Gender Uncertainty

It’s been awhile since I’ve had a chance to blog, as I’ve been working on my long-term nonfiction project. But I wanted to share an interaction I had with someone recently. It sprang out of a recent visit to the grocery store:

The young cashier in the checkout line at Price Chopper scans my Chobani yogurt cups, Clif bars, single packs of tuna fish, produce, and other items. As the products move down the conveyer belt and the scanner beeps continuously, I study the physical features of the cashier, noticing that the person seems to straddle the line between male and female.

The cashier’s name tag begins with the letter T., and an older woman with blond hair and glasses stands next to him, training him. The young cashier wears earrings and a red polo shirt with a Price Chopper patch over his chest, and his distinguishing characteristics are large breast tissue, short, spiky black hair with bristly sideburns, and a soft, pink face with stubble on the cheeks and upper lip.

As I watch T. work, I keep wondering: Is he a woman transitioning to man, a man transitioning to a female, or a teenager with a hormonal imbalance or another endocrine condition?

If I had to guess I would say the person is a woman transitioning to a male, but uncertainty remains.

It seems obvious, whatever the case, that he/she wants to escape his or her present state of being. In this age of heightened awareness about the LGBT community, with new pronouns used to describe human beings, I don’t know the proper way to refer to the young person who stands across from me.

Yet I recognize the person’s humanity, no matter which way he or she leans.

And I feel sympathy for this individual. I hope he/she does not get ridiculed or feel shame about his/her gender dysphoria. I hope the person has a significant other to share life’s burdens with, someone to lean on while the transitioning completes.

I am empathetic because of my own experience with gender neutrality, during my college years in the late 1980s and early ’90s when the same uncertainty followed me, as my high-pitched voice, epicene features, and body lacking sufficient testosterone made people question whether I was a he or a she, a man or a woman. During this period self-hatred simmered inside me when people would make the mistake of calling me “mam.”

Later that night, when I pull into my apartment parking lot, accompanied by my wife, Pam, and our one-year-old son, Colin, I ask Pam if she has any thoughts about the clerk, if she thinks he’s a guy or a girl.

She says the person’s appearance is intentional, that he’s created a certain look because he’s gay. But she is still not certain about the gender. However, while we get out of the car, she says, “He was very good—very good customer service.” I guess that’s true. And I realize we can’t alter our looks, but our behavior and our job performance are gender neutral and within our ability to control.

And what I’ve learned from my nearly 50 years on this earth is that you have to deal with each individual at face value, person to person, and let all the identifying characteristics—age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation—fall away. I try to approach each person as a blank slate, a vessel for the spirit inside.

And not to pull God into this blog, but as a Christian, I strive (but often fail) to view each person through the eyes of Christ—looking at him or her with compassion and love—seeing everything disappear except the beauty and the value of the person’s humanity.

And I’m thankful for this divine lesson reinforced to me in a grocery store checkout aisle.


Winnowing the CD Collection

I am clearing some space in my one-bedroom apartment, and I recently tackled the project of going through a large blue tote filled with about 200 CDs. All of the albums have been loaded into my iTunes library, so there’s no real reason for me to hang on to them.

Clarity, by Jimmy Eat World

Clarity by Jimmy Eat World

I separated some that I wanted to keep for sentimental reasons—like The Best of Schubert, Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity and This Desert Life by Counting Crows, which I listened to continuously (on repeat cycle) when trying to decide whether to leave Arizona nine summers ago.

This Desert Life, by Counting Crows

This Desert Life by Counting Crows

I took more than 150 CDs that I wanted to sell to The Sound Garden in Armory Square. Two male clerks divided my collection into a few large stacks and then started going through them, deciding what to buy and what to pass on.

The Sound Garden, located in Armory Square in Syracuse.

The Sound Garden, located in Armory Square in Syracuse.

I was amused as I stood there on the other side of the counter, watching as albums I loved by Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Otis Redding, Nat King Cole, Roy Orbison, along with other CDs by Guster, The Cure, The Cult and the Rolling Stones, were all returned to me, declined and discarded. One of the clerks said the total they were willing to give me was 93 dollars and I said that was more than fair. I hadn’t expected to make that much.

I took my cash winnings and headed home; I felt like I had just finished hitting a few exactas at the track. The next day I carried a suitcase filled with the remaining CDs to the 3fifteen thrift store in Marshall Square Mall, where the woman working the counter accepted all of them as a donation. She also gave me a coupon for a free cup of coffee next door at Cafe Kubal (not a bad deal from my perspective).

It seems the pruning of my CD collection completes a chapter in my life, as I move into middle age, putting aside the things of my youth and realigning my priorities. Seeing the CDs laid out on the counter at The Sound Garden reminded me of how important my music collection was to me in my early twenties and throughout my thirties. Living alone for most of that time, the CDs were my companions and the songs they played provided another voice, another sound in otherwise lonely apartments.

The River by Bruce Springsteen

The River by Bruce Springsteen

But as I shoved the CDs I had saved back into my walk-in closet, I thought of a line from a Bruce Springsteen song. It’s from the title track from the album The River:

“Now all them things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air …”

And the song continues, so I’ll let “The Boss” close out this blog post:

“Now I just act like I don’t remember
Mary acts like she don’t care.

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me,
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river …”