreover, while I was told to open myself to being called by the Goddess for the priesthood and did so, nothing prepared me for the fact that I was called by more than Goddesses. One of the beings who made it clear that I was his priestess at the time was Odin, and I couldn't even discuss it with my mentor because we weren't dealing with the Gods.

As I continued to learn and grow on the pagan path, I found myself more frequently in contact with specific Gods and Goddesses from different pantheons than with a generic Goddess and God as in Wicca. So I never went down that specific path, but felt I was working a more shamanic path being open to the gods who needed my services at a given point. I'm a strong channel, and have been the body or horse for many different beings, gods, goddesses, and other. My lack of investment in my gender, and in my body in general, has made it easy for me to slip aside and let them speak through me without having to be present.

Finally, when I was almost 50, after years of therapy and consideration, I chose to transition to male. Again, I did it more for comfort than out of a strong feeling of masculinity; I simply was miserable being female and being perceived as female. It didn't change a thing about who I am inside, but it did change how people react to me and interact with me. For one thing, I rarely encounter the projection of inadequacy anymore because people assume that as male, I must know what I'm doing. It freaks me out—I'm still me. But there is a sharp change to how people react to me.

And I find that I'm more aware of the ways in which people in the pagan movement—the one place where we'd think we'd all be safe from prejudice and rejection—treat one another. I certainly have no problem with a group who wants to meet along gender lines, as long as they don't force that onto others at a large public gathering. Moreover, I would like to see a lot more sensitivity to gender variant and sexually variant people in paganism, as was the case in the old pagan world. We certainly don't "choose" to be different; it's a function of being different and eventually choosing to express who we really are rather than hiding behind some mask.

If a male-to-female (MTF) transsexual tells you that she is female identified, please respect that. She's not trying to steal your genetic female magic thunder, she is truly struggling to cope with having been born in the wrong shaped body. She identifies as female because that's what she is, regardless of the secondary sexual characteristics that she loathes and find confusing. Similarly, if an FTM tells you he identifies as male, respect that because he genuinely feels he's not female no matter what his body may have looked like most of his life.

Transitioning doesn't change out experiences, though, and I remain an ardent feminist. But I've also grown beyond that, toward seeking equality for all people. I find it incomprehensible when people reject my help or fellowship because I'm not the same color, or religion, or sex, or ethnic group, or whatever that they are. It is especially ugly when they try to tell me I cannot comprehend their experience of being treated with prejudice. Really? They should walk a mile in my shoes and then revisit that statement.

I know from my own experience that other women have been hurt by the long struggle for equality and consideration in our Western culture. Some need to work only with other women because the damage runs deep. But we need to open our hearts a bit and realize we're not the only people who have been hurt, and begin to reach across the artificial lines we've drawn to others who are hurting too. Only then can we begin to heal.