Migrating to New York
My address to the entering freshman class at The New School, August, 2017 (Read the essay if you like.)
What Rough Beast?
Several years ago the writer Barry Lopez told me the best political thought he’d heard in a long time: while the framers of the constitution gave us a government designed to inoculate us from tyranny, they couldn’t anticipate the industrial revolution that was to come in 70 years, which resulted in the rise of corporations, from which our constitution has failed to protect us. We were having the conversation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which made the prospect of real progress, on issues from global warming to gun control, unlikely, due to the headlock money has on Washington. This is what scared me most about the candidacy of the corporately entangled Hillary Clinton.
Of course, instead of Clinton we got the person who made it easy (at least in my case) to vote for Clinton. My concerns have now switched, from the fear of a perpetual corporatocracy, to the rise of fascism. Even though totalitarianism is something our constitution was built to protect us from, there’s reason to be petrified. Trump may have lost the popular vote, but he tapped a vein in American sentiment that turns out to be far more fresh and alive than all but a few suspected, and he’s riding a wave of nationalism and anti-humanitarianism that has been tugging Europe to the right of late, much the way it did following World War I.
Trump’s courting of white supremacists and neo-Nazis during the campaign is well documented, but I was even more alarmed by his post-election rallies, followed by his obsession with the inaugural crowd size and claims of millions of illegal votes cast for his opponent. “If he’s willing to lie about the small things, watch out for the big things,” was the naïve tag line we heard from mainstream journalists — naïve because, for a propaganda campaign, crafting a facade of popularity is a very big thing.
Another post-election item that caught my attention were Trump’s tweets condemning Saturday Night Live for satirizing him. Some commentators saw them as an attempt to distract us from the recent $25 million settlement in the Trump University fraud case. Others viewed the fact that Trump would go after a sketch comedy show, in the middle of a presidential transition, as a disturbing sign that the president-elect was inattentive. My concern was quite the opposite, and far more disturbing: Trump was being quite attentive to something most in the media were unwilling to name.
Fascism is a full-court press on a society, and his threats to the arts need to be put beside his threats to the press, Muslims, women, immigrants, political opponents, judges, military generals, international treaties, and the election system. But it all starts with propaganda, something Trump mastered during the campaign, and here was a new experiment: could he, as he has done with the stock prices of companies he doesn’t like, send a TV show’s ratings into a tailspin using Twitter?… Continue reading at PoliticsMeansPolitics
I used to wonder what kind of woman I’ll be. Whenever I look around my community I see battered warriors—courageous folks for sure, but no one I’d want to emulate. The transvestites and transsexuals I got to know in the 1980s were some of the most traumatized people I’d ever seen. And today, even with the progress we’ve made (the president actually mentioning us in this year’s State of the Union) I see all kinds of behavioral masks and gimmicks that turn me off.
Chief among them is hyper-femininity, strategies of presentation and comportment that come off as cartoonish, despite being attempts to blend. (I’ve heard similar things said about hyper-masculinity among trans men.) Trans folks are all too aware of the conditions surrounding us—rates of unemployment, HIV, violent attack and suicide that are through the roof—which is doubtlessly connected to behavior: in order to survive, we will cling to dominant stereotypes and bury our authenticity. I also see hyper-femininity in some of the most successful among us, the trans Brahmans the media corporations have served up as role models, who are not my role models.
Around the time I was coming out, a friend told me about positive deviance, an ingenious approach to community-wide problems. Instead of outside agencies bringing in aid and education, positive deviance looks for individuals within a community who have already devised solutions for themselves, and then finds out what they are doing. “There were always some healthy children among the poorest families,” said Monique Sternin, a founder of the Positive Deviance Initiative who helped remedy widespread childhood malnutrition in Vietnam in the 1990s. While other children were living on salted rice water, the positively deviant children were being fed nutritious food—tiny crabs and yam greens—that was plentiful, yet considered taboo.
I’ve been looking for positive deviance in my community. When I was growing up, David Bowie was an example of someone who’d figured something out about gender non-conformity. He was wild, but he was also calm and sane, and thriving as an artist. When interviewers asked about his sexuality—was he gay? bisexual?—they were missing the issue none of his fans missed: Bowie was freeing up gender. Like Major Tom in his song “Space Oddity,” he was out of range of ground control, headed toward his own planet.
Right now two other trans musicians seem to me to have positive deviance: Laura Jane Grace, who transitioned a few years ago and fronts the punk band Against Me, and Justin Vivian Bond, a consummate New York City cabaret singer. Bond lives and performs as a womanly person, but refuses all categories except “trans,” telling one interviewer that information about her body is between her, “whoever I make love to, and my doctor.” Grace embodies a sort of Tomboy punk that is without precedent or affect, and she hasn’t altered her booming singing voice. “I doubt you’re gonna find a successful social movement that doesn’t have a soundtrack,” she has said, and her “True Trans Soul Rebel” may become our anthem. Both have figured out how to live authentically and on their own terms, and they make the question I used to ask—“What kind of woman will I be?”—seem naïve. I’ll be me.
At the Positive Deviance Initiative, once they identify who is thriving, they get them to teach the others. Justin Vivian Bond, Laura Jane Grace: would you care to have coffee with me?
• • •
My facial surgery took place on February 11 in Antwerp, Belgium. It didn’t go well. That’s what the nurses told me eight days later, when I emerged from a medically induced coma. My throat had swelled up from unexpected bleeding, which prevented them from extubating—removing the endotracheal tube. They left the tube in and got me to a hospital.
My coma, which didn’t include the knowledge that I was in a coma, was a nonstop barrage of vivid mental events. In it, I was fighting for my life as a medical prisoner in my surgeon’s clinic, certain I would die if I didn’t escape. I could already sense the news of my death spreading over the curve of the earth to friends in the United States. I kept ripping out the anesthesia tubes inside me, trying to stay aware. A male nurse kept re-inserting them and upping the dosage. Finally, my surgeon met with me and agreed to let me visit with my ex-girlfriend’s mother, who’d been dispatched to Antwerp to get me out. He made me promise to return two days later so he could remove the tube from my throat. Later, as I struggled to get up to meet a waiting Uber car, two nurses rushed in saying, “Where are you going, Diana?!” They strapped me to the bed and sedated me with a hypodermic. I told them I had a deal with the surgeon, but they had orders from him to keep me there. “There’s a special place in hell for doctors who lie to patients,” I said, and asked them to deliver that message. The next day my surgeon and his wife were deciding what to do with me. She scolded him for forgetting to take that tube from my throat. Now they couldn’t afford to let me go—ever. A young raven-haired nurse entered, unsealed an ominous little bottle and fed it into my IV line. As cold fluid crept up my arm, I kept asking her name. “I want to know the name of the last person I see on Earth,” I said.
It would take hours to narrate even a fraction of what happened in that coma, which included dying three times, two memorial services, and writing one last “Life in Transition” column. I wrote it in my head, figuring I’d somehow manage to get to a computer, type it, and hit send, even though I was dead. It turns out, I revealed in the column, that you can’t write when you’re dead, which is a shame given all that time and perspective. I also realized there would be no more meals and, saddest of all, my transition was over. I’d never get to see how I would have turned out.
On February 19, I awoke in an ICU. A blonde, middle-aged nurse asked if I knew where I was. Having been asked that repeatedly in the coma, I was ready: “Antwerp, Belgium.” Actually, I’d been moved to a hospital in a nearby town where I was under the watch of a throat specialist. I was too weak to lift my arms, my head reverberated with pain, and I had tubes coming from all over. When the nurse cleaned me, I worried she’d find the scissors I’d stashed in my hospital gown to cut the straps used by the coma nurses to restrain me. A few days later, when I got my computer back, I went online to search for my obituary, and was puzzled not to find it. It would take some time to entertain the idea that I might actually be alive. Continue reading at The American Scholar