It is with sadness that I have to write that one of my freedom icons has passed away today.
At the age of 100 Miz Grace Lee Boggs has died leaving behind to cherish her memory black activists, Asian activists and a city that is ready to come back from the ashes.
J and I went on vacation in Northern Michigan this past summer and while driving back to Cincinnati we decided to cut through Detroit just so we could see her center. We drove through the city, surprised at all the empty lots and abandoned buildings. When we got to her street we expected to see a sign for her center but the only thing there was a house. We drove away cursing our car’s GPS system. James typed the address into Google Map on his phone which led us… right back to where we were.
I jumped out of the car and asked a woman in scrubs if she knew where the Boggs Center was. She pointed to the house across the street. She noticeably sized me up and told me to go knock on the door, they’d let me in.
“She lives there, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, she’s there. You know we just celebrated her birthday.”
I thought for a second and then shook my head. We did not know the center was also her house. There’s no way I wanted to go knock on the door of an old woman.
“She’s been sick,” the woman went on. “But they’ll let you in.”
I asked for directions to the school and the woman asked me if I had an appointment. Again I said no. We were just passing through and wanted to see it. She gave us directions and we got lost only once. We jumped out of the car, took a picture in front of the building and talked to the principal.
We didn’t get a chance to see the center or meet her but we were satisfied for the rest of the drive home.
At least I was. Now I wish I had the courage to knock on her door and tell her how much she meant to me.
If you want to know more about this awesome women listen to her interview on Democracy Now or On Being; check out her obit in the Detroit Free Press; watch her film American Revolutionary on PBS or you can always read her books Living for Change and The Next Revolution.
It was a hot late summer day in 1989 and I was working at a marketing research firm as a survey supervisor when she came in. She was dressed in a tasteful outfit –I believe it was pink– and her hair was a weave that could have used some help but back then lacefront weaves weren’t a thing in Cincinnati. But her makeup! She was melting. She was dark-skinned, about my complexion, and she tried her best to put on the best face but the tri-state’s heat and humidity was winning. It was hard to find a good foundation for mahogany toned skin back then plus a powder to set it. A lot of the powders that claimed to be for darker hues were really just for olive toned women.
I could see the stubble along her strong jaw line and the oil in the crease of her eyelids was sweating up the blue of her eyeshadow. I knew she couldn’t go in like that.
“Girl,” I said discreetly, friendly as if we were best buds. “You have to go fix your makeup before you go into the interview.”
She followed me to the women’s restroom. Looking back I believe we must have been close in age, both in our twenties, But she was in the later years where as I had just ventured into that decade. Our body frames were different, too. I thought I was fat, weighing around 135 and she was definitely skinny. We both couldn’t walk in heels for shit but I was wearing flats that day. Before opening the door she turned to me with her large brown eyes they expressed everything in those seconds. “Thank you,” she said.
I went to the meeting room to let my supervisor know that her next interview would be along shortly after a quick refresher in the restroom. They too had seen her walking in and were waiting in anticipation to see her. They were anticipating laughter afterwards with the utmost professionalism before, of course,
She and the two others who were in the room turned to ask me, “Which restroom did you take him to?”
“The women’s restroom.”
The women began to shriek. “You took that man to the women’s restroom!” Unbelievable!
“Yeah,” I said laughing. “She had to freshen up her make up.”
Needless to say she did not get the job. She was applying for a telemarketing job but the supervisor just couldn’t see hiring a transgender woman. Back then we called transgender people trannies, transvestite, he-be-she-bees and possibly worse. My supervisor worried what potential clients would think if we had a trans woman on the team. We were a national company with clients in a lot of different states and sometimes they would come in to listen to the telemarketers just to make sure they were getting their money’s worth. It would be awkward to explain why a biological man was dressed as a woman calling up people to ask them if they preferred shopping at the Piggly Wiggly or the IGA.
Not that the responders could tell what someone was wearing on the other side of the phone. Sometimes they couldn’t tell their gender. My best buddy Donald Stewart was often called ma’am and he would just giggle and wink at me across the aisle. “They think I’m a girl!” he’d laugh after hanging up.
“You are!” I said, throwing paper at him.
Our voices were also not raceblind. When we made calls to the south sometimes the voices on the other end would bluntly ask, “Are you black?” or “Are you negro?” Or nigra. I tried to keep the tension out of my response. “Yes, I am.” Sometimes the call would continue, sometimes they’d promptly hang up.
The southerners also were able to spot that we were northerners. When we called Boston, respondents were polite enough to not reference we weren’t from their area. But we would laugh at their accents as soon as we hung up the calls.
“My God! I could not understand him!”
“She said, “the numbuh is foh-wuh, foh-wuh, foh-wuh,, there’s enough foh-wuhs in that anyways.”
The people were nice enough to take our phone calls and complete our 20 minute long surveys. They were also nice enough to not ask us if our mode of dress matched the assigned gender on our birth certificates.
Donald and I hung out a lot after work because we were the youngest of the crew. Discovering by chance that we both had attended kindergarten at Winton Place Elementary in 1974 we decided that we should be friends just like we were then. He was a slight of build white guy with dark brown hair that waved and curled at the ends and the growth of the skinny mustache replaced the thick milk one he used to have on his upper lip during snack time. After work he would pull out his boombox and we’d walk around Walnut Hills listening to Bronski Beat, Sylvester and Joy Division. We were wasting time before he had to catch his bus and head back to his boyfriend. I never met his boyfriend but from what I can recall from the description he was a black guy who wasn’t fully out to his family Because of their issues Donald would arrive to work with bruises and black eyes. I was also wasting time before returning home. I didn’t have a boyfriend to go home to; my fiancé Timothy was stationed in the Navy in Chicago. Because this was the time before cellphones long distance phone calls were expensive so my phone was turned off at the time. I spent most of my time in the single room apartment reading, writing long letters, and waiting for responses. Tim didn’t care that Donald and I hung out together, quoting Eddie Murphy, “as long as you don’t come home with AIDS on your lips”.
Donald confided things to me. embarrassing things like his penis was emitting a green discharge (“Go get that shit checked out!” I yelled at him), sad things like his father was abusive to him and disowned him because he was gay and his boyfriend was black and happy things like the time he went to a club in drag.
“Really, drag?” I asked incredulously. I couldn’t envision it but he did recently shave his mustache. I had a million questions: what was it like? Did he want to do it all the time? Did being gay mean he wanted to be a woman?
It was fun, he just did it just for the show and no, he didn’t want to be a woman.
His boyfriend didn’t like it, though. He called him a faggot, he smacked him around, he cheated with other men and women. His boyfriend was horrible but he couldn’t leave him. One day while sitting around in my apartment he asked to spend the night and then he made a pass at me. He didn’t want to be gay anymore, he wanted to try heterosexual sex, how did he know he wasn’t actually straight? I told him it was probably best he didn’t spend the night and walked him to the bus stop. Sometimes when you don’t know yourself you do things and you don’t know why.
For example I don’t know why I invited the young woman to use the women’s restroom. Maybe it was because I wanted to drive my other co-workers crazy; the response from my supervisor and the two women who flanked her was a plus.
Maybe it was the influence of Donald. I knew someone who was gay and having a trans person in the women’s restroom didn’t seem that much of a stress.
Maybe I wanted to seem cool and above it. “Hey, this person is trans and I don’t care! Why can’t she use the same restroom as I do?”
Maybe it’s because I saw a fellow sister distress. She needed to refresh herself and I just couldn’t see myself going into a men’s restroom to reapply makeup so why should she? Besides the men’s restroom is gross.
Maybe it’s a mix of all those above. Or none of the above. I don’t know, it’s been over 25 years so its hard to recreate events such as that.
Last year the place where I work now created a non-gender restroom. Or maybe it’s called an all gender restroom. Probably unisex, is more like it.
Whatever it’s called I misused it the first time I needed it.
There are two restrooms side by sides. The one on the left used to be the men’s, the one of the right the women’s. Now the signs have been replaces with just a man/woman symbol each. I ran into the right one, not just out of habit but because the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. There are two stalls.
And this restroom always stinks.
Someone knocks on the door. I don’t answer because that is odd.
The person comes in, sees someone in the other stall, and then walks back out again.
When I leave the woman was waiting outside. She tells me that proper protocol is to lock the door when using it. I tell her I didn’t know. I guess that makes sense. Although there are two stalls. Someone could use the stall next to me but I don’t mind having private time in a bathroom, George Costanza style.
I have to give my workplace kudos or taking the chance to create a unisex restroom. I’m not sure how many companies in the area have tried it, let alone across the country for that matter. Years ago I thought the idea of an Ally McBeal restroom was cool, but then I also thought that it would be cool to break into dance after the flush and hand washing.
Although my workplace has given employees the option to have one genderless restroom the public is afforded the same luxury. Transpeople can’t even use the restrooms of their identities. One of my favorite trans girl teens got in trouble for going into the women’s restroom with her friends. I vouched for her, saying that I didn’t think D was intending to do anything wrong in the restroom, but the guards disagreed. The guards said it was because they were worried about sexual assaults so they had to enforce the rule of assigned biological restrooms.
Last year a gay friend posted on Facebook an article written by a woman about her apprehension (okay, dislike) about transwomen using the women’s restroom. It was in response to this sign:
His friends were calling her all sorts of names: stupid bitch this, dumbass that.Even though I understand the sentiment of the sign above I have to agree it was too over reaching in it’s sentiment. Unlike the writer of that article I don’t think that a cis straight man is going to dress up as a woman just so he can enter the woman’s restroom and rape her, maybe incidences like that have happened and I’m just not privvy to it. But I do personally know of men entering into public restrooms in broad day light in attempts to do everything from peek at private parts to rape. If I walked into a restroom and saw an unknown man standing there I’d first check the symbol on the door before searching for another restroom. So although the idea of unisex public bathrooms seem charming in theory, I don’t know if a business wants to take on the legal responsibility for that.
But things are change, so I guess small steps.
I was scrolling down my FB timeline when I ran across this video:
Ronald Moon lives in Evanston, one of the toughest/roughest neighborhoods in Cincinnati. To see that he is trying to make a change in the community only to be thwarted by some of those who are imprisoned in a broken spirituality is heartbreaking.
But then he just forgives them and wants to keep on doing his work.
Please help Ronald Moon by giving to his fund. If you can’t help them pass along the word so those who can help will know about it.
Be strong, Ronald. There are so many of us out there that care.
Originally posted on Midwest Black Speculative Fiction Alliance:
Jamilah McDowell (“some people know me as Mimi, others Jaja, many more as that girl with the death glare and monotone voice”), a biology major at the University of Cincinnati’s Blue Ash campus, will participate in Queen City Black Comix Day on Aug. 29! She will display some of her paintings and sell postcard versions of them at the event.
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Counting down the days until this event.