Follow-up: A self-outing

Below the fold, Page 1, New Haven Register, June 2, 2011. Funny … I don’t recognize the guy below me.

Life’s been a whirlwind these past few days, between a news story that unexpectedly went viral and a 50th birthday celebration that included one of my dearest friends flying in from New Haven and walking in on my party and damn near giving me a heart attack.

Glad I looked better in print than on video.

But now that the dust has stopped swirling — the story has long since cycled out, I put my friend back on the plane this morning and my life has returned to its usual frustrating, soul-rending search for a job — I can get on with the journalistic tradition of the follow-up.

When last I left this blog, I was deliberating whether to address a New Haven Register reader comment on a story that ran Memorial Day. I had been quoted in a piece about New Haven parking meters, and the reader took the paper to task for referring to me as “she.” After all, the reader, having seen my ugly mug in my music column for 11 1/2 years as the paper’s entertainment editor/music writer, had no way of knowing about my gender trip.

But how do I address it? Do I offer a public correction and essentially self-out to a much wider audience than my friends, family and WPKN listeners? And is it necessary? I’m not a quasi-public figure back home in Connecticut anymore, and is it really just a “look at me!” moment? If I said nothing, my ex-paper and ex-colleagues would unfairly look bad for doing the right thing.

Well, first thing I did was go back to bed. I slept on it, literally. Then I responded. And even if I didn’t have a milestone birthday, it would’ve been a heady past few days.

*****

The day after Memorial Day, after bouncing this back and forth with a couple of friends, I decided to write an op-ed commentary, not knowing whether I would actually send it to the Register. A few hours and three typed pages later, I had something in hand and set to go.

By the end of the day, I pitched the commentary to Helen Bennett Harvey, the metro editor whose initial Facebook query for people’s reactions to New Haven’s plan to extend metered parking ’til midnight began this whole chain.

I decided to go through with it for three reasons: 1) for the sake of accuracy and letting old friends off the hook; 2) because it dovetailed with the bill in Connecticut’s legislature adding gender identity to the list of things illegal to discriminate against, which had already passed in the State House and was coming up soon for a Senate vote; and 3) because it would put a human and semi-familiar face on a hot political topic, and maybe help people understand something that’s hard to comprehend just a little better.

And besides, I’m fully out. Save for wearing boy drag (T-shirt and shorts) while on the bicycle, this is where I am now. And my family and friends and radio listeners know; who the hell cares what others think, especially the Register’s notorious cadre of cowardly, anonymous online flamers?

Here’s what I originally wrote:

This started with a comment I made to a Facebook post about a Register news topic. And, well, in the name of accuracy and clarification, this has taken a turn to another topic that currently affects Connecticut in general and me personally.

Helen Bennett Harvey put up a Facebook post asking people’s opinions about New Haven’s plan to extend metered parking until midnight. I hung out in New Haven music circles for over 20 years, was the Register’s entertainment editor/music writer for 11 ½ years and still have many friends there. I have a soft spot for the city and always will (my California friends are so sick of me telling them their pizza is crap), and I spend a lot of time there when I’m back home.

And as someone who saw the city’s new, aggressive stance toward parking revenue when I was home for Christmas – $1.50-an-hour meters, meter maids swarming with their new uniforms and new ticket-cranking gizmos, even on Saturdays – I had something to say about it.

Anyway, I was up early Memorial Day morning, decided to see what was going on in the news back home, went to the Register’s website and saw Abbe Smith’s story. And I wasn’t quite awake yet until I got to the comments – and the reader who posted: “Another example of top notch reporting [is] the Register’s former music columnist, Fran Fried, is referred to as a SHE.”

A “Hoo-boyyyyyy” moment that I wasn’t thinking of when I was writing about parking meters. So how do I address this? Well, certainly not in the online firepit of flaming comments. But it wouldn’t be right to leave it slide and make my ex-paper and ex-colleagues, many of whom are still friends, look bad. Plus, it dovetails with one of Connecticut’s current political issues. Besides, my family and friends on both sides of the country already know about this and are on board. And I’ve already talked about this on the radio – on my 20th-anniversary show at WPKN in early January. So, here goes …

Abbe was correct and the copy editors weren’t asleep at the switch. When last I appeared here seven years ago, I was a guy – miserable, depressed, low self-esteem, way overweight and out of shape. I’m now pretty, confident, assured, still overweight but in much better shape – and, save for the nagging unemployment, happier than I’ve ever been. And, in the eyes of California, legally female.

I hate the term “transgender” because it sounds so damned clinical, but there you go. And because of that, and because one of the places I’ve been searching for a job is home (anywhere between New Haven and New York), I’ve been closely following Connecticut’s progress toward an anti-trans-discrimination law. As with any form of unwarranted discrimination bred in ignorance and fear, it’s about time.

I should explain what this is and what this isn’t, for the uninformed:

  • Gender identity disorder (aka gender dysphoria) is essentially being born with the plumbing of one sex and the wiring of the other. Medical professionals have determined in recent years that gender and sexual identities are formed in the womb – 8 to 12 weeks in, though newer research suggests it could be as early as 3 weeks.
  • Like sexual identity, you’re either born with it or not. This has nothing to do with God or sin or any form of man-made morality construct. Except that if you believe that God doesn’t make mistakes – then, well, we’re not mistakes, are we? Just different in at least one way. And there are good and bad T’s out there, just like the rest of you.
  • Gender identity and sexual identity are two different things, yet lumped together because many of us suffer the same prejudices. And sexual identity across the trans spectrum runs the gamut, just as in the non-trans population.
  • You won’t catch transgender cooties from me or anyone else; otherwise, there’d be thousands of you guys out there with fabulous wardrobes and shoe closets and a penchant for MAC.
  • And as for the tired old canard about bathrooms (which were bandied about again in your legislature’s hearings on the trans bill): I use the women’s room. For one, I’m female now, and I pass very well, so the men’s room is totally out of the question. (Besides, most women’s rooms are in much better shape.) For another, there’s nothing romantic or even basely sexual about a bathroom – I go in, do what I have to and get out. To accuse transpeople of being sexual predators for using the “other” bathroom is like saying every gay man that uses a men’s room is predatory. And it’s pretty damn insulting.
  • Transpeople suffer the highest rates of violence and suicide in the general population. Many in our tribe lose friends, family, jobs and sometimes even lives when they come out – or are outed. And that includes members of ethnic/racial minorities who’ve traditionally suffered the same vile discrimination themselves. And even among the LGBT umbrella, we get the short shrift. Four years ago, in a vain attempt to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in Congress, Rep. Barney Frank, with the Human Rights Commission’s blessing, lopped trans discrimination off the bill – essentially threw us under the bus with the old line, “Oh, we’ll come back for you.”

Every transperson’s story is similar but unique. But most of us know something’s different at a young age. I knew I was different somehow from about 5 or 6 – that I felt more comfortable around the girls, felt like one of them inside. I loved my Hot Wheels, auto racing and the Yankees growing up, but I also would’ve loved ballet and cute shoes, too.

Except that because of the plumbing, I was lumped in with the boys. And I might have been the smartest kid in class in my little goober hick town, but for the crime of being sensitive – something perceived as a female trait – I was marked as “faggot” at a young age. Which, in pre-adolescence, just means “weird.” I was, for the most part, an untouchable. And that, and something else I discovered a year ago, set in motion a three-decade cycle of depression and low self-esteem and many thoughts of killing myself. (Since I’m scared to death of death, I never acted upon them.)

And the cyclical depressions – compounded by this huge something that I had suppressed for so long – might have been a factor in later health problems – namely, a huge weight gain and a brutal case of sleep apnea that nearly killed me four years ago. While I’m still close with many of my ex-girlfriends, my self-esteem problem helped sabotage most of my relationships. Since coming out, several friends have told me, “You never seemed comfortable in your own skin.” They’re right.

I had my gender epiphany one evening in early January 2008 – just totally out of nowhere, sitting at the foot of the bed after work. It took quite a bit of time, stress and overcoming fear to get from there to here: putting together a wardrobe and shoe closet; learning to do my face so I wouldn’t look like a boy or a drag queen; getting down the little mannerisms and subtleties that would ensure I would pass well in public; the anxiety and fear that comes with transitioning and coming out to people you know – compounded with a second mountain of anxiety when I was laid off by The Fresno Bee in March 2009. (And no, I wasn’t out at work when I was whacked. And I at least know now that it wouldn’t have been a problem had I come out while still there.)

And when I started hormone replacement therapy in April 2010, there was one effect I wasn’t ready for but readily welcomed: The hormones cleared up over 30 years of chronic depression. So there most definitely was a physical element attached to my dysphoria. I still have my black days, but the darkness doesn’t usually last very long.

And the response I’ve had from people on both sides of the country has been fantastic – even more so because I came out in Fresno, a very right-wing city of a half-million in the center of a humongous red state called the San Joaquin Valley. (It’s the California no one east of the Sierra knows about.) I’ve lost a couple people along the way who I thought were friends, but 99.999 percent of the people in my life have welcomed me with open arms.

And coming out has greatly expanded my circle of friends. Instead of seeing this fat, depressed, unhappy schlep of a guy, they see a pretty, witty, styling, vivacious woman who’s confident and sometimes funny as hell. (And since hormones don’t alter a male-to-female’s voice, I still do a mean Rodney Dangerfield.) Now at 50, for the first time in my life, and without getting all Sally Field here, I feel people really like me, and I’ve learned to stop questioning why, as I had most of my boy life.

And nowadays, my transition isn’t even a topic of conversation – I just live and flow in the real world. Gender identity is a facet of my life – a big, honking one at the moment – but just one of many facets.

Unlike Connecticut, California might not have gay marriage – yet – but gender identity is among the many things covered under job and housing discrimination laws here. And, like race/ethnicity in this true melting pot of a state, for the most part, no one seems to really care. There are plenty of real things to worry about – like this damned economy and job market.

Two months ago, I interviewed for a copy editor job at a national news magazine in California. The job’s on hold at the moment, but the interview itself went great. I was assured, confident; I owned it. I spent three hours there that afternoon. I think they liked me. And I wondered whether they knew about my little something extra ahead of time – but the first thing the executive director said when we sat down was, “I really enjoyed your blog.” It’s where I’ve done a lot of writing about the gender trip the last year or so. And if anything, having a company accept me for who and what I am was pretty huge.

I don’t know which way the wind’s blowing me next, but I do know from my trips home that if I do come back, I can plug into life there again with my friends and family – my security blanket – as if I never left. And since Gov. Dan Malloy is poised to sign the bill into law if it passes in the Senate, I know I’d have an extra layer of security if I return. And not only is it welcome and heartwarming, again, it’s about time.

Fran Fried, the Register’s entertainment editor/music writer from 1992 to 2004, lives in Fresno, Calif. She still does fill-in radio shows on WPKN in Bridgeport (89.5 FM, wpkn.org) when home to visit. She writes about her gender trip, among other things, in her blog, Franorama World.

I woke up last Wednesday morning to a response from Helen: “We would love to have it and would run it tomorrow! Please send it along — and would it be possible for you to a do a short video of yourself addressing the issue — and FB that to me? This is such a GREAT idea and perfect timing!”

I had never done a laptop video before, but since the Register’s parent company is all about multimedia these days, why not? Let’s see how this works.

I spent a good chunk of the day filleting the above copy to half its length. It took two tries, but I finally got it to a length they could manage in the cramped space they have in print. And after about 20 takes, I finally had a video I was semi-happy with — though I did learn, along the way, the art of strategically placing my hands to hide my extra chin(s). I also sent Helen a jpg to run with the print edition.

And by 6 p.m. my time, last Wednesday, the piece was online. And after I alerted friends about it on Facebook, I was starting to get some reactions, all positive. I was waiting for the deluge of flamers. Actually, I was looking forward to it, along with the countering comments. I was anticipating some sort of dialogue, good and bad. Expose and lay the ignorance dry once and for all.

*****

I’d like to say I was up early last Thursday morning because I was like a kid on Christmas morning. Fact is, I haven’t been sleeping much, period. The stress of the chronic joblessness has done its number on me.

But in any case, I was awake and at the laptop and, well, I was eager. I was also gonna be busy with freelance copy-editing work.

I won’t belabor this, but I got Facebook “likes” from dozens of friends both back home and here in Fresno. Yes, they were showing the love, and I was feeling it.

And then I saw a comment from one friend: “So cool to see the morning paper and you on the cover!! You should be writing for them!!!!!!!!!”

Wha-wha-WHAAAAAAAAAAT?!!???

Page One? Are you kidding me? I thought this was for the editorial pages, not the cover! Whoa! Besides, with the tornado the night before hitting Springfield, Mass., just over an hour up I-91 from New Haven, I especially didn’t figure on this.

Turns out they packaged my commentary with a story Ed Stannard had written about the impending Senate vote. I didn’t realize the vote was coming up this soon. Talk about serendipity on both sides …

But I had a brief moment of pause and panic. After all, I have one young niece who doesn’t know about Aunt Frannie Dude yet, and I’ve been holding off telling her ’til my brother and sister-in-law think she’s ready. And I figured it would’ve been safe to run my commentary buried on an inside page — not planning on the front page.

But hey, I reasoned — they don’t read the Register. They live outside the circulation area. And both my niecie dudes (the older one knows) are too busy with after-school sports to be bothered.

And I was glad I chose the photo I sent to Helen, which is atop this post. It’s the bluest my eyes have ever looked in a photo, and the necklace and silver hoops were an early birthday gift I had received in the mail a couple days before from Colleen Shaddox, one of my closest friends and biggest supporters back home.

The one disappointment is that the number of online comments was 0. Jack Kramer, the editor of the Register, sensing a flamer free-for-all, shut off the comments before they could even start. I wasn’t put off by it, though I did wish the comments were out there. After all, sometimes it’s the best way to expose ignorance for what it is.

Anyway, come early afternoon, I had put in about six hours of freelance copy editing, in between glances back to Facebook, and around 1:30, I decided to take a short nap. I woke up at 3 and returned to my wife, the laptop, and noticed a new comment on my blog.

It was from one David Steinberg, who wrote: “Hi Fran. Saw the story about you on Romenesko and then discovered your blog. Look forward to reading the continuation of the story. I’m president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association and a copy desk chief at the SF Chronicle, so next time you’re in the city give a holler. NLGJA can be a good resource for LGBT journalists, especially when it comes to networking and locating that next job. If there’s anything we can do to help, give a holler.”

Whoa! Back up!!

First, it was my first hint that the story had some legs — the president of a national organization cold-contacting me to compliment me.

Second, he found out about me on Romenesko. Jim Romenesko’s blog on the Poynter Institute’s website is arguably the widest-read journalism news site in the business. And in between items about the change of editors at The New York Times, there it was: an item about the unemployed trannie journalist from Fresno commenting about New Haven parking meters. And links to both my Register piece and my blog.

I emailed Jim to thank him for the mention; he told me he got the tip from Dan Kennedy, the onetime Boston Phoenix media critic who has his own Media Nation blog these days.

And as an example of the power of the Web: Thanks to Romenesko, my blog got 712 hits last Thursday, the highest one-day total ever by more than double. The next day, it amassed 363, also higher than my previous one-day high of 325.

*****

And many people found me and sent me friend invites on Facebook, including people I knew from my early days of hanging out in New Haven in the early ’80s, a high school classmate and a middle school classmate, who remembered all too vividly the unhappy, bullied kid I was.

And one of the invites came from Sally Tamarkin, the head of CT Equality, the coalition that spearheaded the fight for gender identity equality in the state legislature.

And it was Sally who put a post on my Facebook wall Friday night, as I was sitting and writing in my usual coffee shop in Fresno:

“Hey, new friend: happy birthday! Also, guess what just passed in the CT Senate? Your birthday is good luck, obviously.”

I didn’t realize the legislative session was coming to an end and, again, that it was coming up this fast! But just after 1 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, on what was already my birthday back home, the Connecticut Senate, in a party-line vote, added gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination bill. And Gov. Dan Malloy — who, as Stamford mayor, had an attorney on his staff who later transitioned — had already said he would sign it into law.

As I said in my Register piece, it’s about time. But while I didn’t let out a whoop, there was an overwhelming moment of joy as I sat in solitude in a corner of a shop 2,500 miles away. No one saw me beaming broadly.

“Holy shit! Already?” I responded to her. “That’s one incredible gift! WOW! Thanks so much for the support, Sally, and thanks for making it a little easier to come home.”

I sure as hell don’t think I had anything to do with the outcome of the vote; I think the senators’ minds were made up a long time ago. And Sally and many others had been working for this bill for years. But if I was a good-luck charm — and I helped enlighten people about what I, and thousands of others, have been going through, then that’s cool. That’s great, actually.

*****

Coda: I didn’t hear the phone go off Saturday morning when my mom called me for my birthday; despite a rare June rain, I was walking down East Olive Avenue in Fresno’s annual Pride Parade.

I caught up with her afterward in the coffee shop, in between sending thank-yous back to the friends who posted birthday wishes on my wall.

“I saw your blog,” she said. Well, she meant the Register story, and I knew that. But still …

She told me that my sister-in-law Cher called my brother Ken to tell him, “Did you see the Register this morning?” And Ken called Mom as a pre-emptive strike, just so she wouldn’t be blindsided if anyone called her about it. They didn’t know, though, that my parents had told my mom’s friends about me over the winter, and a couple of the neighbors as well.

“You looked good,” Mom said. “But you had bags under your eyes.”

It took me a while to realize that she meant she saw the video, not the actual hard copy of the paper. But yeah, the vidcam lighting did make kinda look like Moe Howard in his later years. Only fatter. So in the name of fairness, I sent her a shot of the gorgeous doll who was on Page 1.

And that night, at my party, I got my own copy of the Register. Several, in fact. Just after 9, I was sitting and talking with a friend at the Landmark when I looked up to see one of my dearest friends, Paola Rubbo. From New Haven. In Fresno. And she was carrying a Pepe’s Pizza box. After recovering from the shock, I opened the box, expecting a legendary New Haven pizza, and instead found a few copies of Thursday’s paper. Which made the rounds at the party.

*****

Things are back to normal. Whatever “normal” means in my life. Paola is most of the way back across the country as I write this, the birthday honeymoon is over, the story is long past birdcage fodder and I’ve reverted to being one of the anonymous millions who are chronically unemployed and now struggling mightily to remain solvent. I still send out resumes, as I’ve done today, but I’m losing hope pretty quickly now, with each day of roaring indifference from the job world. I’d like to think I made it to 50 for a reason, but that will be the next post.

Oh well. I’ve had my thrill. It was indeed a ride, an extremely exciting week and a lasting personal example of the power of this here Web. And to think it started with parking meters …

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5 Responses to “Follow-up: A self-outing”

  1. Bethany Says:

    Holy crap! How did I miss seeing that on Romenesko? Wow, what a ride. I really hope somehow it leads to a full-time job for you.

  2. Jim Says:

    Fran, you had an amazing few days, with many more on the way!

  3. jmucci Says:

    Happy belated birthday Fran!! And congrats on the piece… good story!

  4. Kelli Elam Says:

    Happy Birthday, Fran! I believe I “HB’d” you on FB previously, but hey, the more the merrier, right? 😀 Fabulous letter….and blog of course, as always! And, thank you for including a “live face” to your letter…yes, for the general web population (just with what you wrote there I believe will be of great benefit, not only for you, but also for your fellow sisters and brothers, and also those from “outside the box”, who do want to at least try to understand better, and educate themselves too, as it’s SO well written(no shock there!) and it explains things about “us” in, what I think anyway is a very understandable manner…bu sometimes video and/or photos do help!), but also for me personally–it was nice to see the “real” you, and I hope that will happen for real some day soon. 🙂 And of course, congratulations to those in Connecticut on getting that bill passed, and signed, and for, at least potentially, helping to ease some of the burdens of life for “T”folks back there in your “old” home state. Well, I’ve blabbed on enough here, but I’m just excited for you! And, I may have said this to you before, Fran, but I “know”(maybe it’s some special “talent” I have–“Kellidaumus”, or something :D) that you will find a great job soon–talents such as yours eventually are discovered. I’m glad I did. 🙂 Take care, and happy Pride month! And good luck to you! (Hugs)

    Your friend,
    Kelli

  5. How the hell did I make it to 50? (Dancing on the Cliff’s Edge, Part 1) « Franorama World Says:

    […] me a pie — inside were several copies of the New Haven Register from two days before, with my commentary on gender identity on the front page. It was a gift from Uncle Ricky, the Register’s features editor and my boss when I was the […]

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