MAKING CONNECTIONS - June 14, 2016
On our way out of Raleigh, we stopped by North Garner Middle School to visit Michael Morones. Two years ago, when Michael was 11 years old, he was repeatedly bullied by his classmates for being gay. Like so many kids his age, Michael loved My Little Pony. To be clear, he wasn’t gay or straight, he was 11. The harassment he faced was due to his perceived sexual orientation, and his mistreatment at school got so bad that he tried to take his own life. It’s hard to imagine an 11-year-old child hanging himself, it’s harder to imagine being his mother. Tiffany Morones found her son in his bedroom in time to save his life, but not before he suffered severe and permanent brain damage.
Some of you reading this may remember the concert we put together in support of Michael and his family, Broadway Battles Bullying. I hosted the evening and performed a song from Manifest Pussyabout the first time I ever wore a dress and got in trouble for it. The song, “I Want To Wear You” by Julianne Wick Davis, features the poignant lyric, “the first time I feel pretty is the first time I feel shame.”
Michael now lives most of his life in a motorized wheel chair, his delicate hands twitching on his lap. He’s learned to blink twice for “yes,” once for “no.” Sometimes he can follow you with his eyes, every once in a while—according to his mom and his teacher Ms. Eatmon—he smiles.
Walking through the halls of a junior high school brought back memories of being taunted in sixth grade. When I was 11, I didn’t have much leg hair (I still don’t) and the other kids used to tease me for shaving my legs. I’d walk to class and people would grab my legs to feel the texture of my skin, call me a faggot and run off laughing. I called my mom from the campus pay-phone daily, in tears. One time after school, and she doesn’t know this, I swallowed a whole bottle of Advil. I thought it would do more than it did. A few years later, another friend my age, who faced similar harassment for her more masculine demeanor, hung herself in the shower while her parents were at Open House.
Well before children have identified a sexual preference, their refusal or inability to fit in within narrow gendered social structures can make them a target for homophobic aggression. Under laws like HB2, these children have no protection against discrimination in their schools. In fact, when governments pass laws like HB2, it sends a message to young people that hatred and violence directed at LGBT people is permissible, even encouraged.
Tiffany presented me and the band with a gift from Michael, a small, stuffed, pink My Little Ponywho now rides with us on the rear-view mirror of the van. Before we left the school, I had to use the little boy’s room (it’s the law, remember). On the way, I was heartened to see hand-made rainbow signs in the halls proclaiming the school a “No Bullying Zone” and asking other students “Why be a Bully when you can be a Friend?”
I burst into tears when we got back in the van. We had a six hour drive to Asheville, and that night, at The Altamont Theatre, I told the audience about my visit with Michael. I tried to find a connection between his suicide attempt, HB2 and the shootings at Pulse nightclub. I spoke extemporaneously.
“When we legislate hatred we build a culture of violence. We cannot condemn a killing in Orlando while supporting a bill that promotes discrimination.”
That night, I was memed by an audience member.
After the show I went out for a late night bite with two young transwomen who came to the show. One of them told me, “I moved out of South Carolina to get away from the confederacy, and I ended up here, thinking it was a liberal enclave, and now things are more backwards than they were back home.”
We also talked a lot about anatomy. In a surprising juxtaposition these ladies, both “pre-op” (anticipating gender confirmation surgery) had a lot of the same questions that the ultra-conservative—also confessionally ignorant and transphobic NewsMax reporter Dennis Michael Lynch asked me on his show a few weeks back.
People want to know how it works, I get it, that’s part of the reason why I created this show. I’m down to talk about the ins and out of my genital reassignment. But just to be clear, not everyone is, nor should they have to be.
The next morning we took off for Wilmington, from the western mountains to the eastern coast. On the way, we stopped at a Williamson’s Bar-B-Que and Seafood, a kinda run-down stand alone place off the interstate that looked like the perfect spot for sweet tea, pulled pork and hush puppies. Thankfully, we were correct.
A demure young lady was our hostess and server. She looked high-school age, as though this might have been her summer job so she could save up for college applications and a homecoming dress. Trying an approach I’d not yet employed, I walked up to her at the counter, “Excuse me, miss? I’m transgender, and I was wondering if it would be alright if I used the ladies’ room.”
She didn’t miss a beat, just looked up from the order ticket in her hands and said, “Of course, and waddya y’all want to drink?” Like it was the most mater of fact question she’d answered all day.
Silly as the situation may seem, I couldn’t help but see our interaction within a legacy of American civil rights struggles. Like black folk sitting at the counter of a segregated diner, waiting to be served, or gay men walking into a pre-Stonewall bar back when it was illegal to serve alcohol to homosexuals, outing themselves and asking for a drink.
I know she must have said something to the crew in the kitchen because when we left the entire staff made it a point to peek out from the back and wave, wishing us safe travels and thanking us for stopping by. I gotta say, if this is the South, I love the South.
Our Wilmington show was at a charming little spot called Juggling Gypsy. While The Altamont in Asheville was more of a traditional black box theatre, the cleanest and most conventional place we’re likely to play on this tour, Juggling Gypsy is a hookah bar and board game lounge with a small stage, funky artwork and a great vibe.
In Wilmington, we were greeted by a community dinner with leaders from a coalition of local LGBT organizations, who have joined forces to combat HB2: Equality North Carolina, Cape Fear Equality, PFLAG, the Frank Harr Foundation, The Humanists and Free Thinkers and SAGE Wilmington.
They told me about their demonstrations at the city council and the school board trying to get local political officials to take a stand against the law and how, this past weekend, the local police worked with them to block off a route to the river for their Pulse Shootings Vigil. One of the organizers had created a huge wreath to be sent down stream in honor of the victims. The Wilmington Police Department offered to take her out on a boat to make sure the wreath didn’t get trapped in the docks. On the way back to shore, she sang “Amazing Grace,” and everyone joined in.
The representatives from PFLAG were a straight couple with two grown children, both transgender.
The venue filled up in time for the show, and the crowd was mixed; young hip kids and sun-kissed retirees, tough country dykes and casually sleek gay boys. The layout of the space allowed me to walk into the audience during the show, the first time I was able to explore that kind of interaction.
A transman who is part of the anti-HB2 coalition sat through the entire show with his arms folded across his chest. It’s the kind of posture that’s hard to work with onstage. “Maybe he just doesn’t want to hear songs about pussy,” I wondered to myself.
Turns out, he loved the show, he was just sitting like a dude. Afterwards he came up and shook my hand. He was a good ol’ boy with a genteel drawl, “I wanna thank you for doin’ what you’re doin’. I came expecting some tunes and stories, but you took us someplace. That was real theatre.”
After the show, the PFLAG parents came up to me in tears. We hugged, and the mother said to me, “As the parent of a transgender child who’s just...,” she paused, “...just hatching, I want to tell you how special and important your show was for me.”
The Wilmington show marked the half-way point of our tour. So many tears, so much love and laughter, and we’ve still got four more cities to hit. Tomorrow we’ll ride to Charlotte, where a whole new community is ready and waiting to Manifest Pussy!