I was fortunate to have known all four of my grandparents as a child. The last to survive, my maternal grandfather, Clark, recently passed at a month shy of ninety-nine. He was a machinist, a veteran (though he never talked about that), and tinkerer. He had a motorcycle, the first one I ever rode on. He was a breast cancer survivor, and he once told me he thought a dictatorship would be the best form of government, so long as he could choose the dictator. I took it as a joke. My paternal grandfather, Lewis, was the first to go, back in ‘91 in his 80s. I knew him the least, partly because he was the first to go, and partly because he was a man of few words, as I recall. He retired from a career working for the NY State Highway Department. The basement of his house was full of a variety of ancient, and jerry-rigged tools, and smelled of sawdust and oil and lubricants. As a young man he survived a traumatic accident on the job involving a tree chipper, leaving him with a bit of a disfigured arm. I once saw him kill a bat with his hands by breaking its neck. He died of leukemia. My two grandmothers both lived into their nineties. My maternal grandmother, Betty, left a first relationship, with a child, back in small town America in the early 40s. She married Clark, had another child, and a number of jobs including a long career in the banking industry which is what she retired from. She once made me promise to never jump from an airplane naked. My maternal grandmother, Julia, died at home in the same house she was born in, way back in the nineteen-teens. A house which moved once, though my grandmother never did. After high school and before opening her own hair salon in that same house, my grandmother Julia graduated from the Watertown Business Academy. I can barely remember a fabric store run out of my grandmother’s home. I can remember hiding and running and touching and weaving in and out and around these beautiful pillars of colorful fabric standing like a short forest in the room where the bones of a salon remained. Late in life, she collapsed on her golden retriever once, her heart stopped at the bottom of the stairs, and though she had a DNR and was happy to join her husband, Lewis, finally after a decade, she was revived by a pair of EMTs because the paperwork was unavailable, in the moment.
My maternal grandparents Clark and Betty, lived twenty miles down the road in the larger town of Watertown, the county seat. A small city on the Black River once made no more famous by the Frank Sinatra concept album, Watertown, which came late in his career. My paternal grandparents, Lewis and Julia, lived in my hometown, Clayton, in a house on the river just a short bike ride from my own house. In Watertown, my grandparents’ house was neat and orderly and quiet. In Clayton, the house was busy. People came and went, my grandmother listened to music or watched TV, she had projects going on, such as the Knit Wits, her group of grandmother-aged ladies who regularly got together to knit and chat. If I was there, I was one of many things going on in the house. If I was In Watertown, it would be just me and my grandparents. we would watch the news, or baseball, if any TV at all. We usually were out on an adventure somewhere. In Clayton, I watched TV, listened to records, overheard adult conversations, and investigated the corners of every room and closet. In Watertown I also investigated every room and closet and every old thing I could find. But in Watertown, I’d less likely be one of many things going on in the house, more likely the one thing going on for all of my grandparent’s attention in that otherwise quiet house.
In Clayton, my paternal grandparent’s house was churchy. That side of the family not only went to church regularly, the priest would even make friendly visits to my grandmother’s house. The rooms of the house all had crucifixes hanging on the walls, dinner began with grace, and church and church-going were topics to be discussed anytime the family gathered at their house, a few blocks from St. Mary’s, where my dad and my aunts and uncle went to grade school, and where they all went to church still, regularly. Where I would attend catechism and become an altar boy from late elementary school through high school. In Watertown, there was a church my grandmother went to, but she didn’t discuss it, and never took me. Her and my grandfather had mysterious books and papers with insignia that let me know over the years he was a Freemason, and she in the Order of the Eastern Star, but their house and my time with them was not at all churchy, and I liked that as a kid very much. Along with the quiet of their old house.
At some point in the late-seventies or early-eighties, my paternal grandparents in Clayton got a remote control gizmo for a bedroom TV set. I didn’t know a lot of people with bedroom TV sets, nor did I know anyone with a remote control for one, or for any TVs at all for that matter. Everyone I knew still got up to physically change the channel on a TV by turning an actual dial. This remote control made it so you could change the channel right from bed, without getting up. At the time, this was new and different technology. And this particular gizmo worked by means of a squeezy remote that was quite literally a hand-held, plastic, air-squeezer, like you might find in the center of a dog toy. A black plastic pillow that whistled as you squeezed the air out of it. On the TV itself was a device, like a box, fixed to the TV, either with strong tape, or possibly screwed into the TV housing. It had a dial of its own, with a set of gears and an attachment that would couple with the TVs own channel-changing dial, mechanically turning it each time you whistled the squeezy remote. One squeeze = one whistle = one channel change forward. It was not a subtle piece of gear in any way.
I think the device must have been screwed to the TV, because each channel change resulted in a loud BANG as the device mechanically torqued the TVs stepped dial from 3 to 4, and from 4 to 5, and so on. I’d squeeze the remote, “TWEEEEET”, and the device would elicit a very short grunt of mechanical effort before, BANG, the channel changed. If you changed the dial in quick enough succession, the TWEET errBANG, TWEET errBANG, TWEET errBANG, would even get the TV moving along the surface of the dresser on which it sat, it was mechanically percussive enough. If you’d never heard it being operated before, and you then heard someone change a couple channels in a row from another nearby room, you would definitely investigate the odd, abrupt, almost violent sounds coming from this contraption.
I spent a lot of time in that room on my grandparents bed watching shows and movies on that TV with the squeezy remote and a crucifix on the wall and loads and loads of bawbly jewelry on the dresser. I watched things I wouldn’t watch at home. Cable had just arrived, and with it, more than just four stations to choose from. Including HBO. What I remember most is watching Quincy, the Love Boat and Fantasy Island, all of which I absolutely loved. I saw Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1 and also Mommy Dearest on that TV. I don’t think my grandmother would have approved, had she known. The show I remember most, however, is one I cannot understand how I came upon. I assume HBO. It was a documentary or a news program of some type. It centered on a person who had been born a man, but at some point understood they were truly a woman, inside. And this person, as an adult, had by the time of this interview been under the care of a doctor in a Scandinavian country, and gone through procedures and courses of hormones and drugs and things I didn’t fully understand, and was now able to live as a woman. Physically. Had the proper biology, post-surgeries, to function in most every way as a woman. The person being interviewed talked about feeling different as a kid, about how they came to process what they felt inside, about what was expected of them in every way, and how it felt to know that it was all wrong. All of it. How they had to muster the courage to admit what they came to know about themself, and how they went all the way to another country to find people to understand and to help them. And of course about the opposition to all of this they faced, but I don’t remember that part as clearly. I do remember feeling like it was the first time I’d ever witnessed an adult talk about something that didn’t seem like a bunch of adult nonesense. Adults were certain about things, and didn’t wonder. I understood how this person felt. I understood what it felt like to not believe what everything in the world, and everyone you know is telling you. I understood what it felt like to understand that there are rules all around us that everyone is expected to know, but no one is expected to explain to you. I understood the almost constant discomfort of being two people, the one you really are, and the one you let everyone see.
I considered, back then, whether I might be a girl. I tried to imagine all the different ways it might feel to not be a boy, physically, but to be a girl instead. I knew the world expected and wanted me a certain way, and that I wasn’t that way. Maybe it was because I wasn’t a boy after all. I was watching that show in the very room where I had been reprimanded by my grandmother for trying on her jewelry because I was a boy and not a girl, for whom trying on jewelry would be appropriate. Perhaps I was like this person on the show. After quite some consideration, I knew I wasn’t. I was a boy, I was just broken or weird. If there was someone I trusted to talk to I might have realized I was queer, but of course, that didn’t happen. I also knew there was something about their story that was indeed part of mine. The part about lying and shame and being told who to be or not to be. Even back then. And I never discussed it with anyone until I was much, much older. I wish that I had trusted anyone enough to bring the subject up instead of working it out myself as a kid.
As I write this there are Americans who call themselves Christians using the power they have in government, or through the liberal American use of guns to attack, disenfranchise, threaten, and eliminate the existence of trans people like the one in the show I’ve described. Christians. Those people call themselves that because of a man named Jesus Christ who made a name for himself ministering to the most vulnerable people around him. Poor, sick, disenfranchised. Jesus Christ thought serving these people the key to salvation. Fast forward a couple thousand years, and people hiding behind Jesus Christ’s name are attacking the very ones he would be miniistering to and giving his life for if need be, if the story is to be believed. Powerful American “Christians” right now are trying to use the leverage they have to make sure there is no place in America for trans people to feel safe, to feel at home, to feel protected, or to even feel seen at all. This hypocrisy and perversion is cartoonish, absurd, and yet it’s the world we live in. A world where Christians use guns to threaten kids over where to go to the bathroom. Where Christians use guns to threaten kids listening to storytimes in libraries. Where Christians wish there was just something to do about all the gun violence that couldn’t possibly be related to the amount of guns in the country. Where Christians use every bit of power they have to make sure the vulnerable stay vulnerable, and that young kids like I was don’t have any resources at all to help them understand what they are going through, and that above all guns remain plentiful. Oh my, it sounds like a conspiracy when I put it down this way. Hmm, I wonder who Jesus would threaten?
I understand there is a lot of confusion around concepts and terms that are new to a lot of Americans, while not really being new at all. Just ignored for a long time. Prior to the rise of the Nazi party in Europe, there was a great wealth of literature and study on trans people, and on homosexuality. The Nazis destroyed most of it. Just as the American Christian right would do now if they were to have their way with their relentless attacks on the rights of fellow Americans who are different from them. This repugnant hypocrisy of the American Christian right cannot continue, it cannot last because lies do not last, though they do resurface in each generation. Trans kids will become trans adults and Christians cannot stop them, but they won’t stop trying either.
If you’ve read this far, please remember to be kind to any trans people you know, they are under enormous pressure right now.