Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Officially" Transgendered

While in the US attitudes towards gays, lesbians and transgendered people are changing, there is still a stigma present that makes it difficult for many young people exploring their sexuality to do so freely and safely. While on the one hand there is the tragic story of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi,  who committed suicide after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him in an intimate encounter with another man, on the other there are movements such as The Trevor Project and It Gets Better that speak
Anna Grodzka - Poland's first transsexual MP
Anna Grodzka
against hate and intolerance aimed at gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered individuals.

Moreover, it is still in the fashion (see Designer's Choice: Transsexual Models) and entertainment segments of American society and elsewhere that people who see themselves as other than heterosexual seem to be most visible (think Chaz Bono on Dancing With the Stars). While worldwide countries such as Nepal and Pakistan are legalizing third gender roles, in the US gender diversity is still a contested topic. But, there are stories of professionally successful transgendered people who are clearly accepted in mainstream society here and in other Western nations.

Recently, Poland's first transsexual member of parliament, fifty-seven-year-old Anna Grodzka, was sworn in following the general election in October.  Grodzka was previously a man, known as Krzysztof, before having surgery in Thailand. While Poland has been a traditionally socially conservative country, Grodzka's Palikot Movement has taken a strong anti-clerical stance, criticizing Roman Catholic priests involved in politics. This coupled with the waning influence of the church allowed Grozka to win 10% of the vote and make the Palikot Movement the third largest political party in Poland.

Georgina Beyer in 1993, the newest councillor on the Carterton District Council
Georgina Beyer, 1993
Long before Anna Grodzka, however, New Zealand's Georgina Beyer, neé George Bertrand, was very likely the first transsexual in the world to win a seat in a national office; Beyer was elected to the New Zealand Parliament by a mostly white, rural, conservative constituency that was perfectly aware of her background.

Of Maori heritage, Georgina grew up on a rural farm, an indigenous young man coming of age in a society dominated by white privilege. Georgina's story only begins here; she was 'educated' in the streets and clubs of urban New Zealand, spending time in prostitution and using drugs, working as a singer and dancer in the transvestite nightclubs of Wellington and Auckland. After a brutal rape, Georgina retreated to the "remote" town of Carterton for drug rehabilitation, became a community organizer, was elected mayor of the town in 1999, and eventually made her way to the national stage as a member of parliament. Her story is told in all of its elegance, humor and irony in the documentary, Georgie Girl. I saw the New York premier of this film at the Asia Society and was both entertained and inspired. Especially when the film showed a clip of Georgina's elderly, rural white constituents talking about "our Georgie."

Amanda Simpson
Amanda Simpson
In the United States, in 2010, President Barack Obama appointed Amanda Simpson, 49, senior technical adviser at the commerce department in the bureau of industry of security. Simpson changed from a man to a woman in the late 1990s while working in Arizona at the missile firm Raytheon. A former test pilot for Raytheon, the Telegraph reported that Simpson persuaded the company "to adopt a policy protecting employees from discrimination and abuse based on gender identity." In her governmental position, Simpson is in charge of protecting national security through the management of international trade, enforcement of treaties as well as the promotion of homeland, economic and cyber security. In regards to her new employment status Simpson said:

I'm truly honored to have received this appointment and am eager and excited about this opportunity that is before me . . .  But as one of the first transgender presidential appointees to the federal government, I hope that I will soon be one of hundreds, and that this appointment opens future opportunities for many others.

 I find it interesting that while Chaz Bono's stint on DWTS was plastered on every major newspaper and celebrity magazine in the US, I found Simpson's announcement in the The Telegraph.

In November, 2010, Alameda County elected 49-year-old California patent lawyer Victoria Kolakowski as the United States first openly transgender trial judge. Kolakowski beat prosecutor John Creighton 51 to 48 percent, a margin of nearly 10,000 votes, to become a member of California's Superior Court. Previously, Kolakowski was an administrative law judge for three years working on energy contract and compliance disputes for the California Public Utilities Commission.

As I write this, I wonder if it is a coincidence that both Simpson and Kolakowski were both 49 years-old at the time of their appointments. At this age biological women would be going through menopause and entering obscurity in the American public eye as 'gendered women,' by which I mean they would no longer draw attention for their beauty or ugliness, their fertility or lack there of.

Indeed, historically and worldwide, postmenopausal women have often gained positions of importance normally reserved for men in politics. Remember Margaret Thatcher, Gold Meir and Indira Ghandi? Currently serving are Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany; Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Prime Minister of Iceland; Pratibha Devisingh Patil, President of India; Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia; Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh; Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia and many more in Brazil, Finland, Kyrgystan, Slovakia and Switzerland (for a little insight on this read Gender and the Company We Keep). Perhaps because middle-aged, menopausal women become invisible in the sexual/youth-centered American psyche, accomplished transgendered women can succeed minus the fanfare, both pro and con, as we seem to either applaud or bash a person's appearance according to prevalent norms. But I digress!

Victoria Kolakowski
Victoria Kolakowski
In their coverage of the November 2010 elections in the US, the New York Times published an provided an overview of transgendered candidates running for office in California, Oklahoma, Oregon and Maryland entitled, "Advocates Hope Transgender Identity is not a Defining One." 

This article states that "gay rights activists hope that the visibility of the candidates will help normalize people’s relations with people who are transgender — a broad category that includes heterosexual cross-dressers, homosexual drag queens and kings, and those who believe that they were born in the wrong body."

Yes, I look forward to the day when people can just be people, not referenced by race/ethnicity, gender/sexual preference, age or any other qualifier, seen simply as a person good at their job.

Also of interest: Third Gender Legalized in Pakistan, In Nepal: Third Gender Citizens Recognized
Also related: the story of Zuni 'princess' We'wha, a two-spirit 'man-woman' who represented the Zuni nation to leaders in Washington, DC, in 1886.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Voodoo 'and/or' Catholicism

Pope Benedict XVI is touring Benin in West Africa. While in Europe Catholics are leaving the church in record numbers, West Africa's Catholic population is thriving and Benin boasts the world's fasted growing Catholic population. Indeed, the next Pope may be African as high ranking bishops and monsignors from this region move into important leadership positions in the Catholic Church.

However, Benin also recognizes Voudoo as its official religion and high ranking Voodoo priests were invited to meet the Pope on his current visit. While 22% of the people in Benin identify themselves as Muslims and 27% as Christians, 40% follow Voodoo. In Benin as well as in Ghana, Nigeria and Togo, people have no problem syncretizing Voodoo with Islam or Christianity, especially during times of stress. Voodoo is however, more than a religion. It comprises culture, philosophy, language, art, dance, music and medicine. Ordinary people ask Voodoo priests to intervene for them with the gods. These divinities are specialized, similar to Catholic saints, who intervene for people in times of need. For example, there are over 5,000 saints and some examples include: Saint Christopher, patron of travel; Saint Francis of Assisi, patron of animals; and Marie Bernadette, patron of the sick. In Voodoo, Gou is associated with war and blacksmiths, Sakpata with illness, healing and earth, Heviosso with storms, lightning and justice and Mama Wata-with water. Locals in Africa insist their religion has nothing to do with sorcery or black magic.

West Africans brought Voodoo to Haiti where it continues to blend alongside French colonial Catholicism. Some of the 100 Voodoo gods and goddesses have mirrors in particular saints who, while similar, are not exactly the same in their myths and abilities. For example, Mary is Ezili the Voodoo love spirit, Saint Patrick is Danbala the serpent spirit, the peasant farmer Azaka is Saint Isidore and Saint James is the warrior Ogou. On the altars in priestesses' homes one can see images of these Catholic saints side-by-side with candles, powders, herbs, oils, roots, perfume and a variety of liquors, all important elements of Voodoo ceremonies.

And in New York, you can also find a Voodoo priestess in Brooklyn - Mama Lola. For an in depth look at this contemporary Voodoo healer, read Karen McCarthy Brown's fascinating ethnography of Mama Lola.

As a Catholic by birth but not by practice, I find it interesting that the fastest growing populations of new Catholics reside in Africa, emerging from peoples whose own Voodoo beliefs involve the literal sacrifice of animals, theatrical ceremonies filled with pageantry, the consumption of alcohol and the worship of supreme beings. While I found the guilt and patriarchy of my own childhood Catholicism overbearing and frightful, I may be willing to sit with Mama Lola in her home and see if her approach to the gods feels more welcoming.

Worshippers carry oil lanterns and dance during a night time procession through the streets of Benin"s main city of Cotonou, 17 November 2011
Africa has the Roman Catholic church's fastest growing congregation.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

'Mining' Trash

Guatemala Trash Miners
In this photo taken Thursday Oct. 6, 2011, a man holds up a gold ring he found as he was searching for scrap metal in contaminated water at the bottom of one of the biggest trash dumps in the city, known as "The Mine," in Guatemala City.

Last month  in "Working at the Dump" I wrote about people around the world who work and sometimes live in their city's waste. Here, in the Huffington Post, "Guatemala Trash 'Miners'," everyday people descend 300 feet into a ravine below a landfill and amid "foul odors, the danger of unstable piles of garbage collapsing and the chance for heavy rain to suddenly raise the water level" dozens search for jewelry and other metal scraps that remain behind when the lighter garbage washes away. They can make the equivalent of $20 a day or more, as good as a regular job for the poor of this country. Though illegal and dangerous - some 'miners' have died while others have suffered broken bones in flash floods in the ravine - the work can be lucrative.

These 'miners' are modern day hunters and gatherers, finding opportunity and resources wherever they can. If you are !Kung, you can roam the Kalahari desert, hunting giraffe and other wild beasts and gathering wild fruits and high protein mongongo nuts. Urban dwellers however need cash to purchase their food and pay for housing. So, if you live in Guatemala City, you head to the landfill hoping to find jewelry or to "collect screws, faucets and other recyclable metal items that" you can sell for 85 cents a pound, eraning twice the minimum wage on average per 'scavenger trip.'

Cultural adaptation for the poor?

 Click here to view the photo essay from the Huffington Post.