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Monday, April 28, 2014

Out of the Shadows and Making Our Own Light.


Recently, an old grammar school friend resurfaced in my life thanks to Facebook. It's been nearly fifty years since we've spoken, but the bonds of having survived Catholic grammar school, deranged Franciscan nuns and the never-ending reminders that the bloodied body which was nailed to the cross and which hung above the blackboard was there because of my miserable, sinful, ten-year-old life is the glue which allows us to reassemble our friendship in these, the beginning of our sunset years.

 Old friend Peter, with whom I graduated kindergarten; Peter, whose mother was my den mother and who taught us how to grow grass in an eggshell filled with dirt, and with whom I later served Mass dutifully as an altar boy, writes a column for a well known financial magazine. But he occasionally strays, as all Catholic boys do, from his mission to write of other things unrelated to the wonderful, wacky, world of finance.

One of his well-thought out and articulate columns had to do with the radical feminist Cathy Brennan's views on male privilege and her obvious resentment toward transgendered women moving in on what she considers her "turf".

Peter stated that our parochial school education and the behaviors of the nuns was similar to Ms. Brennan's in their resentment of male privilege. Having lived with both tribes, and having experience such privilege and then having it removed, he was interested in my perception of the whole shebang. Here is my response.

 This year marks the 12th year since my surgery and my 14th since beginning this whole process. During that time I have spent a great deal of it pondering exactly what I am.

In the early years, I made every attempt to justify myself as fully female. I guess I needed the validation from others, and so I stayed firmly entrenched on the third of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (Acceptance and Love from others) for quite some time. As much as I wanted to be 'fully female' and as much as I wanted to be in a lesbian relationship, the reality and politics of the LGBT world, and particularly Lesbiana, reminded me time and time again that while I could have friends (some close, some not so much), the bulk of Lesbiana would always view me as an "other".  This attitude was never as clear to me as the year some of my friends decided to go to Michfest. I was told that it was for "womyn born womyn" and that I could not attend even if I wanted to do so.

This was about five years ago and at the time I found the statement quite hurtful. But what it drove home to me was that no matter how I viewed myself, I would never...NEVER be considered 100% female by those folks. But like anything, some good comes out of every negative and it forced me to come to grips with what and who I was.

 To them, I would always be an interloper; that no matter how much surgery I had or how much I gussied myself up, I would forever be inexorably male to them. And for years, I resented that and countered with the quip, "I got my ticket to this club the hard way and I don't intend to be stopped at the gate now."

Over time though, I began to realize that the closer I got to the gate, the less I wanted to go through it. Where I once marched in LGBT parades on Pride Day, I began to realize that the Trans community was woefully represented in them. Where I once attended lesbian groups (both social and political) regularly, I began to sense that I would never BE one of them. And so gradually, I began to pull away. I found that the political component of being a lesbian far outweighed the possibility that a woman could put aside the "trans" part of what I was and just accept who I was as a human being. I came to understand that the politics of being a lesbian was as much a part of the whole thing as being attracted to a same sex member. Through my eyes (and remember, this is just my opinion), women found themselves unable to give up that badge of honor that allows lesbians to say, we don't need men in our lives. After years of exposure to that kind of thinking, I found myself back at square one. If I was not a woman, and I certainly was not a man, then just what was I? All of my childhood training about gender was about to get thrown out the window.

As you might imagine, back when I began this process (1999-2000), there was very little information regarding how we trans folk came to be, but the prevailing theory then (as now) is that this is not a mental disorder but an organic one. Nature loves variety as we know, and the growing number of trans-identified folk coming out each year coupled with history being rife with trans types (see the trial transcript of Joan of Arc)  gave credence to the theory that trans folk did not just suddenly pop onto radar, but that we have been around since the beginning of recorded time.

 Now of course, the Internet provides us with a preponderance of information regarding trans society and has opened up so many people's eyes about what we are and where we fit in the world.  

I have learned to view gender as a continuum. To me, there is no absolute male or female. We are all somewhere on that line. And while society does tend to still classify gender as absolute, I believe that those lines are being blurred too, mostly because of the growing transgender population. When so many people are declaring themselves as "other", as they are these days, isn't the idea of a gender continuum more reasonable than absolute male or female?

Yet there is that nagging question of male privilege. Does it exist? Yes. In my field of comedy for instance, it is very pronounced. There is still a large segment of both the entertainment industry and the general public who believe that female comics are not as funny as their male counterparts. Female comedians are paid less and generally will not headline a show. Nor will you see two female comedians on the same show and when there are, club owners rarely place them back to back on the lineup. Having worked as a comedian for both tribes, I can tell you that it is markedly different for women, and not in a good way.

But back to the radical feminists. I believe (again my own personal opinion) that when movements begin, it is because of the radical factions. Their zeal, no matter how angry or discriminatory it may seem, is often the power behind the growth of a movement. Once that movement gets a foothold in the mainstream it begins to grow organically, and the very militants who sired it often are pushed back to the fringes in favor of a more centrist majority. Once dialogue ensues between the "warring" parties, assimilation begins. We've seen it in race relations in this country, with European immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century and most recently, with our gay and lesbian populations. Trans people are next in line and have finally begun to unite. But it has been the young trans radicals who are at the forefront of the fight. No longer content with being shunned by genetic "cis" women as in the case of Michfest, or with being on fringes of the LGBT family, trans women and men are discovering that united, they too can have the power to change things. Right now, there is a brouhaha going on within our own community over drag queen RuPaul's use of the word 'tranny' and she-male. Many of us find those words demeaning and derogatory because in most cases, the context of the sentence is meant to do just that.

Our young people in the arts have begun to demand that movies, television and film begin to cast trans folk in their productions. Jaret Leto's portrayal of a trans woman in Dallas Buyers Club for instance, was the subject of much rancor within the trans community. Many of us felt that this could have been a breakout role for a trans actress, but none were auditioned for the part.

 And so in closing, I believe that the growing number of visible, vocal trans people are questioning and redefining gender all over the world. I believe that in the next three or four generations, acceptance of  the gender continuum will make the current absolute definition archaic. I believe that in time, trans people will have trans role models to look toward and the desire to feel or be 100% female will disappear. Finally, I believe that someday, many will look at the trans community with some degree of envy because we who were blessed with this very natural way of being have the decided advantage of seeing, feeling and actually living with the points of view of both genders. Already, scientists are pointing toward genetic and chemical causes for gender dysphoria, itself a misnomer as it implies being trans as negative. Ask any trans person how they feel after coming out and the answer is more likely to imply euphoria than dysphoria. And who needs radical feminists for validation? I am happy. That is validation enough.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Jerry Springer, I KNOW you're brighter than this.


In my world of stand-up comedy (proud member since 1980), free speech, and a person's right to it, is the bedrock of our profession. I can't tell you how many arguments I've listened to over the decades both condemning and defending a comedian's right to be "offensive" if he or she so desires. Personally, I find poorly crafted jokes far more offensive than salty language, but free speech means taking the good with the bad. If you don't like a comedian's act, don't listen...no one is forcing you. The same holds true for television shows. We should all have respect for others' opinions. They might like what they are hearing or seeing even if you or I don't.
 

And then there's Jerry Springer.

 
Sometimes, when I'm flipping through the channels and this human version of a pit bull fight lights up my screen for even a second, I get this sense of  just having been physically violated.  My first inclination is to go shower, but even a "Silkwood" decontamination shower couldn't remove whatever pernicious, infectious, brain mildew this sad excuse for a television show has implanted in my skull.

 

Personally, I was surprised to find that it  was still even being aired, but then again I have been known to get ahead of the evolutionary curve from time to time. Clearly, there are some who still find this modern day version of gladiators at the Roman Coliseum entertaining.

 

Boy howdy, Jerry Springer loves him some transsexuals though, doesn't he? Seems like he never misses an opportunity to show transgendered folk (and other minorities) in the worst possible  light. Don't believe me? Here's a partial list of some of Jerry's past 'shows' in which transgendered (supposedly) folk have appeared and which appear now on YouTube.

 

NOTE: *The exclamation points illustrate the urgency and importance of    all things transsexual in Jerry Land.

 

1. Transsexuals Fight!

2. Transsexual Takedown Part 1

3. I slept with a transsexual

4. I am pregnant by a GIANT transsexual! (Yes, the giants are the most fertile)

5. Transsexual Cravings! (Chocolate? Ice cream? Chocolate Ice Cream?)

6. Dumped for a transsexual

7. Transsexual secrets, Part 2. (Part 1 was apparently a secret too)

8. He-She confessions!

9. "Bacon", the transsexual. (This is a person's name I think. To the best of my knowledge, actual bacon is genderless.)

10. Emilio Trannies Tell All! (Don't ask me. I don't know what an Emilio Tranny is             either)

11. My Transsexual Summer  (Starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donohue?)

12. Transsexual Tell All!

13. Transsexual Secrets Explode! (Which is why you should keep them in a cool dark          place)

14. Guess what? I'm a man!

15. Honey, I'm really a guy (originally titled, Honey, I Shrunk The Dick?)

16. My boyfriend is a woman!

 

So, for nearly twenty years ole "Jer" has been convincing some pretty far out people to display their supposed private lives to a national audience. Whether they are actors or not is irrelevant. I sure don't begrudge any actor who is out there just scraping by the chance to earn some rent or chump change by being on television, even if it is at the bottom of entertainment food chain. If the guests on The Jerry Springer show are indeed genuine, and have sold their souls for a free trip to Chicago, then we, as a country, have much bigger problems with our education system than originally thought.

 

What bothers me now and what has bothered me for years about this show is Jerry's depiction of trans people as demented, home-wrecking sex maniacs who spend their entire lives in crotch high, skin tight skirts and stiletto heels. He has diminished an entire segment of the population (already laden with enough social stigma to last two lifetimes) to a stereotype which it is constantly trying to shed. It is our version of blackface, and until recently, not much was being said or done to combat it.

 

Thanks to the Internet and social media, more and more of us are moving into the mainstream public eye. As a comedian, I have to prove myself to be funny in order to work just to get a gig. Yes, I may have to push myself a little harder and be a little better than the average male comic in order to get work, but that doesn't bother me. My audiences seem to accept me as just another working class comedian. While I play gay clubs, I also play major casinos and comedy clubs around the country. I am whatever my audiences perceive me to be. If I present a positive image of a human being, then my being transgendered is irrelevant. If TGLB audiences like me because I'm 'one of their own' so be it. Just as long as I'm funny. 

 

Trans people are popping up everywhere now and in every profession. As time goes on and more of us 'come out', our normal quotient grows around the country. We don't need to be accepted by everyone, but we demand to be respected. And Jerry Springer has zero respect for trans folks; at least publicly.

 

He has come under fire recently for his repeated use of the word tranny. For many of us, that term is a pejorative, the transgendered equivalent of the word nigger. No matter the context, I can tell you that every time I hear it, I cringe. For me, it carries all the hatred and derision that so many of our trans folk have had to endure over the years. Also in the word category? He/she, It, She/male and the rest of them. Jerry Springer has used them all with great abandon until now.

 

There is a growing Transgendered movement in this country. We are joining hands and tightening up the ranks. We are standing up for ourselves, asserting our place in this society. It will not stop, that I can assure you. Our numbers grow each year and with them, our voices grow louder and stronger. Jerry Springer immediately declared that he did not know the term 'tranny' was offensive and has said that he will not use it anymore. Good for him. But I am fairly certain that his depiction of trans folks will not change until the pressure for that too comes to bear on him.

 

I am not for censorship, God knows. My job requires that I have the freedom to say what I feel to achieve my comedic goals. But I also am acutely aware that each and every time I step onto a stage, I have a responsibility to know where my personal boundaries are and if I choose to cross them. Jerry Springer has that same responsibility. In my humble opinion, he has decided that compounding his fortunes are far more important.

 

For the time being at least, there will always be a market for the stupid, insensitive, idiotic type of program that Jerry Springer does. But I can guarantee you this; there will come a day when the people who appear on that 'show' will seem to be anachronistic. They will be looked upon then the way anyone who would dare show up in black face at any event--with scorn and derision. When that day comes, Jerry Springer may do an about face mea culpa, but it will be too late. No one will be watching.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Another Visit from Swamp Thing


June 1st marked another birthday for me. If you know me at all, you’ll also know that in general, I hate birthdays. In fact, anniversaries of any kind fill me revulsion. Just when I find myself enjoying life and not caring about this pain in my knee or that wrinkle which wasn’t there last week, there’s this murky thing which rises up from deep inside me like a hideous swamp monster about a week before the event. It begins to bitch slap me into trying to believe that my life is almost all over.

“You’d better hurry up Julia. Time is running out. You are kidding yourself; no one is going to want you at this age! Get real...get some new dreams....”

This slimy, smelly wretch with mud skin and seaweed hair takes great pleasure in reminding me that the best years of my life are behind me, that I should have done this or that, that I have made a complete wreck of my one and only chance at success on this earth. He does his demented little happy dance in my head in a circle (with me in the middle), and continues it until his miserable feet dig a trench around it. When the mood strikes him, Swamp Thing takes out his rusty sledge hammer and clunks me in the head and sings his jerky song. As if I needed a reminder of his presence

“One more gone... one more gone... one more year till another one’s gone!”

All the people around me who are my age seem to be retiring, dying, getting parts of their body replaced, moved or removed. Some were here yesterday and gone today. People half my age have children in high school. How can that be? My head is still only twenty six years old!

“You’re old, you’re old, I ain’t lyin if the truth be told!”

The whole process seems to be speeding up too; so much so, that I can’t sit for a minute and just absorb what I’m seeing. 

And so, with the passage of another year of my life, I find myself once more wrestling with the man-made concept of time and its effect on my life goals.

At the risk of being crude, the idea of a race against time just blows the big one. Still we are reminded of it constantly through the incessant brainwashing of media, who would have us believe that nothing useful has ever been accomplished by anyone with a varicose vein or gray hair.

We have learned to dispose of people long before they are ready. 

The thing of it is, we who are in this period of our lives are so easily susceptible to believing that our age of usefulness is done. Each of us has a personal Swamp Thing that visits us from time to time, who nudges us into that realm of complete and utter defeat, where sitting around and reliving our ‘glory days’ becomes our reality. The problem with such an exercise is that it only serves up Swamp Thing with a big ole’ platter of FUCK IT to feast on and we begin to accept our ‘fate’ and just give up.

 I’ll be the first to admit that I do battle with Swamp Thing each and every birthday, holiday and New Year’s Eve.  Every time the seasons change, I see him poke his head out of the muck of my mind, like some hellish groundhog to remind me that it doesn’t matter when spring arrives, because I only have a few left and what’s the point of making plans?

“Give up, give up, and drink your half empty cup! Put your ass in the rocking chair because your time is almost up!”

 I really hate this bastard. And though it takes me a week or so to shove him back down into the ooze, I always do.

And then I get mad.

I’m just about out of the funk now and I can feel the fires inside getting stoked; particularly when it comes to comedy.

My goals as a comedian now are far different than they were in 1980, when I began. Back then I was an idiot who thought the world would beat a path to my door just because I thought it should. I felt like I was different than my colleagues and that stuff should just come to me. Sure I worked hard back then, but I didn’t work smart. I just assumed that word of my genius would spread like wildfire and they would find me.

I was an asshole then, as you can see.

Thirty-three years later, I may still be an asshole, but I finally get it. There is only one path to success in show business-be funny and work at it. Have goals and work those goals to the exclusion of everything else in your life; Write, network, work. And when the Swamp Thing pops up, kick that son of a bitch right in his fang filled, filthy mouth with the steel-toed boot of resolve.

In just a year and a half back at this I have accomplished more than I did in my first twenty years because I get it now. I won’t let anyone tell me I’m too old or too odd for mass consumption. I won’t allow any thought to be squirreled away because I’m afraid of the public’s reaction if I put it on stage. Indeed, one of the great advantages of getting older is that I just don’t give a flying fig what anyone thinks of me, and that freedom is what allows me to enjoy standup a hundred times more than I did in the past.     

Swamp Thing does his dance occasionally. I fear that nothing I do will be remembered, but then I remember that isn’t the reason I became a comedian. I do it because I love it. I love it because it makes people happy. And when people around me are happy, I’m happy. That’s why any of us should do it I think.

Nothing we do is permanent, yet everything we are has permanence to it. The world will not remember how funny we were no matter how famous we become, yet our influence as people, as comedians, will ripple through the generations. Our age doesn’t define us or diminish our relevance. Those people who won’t give us the opportunity to speak? Fuck em. Do an end run around them. They are the compatriots of Swamp Thing, his legions on the outside world.

Touch people with your comedy, your heart, your love, your voice, and your time here will matter in ways you will never know. Ignore the “No s” you hear, that’s just Swamp Thing, and he can go to hell if you send him there. If you have a dream, make it real! What’s the worst that can happen; you die before it comes to fruition? Well I would much rather my last thought be that I did what I wanted than to see Swamp Thing laughing his scaly head off at my surrender to popular opinion about age.

The blessing of time is that you have a supply of new days to renew yourself. The curse is that they are limited. The gift is that you have a choice in how to spend them. 


That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat. Abbondanza!
   

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Satori-al Splendor


Every now and again, human beings (and for this specific essay,  comedians) are blessed with moments of  satori, which is a Japanese Buddhist term encompassing moments of  awakening, comprehension, understanding and clarity. They are usually fleeting, sometimes lasting only and minute or two but occasionally longer than that. Whatever their length, a satori experience carries a lifelong impact and an elevation in consciousness, often carrying the being experiencing it to new levels of awareness. Sometimes they are blinding, as was the case with the biblical story of Paul on the road to Damascus. I’ve always found him a fascinating character because clearly, they describe someone whose satori experience was so intense that his life was turned around because of it. 

But satori is not always so sudden. It can come over time, the result of a single experience and/or an accumulation of knowledge. It is the culmination of the magnificent human brain processing, dissecting, filtering, sorting, and realization that brings the person to that moment of clarity. Personally, I have had several of them throughout my life; the most significant, of course, was becoming aware of my gender dysphoria.

Now that you know have some background on this wonderful, glorious gift of the universe, you might be wondering, what does this have to do with standup comedy?   

In my first incarnation as a comedian (1980-2000), I can clearly remember wanting to be a writer of clever observations a la Seinfeld. My roommate at the time, Nick Cosentino, had that ability in spades, and I can recall feelings of jealousy toward him because I did not. What I had to offer on stage was more of a personal story, and I capitalized on the usual subjects, family, children spouse and sex. It was an okay act which made me a nice living for a long time, but it was not satisfying to me because even then I knew the part of me that really wanted to speak onstage was living in the shadows. Something dark was haunting me, and although I didn’t know what it was at the time, I was deathly afraid of displaying it even though my instincts screamed that I should. As a result, the potential of my act never materialized and my talent suffered.  Instead of running full speed toward my truth, I ran away and hid from it, mostly because it was too painful to face. I quit comedy because I was getting closer to my truth, not because I was tired of performing. The constant internal struggle between what I really wanted to talk about and my fear of what the public would accept was debilitating. The best thing I could do for myself at that time was to get out.

It would be eleven years before I set foot on a comedy stage again. This time, I decided, I would do it on my terms only. I made a vow that there would be no secrets anymore. All that I was as a person, all that I felt inside, would be fair game up there. I didn’t know if anyone would buy it and to be honest, I didn’t care. If I were to be driven back to anonymity, it would not be because I had feared my truth on stage, but because the public had decided that I was not their cup of tea. I would then go away quietly and permanently.

A year and a half later, I can happily tell you that it appears I took the correct path. I have gone from people telling me that they thought I had either died or went off my nut, to headlining once more. This spring will see the production of a television pilot which I co-created with the insanely talented comedian Joanne Filan. I have a manager now who believes that we are destined for great things. And my audiences have responded in ways that I never could have imagined in the past. Most of all, I’m free up there, unfettered by fear. It is a glorious time and I have never been happier. All of which leads up to this current moment of satori.  
 
In the last few months, my performance skills have improved, and thus my confidence, which is a key ingredient necessary for a comic to grow.

Because of this new-found confidence, I’ve noticed that my act has taken an interesting turn in its subject matter recently. Conscious of my personal vow, I’ve begun to dig deeper and deeper into those areas on which I had previously placed an internal censor and as a result, the responses I’ve gotten from my audiences have also grown in intensity. I did not realize how much progress I’d made until I ran into a couple in the parking lot after last night’s show.

I do a piece (a work in progress) on growing up with abusive parents, particularly my mother’s mental illness issues. It’s a somewhat dark piece and I always sense the audience’s anxiety level rise when I begin it. But here’s what the woman in the parking lot said to me about it.

“I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard. I could relate to everything you were saying about your mother and father, because I had experiences that were very similar”

We spoke for about fifteen minutes. She revealed so much about her difficult childhood, and then she said something that flipped on the satori light.

“A lot of people in that room tonight felt the same way, but were afraid to ever talk or God forbid, laugh about it. Thank you for bringing it out in the open using humor.”

Comedians use common experiences to generate laughter with audiences. The people laugh because they recognize themselves in the comic’s piece. But I had never realized until that moment, that the horrors of my childhood were not mine alone. Others had experienced them with more or less severity, but the scars remained for all of us and needed to be addressed in a public forum other than a group therapy session.  What was so enlightening to me was that I was not alone and that this subject could be dealt with in a comedic manner.

Self-Analytical comedy is not everyone’s strength or forte. Observationalists will always gravitate to that form and I have great respect for it; Prop and musical acts too. But it is to the comedian that wants to know the why and how of whom they are that I urge to take the chance of self revelation up there. Step close to your personal edge. And when that fear starts to well up inside as you do so, take another step. Over time, you will see that your act will become something unlike any other comedian out there, because your story is unlike any other. As your skill grows, so will your voice. You’ll find that once you’ve taken those steps, material will gush from you as never before. It may come as a complete piece,  thought or a phrase or a subject, but it will come. Most of all, have faith in your moments of satori. That’s the universe telling you that you’re on the right track.

That’s it. I’m done bitching. Everybody hug, everybody eat.  Abbondanza!