Last night, I returned to my hotel room, briefly flipped through the channels on the TV, then turned off the lights and went to sleep. It was 8:30pm. I was exhausted, like Justin Bieber on a fifty-stop international stadium tour, except I am playing at gender-neutral housing floors, LGBTQ Centers at colleges, and fringe conferences like Transcending Boundaries.
Of all the conferences I attended this year (Philly Trans Health, Butch Voices, Southern Comfort, WPATH), Transcending Boundaries has been my favorite. This is the gathering ground for outsiders to the outsiders, queers of all stripes – trans, genderqueer, intersex, poly, kinky, asexual – and although my behaviors and looks are rather vanilla in these surroundings, my heart is as freaky as they come.
I led a writing workshop, my second ever, and without a doubt, the most anxiety-provoking event on my schedule. But people showed up (about 20), the first hurdle at any conference with tons of programming. And, they even wrote during the exercise portion. It’s so interesting to me that the participants can talk to the end of time about the obstacles to writing, but if they’re in a room and told to write, inevitably their pens will start moving. I feel relief when this happens — the weight of silence lifted and reassurance that the prompts I offered (usually too many) prompted something.
I threw out the identity words, all the ones that fell under the Transcending Boundaries umbrella, and let people define these words for themselves, not dictionary definitions but personal definitions. The greatest surprise was everyone’s eagerness to share what they wrote. One person said that this was the most comfortable they ever felt writing and sharing. Then it hit me: In what other writing workshop context could these people write about being intersex or trans in complete safety, letting down their outsider defenses for a moment.
This environment affected me too, because for my author reading, part of the Saturday night entertainment, I read a scene from my book that I’d never felt comfortable reading before: the sex scene. I joked that it was kiddie erotica, a warm-up to the second part of the night: Tristan Taormino and Kate Bornstein read from the new Trans and Genderqueer Erotica Anthology. Nice company, eh?
Finally getting to meet Kate, who so kindly endorsed my book, was pretty awesome. Her keynote address and her simple presence inspired me; her support, encouragement, and advice was an added bonus. This author event, in the grand ballroom, was the largest venue and largest crowd I’d ever read to, and their laughter indicated they were having fun. The ASL interpreters seemed to be having the most fun, using their whole bodies to translate what was mostly sex writing.
I still find myself thinking about this day, the inclusiveness of it, the people beaten down daily by dominant culture, finding a home, space, and community.
On Sunday morning, I drove to Hanover, New Hampshire via Vermont (apparently there are only a few highways in New Hampshire). Everything in New England is like one to two hours away from everything else, and I’m really enjoying the road and the fall scenery. Sometime in the past weeks, the leaves went from red/orange to nonexistent on the creep toward winter.
At Dartmouth, I spoke to the gender-neutral housing floor at a Sunday brunch, doing my best to engage a crowd that was tired, in sweatpants, part queer, and part just wanting to live in this specific campus housing – this second group laughed particularly hard when I did the, “I’m just a straight, white guy” imitation of my brother.
After the formal part of my event, I ate a late lunch with a few of the students (rugby players like me once). I particularly liked hearing about their experiences as being out on campus. In the groupings of dyke college students, there seems to be queer activist types and closeted sporty lesbian types – I was the latter, not quite closeted, but I had a girlfriend rather than an identity. These students were so well-spoken and mature that I kept thinking we were around the same age until they would throw around the terms “thirteens” and “fourteens” to describe the class of 2013 and 2014. I graduated college in 1999, which in this context sounded long time ago.
Last night, I spoke at Brown as part of their Transgender Awareness Week to a relatively large crowd of interested undergrads – by far the most students in one room. I read mostly the funny scenes and sweated so much that armpit stains bled all the way to my forearm. One of the kids came up afterwards and told me that he lives in Nebraska and that a few kids in his youth group read my book this summer, and that it helped them out. There have been a handful of these moments so far, someone approaching me in tears to tell me how much my book mattered to them, that it was the first time they saw themselves reflected in literature.
Throughout the writing process, I didn’t think all that much about the people who would read my book. I mean, I did theoretically, in the sense of my “audience.” But not in the sense of actual people with actual experiences connecting with me as a character, and now me as the author, a person, like them, with struggles and triumphs.
I am loving every moment of this trip, even when the kids text while I speak, or when only a few show up and the ones that do appear as if they are one blink away from nodding off. I am in Amherst now after a small lunch at Hampshire College. I am trying to accept that I am tired, that I may be tired until this tour is over. But I know that when I step to the front of Food For Thought Books tonight and see the rapt faces of a few folks in the crowd, I will get my second wind. I always do.