Remembering the Life of a Sister ahead of Her Time

Having experienced a life of hardship, Cheryl Courtney-Evans took the lead in standing up for transgender people of color. She was born in Kansas City in 1952; Her life would be fraught with hardship, for Cheryl was born male. Early in her childhood, her mother and elder siblings noticed her preference for girl toys and activities. Her family’s doctor, quite progressive for his time, told them how their young boy was inherently feminine by nature and could not be changed medically, psychologically, spiritually or otherwise. During high school, Cheryl was an honor student. Yet, she loved to go dress in female attire to visit the Kansas City gay bars by night. She was accepted to Harvard University. Back in the early 70s, Harvard campus offered no support nor the vaguest understanding of her gender-transformed nature. After her first year, she left her studies and worked at various jobs up in the Boston area. Yet, of the many cities in which she lived, Cheryl made her home and made her greatest impact in Atlanta, GA.

Cheryl C. Courtney-Evans, a beloved warrior for transgender equality in Atlanta.

Cheryl C. Courtney-Evans, a beloved warrior for transgender equality in Atlanta.

Cheryl moved to Atlanta in the 1980s, because it was one of few cities in the Eastern U.S. with a sizable transgender population living openly. Gay and lesbian people continued to be stigmatized at the time. Meanwhile, cross-gender people were the marginalized and ridiculed ‘minority within a minority’ coexisting with the larger, gay populations within large cities. Transgender as an identity barely existed during the 1980s, where cross-gender and gender-nonconforming people were labeled transsexual or transvestite. During a time when no place was hospitable to transpeople, Atlanta boasted one amenity: a physician who prescribed hormone replacement medications without letters of recommendation from a psychologist (Psychological and psychiatric services are often prohibitively expensive for transpeople). Cheryl thus pursued in Atlanta her hopes and dreams, despite overwhelming hardships due to societal rejection.

Cheryl at the Trans Liberation Tuesday rally at Five Points on August 25, 2015.

Cheryl at the Trans Liberation Tuesday rally at Five Points on August 25, 2015.

Over more than thirty years of living in Atlanta as a transgender woman, Cheryl endured police brutality, incarceration, exclusion from employment, poor housing, and intervals of outright homelessness. Rather than becoming lost in bitterness, drug-addiction, or abusive relationships, Cheryl grew a selfless, independent, justice-impassioned spirit. She refused to be powerless, always reaching out to her fellow sisters and brothers. For example, she often went to the Fulton County Jail to sign money onto a friend’s tab; Many of her friends and sisters, like Cheryl herself, spent time locked up for similar arbitrary, ill-defined charges. In the early 2000s, Cheryl became an activist for transgender rights, participating in organizations such as La Gender. In 2007, Cheryl started Transgender Individuals Living Their Truth (TILTT), a support group combined with an activism organization for transgender people of every color, faith-persuasion, and gender presentation. Such is the vision and strength of spirit which grew within Cheryl.

Cheryl with her Atlanta family of recent years.  Luckie, her adopted son sits at the center.  Tracee McDaniels, to the right, and Monica Helms, standing at center, are trans community leaders close to Cheryl.  July 12, 2014.

Cheryl with her Atlanta family of recent years. Luckie, her adopted son sits at the center. Tracee McDaniels, to the right, and Monica Helms, standing at center, are trans community leaders close to Cheryl. July 12, 2014.

During her last two years, Cheryl struggled with emphysema and lung cancer. She continued hosting the twice-monthly TILTT meetings, attending LGBT-rights demonstrations, and raising hell at Atlanta City Council meetings. Yet, during her final month in this world, she told how she was tired. She was “the kind of tired which sleep would do no good.” With her oxygen tank, she explained how she could breathe better, but really couldn’t breathe. Such is the spiritual and social condition of all her Trans sisters and brothers — she said in her final weeks. We cannot breathe.

Cheryl Courtney-Evans, standing at center, enjoying the company of trans-women and trans-men while setting up the booth for Atlanta Pride, 2016.

Cheryl Courtney-Evans, standing at center, enjoying the company of trans-women and trans-men while setting up the booth for Atlanta Pride, 2016.

I can only refer to Cheryl in the present tense, for she feels continually living. For transgender people of color, along with their transgender, gay, lesbian, or straight families, she continues to live with us. Those of us in Cheryl’s family are of a mindset similar to that found among many peoples of African descent. In the faith-traditions of many Native Africans and Africans in the Diaspora, kings, queens, chiefs, warriors, and other leaders never die. The strong-spirited soul passes on to dwell among the Ancestors, while also continuing to be active among the living. What is Heaven but Inclusion? Cheryl fought against the worldly damnation of inequality and exclusion all her Earthly life. She is now home within the radical inclusion of Divine Love. Yet, her spirit persists among us, her warriors.

Resistance against Resurgent Anti-Semitism: The Pumpkinhead Threat

Over twenty years ago, I wrote a review on William F. Buckley Jr’s book, “In Search of Anti-Semitism”.  The late Mr. Buckley analyzed instances of anti-Semitic language perpetrated by both conservatives and liberals.  During those times, my teenage years, I was the product of a rural Georgia Evangelical upbringing.  Though I was conservative by temperament, I’ve always been possessed of an intellectual curiosity that branded me “liberal” in the eyes of my classmates and neighbors.  Moreover, my commitment to spiritual growth and study of scriptures led me to an awakened passion for racial justice and ethnic inclusiveness.

Today, in 2016, my heart hurts.  The Republican Party, an institution I grew up respecting, has been hijacked by a corrupt real-estate mogul who advances a political agenda bearing the characteristics of Neo-Fascism.  I loathe to mention this presidential candidate’s name, for he does not deserve any additional media accolades.  I refer to him merely as “Pumpkinhead”.  I have felt deep revulsion at this candidate’s intolerant contempt for women, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, and Muslims.  Yet, only this past week, when I read reports from the Anti-Defamation League, did I fully realize the threat Pumpkinhead poses to American Democracy. Though Pumpkinhead himself has so far refrained from uttering anti-Semitic vitriol, many of his followers embrace White-Supremacist ideologies and target Jewish journalists for harassment. Many Jewish Millennials, students and professionals, now fear anti-Semitism for the first time in their young lives, all because of Pumpkinhead’s popularity.

 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leads efforts to educate children in tolerance and acceptance. The ADL was founded in 1913 to address anti-Semitic violence but has since expanded to promote tolerance and civil rights for all marginalized peoples (http://www.adl.org/about-adl/).

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) leads efforts to educate children in tolerance and acceptance. The ADL was founded in 1913 to address anti-Semitic violence but has since expanded to promote tolerance and civil rights for all marginalized peoples (http://www.adl.org/about-adl/).

 

One particularly worrisome camp among Pumpkinhead’s supporters is the Alt Right.  Since 2010, the Anti-Defamation League has tracked the emergence an ultra-conservative group of white supremacists, the Alt Right, who reject mainstream Christian conservatism and its goodwill towards Jewish people. Alt Right activists make slick, anti-immigration, populist appeals through social media to try to win over young people.  For example, the Traditionalist Youth Network follows the teachings of David Duke while attempting to redefine diversity as the segregation of all races and ethnic groups.  Within the course of the last 9 months, as Pumpkinhead seized control of the Republican Party, the Alt Right has created two new racist, anti-Semitic symbols: the triple parentheses symbol and Pepe the Frog.  The triple parentheses, (((echo))), is used by Alt Right hackers and cyberbullies to target Jewish social media users, bloggers, and journalists for online harassment. Pepe the Frog started out as a harmless cartoon, but has been used by Alt Right cyberbullies by adding Ku Klux Klan hoods or Hitler mustaches to the frog character’s face.

When I wrote my book review on anti-Semitic speech years ago, I was convinced such bigotry against the Jewish people was passing away from the United States.  The terrifying developments of this year’s presidential campaign show that anti-Semitism in word and violent deed has grown like a cancer. The extraordinary disregard Pumpkinhead shows for women, immigrants, and people of color only serves to embolden overtly violent bigots among his followers.  The Anti-Defamation League illustrates this phenomenon of cumulative bigotry as the “Pyramid of Hate”. The pyramid shows how small instances of bigotry, if widespread and unmasked, can build upon more overt and more violent expressions of bigotry.

 

The Anti-Defamation League shows how extreme and violent forms of bigotry are enabled by subtle and less violent forms. I added my own notes to show how the current Republican Presidential Candidate feeds upon the growing racism and anti-Semitism in the United States.

The Anti-Defamation League shows how extreme and violent forms of bigotry are enabled by subtle and less violent forms. I added my own notes to show how the current Republican Presidential Candidate feeds upon the growing racism and anti-Semitism in the United States.

 

Despite the fearful political developments in my country, I am daily encouraged to see the voices of diversity and social justice increasing in strength.  Although I do not agree with all of the protest tactics of Black Lives Matter, my heart hurts whenever an African-American is shot dead by law enforcement.  I also despair at the mass incarceration of Black and Hispanic men. Black Lives Matter assures me there are many young people in the United States nurturing a passion for racial equality and justice. In any case, it is essential that all Americans of goodwill, all races, all religions, both conservative and liberal, cast their votes against Pumpkinhead, preferably for Hillary Clinton.  Hillary and Bill Clinton possess qualifications which have already been proven to bring prosperity to our country.  

As a Transgender activist, I hope to find common cause with the Anti-Defamation League and other anti-racism groups.  Recently, it has been found that Americans self-identifying as Transgender comprise nearly 1% of the population in several states, Hawaii, California, Texas, and Georgia.   In addition to the District of Columbia, Georgia, Florida, and California have large Jewish populations. I believe that tolerance and acceptance of Jewish communities is essential for acceptance and diversity for everyone. States with large Jewish populations tend to be safe for Trans and LGB people. Conversely, increasing acceptance of Trans and LGB people should contribute to a safe society for Jewish people. The Amazon series, Transparent, beautifully illustrates how Jewish family and faith create a supportive environment for the heroine, Maura, in discovery of her transgender identity. It seems apparent that Transgender and Jewish activists should seek every opportunity to work together. Even if Pumpkinhead somehow fades from the limelight, his neo-Fascist wolf packs will remain a threat to tolerance, goodwill, and democracy itself.

 

High percentages of Jewish and Transgender people in California, Georgia, and Florida illustrate how acceptance of Judaism is coupled to overall diversity. During a time of increasing bigotry, it would be wise for Jewish and Transgender activists to work together.

High percentages of Jewish and Transgender people in California, Georgia, and Florida illustrate how acceptance of Judaism is coupled to overall diversity. During a time of increasing bigotry, it would be wise for Jewish and Transgender activists to work together.

Santa Fe, New Mexico: Sacred Spaces.

I spent four days, May 31 to June 4, 2016, in Santa Fe to attend a scientific conference on DNA sequencing at La Fonda on the Plaza.  During lunch breaks or whenever the lectures were not applicable to my work in microbiology, I took to walking the streets of Santa Fe.

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San Miguel, the oldest church building in the United States.  The original walls and altar built in 1610 are still standing.

Residents of Santa Fe claim to host the largest population of professional artists in the United States outside of New York City and San Francisco. Such boasting becomes believable given the staggering number of art galleries and street bazaars along East Alameda Street, Water Street, East Palace Avenue, or Canyon Road.

Typical "touristy" street bazaar along Old Santa Fe Trail across from Loretto Chapel

Typical “touristy” street bazaar along Old Santa Fe Trail across from Loretto Chapel

On June 2, having presented my research poster the evening before, I had lost my voice and was running a low-grade fever. I figured that spending my time touring the streets under the bright, warm southwestern sun was better than the dimly lit, air-conditioner-chilled conference room.

Yellow columbines in front of the art galleries at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Canyon Road.

Yellow columbines in front of the art galleries at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Canyon Road.

Whenever I’m feeling physically or emotionally under the weather, my mind shifts away from the concrete scientific and more towards the tenuous spiritual.  Santa Fe’s rich brown, yellow, and green landscape, proportioned buildings, and bright blue sky together make the otherworldly seem close at hand.

Saint Francis Cathedral and Basilica, as it appears from down East San Francisco Street.

Saint Francis Cathedral and Basilica, as it appears from down East San Francisco Street.

Saint Francis Cathedral stands central to the immediate neighborhood where my scientific conference was held.  The oldest part of the Cathedral dates back to 1714, but most of the sanctuary was built in 1886.  From the front steps up to the cross at the peak of it’s gable, the cathedral’s front facade almost delineates a Golden Rectangle ratio (1:1.71).

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Sanctuary of Saint Francis Cathedral Basilica backed by the altar screen. The center statue, second row, represents St. Francis of Assisi.  The other 14 icons, surrounding St. Francis, are representations of Roman Catholic Saints from North and South America.

Inside the Cathedral sanctuary, the imposing, hand-carved altar screen, completed in 1986, actually achieves the Golden Rectangle ratio, considered sacred by the ancient Greeks.

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A pinewood and oil-paint representation of “Butterfly”, a Navajo Creator-Spirit, by Sheldon B. Harvey.

As much as I admire Roman Catholic art and architecture, living things and natural curves more strongly inspire my own sense of the sacred.  The Creator Butterfly Spirit inside the Fonda Hotel spoke to my own experience of Transgender “shape-shifting”.

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Paintings of Pueblo dancers, by William Lumpkins, in the main conference room of La Fonda Hotel.

In addition, the paintings of Pueblo tribal dances reminded me how movement is essential to my own connection with the Deities and Spirit World.  I have no Native American heritage, yet I drum, dance, and sing to the Eurasian Goddess Cybele, Matron of my Transgender “tribe”.   Given the sacredness I find in motion, I was utterly transfixed by the garden of bronze windmills next to Loretto Chapel along Old Santa Fe Trail.

The beauty I find in Nature, or at least in art forms which approximate Her, functions as one of my strongest antidotes to a world rampant with violence and ugliness.  At the same time, traditional Western churches, Protestant as well as Catholic, expand and enrich my polytheistic sense of spiritual wonder.

SangreDeChristo_Mtns

The Sangre de Christo Mountains, which dominate the eastern horizon above Santa Fe.  Viewed from Fort Marcy Park just outside downtown Santa Fe.

Mending Distressed Souls Across the Rainbow: An Introduction

On March 12, I attended the conference on LGBT Suicide Risk and Prevention, hosted by the American Society for Suicide Prevention at the Emory School of Medicine. All researchers presenting at the conference showed how gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and questioning individuals face much higher rates of suicide and related health issues, such as depression and substance abuse. While the National Institutes of Health spends over $12 billion on HIV/AIDS research, only 1% as much, $169 million, goes to studying and preventing suicide. Similarly, compared to HIV/AIDS, suicide and depression often receive little attention in the LGBT community.

 

Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA. May 12, 2016.

Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA. March 12, 2016.

 

Statistics surrounding suicides reveal a nation full “distressed souls” where LGBTQ youth and ethnic minorities too often feel overwhelmed.  In the overall U.S. population, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, with more than 40,000 Americans taking their own lives each year (http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/suicide). Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 29. Young people from various minorities and marginalized groups are at particularly high risk for suicidal behaviors. For example, the rate of completed suicides for Native American youth ages 15 to 34 is 50% higher than the national average for the same age group (http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/suicide-datasheet-a.pdf).  Preliminary studies show LGBTQ youth are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers (http://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm). Recently, the Fenway Health Center found that transgender patients aged 12 to 29 had nearly three times the rate of attempted suicides as non-transgender patients matched in the study (http://fenwayfocus.org/2015/01/new-study-shows-transgender-youth-at-high-risk-for-negative-mental-health-outcomes/). The Fenway Health Center also found that 20% of non-white LGBTQ youth reported having attempted suicide during the previous year (http://fenwayfocus.org/2015/11/new-report-addresses-health-disparities-faced-by-lgbtq-youth-of-color/).  In the face of these sobering statistics, leaders in healthcare, political activism, and faith communities have much work to be done in reaching LGBTQ youth and other at-risk minorities.

 

With Chris (left) and Roland the organizers from the Atlanta chapter of the American Society for Suicide Prevention.

With Chris (left) and Roland the organizers from the Atlanta chapter of the American Society for Suicide Prevention.

 

Suicidal thoughts and behaviors are a disease which must be brought out into the light for treatment. Suicide is not criminal, not “sinful”, and not some unspeakable act to be relegated to the shadows of family secrets.  Suicide is preventable, but has more than a single cause; Suicide is associated with multiple risk factors, like heart disease.  Suicide risk factors across the population include alcohol abuse, financial distress, family violence, intimate relationship difficulties, social isolation, and untreated depression. High unemployment, combined with the increased availability of prescription pain-killers and heroin likely contribute to the recent increase in suicides among middle-aged adults (http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6217a1.htm). Additional suicide risk factors are present for young people with sexual orientation or gender identity at odds with family, school, or church expectations. Homophobic bullying in schools and colleges is widely recognized as a risk factor for suicidal behaviors among LGBTQ young people. Yet, it is erroneous to assume that school bullies drive young people towards suicide.  Many “minority stressors”, common to LGBTQ populations, such as family rejection, job discrimination, and lack of adult role models, all take their toll in psychological pain.  LGBTQ people of color face additional hardships, such as harassment from law enforcement.

 

Crocus in flower on Emory Campus, near School of Medicine. March 12.

Crocus in flower on Emory Campus, near School of Medicine. March 12.

 

Not all risk factors for suicide or depression can be avoided. Protective factors serve to offset risk factors and build psychological resiliency. Many protective factors are unique to LGB and transgender identity. First, the ability to connect with LGB or transgender peers can drastically improve the young persons well-being. Activism and engagement with the LGBTQ movement within the broader society also exerts a protective effect upon struggling youth. Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in high schools and colleges serve to build the personal identities and interpersonal relationships of LGBT youth. Unfortunately, bisexual and questioning youth often feel excluded from conventional LGB and transgender spaces. The importance of LGBT and questioning identity and peer relationships is sadly emphasized by the higher rates of depression, suicide, and substance abuse among bisexual and questioning youth. While supportive parents are a protective factor, evidence presented at the conference on LGBT Suicide Risk and Prevention suggested peer relationships and incidence of school bullying exert much stronger effects on youth suicide risk. All presenters at the conference agreed that robust school policies against bullying and sexual harassment are critically needed to serve as environmental protective factors. Moreover, transgender adults serving as peer counselors in educational or faith institutions are vital to addressing the additional challenges faced by transgender or gender-nonconforming youth. Together, interventions and policies towards preventing suicidal behaviors among LGBTQ young people serve to bolster protective factors while minimizing risk factors where possible. In future posts, I will investigate various community-based and peer-based strategies for building the resiliency of my young LGBTQ brothers and sisters.

 

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and visit http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.  Additionally, if you struggle with depression or suicidal thoughts, feel free to contact the author of this post.  My personal e-mail is darlingtonwagner@gmail.com.

Visitation, the Family Business, and Being a Grown-Ass Woman

Visitation, the Family Business, and Being a Grown-Ass Woman

This past Friday, February 26, I went up to Gainesville to visit my dad during his recovery from a grueling surgery.  For the preceding week, I had felt apprehensive about spending Friday night and Saturday with my parents.  Yet, my musings upon the mythological example set by Athena set my heart at ease.  Being the eldest daughter of Zeus, she never failed to fulfill her duties to her Divine parents. When, or if, my parents find out my Neo-Pagan persuasions, I’ll mention the example set by Athena as my guide to family commitment.

 

The front of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, February 27, 2016.

The front of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, February 27, 2016.

 

I arrived at his room in the South Tower of Northeast Georgia Medical Center around 5:30 pm to find him fully awake from anesthesia and talking with mom.    He was sitting up on the hospital bed with some discomfort from having been on his back in a 45-degree, upside down position for the nearly 5-hour surgery.  Yet, he was back to his dry sense of humor, but somewhat labored, periodically exercising his lungs using the “hookah” (i.e., incentive spirometer) the nurse gave him.  True to his habits of coping with discomfort through reading, he had the TV turned off and a book on the WWII German dissident pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, propped open at his side.

 

Feb21_at_RubyTuesday

Meeting mom and dad for lunch the previous weekend (February 20) near Alpharetta, GA.

 

Before 7 pm, mom went home, leaving me alone to talk with dad.  Since my gender change, conversations with dad have remained awkward.  Despite my best efforts to share a few jokes and funny stories, he barely cracked a smile.  Looking towards him, I was sobered at how this was the first time that I have seen my dad in such a fragile state.  Around 7:30, my aunt and her husband came to the room.  The halting, labored conversations between me and my dad gave way to my aunt’s dramatic sagas of the many surgeries she’d endured.  For instance, she related how she had felt “blown up like a balloon” for one surgery.  I related a few CDC microbe outbreak stories, such as the largely self-inflicted Salmonella infections people catch from pet turtles.  Then we got on the topic of colonoscopies and why there can’t be an easier way to check for intestinal cancer.  Dad mentioned that there are large, transparent capsules containing tiny cameras which people can swallow.  Unfortunately, these capsule-cameras are only useful for checking the stomach and upper small intestine.  Somehow, the possibility of the capsule-cameras taking selfies next to great-gushing stomach ulcers got mentioned.  Everyone, including dad, finally shared a hearty laugh.  By 8:30, I had to leave for mom and dad’s house.  Mom had a pot of cheese ravioli in a spicy sauce waiting for me.

 

Looking Northward from the South Tower of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, February 28, 2016. While growing up in Hall County, I had never before realized that much of it sits on a plateau.

Looking Northward from the South Tower of Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, February 27, 2016. While growing up in Hall County, I had never before realized that much of Gainesville and the surrounding county sits on a plateau.

 

On Saturday morning, after my private prayers outside before the mountain, I went back into the house for breakfast with mom.  Her and dad have been together for 47 years and they have lived in the same house now for 39 years.  In this setting, I could not help but fall back into my old routines. This past Saturday, I thus reprised my role of supporting my mom in her chaplaincy and outreach ministries.  For the past twenty-one years, my mom has engaged in outreach to residents in nursing homes and personal care homes.  Ten years ago, she was commissioned as a nursing home chaplain.  Over the past year, dozens of volunteers from her church have stepped forward to assist in leading weekly church services for nursing/personal care home residents.  Now that my mom’s long-term calling to build a nursing home ministry is now self-sustaining and fully-supported, she now feels a new calling to serve firefighters, police, and other public first-responders.  She had written out a list of scripture verses as devotional readings, but needed a typist.  As a labor of love, I typed out the scripture references (albeit not the full text).  Many years before, I would often feel a twinge of annoyance at my mother’s spiritual callings towards outreach.  Not so this past weekend.  This time, on a deep, visceral level, I felt mom is doing the right thing for the Divine Spirit in her life.

 

Wauka_from_Thompson_Br_medres

Wauka Mountain and Piney Mountain viewed from Mount Vernon Road, Hall County, GA. February 27, 2016.

 

As I agreed to type up the devotional reading references, she tried to recruit me into her new outreach to first responders.  I did not agree, but nor did I completely dismiss mom’s suggestions.  Instead, I offered to go back to participation in outreach to nursing home residents as I did in my early twenties, when I still embraced evangelical Christian faith.  Though my belief was strong in those days, my heart was hurting at the prospect of an uncaring Father-God who would condemn mortal lives to lingering sickness followed by judgement for “sin”.  I inherited my earthly mother’s passion for ministry, but I lacked the certainty of her convictions for effective outreach.  My mom’s motivation for ministry is to “save souls” for Christ.  Her clear-cut faith-message is highly effective at comforting elders of my late grandmother’s generation.  Perhaps, my growth into the “family business” of ministry will depend upon opportunities to build connections with people of my own generation or younger.  I would imagine my generation-X-and-Y neighbors have taken faith-walks through similar minefields of questioning and doubt as I’ve walked.

In my faith-walk through the minefield, I have vacillated between belief that all souls are saved versus doubting whether or not people have eternal souls.  Recently, I’ve become convinced that every human being carries a spark of the undying Divine “fire”.  Rather than being an evangelist trying to save souls from hell-fire, I feel a calling to strengthen each persons inner “soul-fire”.  After my rationalistic, rebellious young adulthood, I’ve reached a point where I’m more willing to take things on faith. However, I cannot abide by a faith based upon Christian doctrines and their punishing Father-God.  I choose a faith of deeds, not creeds.  My deeds include meditation, ceremonial drumming and other activities intended to create personal closeness with the Divine Spirit as I understand Her.  While I cannot evangelize, I may be able to assist young and middle-aged resident’s of personal care homes each in the discovery of his or her own spiritual path.   The ability to meditate upon Nature or a personal God(dess) could make a tremendous difference for a person stricken with paralysis or other mobility limitations.

 

Arizona Dreamin’

For close to the past twenty years, my version of the “having it all” dream has been living in the high deserts of the southwestern U.S. with my large, loving family. Alas, my upbringing and career have kept me penned up in the steamy, suburbanized, congested byways of northern Georgia. Granted, I am thankful for the family I was born into. I’m close with my mom and dad despite my departure from the religious path in which they raised me. I have only two siblings, twin sisters, who carry themselves with a more pronounced Protestant reservedness and stricter conservatism than my parents.

Low_Canyon_Dec15

Courthouse Butte near Sedona, AZ, December 15, 2015.  This photo is from my trip with Monica to meet her family in Arizona and to experience the sights of her previous life.

An exclusionary, Evangelical mindset permeated family, community, and place in which my sisters and I were raised.  My sisters remained in rural Georgia, if not geographically, at least spiritually.  By contrast, I went searching for new a new place and new connections.  In 1999, Arizona was the first stop along my sojourn.  I took a temporary job with the U.S. Forest Service working on a conservation project out of Flagstaff, AZ.  The immense red-rock desert landscapes I experienced opened my jaded, 24-year-old heart to the grand scale and diversity of the Earth.  My co-workers came from all regions of the U.S., but most from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, California, and Montana.  Many had come up in the world free of the circumscribed, mentally-stifling environment of bible belt Georgia.  Yet, others struggled with even more rigid family and community constraints than I could imagine.  All of us were under 35 and searching for a new place to set down roots and build some semblance of family.

Walnut_Canyon_1999_edit

My 24-year-old pre-Trans self exploring cliff dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monument near Flagstaff, AZ. May, 1999.

On an earth so large and filled with people of such diverse backgrounds, my philosophical box of religious dogma finally fell apart.  For the next several years of my sojourn in the west,  I worked in Texas, Alaska, and Montana.  My initial euphoria at shedding the bonds of my old doctrine-based faith gave way to an anxious sense of loneliness and purposelessness.  My optimistic agnosticism gave way to a sorrowful yearning for the Divine Feminine.  My hope in the Goddess has persisted and grown stronger for fifteen years now, preventing me from ever fitting into the windowless icebox of dogma-based faith.

AttisTree_CybeleRock

Oak Creek Canyon near Migdley Bridge, December 15, 2015.  This photo illustrates the type of terrain I hiked over during my Forest Service surveys in 1999.  The red rock to the right across the canyon symbolizes Great Mother and the pine in the foreground symbolizes Attis, her transgender lover.  Back in 1999, of course, I was barely even aware of the Divine Feminine, much less her names and forms.

Yet, in 2003, longing for my family brought me back to Georgia.  Closeness with my mom, dad, sisters, and grandmother was too important to relegate to my list of “long-distance relationships.”  I returned to a Christian persuasion, at least outwardly.  Inwardly, I not only longed for Divine Mother, but also for a large family with children of my own, along with nieces, nephews, and cousins.  At the time, I had no foresight of the unimaginable blessings and challenges my beloved Goddess would place in my path.

M_and_D_at_SlideRock

Monica and I at Slide Rock State Park in Oak Creek Canyon, AZ. December 15, 2015.

I spent 2005 through 2012 in graduate school at Georgia Tech in Atlanta.  I was focused on building a career in microbiology and figured marriage and family were still far away into my future, if at all.  Yet, I began my gender transformation midway through my doctoral program; Before my name-change was complete, I met my life-partner, Monica.   I realized that I had never been meant to find the right person as a mate until I became the right person myself.

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Monica and her mother sharing a moment of Italian-Catholic family warmth.  December 12, 2015.

After fifteen years of learning, growing, and struggling in Georgia, on December 12, 2015, I returned to Arizona as part of a couple.  Monica spent most of her formative years in Phoenix while her mother, both sisters, and one of her two sons have remained in Arizona.  Thus, my dreams of many years ago were coming true, if only for my five days of vacation.

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Breakfast with Monica’s family at The Place. From left, Bryan’s wife, Hildie, Bryan’s son, Xavier, Robert’s son, Alexander, Bryan, Monica, and Bryan’s baby Logan. December 13, 2015.

Monica and I spent the morning of December 13 at a Phoenix diner called, “The Place”, along with Monica’s sons, Robert and Bryan, three grandsons, Xavier, Alexander, and Logan, and one daughter-in-law, Hildie.  Afterwards, we all went to the apartment of Robert and Bryan’s mother (Monica’s ex-wife) who had unexpectedly passed away the month before.  I thus hoped to serve my new extended family in a role of comforter midst grief.

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Bryan’s son Xavier, Robert’s son Alexander, and Monica’s eldest son, Robert at The Place. December 13, 2015.

On December 13 and 14, I spent time with Monica’s fabulous, “baby” sister Julie. Though Monica’s family has its share of Italian mama-and-sibling drama, they seem less shy about showing closeness than my own family.  Granted, my parents and sisters are by no means cold and never unkind; Rather, I find it difficult to connect with their Georgia White-Anglo-Protestant tendencies.  Monica and her half-Italian, Catholic-raised family has a loving glow I’ve never before encountered.

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The high desert under snow clouds near Black Canyon City along I-17.  December 14, 2015.

On the 14th, Monica took me on a road tour north of Phoenix along the Carefree Highway and Interstate 17.  It was a cold, stormy day in the high deserts north of Phoenix when all mountaintops and mesas above 1500 meters were dusted with snow.  Yet, the groves of Saguaro cactus below the rim of Black Mesa remained snow-free despite the icy wind.

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Saguaro cacti along I-17 near Black Canyon City. Monica video recorded my devotional drumming amid these iconic plants.  December 14, 2015.

On December 15, Monica took me up to Sedona and Oak Creek Canyon, her most beloved place on earth.  We walked up to the Chapel of the Holy Cross to gaze out over the recently snow-blanketed Sedona.

Chapel of the Holy Cross overlooking Sedona, AZ. December 15, 2015.

Chapel of the Holy Cross overlooking Sedona, AZ. December 15, 2015.

 

Looking out from the chapel towards the 'Two Nuns' rocks. December 15, 2015.

Looking out from the chapel towards the ‘Two Nuns’ rocks. December 15, 2015.

Unlike cacti along I-17 the previous day, the high desert plants of Sedona were loaded down in snow.  After the Chapel, we braved driving over slushy snow up Bear Wallo Canyon.

Steamboat Rock, left, with Wilson Mountain in the background. Photo taken from Migdley Bridge, December 15, 2015.

Steamboat Rock, left, with Wilson Mountain in the background, which dominates the lower reaches of Oak Creek Canyon. Photo taken from Migdley Bridge, December 15, 2015.

Afterwards, we had the most delectable omelets for lunch at the Coffee Pot Cafe, then headed up Oak Creek Canyon State Route 89A.

Walking through Slide Rock State Park, December 15, 2015.

Walking through Slide Rock State Park, December 15, 2015.

After winding up the canyon highway under snowy forests, we reached Monica’s favorite  summertime get-away, Slide Rock State Park.

Monica video recording the flow of Oak Creek at Slide Rock State Park. The bridge of 92A is apparent across the creek. December 15, 2015.

Monica video recording the flow of Oak Creek at Slide Rock State Park. The bridge of 92A is apparent across the creek. December 15, 2015.

She showed me where her and friends once slid along the creek bottom, hence the name of the Park.  Of course, it was too cold and snowy that day for water recreation and sundown was approaching quickly within the canyon.

The ledge in Oak Creek at Slide Rock State Park. Years ago, in warm weather, Monica and her friends would use this ledge as the start of their "waterslide". December 15, 2015.

The ledge in Oak Creek at Slide Rock State Park. Years ago, in warm weather, Monica and her friends would use this ledge as the start of their “waterslide”. December 15, 2015.

As the sun and the temperature sank, we made the long twilight drive back to our motel room in Phoenix. We got partway packed in anticipation for catching our December 16 flight back to Atlanta.  We were both jostled by fierce turbulence on the return flight. Yet, my heart rested in joy and peace knowing that Monica really is the lady I am meant to marry.

At Sunset Point along I-17 on December 14, 2015. Behind me are the snow-dusted Bradshaw Mountains. The inset photo the the right shows the 1999 version of myself in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

At Sunset Point along I-17 on December 14, 2015. Behind me are the snow-dusted Bradshaw Mountains. The inset photo at the right shows the 1999 version of myself in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.

Today, on February 15, 2016, I face decisions and challenges, many of a positive nature. Yesterday, I made my marriage proposal to Monica in front of our church.  There will be a wedding before the year is up, but I am more excited at the prospect of going back to Arizona to hang out with Monica’s family.  Over the next year-and-a-half, I aim to prepare our house here in Georgia for adopting a child from the foster-system. Yet, if Georgia politics and policies prove too hostile; I may again look towards the western states.  Hopefully I can build family in a beautiful place like Arizona, but I’d settle for the steamy, suburbanized, congested byways of California.  My own life, my family, and even my entire country have progressed and evolved in ways the wandering Georgia-boy-turned-girl from the late 90s could never have imagined.

 

 

Transgender and Proud Forever!

For Atlanta Pride, Saturday, October 10, and Sunday, October 11, the transgender and gender-queer people from Georgia and all over the southeast made their presence known. For the third year, Transgender Individuals Living Their Truth (TILTT) hosted a booth in Piedmont Park. For the second year, TILTT also took part in the Pride parade.

Setting up the booth with my sisters and brothers at Piedmont Park, October 10, 2015.

Setting up the booth with my sisters and brothers at Piedmont Park, October 10, 2015.

Everyone in TILTT, transgender women and men, plus supportive family members, contributed to setting up the booth around 8:30 am Saturday morning. Though the day started off overcast and drizzly we presented positive, successful faces of transgender. To honor the Divine Feminine, I played my drums beside Lake Clara Meer. A positive energy filled me with each drumbeat, building my strength and confidence for what was to be a busy weekend.

The next day, Sunday morning, around 8 am, we began decorating a U-Haul pickup and trailer to use as our float. We taped together disposable tablecloths in light blue, pastel pink, and white to drape out the U-Haul in colors of the Transgender Pride Flag.

Draping Transgender Pride colors onto the U-Haul pickup and trailer, October 11, 2015.

Draping Transgender Pride colors onto the U-Haul pickup and trailer, October 11, 2015.

After decorating our float, we gingerly drove it towards the corner of West Peachtree and Ivan Allen, where we lined up to await the start of the parade.

Camp Drag performers at Pride 2015.  They turned down my offer to help them become girls full-time!?

Camp Drag performers at Pride 2015. They turned down my offer to help them become girls full-time!?

Over the next few hours, other affinity groups in the parade fell in and well-wishers mingled among the resplendent diversity on display.

With Lynne, a dear sister.

With Lynne, a dear sister.

With Raquel, an activist for #BlackLivesMatter

With Raquel, an activist for #BlackLivesMatter

The wait for the start of the parade did not seem long, for I found so many lovely people with whom to acquaint myself. I reserved most intense of my affections for my sisters, buxom Roxanne and elegant Lynne, with TILTT, plus sultry Raquel, marching with another group.

Roxanne, Queen of TILLT, holding court!

Roxanne, Queen of TILLT, holding court!

I met other affinity groups, with Atlanta Angel Action making the greatest impression on me. Later in the day, towards the end of the march, Angel Action was to make the most profound and eloquent statement for GLBT acceptance I have witnessed in years.

Atlanta Angel Action with their facilitator, Meredith, guiding preparations.

Atlanta Angel Action with their facilitator, Meredith, guiding preparations.

Around 2 pm, our section of the march moved forth in the procession. I started from the truck bed of our float. Then, as we turned the corner at Peachtree Street, I could not contain my longing to connect up close and personal with the crowds lining the street.

In truck bed of the float after starting in the parade.

In truck bed of the float after starting in the parade.

Roxanne, our “Queen”, remained poised upon the cab of the float, drawing admiration from afar. By contrast, I hugged and shook hands with as many of the spectators along the street, being dressed in my humble medical scrubs.

The trailer of the TILTT float during the parade with Atlanta Angel Action following.

The trailer of the TILTT float during the parade with Atlanta Angel Action following.

There were many more transgender participants and spectators at 2015 Pride than in previous years. A spirit of unconditional love and acceptance animated the city. The few right-wing extremists who preached anti-gay and transphobic hate were verbally treading water. When Angel Action marched to confront them, their cold, toxic message faded amidst the warmth of True Love.