Monday, August 31, 2015

August Cultural Roundup

Faye Dunaway in Chinatown
Roman Holiday (U.S., 1952)
I am Chris Farley (U.S., 2015)
Diary of a Teenage Gir(U.S., 2015)
True Story (U.S., 2015)
Ghost (U.S., 1990)
The Last Picture Show (U.S., 1971)
Chinatown (U.S., 1974)

H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald 
Trans by Juliet Jacques

Macbeth - Shakespeare in the Rough, Withrow Park, August 23rd 

Art Exhibit: 
Camera Atomica at AGO, August 29th

Thursday, August 27, 2015

On Chaz, on Caitlyn

I feel like we can’t talk about being Transgender without addressing the issue of the most well-known, highly publicized Transman and Transwoman currently on the planet – Chaz Bono and Caitlyn Jenner. Like many others who felt they had no connection or emotional investment in treating these persons with respect, I was cheerfully and blissfully dismissive of their trials and tribulations in the media.

I didn’t understand what I was witnessing on this very public stage when Chaz Bono transitioned from female to male. I was somewhat alarmed by the transition at some point, and, perhaps, mightily relieved I did not have to deal with this issue as a mother. More fool me. As they say, pride comes before the fall …

At best, I was condescendingly sympathetic at publicly witnessing his evolution from adorable little girl (daughter of the singing duo Sonny and Cher) to out lesbian and LGBTQ activist as a young adult to Transman and Transgender advocate. Now, because this hits so close to home, I am completely mortified by the manner in which he is sometimes referred to in the media. If it is not outright hostility, then it’s a quietly snickering attitude at times.

Flash forward to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition in the spring and summer of 2015 and I see it from a very different perspective as a mother of a Trans child and as a sentient human being.

Now, because I am so close to the situation with my own child I can no longer be blasé or amused at what I see. Whether it is the paparazzi provoking Jenner before she outed herself as Trans or seeing images of a “Caitlyn Jenner” Halloween costume for men posted on-line or pointless and insulting criticism of her high femme style as a woman – now it’s personal. And infuriating.

Is it really your concern if Jenner likes pretty clothes and makeup? Does it set back the cause of Transgender people if she favours manicures and weaves? I can’t help thinking that even the progressive people who purport to be feminists and Trans-positive criticize her style are anti-femme, as if things that are feminine (and I include even the supremely artificially feminine) are inferior, shallow, less than human. It’s as if the embracing of masculine style or an androgynous style is a superior political and personal stance. If femininity is a social construct, it’s my construct to employ or destroy and no amount of finger wagging likely will dissuade someone who chooses to embrace it.

If you knew someone who went through this transition, if you knew how hard it is to come out to the people who love you the most. If you saw how difficult it was to do the most basis things – purchase clothes, find a bathroom, change your name, feel comfortable in your own skin  – you might have second thoughts before you started snickering about it or making jokes.

It’s been a long, difficult journey in a very public forum for both of them – whether you think they have been successful at it or not – it’s their journey to make. If anything, I have felt intense empathy for Bono’s mother the singer Cher, now in her sixties, who sometimes has expressed sorrow, confusion, and resistance to Chaz’ decision to transition.

My child has said to us on more than one occasion, “If I had a choice, I would not go through this.” He has often expressed a wish that things were not so difficult for him. But this feeling almost always centres around trying to battle the fear and discomfort that other people feel towards the transition. I would say that my son is comfortable in his decision to transition but dealing with other people’s fears and insecurities is another matter.

It’s not a choice about a lifestyle. Now I finally understand why some gay people are so dismayed by the term “gay lifestyle” as if it’s some sort of fashionable attire you’ve acquired for a season or two – it’s an honest, brave embracing of being true to one’s inner self. It’s not a question of wanting to be something else, it’s a question of needing to be something else – to have the external correspond with the internal and to have it validated by the people you care about, as well as those you don’t.

An excerpt from The Unfinished Dollhouse. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A House Filled with Wildness

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Penguin-Random House, 2015) 300 pages

I would not have thought that as a frightened as I am of animal violence (and birds) that I would grow to love Helen MacDonald's descriptions of the fierce goshawk named Mabel that she trains in this memoir. She recounts her acquiring and training this particularly fierce bird in the aftermath of her father's death as a way of coping with the grief.

Something unravels in Helen when her beloved father dies - a photographer and as avid a lover of nature and birds as Helen - she has lost a soul mate. She sinks into a depression that, oddly, only the purchase of a goshawk seems to alleviate. Does she require the taming of something wild, might that tame her tumultuous heart?

Her love of fierce birds comes early to her. One day, as a young girl, her father brings her to a group of men who practice falconry. She describes her first encounter with goshawks and the quiet, stolid men who own and train them. The birds were described in historical texts that Macdonald pores over as "ruffians, murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign". They perched in trees above the men at times, refusing to return to their owners.

These men did not seem annoyed, fatalistic merely. They shrugged their waxed cotton shoulders ... we trudged on into the gloom. There was something of the doomed polar expedition about it all, a kind of chivalric Edwardian vibe.
Her first goshawk, imported from another country, is so intimidating that she requests a smaller one. In the process of reacquainting herself with goshawks she re-reads T.H. White's The Goshawk - the T.H. White of the Arthurian novels including The Once and Future King. White was a brilliant but troubled man who harbored sadistic fantasies and repressed his homosexuality. The violence of the goshawk becomes a conduit for all his violent and unruly feelings and, consciously or unconsciously, the same may be true for MacDonald. 

White's early life was harrowing, volatile. His parents fought viciously and violently with each other and the boy often feared that he might be murdered (one night he woke to find both parents struggling with a pistol over his bed - he presumed that one of them meant o to shoot the boy). 

When his father built a child-size castle and installed a real pistol into the brick work, he told his son that he would fire the gun on White's birthday. The boy became convinced that his father had planned to kill him on that day. Hi childhood was filled with "dictators and madmen", vicious corporal punishment from school masters, marital turmoil - no wonder that his thoughts were filled with senseless violence. Perhaps MacDonald sought some of this violence too ...  She notes:
The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent. 
MacDonald ponders why goshawks have such an intense reputation amongst falconers. She surmises, after a thoughtless comment from a friend's husband, that " ... unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It's made them a powerful symbol in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be mastered and tamed". Like women, she adds wryly.
If she is not mad, she is very close to it at the time. Bills go unpaid. She is unkempt and does not eat well. She lives alone and sees hardly no one. When she sees a woman scraping a decal of a skylark off a window in a business in town she is apoplectic. Mabel's sometime lack of response drives her to misery and insecurity.

I'd turned myself into hawk …  I was nervous, high strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage; I ate greedily or didn't eat at all; I fled from society, hid from everything, found myself drifting into strange states where I wasn't certain who was or what I was ... I had assumed [Mabel's] alien perspective.

Eventually Macdonald pulls herself out of her depression long enough to seek professional help - but it is a long and tortuous process and she is largely alone during it.

I must admit that I had to read the book in short passages - its melancholy was too fierce and I felt myself being pulled into its emotional trough at times. I was exhilarated to find her resist the pull of madness, of violence, and to thrive again amongst the goshawks in us all.

Helen and Mabel