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My friend Jorge read the following poem from the Great Sufi Master Hafiz at Ashlie’s bedside on our last day with her. My dear friend Dan read it again, at her memorial. I take comfort in these words today as we mark the four-year anniversary of her death.

Love is
the funeral pyre
where i have laid my living body.
 
All the false notions of myself
that once caused fear, pain,
have turned to ash
as i neared God.
 
What has risen
from the tangled web of thought and sinew
now shines with jubilation
through the eyes of angels
and screams from the guts of
infinite existence
itself.
 
Love is the funeral pyre
where the heart must lay
its body.
 
- Hafiz (translation by Daniel Ladinsky)
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@ Dimensions Clinic - S.F. Spring 2008

 S.F. Spring 2008

 

“No, see Brer Rabbit lives in the briar patch,” I say, “so it’s reverse psychology when he begs Brer Fox not to toss him in there.”

“Like if I pleaded with you not to take me to San Francisco?” Alice says.

“Well kinda, except that you’re not from San Francisco.”

“But I want to be.”

“Lucky for you, we’re halfway there.”

Alice has taken over the stereo and we’re listening to Devin The Dude’s “Briarpatch” as we fly along Interstate 5 on our way to San Francisco. I’ve spent the last ten minutes giving her the Cliffs Notes of Uncle Remus, complete with cultural context. It’s part of our little unspoken game; I listen to her music and she abides my literary lectures.

We’re making our third trip to Dimensions Health Clinic today. On our first visit, we met Dr. Diane and Alice submitted to a full physical. On the second visit, we acquired a prescription for Spironolactone, an anti-androgen which blocks the production of testosterone. This means that she won’t develop further secondary sex characteristics any time soon. For as long as she continues the medication, her voice won’t get deeper and she won’t grow facial hair. It is, in effect, as if puberty has been put on pause. One of the things that makes agreeing to Spironolactone a no-brainier is the fact that its effects are reversible. If she stops taking this particular medication, puberty will proceed normally.

In the month since Alice’s revelation, we’ve had many conversations about estrogen. I’ve researched the hell out of hormone therapy and still wasn’t ready to agree to it until a couple of nights ago when Jay brought it up.

“Al has a hint of an Adam’s apple. I noticed it tonight at dinner.” He lifts his hand to his own throat. “And all I could think was six months sooner and we could have caught that.”

It hits me then that if we are committed to going down this road, then withholding one of the necessary keys simply because I’m afraid of what other people will think is cruel.

If I honestly believe that Alice is Alice and not Jordan, which I do, then withholding hormone therapy makes little sense. If she were ten or twelve, there’d be more time to think about it, but she’ll be sixteen in three months and I’ve seen those sixteen year-old girls. She’s got some catching up to do.

With her arm out the window, riding the waves of wind, Alice sings along with Devin:

“You can carve me

tie me up and starve me
put me on the grill

still nothing can harm me
like the briar patch.”

Nestled into San Francisco’s Castro District, Dimensions Health Clinic is known for its treatment of and support for transgender youth. Currently, our insurance won’t cover these visits or her meds, so we’re out-of-pocketing the sliding-scale fees. It’s worth it though to walk into a place where no one looks at you funny, where you don’t have to explain yourselves and educate people with an alphabet of letters after their names, hoping to god they understand.

The waiting room itself makes me smile. We sit among girls with traces of facial hair and boys with visible binders beneath their t-shirts. Some of them blend in like Ari and William, others will never blend but still dare to be who they are. Just a few short weeks ago, I might have felt out of place here, but sitting beside Alice, in this long line of plastic chairs, I am completely at ease.

Dr. Diane spends twenty-five minutes with us. She asks Alice more probing questions and answers every one of mine. She’s clear about what kind of physical results we can expect from the estrogen as well as the common side effects.

“If you can find a GP near home who’s willing to manage Alice’s meds,” Dr. Diane says, “I’ll be available to consult.” She hugs Alice as she hands over a prescription for Estrodial. “Otherwise, I’ll see you next month.”

On our way out, I stop at the reception desk to make a follow-up appointment. Alice stands beside me, fanning herself with her prescription. A red-headed woman seated near the front of the waiting room leans towards her.

“Titty Skittles?” she asks, gesturing towards the prescription.

I laugh out loud.

“Yes!” Alice says grinning .

“First time?” the redhead asks.

Alice nods, still grinning.

“Welcome to the club. I’m Marie. Two years HRT.”

We must look momentarily confused because she follows with, “Hormone Replacement Therapy,” then pivots and with a perfectly manicured finger, starts pointing at others in the waiting room. “That’s Julia, four months; Emma, six weeks; and over there is Yvette…forever.”

The last woman Marie points to scowls. “What the hell you talkin’ about my business for?”

“Little sister here just got her first E scrip,” Marie says.

There’s a smattering of applause, but the older scowling woman just says, “Harrumph,” and goes back to her magazine. As we’re walking out past her, though, she looks up and gestures for Alice to come over. Timidly, Alice complies.

“Fourteen years I’ve been on Hormone Replacement Therapy,” Yvette says, rubbing her deeply-lined cheek, “but I got a late start. You’re young. You’ll fill out nice.”

Alice whispers “thank you” before following me out the door.

The Castro District has been the gay cultural center of San Francisco since the early 70s. Still, I didn’t even know the neighborhood existed until college, when I came to the city with a couple of friends to explore the shops and eateries of Castro Street.

On each of our clinic trips, Alice and I have treated ourselves to some window-shopping, ultimately ending up at Escape from NY Pizza for a couple of slices before we head back over the bridge and into the Valley. The twenty dollars I gave Alice earlier is burning a hole in her pocket, so I frequently lose her as she dashes into stores in search of the perfect souvenir.

At one point, she makes a beeline for an antique shop that has a cabinet of trinkets and old cigarette cases in the window. I follow her into the narrow space and wander around while she tries to get the shopkeeper’s attention. I’m halfway to the back of the store before I realize that nearly all of the statues, paintings and knick knacks are phallic in nature. I am, in fact, standing beside a six-foot tall redwood carved penis. I am not horrified by this, just surprised.

When I turn to get Alice’s attention, I can’t help but notice the expansive canvas with a well-endowed nude sprawled across black velvet hanging just above her. The gentleman behind the counter, now pricing antique Zippo lighters for my teenage daughter, is visibly irritated. As casually as possible, I make my way back to the mouth of the store and call out to Alice.

“Come on, honey. I’m starving.”

“But Mom—”

“Al, NOW.”

Finally, much to the relief of both the shopkeeper and myself, she abandons the shiny things and exits the store. I walk fast until we’re at the end of the block. Alice has to jog to catch up.

“What’s up with you?” she asks once I’ve slowed down.

“Did you look around at all while we were in there?”

“Is this like how you wouldn’t let us go into Spencer’s Gifts at the mall when were kids?”

“No. Spencer’s Gifts is raunchy. That store is just clearly a male space.”

“Admit it Mom, you ran out of the cock shop because you were embarrassed.”

“Alice, your mouth!”

“I’m sorry. Would you prefer Penis Palace?”

“And I did not run. I walked…at an accelerated pace.”

“I really wanted that old Zippo.”

“Yeah, well I wanted the marble phallus with wings, but I suspect that both were out of our price range.”

Up on the next block, she spots a Human Rights Campaign (HRC) outpost. She starts to open the door, then turns around with a smirk.

“You think you can handle this?”

I swat her and we enter the store laughing. We’re in there for a long while, due in no small part to the twenty-something clerk with obscenely beautiful eyes who flirts mercilessly with Alice. As I watch them I’m acutely aware that this is the first time I’ve seen her flirt with a boy.

My little Romeo has morphed into a Juliet, leaning onto the glass counter as the boy behind it pulls out trays of bracelets, rings and whatnots, all stamped with some version of the HRC logo, that big yellow equal sign on a bright blue background. In the end, she selects a chunky ring and a fistful of stickers which will end up plastered pretty much everywhere she goes for the next three weeks.

We finally make our way to Escape From NY Pizza where I grab a couple of gourmet veggie slices and root beers from the cute hippie boy behind the counter. I bring them to a table near the window and sit down across from Alice.

“Were you flirting with that dude?” she asks in an exaggerated whisper.

“I was smiling,” I correct her, “not flirting.”

“That was some awfully loud smiling.” She sits back, looking smug as she takes a sip of root beer.

“This from the girl who just spent twenty minutes making googly eyes with the boy at the HRC store?”

“Yes, but he started it. This poor pizza boy was just mindin’ his own business.”

I love her so much in this moment, in this place. There is no chip on her shoulder, no defense-mechanisms set to high alert. There are no strangers staring at us unabashedly and the few glances that do come our way are accompanied by sly smiles. I can’t help but think of how much easier her transition would be if we lived in a place like this.

As we leave the city and head back into the Valley, Alice is sleepy and doesn’t talk much. At one point, though, she curls around in the passenger seat to face me.

“I don’t really like boys, but that guy in the Human Rights shop was cute.”

“Indeed he was.”

“And he said I should come to the Pride Parade this summer.”

“Let’s wait a couple of years on that one.”

“Why?”

“It’s a little like Spencer’s Gifts.”

“Raunchy?”

“Yeah. But we can go to the parade in Santa Cruz in June. You’ve always liked that one and everyone we know will be there.”

“Cool.”

A while later, Briarpatch comes around on the stereo again. Halfway through the song, Alice speaks without opening her eyes.

“Santa Cruz was my briarpatch, wasn’t it?”

“Mine too, babygirl.”

“San Francisco would be okay though. It’s nice not feeling like a freak.”

She sleeps while I drive and I feel a little jealous. I am exhausted from navigating Market Street with its awkward lanes and lack of left turns, from scouring the Castro District for suitable parking, from thinking of the work piling up in my office as I’ve taken yet another day off to manage Alice’s life and, most of all, from the necessity of making this terrifying journey in the first place without a well-marked road map. One of those familiar black and yellow “…For Dummies” books dedicated to parenting a transgender teen would be nice right about now.

When I signed on the appropriate line in the doctor’s office at 10:45 this morning so Alice could start estrogen therapy, it was not on a whim, but rather the result of an agonizing process, weighing the risks and benefits for her in the long term. It was also a conscious choice to parent in the manner I believe to be best, rather than the one which would sit better with everyone else. I was confident that I was doing the right thing, but of course, I second-guess myself all the way home.

[Escape From The Penis Palace is an excerpt from “The Complicated Geography of Alice“, a memoir currently in search of the perfect publisher. If you would like to read more, you can find Laurustina.com on Facebook and get notification when the blog is updated and the book is released.]
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Alice has been be-bopping near the kitchen window for nearly an hour when William Carlos arrives. It is ten days after her revelation, the one in which she told us that she was in fact SHE. That same evening, I begged my friend William Carlos to "come as soon as you can". Now that he's parked in front of the house however, Alice suddenly goes all shy and flies down the hall to her room. I walk out to the street to greet him, inwardly empathizing with Alice's panic because despite our six-year friendship, I am still a little bit in awe of him myself.

There has always been an awkward intimacy to our friendship, the kind I imagine Twelve-Step program members must share; We've talked about our dark secrets, but not our favorite sports. I know your greatest desires, but not how you take your eggs. We have existed at the edges of one another's lives all this time and now, because of Alice, I have yanked William Carlos into the messy reality of mine.

As I come down the walkway, he slings a backpack over his shoulder and crosses the lawn. He is small but not delicate, with dark eyes and now, at twenty-five, a scruffy chin. I hug him hard.

“Thank you, I wouldn't …” but before I can finish my thought, Alice comes bounding out the front door.

“Hi hi.” She calls out, smiling widely.

“Hi yourself.” William Carlos grins at her as she hops about in front of us. She's wearing a pink and white striped t-shirt and her new hip-huggers. The pants cut across her waist, giving her a chunky little bulge that could almost pass for burgeoning hips. She's dipped too heavily into my makeup box, but when Will hugs her, I can see her actually blush beneath that too- thick layer of foundation.  

“Look at you.” he says to her as we head on into the house.

Dinner is overly-polite but uneventful. It strikes me that this is the first time the five of us have ever shared a meal and I swirl noodles onto my fork while trying to decide if I never invited him before because he was a part of my life that I only shared with my family second-hand or I simply assumed that he'd find our ordinary life particularly boring.

Max cleans up the kitchen and then goes off with his friends while William Carlos and Alice bundle up and install themselves out on the back porch. She's animated, talking with her hands as much as her mouth and  as always, he is listening, waiting for the right moment to ask the right questions. I resist the urge to join them and instead curl up on the couch with a book, sneaking glances through the sliding glass door. I crack the book open but can't focus on the story. I just keep thinking how lucky we are that William Carlos came through the door of the Women's Center in Santa Cruz six years ago with his fistful of savage poetry.

I was producing a benefit show for the center, which provides domestic violence services for victims and survivors of abuse. I'd put out a call for art and poetry and a week before the event, William, who was not yet called William, showed up on a skateboard and in a baseball cap, thrusting  a crumpled stack of pages into my hand. Later that day, I was reviewing the submissions and halfway through his second poem, I realized that I was crying. Not because the poems were sad. The stories we heard and the work we did every day was sad but this writing was alive with defiance, playful, cocky, and brutally brilliant. After the event, I all but begged him to be my friend and for reasons I've never understood, he consented.

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Five days after Alice reveals herself as, well HERself, and two days after she breaks the news to Jay and Max, we have the following conversation.

So who should we tell next?”

Everyone” she responds.

And when should we tell them?”

Immediately. But you should be the Chief Informer, because you're good with words.” She's clearly pandering but I let it slide. After all, I've been trying to manage the disconnect between this child and the rest of the world for long enough that by now it's second nature.

I start my awkward announcements that same Monday morning at the Skilled Nursing Facility where I work as an Office Manager. I'm sifting through a stack of papers from my mailbox in the Admitting office when my coworker Sherry asks one of those polite-chatter questions.

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Yesterday, while wandering through the wonders of the internet(s), I came upon an essay by Stephen Ira which was (specifics aside) a critique of media portrayals of trans people. The article gnawed at me all day and by this morning, once I was able to untangle my internal response, I realized I feared that in writing and sharing our story, I am furthering that narrative.

“This construction of the emotionally tortured transsexual does another important job: it normalizes trans suffering. Much of the emotional suffering that trans people have to deal with is a result of cissexism.  Lack of access to medical care, disrespect from family and peers, and constant media reminders that trans bodies are worthless and require frequent monitoring/destroying.  But if cis people create the impression through media that suffering is trans people’s natural state, they can erase the real cause of trans suffering: cissexism.”

I am acutely aware that I come to this with my own privilege and I struggle to walk a fine line, speaking about though not for my child and the trans people in our life. I write about doctors, psychiatric professionals and school administrators, those who who were helpful (the few) and those who weren't (the many). I write about family and friends, those who rose to the occasion with unexpected acceptance, and those who could only see her as some kind of Other, whether a soon-to-be victim of violence, a mentally unstable child or a slave to sinful things. I write about her friendships with older trans women and about the emerging generation of trans people we knew, living lives full of hope and promise.

As I wrote two years ago in a sharp-tongued memo, I do not believe that Ashlie's gender brought about her death. In this way the narrative of “The Boy Suit” is perhaps false, but the larger story, the one I wake up every day intent on pounding out piece by piece, is one that I hope addresses in some ways, the cissexism that Ashlie and those like her face.

Despite the desire to remain an ally to the trans community, the fear nags at me that perhaps I am doing more damage than good.  No defense of my work should undermine the experiences, ideas and reality of the very people I seek to support. It is a fine line and I suspect that I will continue the struggle to find myself on the right side of it.