Saturday, January 14, 2012

Finding My Place Of Strength

There was the time when, walking across my high school's courtyard at seven a.m., there was a loud noise- a thwack, and I was down. I’d been hit in the head with- a rock? And there was something wet dripping on my left ear. Was it blood? A searching finger revealed it to be albumen. I'd been hit on the side of my head with a raw egg, hard enough to knock me to the ground.

I was 17.

There was the time I was cornered in the boy’s room at the point of a switchblade, and called a “Faggot”. No, "worse", (in his eyes,) I was a “girl”.
“What’s a girl doing in the boy’s room? Take off your clothes, girl.”
My button down shirt and orthopedic saddle shoes ended up in the toilet. Only my blue J.C. Penny pleated cords were spared by the timely entrance of a teacher.

I was 8.

Then, there was the time I was surrounded on the P.E. field by 4 bigger kids. They called me "fatso" and "faggot". They violently kicked and shoved me as I tried to get away. When finally they pushed me down, my wallet fell out of the elastic waistband of my polyester P.E. shorts, and as they taunted me with it, one discovered the condom I’d hidden within, stolen from my father’s drawer, but worse for me, he also found something to really get me in trouble about: a baggie of small red pills I’d taken from our home medicine cabinet.

The pills were nothing but Sudafed, I’d carried them months as some kind of ill conceived exit strategy: In case things had gotten so awful I couldn’t stand another second, I would swallow them all in a bathroom stall.

When Mr. Fontana, our school's vice principal got a hold of the pills, I wasn't sent to the school counselor, nor was I asked what they were, or why I had them hidden in my wallet. The school rules were firm, and instead of a sympathetic ear, I was bent over his desk, my pants pulled down. He pressed his large, hot hand on the back of my neck as he stood over me with a heavy perforated wooden paddle. It was three strong strokes. (It could have been five, he'd warned, but he was being "lenient".) The four bigger kids, who'd bullied me didn't even get a detention.

This was at Highland Oaks Junior High School in North Miami Beach, and I was 14.

I’ve never been what you'd call masculine. In fact, there was a period in my early twenties when after years of living in a body I'd always felt sentenced to rather than gifted with, I’d finally decided to pursue gender reassignment. At that time however, the fact that my primary sexual/romantic attachments were with women, led the inept therapist to whom I’d been sent (the only one in Miami at that time, who dealt with the Harry Benjamin protocols for gender/sexual reassignment,) to concede that I wasn’t truly “gender dysphoric”: I was merely “confused”.

Not that any of this is truly pertinent to the above, but I am, and always have been quiet, sensitive, interested in things like fashion, (which, believe it or not, before the whole “metrosexual” thing, was thought largely to be the province of women and gay men,) art, philosophy, literature, music, etc. I've never had a bit of interest in sports, (though, if I'm being really honest here, and I am, I’ve occasionally enjoyed watching them under the right circumstances,) war movies, or fixing cars. In fact, I always preferred the company of women with intimate conversations and sisterly relationships, to that of men with what I always perceived as its brevity, lack of depth in bonding, emotional honesty, and "pissing contests”.

Beyond the whole masculine/feminine thing, I was always more of a creative person, and this came out loudly in my personal approach to fashion. As a teen, I was a regular punk rock peacock. I eschewed the popular mall bought fashions for thrift store treasures such as a bright orange plaid over sized suit which I’d customized with safety pins, scissors and patches, cinched at the waist with an extension cord, and roughly cut off just above the top line of my extra high combat boots. I wore a mohawk, (the only one in North Miami Beach,) and spray-painted it fire-engine red, and, at the height of my piercing fascination, I wore 26 earrings in my left ear, 12 in my right, and two tiny gold wire hoops in my right nostril.

Had I grown up in the East Village, it's likely that none of this would have so much as raised a pierced eyebrow, let alone inspired the violence I was so often subjected to, but this was the mid eighties, and I didn't live in New York. I lived in Miami, that pastel bastion of Miami Vice machismo, and all things conservative conformity.

Even my parents would ask me almost daily, why I couldn't "just fit in", why I felt the need to be so "weird”, and at the time, I didn’t have an answer. In retrospect, I know that they were pained as I was by the way I was treated, that they were worried about my safety, and that they were doing their best to protect me. At the time however, it felt like criticism, and to my fragile teenage ego, it amounted to little more than another egg upside my head.

The truth is, there was little I could have done to fit in. I just wasn't like those I was surrounded with. I couldn’t have cared less about homecoming or prom, high school football, or “banging” the hot "J.A.P. chicks" at North Miami Beach Senior High, had no interest in hanging out on the Ft. Lauderdale Strip and getting trashed on Friday nights, and I wouldn't have been caught dead in Guess, Sasson or Sergio Valente. I wanted more.

The morning I turned 18, I walked into my high school at just after ten. My mohawk which was usually more poodle like than fierce, was responding unusually well to the half a can of Aquanet I'd shellacked it with, and I felt celebratory and resplendent in my tattered thrift store jeans, brand new Docs and motorcycle jacket. It was the best "fuck you" outfit I owned. Rather than going to class, I walked into the principal’s office, and declared I was dropping out, and just two months later, in February of '87, I got my G.E.D., and was ready to enter college.

Once at Miami Dade Community College, (and later Florida International University,) no one said a word about my shaved head, piercings or carefully tattered rags. I found that as long as I contributed well thought out arguments in class, turned in fresh and interesting papers, and was generally just myself, I was rewarded with nothing but appreciation from my professors, and acceptance from other students.

Before I’d discovered my source of strength, (which maturity and experience have shown me to be nothing more than living within my own truth,) the years of bullying had left me a raw and bleeding nerve; I was weak and afraid, and— although I’d found creative ways to hide (such as dressing in what I now call “guy drag”), it usually took all the emotional energy available just to walk out my front door.

Now I live in New York. I am an outspoken, (and just plain "out",) transgender lesbian, a spoken word artist, writer, poet and activist. I’m in a committed, long-term relationship with a wonderful woman whom I love, who in turn, loves me as I am.

Being out as transgender affords me a kind of power I've never felt before. I am for possibly the first time in my life, genuinely unapologetic for my existence. It's wonderful beyond words to feel unconstrained by others' expectations or imposed definitions of who or what I should be, and I'm pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could walk down Fifth Avenue in a pink prom-dress and Doc Marten’s and no one would look twice at me, except maybe the tourists who would ask to take pictures of the "wild, crazy chick who's just so very New York!"


*Note: Mom and dad, don't worry, the pink prom dress was just comedic hyperbole; I'm so much more of a punk rock, black t-shirt, jeans, 'n' Converse kinda chick!

4 comments:

Mama Pajama said...

oh, Avi - I'm so sorry you had to deal with all that...I'm glad you came out of it okay. children can be so cruel. it is a testament to you as both an artist and a human being that you can write about these experiences, and to not have let them destroy you.

Dorri Olds said...

Wow, a very moving piece. This line really got me: "The years of bullying had left me a raw and bleeding nerve." How beautiful it is that you found the comfortable life you have now. Thank goodness for New York City!

— A Native New Yorker

Dorri Olds said...

Wow, a very moving piece. This line really got me: "The years of bullying had left me a raw and bleeding nerve." How beautiful it is that you found the comfortable life you have now. Thank goodness for New York City!

— A Native New Yorker

Evie Frishman said...

Thanks, Mama and Dorri!