If you've been following this blog for a while, you may have noticed that every once in a while I invoke what I'll call herein the Howard Cosell Rule. I am so naming it for the sportscaster who interrupted his play-by-play and commentary of an NFL game to announce the murder of John Lennon. About a dozen years earlier, he deviated from the format of his radio program to talk about the assassinations of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.
He received a lot of hate mail--which included slurs against his Jewishness and questioning of his manhood--for reminding viewers that, indeed, some things are more important than what your favorite football or baseball team is doing on the field. That, of course, is what some fans didn't want to hear: When it wasn't impugning his heritage, actual or perceived sexual orientation or political leanings, the angry responses said, in essence, that he should stick to sports because that's what they tuned in to hear.
Of course, these days, you'd have to be comatose to think that politics, economics, history, gender identity and expression and sexual orientation can be separated from games, matches or tournaments. (Simone Biles and Colin Kaepernick, anyone?) And I am always conscious of the fact that I started this blog because I am a middle-aged (depending on your definition of it!) transgender woman who has cycling in one form or another for longer than she’s been living as the person she is.
That said, I am writing today about someone who, to my knowledge, didn't do much cycling. And I have not previously mentioned her on this blog. But she has as much to do with the person I am, and why I have continued to ride, as anyone has.
|bell hooks, from the bell hooks institute|
Yesterday Gloria Jean Watkins--better known as bell hooks*--died at age 69 from renal failure. As I understand, she'd been in failing health for some time. Physically, that is. I can't get inside her mind, any more than anyone else can, but I feel confident in saying that until her last moment, it worked better than that of most people (including me) at their cognitive best.
So what does she have to do with me, or this blog? Well, first of all, any transgender person owes at least something to her. Laverne Cox said as much. hooks, a black feminist scholar who described her sexuality as "queer-pas-gay," sowed the seeds of what Kimberle Crenshaw would later call "intersectionality" in feminism and the studies of race, class and culture. For those of you who didn't take a graduate seminar in gender studies (no shame there, really!), intersectionality explores, as its name implies, the connections between social categories such as race, gender and class--though hooks (and Crenshaw) were careful to point out that while sexism, racism, class bias and homo- and trans-phobia are related, they are not identical. Thus, while hooks took pains to respect the differences between, say, a white cisgender woman from an upper middle class background trying to break the "glass ceiling" of an organization or profession and an Afro-Latina transgender trying to get medical treatment, she could also see the parallels between, and empathise with, their struggles.
Most important, she challenged her readers to empathise, and to embrace, the ways in which their identities, whatever they are, express themselves. That is not to say she believed that "anything goes:" her critique of Beyonce says as much. Rather, she wanted people to free themselves from the mostly-unspoken dictates (many of which she identified as patriarchical) about gender and race into which people are immersed from an early age.
So how did that lead to this blog? Well, when I was starting my gender affirmation process, I struggled with the question of what, exactly, it would mean to live as a woman. It changed, it seemed, almost from one day to the next. In part, that had to do with the time in which I started my process: In 2003, books like Jennifer Boylan's She's Not There had just come out. In a recent interview, Boylan said that in re-reading it, she realizes that much of it had an apologetic tone. She, who started her process about a decade before mine, was trying to conform to some of the very same notions I was--and which bell hooks didn't denounce as much as she said were outmoded and, in some cases, crippling.
I think that most people who experience gender identity as I have, until recently, realized that they weren't the sex by which they were identified from birth before they understood what living by the gender by which they identify themselves would mean. That meant, for some of us, things that we look back on with embarrassment: I realize now that, at times, I was performing an exaggerated version of femininity. Young trans and queer people have the advantage, in part because of people like bell hooks, of realizing that they don't have to accept those notions of gender (I include the ones to which some trans men conform) that were formed by notions of the superiority of a particular gender, race, class or religious group.
For me, figuring out what kind of woman I would be included answering the question of whether I would continue cycling. At the time I started my affirmation process, I didn't see many female cyclists. I take that back: I didn't see many who rode as much, as long, as hard, as I was riding in those days. So I wondered just how much (if any) cycling I could do and still be the woman I was envisioning at the time.
Then, I realized that I had bought into a frankly hyper-masculine idea about cycling, modeled after the wannabe Eddy Mercxes, Bernard Hinaults and Russian sprinters I saw and sometimes rode with. Over time, my ideas about cycling--and womanhood--changed.
These days, I am a woman who rides because I love being a woman and I love riding. The forms each take have changed, and will change, in part because age inevitably changes our minds as well as our bodies. It took time, but I think I've come to a place where I live and ride as I see fit, whether or not it fits into someone else's ideas about what a woman, a person in mid-life, or a cyclist should be. For that, I have bell hooks, among others to thank. She is as good a reason as any for me to invoke the Howard Cosell rule today.
*--bell hooks always spelled her nom de plume with lower case letters. It's her grandmother's name, which she took in honor of her fighting spirit. But bell hooks wouldn't capitalize the first letters of her name, she said, because she didn't want to draw attention to herself at the expense of her works. I hope I don't seem cynical when I say someone as intelligent and perceptive as she was must have known that, for some people, it's exactly what drew attention to her. I confess: I am one of them. I knew nothing about her when I first saw her name and started reading her works out of curiosity because of how she spelled her name.