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Paige Schilt

Sex, Drugs and Southern Hospitality: An Interview with Sam Peterson

TRUNKY COVER trystan edits 811Sam Peterson’s Trunky (Transgender Junky): A Memoir of Institutionalization and Southern Hospitality is the rare book that’s formally experimental AND impossible to put down. It chronicles a three-week stay in a men’s drug rehabilitation center in North Carolina, and I wasn’t at all surprised to learn that it’s a finalist for this year’s Lambda Literary award in the category of Transgender Nonfiction.

Sam is also the literary equivalent of a record-label mate, because both of our memoirs were published by Transgress Press. We spent a sunny spring morning drinking coffee and talking on the phone about what makes Trunky so unique and compelling.

Paige: I wanted to start off by asking about what is probably the most striking formal characteristic of Trunky: it’s written in the third person.

Sam: I’m delighted that you frontloaded that question. It makes me so happy.

P: Tell me about that choice.

S: Sure. When I first started writing—it’s such difficult material, as you can imagine, just reliving that so freshly. It was a device for me to just kind of separate from it and look at it from the outside as a story and a narrative. And then, as I started posting it online and people started reading it, I was really delighted that people had to grapple with pronouns and to really pay attention to who was saying what. I loved that it gave this anonymity to this institution—like, anyone could be talking, anyone could be saying these things. It weirdly interpolates the reader into the narrative in a way that “I” doesn’t.

P: When I was reading the book, I kept thinking about the different genres that you might be writing with or writing against. In my mind, I made a shorthand for those genres, which was “Burroughs and Burroughs”—William S. Burroughs and Augusten Burroughs. In other words, there’s a genre of drug memoir or junky memoir, and then there’s a genre of recovery memoir. I was wondering if those genres were on your mind as you were writing and whether saw yourself in conversation with them?

S: Yeah, I mean, the title is a “tip of the nib” to William Burroughs’ Junky, which I love. I love that book so much, and I try to imagine myself—I mean, not that elevated, but as kind of a non-misogynist William Burroughs. Like a William Burroughs who actually loves women.
And yeah, the Augusten Burroughs comparison occurred to me after I wrote Trunky. But the actual writing is rooted in these really introspective, really harsh kind of memoirs. At the time I thought about Dorothy Allison—just in terms of how difficult the experience might be for the reader.

P: I think Dorothy Allison is an apt comparison in terms of what I want to get at. As I was reading, I kept thinking that there’s a built-in expectation of a certain kind of rehab story where you’re going to have a moment of total transcendence and recovery and hopefulness. Were you playing with those expectations at all?

S: I think, just generally, I find a lot of things formulaic. I’ve done some live performance and some radio, and I was specifically coached in terms of how to carry a story, what to give the listener in terms of experience—and I’m really chafed by that. I think I just wanted to give the reader the experience of being in this institution and the sort of claustrophobic, hypervigilant weirdness of it. Is there hope? Sure. I think it’s a generally hopeful book.

Maybe this is veering off topic, but when you’re in treatment, there’s always somebody who finds Jesus. Always. And, what happens is that they have this—it’s almost like a chemical euphoria. Something shifts, and they’re so excited about recovery. And what generally happens is, they go out, they join a church, and they can’t sustain that buzz, and so they relapse. I think those narratives were really troubling for me, because they don’t capture the slow grind that recovery actually is. There are epiphanies, but, you know—if I rely on one epiphany to carry me through sobriety—it’s just not going to happen.

P: Trunky chronicles one three-week sojourn in a state treatment facility. You don’t go into the narrator’s life post-rehab. That seemed like an interesting choice, because it leaves open the question of what happens next.

S: I didn’t initially plan that. But when I was getting towards the end of writing about the treatment facility, I was like, “This is where it needs to end.” There has to be a sense that we don’t know what’s going to happen. This person is hopeful and grounded in themselves, but we don’t really know what’s going to happen.

It also gives me the platform to write another book, potentially. Son of Trunky!

P: I wanted to go back to something you said earlier about being inspired by Burroughs but seeing yourself as kind of a non-misogynist Burroughs. This is one of the things I found fascinating about the book. The narrator, by virtue of his transness, is a very keen observer of misogyny—but not a judgmental observer of misogyny, a very compassionate observer. The character walks this tightrope at times with seeing the seduction of misogyny as well.

I felt like that must be a very scary line to walk as a writer?

S: I don’t think, as a writer, I really thought about it. I was trying to capture my thoughts in the moment. There were times when I felt the misogyny. I was like “fuck these bitches.” You know, my wife had cast me out. It was pleasurable to surrender to woman-hating. But then, there was a point at which—having done a lot of work on myself (because I need a lot of work, apparently)—I recognized those thoughts for what they are.

And then, having those thoughts mirrored on the outside [by the other men]. It was so clearly violent. It was awful. It really was painful to be around. That sort of trashed my non-feminist fantasies.

I think this is a really common trans-masculine story. When you get in a circle of guys, it’s shocking to find out what men are really saying. And, you know, I’d heard that, from trans guys, and that was a bit of my experience. You know, it’s hard to shock me, but the depth of the violence is shocking.

P: One of the things that comes through in the book is the narrator’s own uncomfortable position in terms of a fear of disclosure. There’s always that kind of double edge: “What if I was outed in this situation? Would all that misogyny and transphobia be turned on me?”

S: Totally. No, I was terrified. I don’t know if I had good reason to be terrified, but I was.

Sam Peterson photoP: The experience of being in treatment and going through withdrawal is necessarily inwardly focused. And yet, the other characters—particularly Laurence–do come across as really real and fully fleshed out. Because of the circumstance, there’s a limited amount of interaction between the narrator and other characters—meeting them doesn’t become the locus of the narrator’s transformation. And yet, there’s still a kind of depth to them.

S: My experience, in the multiple institutions that I’ve had the pleasure of staying at, is that these tiny interactions really save your ass. You know, I’m not someone who can do this alone. I spent a lot of time by myself because it was so noisy and I felt so crappy, but these moments of collision were so powerful. And you could see within each man the hope that they would generate for themselves. Sometimes even in awful interactions.

I did want to do some people justice. On the other hand, it’s a very interior memoir. It’s like a snapshot of what’s going on in my brain. I’m always scanning the room. And all the stuff about race and how uncomfortable I am around race—that’s the kind of thing that’s always going on in my head.

P: Before we wrap up, I wanted to ask about the chapter titles. Almost every chapter title has some kind of animal reference, and I was wondering how you thought about that.

S: Oh my god, this is like my dream interview! I can’t believe I get to talk about this stuff—it’s so exciting. There’s a part in the book where I talk about Temple Grandin. I saw Grandin when she spoke at Duke. And she gloated–she’s hailed as making lives better for cattle when she’s really just ushering in death. So I kind of saw being in an institution—and particularly in that complex that’s situated in a town where I can buy my dope and get arrested and go to jail there, and then I can have a meltdown and go to the psych ward there and then I can go to rehab and then back to jail—it’s one-stop shopping. For me it was like the meat industry. It was kind of gloatingly industrial.

There’s ways in which I connect with animals, so I wanted to use animals as symbols of the trickster, the wisdom. There’s a lot of crows in there. Crows were a very potent symbol for me, and I did see them a lot. I felt like a kind of shadow connection with them. But mostly it was the sense of it being an industry that is thoughtless, that disregards the stunning humanity that’s actually happening within the walls.

P: At the same time, there are these moments of intense humanity from the staff who work in the institution.

S: That’s what I’m saying! The institution is this thing. And the laws that are around that institution, that deny funding and deny—really deny access to humanity, right? I mean the politics in North Carolina are so draconian and so anti-human. That’s what I mean by the institution. But then there are these spectacular relationships. And the care that I got was phenomenal. Really, it could have gone a lot of ways, and I felt like I got great care from people.

P: I feel like one of the most striking and tender scenes is the one over lunch with Big E.

S: He was amazing. I mean, to watch somebody grapple with this trans person. He really struggled with it, and he brought all of his Christianity to bear in the best way. He availed himself to me, and he did me kindness after kindness. And he certainly didn’t have to. And I don’t think he wanted to.

P: Like, “Damn my Christian beliefs!”

S: I was so touched by that.

P: One of the saddest things in the book is your lack of post-treatment options because you’re trans. Do you have any sense of whether things have gotten better since 2013 when the events in the book transpired?

S: Yes, we have a queer recovery house now, LaVare’s House. Durham now has the Durham LGBTQ center. You know, but I imagine that these things like LGBTQ recovery houses are overwhelmed. Whatever there is, it’s not enough. There are more queer people in the South, and yet we have pennies to the dollar in terms of funding compared to L.A. or San Francisco.

Wanna hear Sam read from his work? Catch him in Austin on May 1 at Bookwoman. (P.S. I’ll be reading too.) It’s just a few weeks before the Lambda Literary Awards, so you can say you saw him before he got super famous!

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Queer Rock Chicago on January 20

I’ll be reading from Queer Rock Love in Chicago next Wednesday. I’m thrilled to be speaking at the iconic feminist bookstore Women and Children First. By most counts, there are only about 12 feminist bookstores left in North America, and I hope to visit and support them all. You should too! Trying to get mainstream bookstores to carry Queer Rock Love has reminded me, once again, that queer and feminist bookstores are vital in helping new voices to be heard.

I’ve always loved Chicago, and I love it even more now that my sister lives there. If you haven’t read her book Just One of the Guys? Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality, I recommend it. You’ll never think of all the mundane gendered interactions of the workplace in quite the same way.

In the spirit of #tbt, here’s a picture of two future feminists in pink polyester pantsuits. You’ll have to come out to the reading on Wednesday at 7:30 to see if we still dress alike.

matchingoutfits

I’ll be in Chicago all week next week for the Creating Change conference. Will you be attending? Transgress Press will have a booth, so come say hello.

We’re Expecting! And It Looks Like Twins!


Dear Reader, you may have noticed that I haven’t been posting to Queer Rock Love lately.

It’s not that I’ve run out of stories about our queer family life—far from it—It’s just that I’ve been needing to conserve my energies. Now, after months of intensive gestation, I’m thrilled to announce that I’m expecting a baby…a book baby!

The book version of Queer Rock Love will feature tons of never-before-released material, and it will be published by Transgress Press—an independent, trans-led press based in Oakland. Their current titles include Letters for My Brothers: Transitional Wisdom in Retrospect, which was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award and Hung Jury: Testimonies of Genital Surgery by Transsexual Men, which features a foreward by Shannon Minter.

This book pushed me to question some of the received ideas I'd taken as truth. I like that in a book.
This book pushed me to question some of the received ideas I’d taken as truth. I like that in a book.

We were in San Francisco earlier in the summer and were lucky enough to attend a reading for another Transgress Press book, Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family and Themselves. It was exhilarating to hear many different stories from diverse transmasculine experiences and perspectives. As an added bonus, I got to meet face-to-face with my editor, Max Wolf Valerio.

Transgress Press donates 40% of book sale profits to social justice organizations that work to empower marginalized communities and save our planet. They also ask authors to donate part of their royalties to social justice organizations. Stay tuned for more on that front!

But Wait, That’s Not All
When I said “we’re expecting,” I wasn’t just being sloppy with my pronouns. Katy’s been incubating a project too. Her band, Butch County, has been writing a whole bunch of new material, and they’re getting ready to record their next album.

In the meantime, if you have a hankering for muscle-rock-meets-genderqueer-swagger, you can listen to a couple of their greatest hits on bandcamp. You can also see them perform live. This weekend they’re performing on Sunday at 4:30 as part of Stargayzer Fest. And next weekend, on September 20, they’ll be melting faces at 1pm at Austin Pride.

Total hottie.
Check out Butch County at Stargayzer Fest.

Back to School for Transgender Elementary Students

This fall, as elementary-age kids head back to the classroom, some transgender students are returning with more than just new school supplies. For these children, the beginning of the academic year is an opportunity to introduce a new name, new pronouns, and a new social identity.

Over the past several years, resources for transgender elementary students and their families have grown rapidly.  They now include multiple mainstream media reports (with varying levels of accuracy and sensationalism), new organizations such as TYFA and Gender Spectrum, and innovative medical protocols to delay the onset of puberty. While access to these resources is by no means universal, it is becoming increasingly possible for elementary-age children to begin their transition before the maelstrom of middle school.

However, as Elizabethe Payne and Melissa Smith suggest in their recent Huffington Post article, most elementary school teachers and administrators have not been trained in strategies for create an inclusive learning environment for gender nonconforming and transgender students.

As an elementary parent and an educator, I am passionate about welcoming schools. Katy Koonce and I recently had the privilege of creating a training for teachers and staff at a local elementary school. There are stellar materials available, and I wanted to share our outline and some of the things that we found most helpful.

Establishing a developmental timeline

As Payne and Smith point out, “Americans think of young children as ‘innocent’ and ‘asexual,’ so sexuality is considered unmentionable in elementary classrooms.”

Children are perceived as ‘too young’ for such conversations. Because of the ways gender and sexuality are connected in our culture and thinking, addressing non-normative gender brings the ideas of ‘sex’ and ‘sexuality’ into the ‘innocent’ elementary school space and is thus dangerous.

The first task of our training was to reorient teachers and administrators with accurate information about gender and child development. We used Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper’s The Transgender Child, specifically chapter three, “Developmental Stages and the Transgender Child,” which contains a detailed breakdown of gender identity at different ages. (If you don’t have access to the book, there is a version of this timeline available on the Gender Spectrum website.)

Information about developmental stages (hopefully) speaks to elementary educators in the language of their professional education. Our next step was to introduce them to the words and experiences of transgender and gender nonconforming elementary students. (Again, our overarching concern at the outset of our presentation was to convince listeners that “this really happens at the elementary level.”)

To this end, our training included excerpts from Queer Youth Advice for Educators, which is based on interviews with LGBT youth from across the nation and includes several personal stories about elementary school experiences. This book is available as a PDF download from What Kids Can Do, and hard copies are available for $9.95. I give copies to school counselors and administrators whenever I can.

Establishing the costs of inaction

Once we had established that gender identity is within the purview of elementary education, we wanted to briefly highlight the social and emotional costs of unprepared schools. The personal narratives from Queer Youth Advice for Educators continued to be helpful on this point, especially when paired with GLSEN’s Harsh Realities: The Experiences of Transgender Youth in Our Nation’s Schools. Based on the 2007 National School Climate survey, this report speaks to educators in their language, linking harassment and lack of safety to poor educational outcomes.

In our case, we felt it prudent to follow the carrot of educational outcomes with the big stick of federal antidiscrimination law. Presumably most educators are already familiar with Title IX, the section of the Education Code that prohibits gender discrimination. We were excited to learn about a 2010 letter from the Department of Education that interprets Title IX as applying to gender-based discrimination that targets transgender students.

Title IX prohibits harassment of both male and female students regardless of the sex of the harasser—i.e., even if the harasser and target are members of the same sex. It also prohibits gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation, or hostility based on sex or sex-stereotyping. Thus, it can be sex discrimination if students are harassed either for exhibiting what is perceived as a stereotypical characteristic for their sex, or for failing to conform to stereotypical notions of masculinity and femininity. Title IX also prohibits sexual harassment and gender-based harassment of all students, regardless of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of the harasser or target.

Special thanks to the National Center for Transgender Equality for making this letter available as a PDF on their blog.

Outlining best practices

At this point, we felt it was important to move into practical, proactive policy recommendations. For this particular educational context, our recommendations included the following:

  • Honoring preferred name and pronouns
  • Maintaining confidentiality
  • Restroom accessibility
  • Staff and faculty training
  • Addressing gender inclusion in the curriculum

Our recommendations were based on personal experience as well as three excellent resources:

Curriculum for teachers and students

Initially, making suggestions for gender-inclusive curriculum seemed like the tallest order. After all, we live in Texas, a state that’s not exactly known for its progressive curriculum. Luckily, my friend Abe Louise Young alerted me to Gender Doesn’t Limit You: A Research-Based Anti-Bullying Program for the Early Grades, which was developed by the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab at the University of Texas and distributed through the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program. While not explicitly designed to speak to transgender issues, these detailed lesson plans include case studies and rhyming scripts to help young children learn to analyze and respond to gender-based bullying, and many of the examples involve behaviors that don’t conform to rigid gender norms. As an added bonus, the rhyming scripts can be useful for teachers who need words to respond to gender bias and bullying on the spot in everyday classroom contexts.

Future presentations

We learned a great deal from our first training with elementary educators, and we hope to continue to work with more schools and to share resources with other people engaged in similar projects. Personally, I’d like to write some case studies based on experiences of elementary students who have transitioned at school. Do you have other suggestions for other resources or ideas to help us improve?

Paige Schilt has taught college students for 18 years and served as Interim Assistant Dean of Student Multicultural Affairs at Southwestern University in 2011-2012. Katy Koonce is a former school social worker and a psychotherapist in private practice.

Queer Rock News: Spring 2012

I wish I was a newsy blogger. I know my editor at Bilerico, Bil Browning, wishes I would pump out a topical post now and again. But lately I’ve been forced to squander all my snappy, punctual prose on writing gigs that pay the bills. I saved up my Queer Rock Love news for this convenient digest.

In this issue:

  • Bitch Interview on Genderful Parenting
  • Credit in the Straight World
  • I Have a Reading in Chicago
  • My Favorite Reader Comments
  • John Cameron Mitchell Humped My Wife
  • Subscribe to Queer Rock Love via email

Interview at Bitch Media

Bitch Magazine
Malic White interviewed me for a series about “the end of gender” at Bitch Magazine online. He was interested in my philosophy of genderful (as opposed to gender neutral) child-rearing. You can read more about those ideas here.

Credit in the Straight World

A few stories about our family have been reprinted in venues that aren’t specifically queer! I was especially happy with the lively response to “The Incident,” at offbeatmama.com. And a new site called Role/Reboot: Make Sense of Men and Women ran “Think Pink” and “That Damn Family Unit.” (I don’t think my pieces have been such a hit there, perhaps because making sense of binary roles ain’t really my project. But I’m still super grateful for the chance to reach new readers.)

My Favorite Reader Comments

I wanted to call out a few stellar points from the comments section.

maybe a new leaf wrote:

Found you recently and love your writing…

I’m also glad to find someone writing about queer parenting who has an older kid (as in older than a toddler). Ours are 5 & 2, and the older the get, the less online company we feel like we have.

This is so true! Even though I’m working through a series about breastfeeding and chest surgery right now, I know a lot of readers (myself included) hunger for queer family stories that aren’t just about pregnancy, birth, adoption, and new parenthood. I’ve got some good stuff about third grade and chosen/extended family in the hopper, I swear.

jvoor wrote:

Have you heard about “What Makes a Baby?” It’s a book coming out in June I believe. You can check it out here on kickstarter. http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1809291619/what-makes-a-baby

I don’t know how it treats gender, but I know it’s goal is to explain reproduction in a way that doesn’t assume a particular heterosexual two-parent family model.

Yes! I donated to this guy’s kickstarter campaign! I am really looking forward to this book. I’m hopeful that it will be a great gender-inclusive, sex-positive, nonheteronormative resource for early sex ed.

I Have a Reading Coming Up in Chicago

I’m doing a lunch-time reading and Q&A for the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago on May 17. It’s free and open to the public. I don’t know the exact time and location yet, but I’ll post more soon.

I’ll be reading a couple of stories and possibly talking about how my work reads overlaps with work by my sister, the brilliant and amazing Dr. Kristen Schilt. If you haven’t already, check out her book, Just One of the Guys: Transgender Men and the Persistence of Gender Inequality.

John Cameron Mitchell Humped My Wife

Finally, the biggest news of the season: Katy got to sing with John Cameron Mitchell at gaybigaygay!

You might think that I’m just name-dropping, but you have to understand: Katy and I had a Hedwig and the Angry Inch theme wedding. Our friends put together a band and played “Origin of Love” as we walked down the aisle.  I’ve taught the film in my classes for years. I wore out my CD of the movie soundtrack and my copy of the compilation tribute album. An entire section of our bathroom is collaged with pictures of Hedwig. We have a 4′ x 6′ oil painting of Hedwig in our living room.

We’re really big fans.

And we knew for a while that Hedwig’s creator, John Cameron Mitchell, was going to play at gaybigaygay, because our friends Deb and Keri and Kaia were asked to be his band for the gig.

I was super excited, but I somehow imagined that JCM was going to show up in a limo, play his two songs, and then disappear like a diva with his entourage. I NEVER, in my wildest dreams thought that he would be walking around our dirty queer fest, listening to bands, smiling, hugging, and generally acting beatific.

In fact, JCM showed up in time to hear the end of Katy’s new side project, Metal Fist. Then he invited Katy to come up on stage and sing back-up during Midnight Radio. During his set, he delivered a righteous punk rock oration about not experiencing life through the lens of your cell phone camera. And he was so right, because no recording can capture the epic power of his voice or the magic intimacy of that moment. By the time he jumped into the crowd and started body surfing, I was screaming uncontrollably, like a frenzied teenager in old footage of The Beatles.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, he jumped back on stage, pogoed over toward Katy, fell onto the ground, then jumped into her arms and wrapped his legs around her “like a fork shoved on a spoon.”

There’s video here, but it doesn’t really do it justice.

 

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