My Father’s Pen

Sexual Immigrant

My Father’s 1930s Schaeffer Pen

This is a bit off-topic for the Sexual Immigrant theme, but as Braden is magnificently busy and there is no progress to report on our project, I thought I might share some unrelated thoughts.

Of late, I have been slow to rise in the mornings and having trouble accomplishing any but the most necessary of tasks.  I could give any number of influences in this my somewhat dismal mood:  the season of the year, the anniversary of trigger events related to my depression, election results; but I think a good part of it has been my brothers and I going through the last of my Mother’s things, the final half-dozen boxes packed with of pieces of her life. 

Much of it was the impersonal day-to-day stuff – paperclips, pads of paper; much was part of her vast collection of tchotchkes – cute keychain fobs, ceramic cats, bits of costume jewelry pins and necklaces she seldom wore; there were two boxes of VHS tapes, some commercial, some which she’d used to record (with mixed success) shows on TV.  The vast majority of this “stuff” was examined and added to the give-away pile.  There were a few choice bits that evoked memories or were the occasion for a joke (a pocket pack of tissues with only one tissue left), and these we divided among ourselves as we shared stories or in-family references. 

Most of the “important” items had been distributed when my sister was here after Mom’s death – wedding rings, a five-dollar gold piece she’d received from her father – so there was little left that carried truly strong emotional memories.  That is, until we found a small cache of our Father’s special possessions – Masonic pins, his lifetime NRA membership pin, and more.  I passed on most of the items, deferring to my brothers’ interests, until my Father’s old Schaeffer fountain pen rose to our attention.  The pen is probably a decade or more older than me, a beautiful brown and black iridescent body and cap.  I remembered using it to write reports for school, letters to friends, and my early attempts at stories and poetry.  I had thought the pen had been lost in the nearly three decades since Dad’s death and had given it little thought until it reappeared that Saturday afternoon.  I immediately laid claim to it.  The writer in me had found a truly appropriate memento.  I doubt that the ancient rubber bladder can be replaced to make the pen functional again, but it now lies in the warm light of my desk lamp, a connection to my Father, to my childhood, and to the florid outpourings of my teenage mind.

Of my single box of Dr. Seuss books, VHS tapes, cat knick-knacks, and some office supplies, Dad’s pen was the prized item.  Holding it, I suddenly felt a heavy sadness filling my heart.  When I die, the meaning of this piece of vintage plastic from the 1930s will likely die with me.  It will be just a pretty pen that doesn’t work, and likely find itself in the trash – my memories along with it. 

I know that we should not be attached to things, or animals, or each other, but we must make connections if we are to be alive, to love, to believe that we have had some value and purpose in our existence.  There are billions of us human beings, the vast majority of whom live unassuming, quiet, unseen lives.  We keep objects that evoke for us memories of those we have lost to death, dispute, or distance.  I have a plastic red rose that I’ve managed to keep since 1967, a token of my role as Juliet in a high school talent show farce, and a reminder of my dear friend Jim Booth who played the rose vendor.  To anyone else, it is a cheap piece of plastic.  To me it speaks of my first public experience being the female I’d longed to be, my bold announcement to the world that this is who I am.  It reminds me, too, of how I was only safe to do so in the context of a silly skit, that only in a joke was I able to share my true self.  It was the best I could do, and I felt quite brave and triumphant in having been able to reveal myself, even if in such a closeted way.  When someone goes through my “stuff” when I am dead, the rose I’ve kept for fifty years will have lost all its meaning, its power. 

And that is what has made me feel sad.  Those who remember my parents’ stories are fewer, and before too long, Dad’s pen will no longer be alive with the loving connections with which our family has imbued it.  No one will take note of my rose as it makes its final arc into the trash bag.  That is a tragic loss of infinitesimal proportions, repeated countless times each day for all the ordinary and quiet individuals on our planet.  Most of us create little that will be remembered or valued, except by those whom we love and who love us.  And when Dad’s pen becomes just a pen, the stories and the lives end.

Steamposium and … whoever the heck I am

Sexual Immigrant
No – this is not what I looked like . . .

 

I had the great pleasure of attending Steamposium 2016 here in Seattle this last weekend.  It is truly a feast for the eyes – the creativity of the costumes and characterizations, and the amount of skill and talent displayed by the attendees were all a marvel to behold.  And, for me, the sight of so many people going to such length and to such expense to express a part of themselves not necessarily visible in their everyday lives was inspiring.  There were aristocrats and mechanics, airship crew and mercenaries, commanding sea Captains and pirates, stealthy characters in black and ladies in hoop skirts; top hats, corsets, millinery and goggles abounded. 

 

I attended on Friday in my generic Steampunk outfit of plaid trousers, stripped blouse, “period” shoes from Nordstrom’s, brown vest, cap, and, of course, goggles.  I didn’t have a character or a history, and I just wandered around, taking in panels on making covered buttons and the use of programmable computer chips to control lights and sensors in one’s props.  I spoke to very few people, as I did not have a base from which to begin.  As much as I loved all that I saw, I felt – as many of us so often do – a bit of an outsider, imagining that everyone else was much more connected to the “Steampunk Community” than I could ever hope to be.  I left before the evening festivities began.  And I skipped attending on Saturday entirely.  But I had an idea.

 

Gathering some previous finds from Goodwill, some dye, and a bit of imagination, I stitched together an outfit for Sunday.  The upper class had been well-represented on Friday, so I decided I would be a beggar.  My petticoats were frayed, ragged, and stained.  My striped stockings were likewise in a poor state.  My holey shawl covered my ill-fitting vest and grimy cardigan, and my hands in their smudged fingerless gloves clutched a filthy blood-soaked rag into which I frequently coughed.  I did not wear my glasses, but carried a reading lens on leather lanyard.  My face, chest, and hands were thinly smeared with grey makeup, adding to my unkempt air.  I was not a pretty sight, but I was someone.  I held out a yellow-enameled tin cup, and offered to tell fortunes with my Steampunk-themed tarot cards for a penny.  I approached people easily – boldly even – and gave them my blessings even though most folks turned away uncomfortably with the same dissonant smile one sees on the faces of folks encountering authentic beggars on the streets.  “I’m sorry,” said the lords and ladies in their finery, “I don’t have a penny.”  A few, though, stopped and dropped a coin, or even a dollar, in my cup and chose three cards for me to read.  It was a challenge without my glasses, leaning closely over the cards to read them, but I was able to please my benefactors with the short stories we wove from those ancient archetypes and symbols. 

 

It was a very different day from my Friday experience.  I had created for myself a character, a role, and a reason to interact with people.  Of course, I wondered to myself why I had really chosen to be dirty, ugly, and poor; what self-image was I projecting?  At the same time I knew that my beggar-self needed to solicit attention from those who passed by me, or she would go home hungry (figuratively). 

 

In my “real” life as a Sexual Immigrant, I have, of late, tended to keep to myself, infrequently leaving my art-filled room, feeling weary of having to navigate the world that so often misreads my usual presentation.  Residual paranoia and unwanted pronouns pierce like darts, adding to decades of small scars, a pox upon my soul.  I do not like the character I play in the real world, and so I have preferred to avoid that particular theater as much as I can.  Interestingly, when I became my beggar woman character, I had defined myself (albeit fictionally) and accordingly felt more confident engaging others. 

 

I am reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Who am I this time?”  Why is it easier to be a fiction?  Does make-believe give us the illusion of control in a world in which we truly have only a weak grip on the reins?  Why could I speak to strangers easily as a character I’d created when it is so difficult for me to play myself?  There is a lesson for me in there somewhere….

Sexual Immigrant
Seeing the world through amber-colored goggles…

 

More on the Immigrant metaphor…

A neighbor recently gave me a copy of Suki Kim’s novel “The Interpreter” and my curiosity bumped it to the head of my reading pile.  It’s a poignant story of two sisters, daughters of Korean immigrants to the U.S.  It is well worth picking up.

One of the themes that struck me was their desperate dream of being “American girls, full-fledged American darlings, more golden than the girl next door, even cheerier than the prom queen, definitely sweeter than all-American sweethearts.  Far, far away from their parents’ Korea, which stuck to them like an ugly tattoo.  How misguided such a dream….”  The main character, Suzy, finds a high school newsletter entitled “Generation 1.5” which represents those who were born and lived in Korea in their early years, who, although fluent in English, will forever have a Korean accent, will forever be a “point five.”

This idea of being “in between” resonated with me as a Sexual Immigrant.  I, too, had wanted to be a full-fledged American girl, far, far away from being the boy that clings to me like an ugly tattoo.  I, too, realize how misguided a dream it was.  I am part of neither the world of men nor the world of women.  I am the “point five” that lives between the integers.  While I’m thankful that our society is becoming aware of us “point fives” and taking amazingly fast steps to accept us as real people, we still live in a very uncomfortable border zone where even our need for a safe place to pee labels us as predators and perverts, outsiders.

I am delighted that young “point fives” are finding the support, direction, and encouragement they need and deserve, that they can be out and proud.  My own journey required too many years of hiding, of guilt and doubt, of uncertainty.  I cannot yet be proud of – whatever I am.  I have a long way to go.

 

Why “Sexual Immigrant”?

Visa

When I first began my docupoetic project decades ago, the term “transsexual” was more in favor than the current overall term, “transgender,” and, naively, my dream and prayer had been to be “reborn” as a female, with all the associated biological gifts and curses.  As I began my journey in earnest in the 80’s, I wanted to find a phrase that summarized my experience.  Being, at the time, a foreigner living in Canada, I merely granted myself yet another “outsider” status and thus came the Sexual Immigrant image that is at the heart of the poetry.  While I suppose I could change the phrase to “Gender Immigrant,” I prefer the sound and rhythm of my original choice, and feel that it is closer to my heart’s truest wish.

 
Depending on whom you ask, sex and gender are taken to mean the same thing, or, more prevalently and more clearly, sex refers to biology and gender to social attributes.  As we do not yet have William Gibson’s nanites that can completely remodel one’s physical self over-night, we are, for the time being, forced to concede that one cannot truly change one’s sex, only one’s gender.

 
In the immigrant imagery, I feel this means that the Sexual Immigrant does not receive citizenship, not even eventually, nor does she receive a “green card.”  At best, she receives a student visa, and that only reluctantly.  All the same, she does what she can to find her true homeland, and accepts whatever political status she can acquire.

 
When I began my journey, many years ago, the expected goal was to “pass.”  This meant doing everything one could do to be viewed and accepted as a female.  There was even a requirement that one had to successfully live “full-time” as a woman for at least a year before one was considered a candidate for surgery.  One could not even contact the gender INS before this work was completed, and documented by a psychiatrist/psychologist.

 
For me, ultimately, the idea of “passing” was a destructive one.  I was required not only to hide, but to adopt the outward appearance of a stereotype.  This necessity came at odds with the feminist theology I was studying in the eighties:  I could not reconcile adopting stereotypical appearance and behavior, while at the same time supporting the struggle of liberation-based theology to break down the stereotypes and restrictive roles expected of women.

 

The combination was emotionally crushing and intellectually frustrating.  The best solution was to adopt the role of perpetual tomboy and androgyny:  pink shirts, earrings, a hint of eye make-up, grow my hair longer.  I avoided other trans folk, feeling that it was much easier to pass as an individual in a crowd than as a member of a group of like folk.  I became overly critical of my trans sisters, and eventually isolated from them.  I told myself that I was passing – in spite of the frequent evidence to the contrary.  I didn’t know what the hell I was, only that I was neither fish nor fowl.  I became the Sexual Immigrant – doing my best to fit in, to not offend, to be invisible in a country where I did not belong.  There was no need for an external wall to keep me out:  I had built one around myself.

The False Binary

sexual immigrant Kay Lutz Braden Duncan
One side or the other

The Sexual Immigrant’s journey is a difficult one.  In a primarily binary world, she feels her choices are limited, and yet her very existence challenges those limitations.  She is a paradox who mines the either ore of fantasy, desire, wishes, hope, and identity.

Here is one of the poems to be included in the project.

Border

Border-born
Nature-nurture neuroses nightmare,
The Sexual Immigrant
lives in two worlds
and in neither.

Netherland.

Border-bounding,
Forever re-crossing
the line;
criss-crossing –
frequent, but not far –
the Sexual Immigrant
lives on and along
the red line between two powers,
two definitions,
two citizenships.

Border slang.
Both and neither.
A corruption,
not acceptable in the cultural centers,
not taught in schools.

The Sexual Immigrant speaks
of the edges of maps.

 

The journey begins…

Sexual Immigrant Sign in Process 2 - 50percent

The project will explore, through poetry and watercolor, the journey of a Sexual Immigrant.  She will share with you her transition from one country, one culture, one identity, one gender to another.  Her words reflect the challenges she experienced as she stumbled along her path.   The poetry is autobiographical; the images are Braden’s responses to the writing.

When she first realized she walked a different path, the Sexual Immigrant did not have the words to describe herself.  She only knew that she was frighteningly different from her family and friends, and that she needed to keep that difference hidden.  As a teen, she had learned from her church that such differences would lead her soul to hell.  In a world without Google, she had to rely on library card catalogs and periodical indexes.  The few books she found were dated psychology or psychiatry books that gave her disturbing labels:  transvestite, transsexual, pervert, degenerate.   The books discussed treatments – shock therapy, aversion therapy – anything that would knock the sense into the unfortunate individual.

When she served in the military, she began to see some of the legal implications of her secret journey:  courts martial, imprisonment, dishonorable discharge.

Of course, all along the roadway, she heard the jeers, condemnations, and hatred for those of her kind.  She saw no road to her destination, only the spiritual, social, and legal detours to destruction were illuminated on her rough, hand-drawn map.

The poetry in this project has been written over the course of more than thirty years and documents a six-decade journey.