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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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Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit in Killeen July 29-30

 

DanPatrickSenate
Demagogue

It has been a tough year for transgender Texans and their allies. Last fall, opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) flooded the region with malicious and misleading advertisements that painted equal access to public facilities as a threat to vulnerable white children. In addition to defeating HERO, the campaign whipped up anti-trans sentiments across the state–and our grandstanding Lieutenant Governor wasted no time in exploiting those emotions.

In January, when the Ft. Worth Independent School District unveiled a nondiscrimination policy that allows students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that reflect their gender identity, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called for the superintendent to resign.

In May, when the Department of Education and the Department of Justice directed schools to allow transgender students to use facilities that match their gender identities, Dan Patrick urged Texas schools to resist. Within ten days, Texas had filed a lawsuit against the DOE and the DOJ, claiming that the Obama administration had “conspired to turn workplaces and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment.”

So yeah. Tough year. And that’s why I’m about to say something I’ve never said before:

I’m really excited to be going to Killeen this weekend.

That’s right, Killeen, Texas, home of Fort Hood, is the site of this year’s Texas Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit. For the eighth year in a row, students and social workers, activists and allies will come together to talk about strategies for social change.

The Summit is always held at a Texas college or university, and this year’s host is Texas A&M Central Texas. I’m particularly excited to see that Title IX officers from Baylor and UT Austin will be presenting, because people in their positions have real power to improve students’ lives.

Other promising sessions include a panel with Organización Latina de Trans en Texas (OLLT), a keynote by TransGriot Monica Roberts, and a session on culturally competent healthcare led by Lou Weaver. My colleague Kimmie Fink will be there to talk about Welcoming Schools, and former TENT Director Katy Stewart will be speaking about trans survivors of sexual assault.

Oh yeah, and I’ll be reading from Queer Rock Love, with an emphasis on how gender-nonconforming families experience health care institutions.

Come out, bask in the balm of community empowerment, and help queer up Killeen.

 

When Butch Met Clyde: A Love Story

Last week, I was interviewed by a Bay Area reporter who expressed surprise that we were making our queer, gender-nonconforming family in Texas.

I get it.

I agree with Molly Ivins that Texas often functions as the “national laboratory of bad ideas.” And now the Republican voters of this state have inflicted Ted Cruz on the rest of the nation. It’s not hard to understand why people in California might think we’re all just a bunch of Bible-thumping, immigrant-hating homophobes.

Those kind of broad-brush assumptions about Texas are part of what motivated me to write Queer Rock Love. The story of LGBT community in the South is a story of chance alliances and unlikely bedfellows—and what could be more queer than that?

Speaking of unlikely bedfellows, I wanted to tell you about when Butch County met the Clyde band.

Long before I ever held an actual print copy of Queer Rock Love in my hands, I knew I wanted to have a book party in Katy’s home town of Lake Jackson, Texas. There was just one problem: how to find a venue. The main bookstore in Lake Jackson is the Hastings by the mall, and the events manager did not seem to be enthused about a queer memoir from a transgressive press in Californ-I-AY. In fact, he never returned my calls. Which was fine, because my dream was to combine my reading with a rock show featuring Butch County.

Eventually, a friend suggested the Bad “S” Icehouse, a honky tonk nestled among the creeks and bayous and chemical plants that line this part of the South Texas coast. The owner, Shauntae, was a fellow alum from Katy’s high school. She had a band booked for 9 that night, but we just needed to be off the stage by 8:15.

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Unfortunately, not everyone shared Shauntae’s welcoming attitude toward a band called “Butch County” and a book called “Queer Rock Love.” When she submitted the listing to a local Country-music bar rag, the calendar editor called with a question: “I thought you were a honky-tonk?” It was hard to tell if it was the queerness or the literary nature of our event that made him suspicious.

On the day of the show, Shauntae had written “Book Reading – Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir” in neon rainbow letters on the board above the bar. As we milled about, waiting for our friends and audience to show up, I heard several regular patrons grumbling about a “book reading” in the same tone one might reserve for “taxes” or “colonoscopy.”

I was nervous. I made a mental note not to lead with my usual story about watching Katy perform in sexy Viking costume. I decided to stick to Lake Jackson stories—more specifically to stories about Donna Koonce, whom many in the audience had known and loved.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Soon Katy’s friends from high school poured in to the bar, surrounding us in a protective cushion of love. Their enthusiasm inspired Butch County to deliver a raucous, rollicking first set. I even forgot to be nervous because I was too busy dancing and enjoying the band’s onstage antics.

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By the time I got on stage, my only worry was whether the crowd would be able to come down from their rock-n-roll rowdiness to be able to listen to me read. But as soon as I launched into my impersonation of Donna Koonce, I knew they were with me. The crowd really wanted to hear how this high-femme Southern diva had come to unconditional acceptance of her transgender butch daughter. It felt like they were hungry to have the best and most expansive sides of themselves reflected back to them. After the reading, I sold out of every copy of Queer Rock Love that I’d brought. Lots of people who swore they’d never attended a “book reading” in their lives bought a copy.

Some time during Butch County’s second-yet-equally-electric set, the guitarist from Clyde, the “porch stomp” band that was scheduled to go on at 9, showed up. Reportedly, Josh texted the other members of Clyde and told them to get on over to the club ASAP, because Butch County was tearing it up.

Now here’s where I have to admit my own small-mindedness, because several members of Clyde look like they’d fit right in on an episode of Duck Dynasty. Although I love country music and Americana, I did not immediately expect that Clyde and Butch County (a classic rock band) would form a mutual admiration society. However, we were all in the mood to celebrate, and Clyde’s songs—replete with wash tub beats and gospel-tinged soul—were the perfect soundtrack for a Lake Jackson-style love fest. Before long, the members of Butch County were turning to me and saying, “these guys are really good.”

ClydeBand

What followed was a flurry of Clyde liking Butch County’s facebook page and vice versa. We listened to Clyde’s album all the way home to Austin, and “I Saw Jesus on My Tortilla” became Waylon’s new favorite song.

A few weeks later, Clyde asked Butch County to play their annual “life’s a carnival” show at the Carousel Lounge. So if you’re hungry for an antidote to Ted Cruz’s version of Texas values, come on out and let these unlikely buddies rock your world.

Saturday, February 20 @ 7pm

Carousel Lounge
1110 E. 52nd St.
Austin

Clyde photo courtesy of Clyde. Other photos by Darryl Khoury.

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.

My Lily Dale Wedding Pic

Here’s an image from the day Katy and I married ourselves in Lily Dale, New York. This was before the advent of the selfie, so it’s only me in the frame. I would have included this picture in the book, but, you know, the Schilt propensity to blink at the camera. Read below for an account of our nuptials in “the town that talks to the dead.”

lilydale

Katy and I arrived just after the regular season, which lasts from June to August. The weather had turned wet and windy, and mud puddles clotted the narrow streets. Standing water glistened from bright green Astroturf on the ramshackle porches of aging Victorian cottages. It looked like several generations of American optimism had collided and fallen into benign disrepair.

Holding hands, we followed the path to a pet cemetery in a stand of ancient trees. Under their lush green canopy, Katy told me about the deaths of her dogs, Face and General Lee. She told me about her best friend Jane Ellen, who had promised to visit in dreams after she died. Sitting on a stump in the shade of the forest, Katy told me about her crystal meth days, when she could walk into a library or a metaphysical bookstore and literally hear books calling her name.

Normally, this was the kind of talk that caused me to roll my eyes.

As a teenager, I had been hostage to my mother’s New Age awakening, when she bought a condo in Santa Fe and consulted a psychic to help her find husband number three. Surrounded by tanned white people with positive vibrations, I had resisted with the only weapons I knew—sunscreen and a bad attitude. As soon as I could, I fled to the gothic mists of the Pacific Northwest. I vowed that folk art angels would never adorn my home.

Rather than putting me off, Katy’s mysticism made me want to get closer. Her drug-induced visions of talking books had a dark, malevolent edge that was missing from the usual New Age blather. The darkness allowed me to relax my constant vigilance and adopt a guardedly curious posture toward things that I habitually disavowed.

Ready to read more? Order Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir.

Did love ever lead you to suspend judgments? To try something new? Whether it be blueberries or Buddhism, share your story in the comments.

Sequined Cork

Welcome to my weekly post featuring photos that didn’t make it into Queer Rock Love, but probably should have.

This week’s image complements Chapter 28, “No Shortage.”

sequincork

One afternoon, Waylon was engaged in an art project of his own devising, which involved gluing a bunch of sequins to a cork. As he was working at the kitchen table, I heard him singing a little song that went “God is inside of every thing, God is inside of everything, God is inside of everything!” The melody sounded a lot like the Ramones, but the lyrics gave me pause.

“Who taught you that song? Did you learn that in Sunday school?” I asked. I realized I had no clear idea what he learned when he attended the children’s activities at Trinity.

“No one taught it to me. I taught it to myself.”

“Oh, okay. That’s good.” I picked up a few stray sequins and put them back in his pile.

“Mom,” he said, still gluing.

“Yes?”

“God is inside of this table.”

Ready to read more about a gay, trans, rock-n-roll family raising a son in the South? Order the book or come to Naked Girls Reading Austin this Saturday to hear an excerpt read by a real, live naked girl.

#tbt Butch Boobs

Welcome to my weekly #tbt post featuring photos that couldn’t be included in Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir. (Our archive is deep, but there was only so much space in the book.)

Today’s photo complements Chapter 12, “Fitted Shirt.”

butchboobs2

“By age thirteen, it was clear that Katy had inherited her mother’s legendary rack. And since she refused to set foot in the lingerie department, Katy was at the mercy of her mother’s taste in bras. Thus, throughout the low-slung seventies, Katy was forced to sport Jayne Mansfield-style bras that launched her boobs up and out, like minor planets orbiting her chin.

It was not a style that complemented a softball uniform. Or a basketball uniform. Or any of the other sporty ensembles that might otherwise have offered androgynous refuge for a budding butch.”

Ready to read more about the journey from Playtex to man chest? Order the book.

Got a memory about butch boobs (or Katy’s mom)? Share in the comments below.

Queer Rock Love to Launch at Gender Odyssey 2015

paigejune2015If all goes according to plan, I’ll get to see and touch my book for the first time this Friday, August 21, at Gender Odyssey in Seattle. We’ve had our share of last-minute publishing trials and tribulations, so I’m not 100% sure that this baby will show up on her due date–but I do know I’ll be reading a selection at a free public event that evening. Here are the details:

Transgress Press – Meet the Authors
7:30PM | Washington State Convention Center – Rm 611
Come and schmooze with our 2015 authors, Rex Butt, Seth Jamison Rainess, Paige Schilt, and Dr. Michael Brownstein, and celebrate their recently published and forthcoming books. Get discounted copies of their books personally autographed for you. Light refreshments will be provided.

I’m thrilled to be part of Gender Odyssey this year. When I set out to write Queer Rock Love, my goal was to write a trans family/partner memoir that wasn’t focused on discovery, coming out, or surgery. I knew Katy was trans from the moment I first laid eyes on her. Her transness was an integral part of the person I fell in love with, and I wanted to write a story that focused on the ups and downs of our everyday life. I’m hopeful that lots of folks at Gender Odyssey will be able to identify with our unorthodox, not-a-poster-family family.

Throughout the conference, I’ll be facilitating workshops on higher education, parenting (with Katy Koonce) and the “rules of attraction.” Check out the schedule here, and come say hi if you can.

In the meantime, I’ll be updating this website to be more of a book-related website. Stay tuned for reviews, bonus photos, and information on how to order Queer Rock Love: A Family Memoir from Transgress Press.

BEARING WITNESS TO VIOLENCE: a therapist’s tips for transgender day of remembrance

This year, the organizers of Austin’s annual Transgender Day of Remembrance memorial have asked psychotherapists from the LGBT community to be available at City Hall for participants who may need support after the event.

Their request is a recognition that bearing witness to violence—both physical and systemic violence—can be emotionally devastating. It’s crucial for communities to come together, mourn their dead, and organize for the future. But how can members of a vulnerable community remember acts of violence without becoming re-traumatized?

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More than 200 names will be read at 2014 DOR memorials all around the country. That’s 200 human beings, many of them trans women of color, who have died because of anti-transgender violence in the past year. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. No one knows how many deaths go uncounted.

“It’s a difficult event to attend,” says blogger Autumn Sandeen. “It’s a difficult event to plan.” In a recent article for San Diego’s LGBT Weekly, Sandeen wrote about the numbness that some long-time trans activists feel in response to the ongoing violence.

My wife, Katy Koonce, has been attending Austin’s TDOR since the beginning. As a trans-identified psychotherapist, she has helped countless clients sort through their feelings after Day of Remembrance. I asked Katy for her tips on emotional self care for folks who are attending this year’s event. Here’s what she had to say:

1. Look around. This may be the most transgender people that you’ve ever seen in one place. Remember that, despite all the violence and discrimination, our community continues to grow and organize. They can’t keep us down.

2. Talk to people. Generally speaking, trans people like to help other trans people. If you’re new to all this, ask about what else is going on in your community. If you’re an old-timer, pay it forward.

3. Resolve to use TDOR as a stepping stone to more community and more action each year. Make a plan to attend the monthly TGQ Social or volunteer for Transgender Education Network of Texas. Ask other people you meet what they’re up to.

4. Observe yourself with compassion. Take note of the things that trigger you. Sometimes the hardest thing about TDOR may be hearing from PFLAG parents and thinking about your relationship to your own family or hearing from trans youth and thinking about your younger self.

5. Remember to breathe. Take in the faces around you. Make eye contact. The anxiety you’re feeling is most likely not about the now. You’re here, surrounded by other people who have come out for similar reasons. Let yourself be in the moment.

Transgender Day of Remembrance
Thursday, November 20th, 2014
6:30 PM
Austin City Hall, 301 W 2nd St, Austin, TX 78701

Photo courtesy of christmasstockimages.com.

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