Be Kind

be-kind-necklace

My daughter is home from a lovely two nights with her cousins, and their moms. They visited a lake, went hiking, did girl stuff and visited a local art studio where they volunteered their time to craft beautiful handmade clay pendants, like the one above.

Each one says, “Be Kind.” That is the motto of Ben’s Bells, whose mission as stated on its website is “to inspire, educate, and motivate people to realize the impact of intentional kindness, and to empower individuals to act according to that awareness, thereby strengthening ourselves, our relationships and our communities.”

“Recent research demonstrates that kindness benefits our physical and mental health, and that recognizing kindness in others increases a person’s happiness and satisfaction. But just as solving a calculus problem requires advanced math skills, the challenges of daily life require advanced kindness skills. By focusing on kindness and being intentional in our personal interactions, we can improve our ability to connect. The mission of Ben’s Bells is to inspire individuals and communities to engage in kindness education and practice.”  — from the Ben’s Bells website.

We have a windchime from Ben’s Bells on our front door, which was a Hanukkah gift from one of my late wife’s cousins, to my children. I’m grateful for this gift, and for how much my wife’s family loves my children.

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These chimes and jewelry and other items are a great idea, and you can find out more about Ben’s Bells by clicking here. 

I’ve decided I’m going to order one of the “Be Kind” pendants for myself, since the cousins didn’t invite me to take part in their girls-only adventure, something they surely would have done for my beloved.

I won’t lay guilt on my daughter for not thinking to get me one, as this was a gift from her mom’s cousins, and it would have been inappropriate for her to ask. Instead, she did bring home a second one to give to anyone she comes across who acts with kindness. I love this idea!

We discussed who might be worthy candidates, and although I was flattered that she asked me if I’d like this one, I insisted that she give her spare pendant to someone else, perhaps her girlfriend.

To me, the message here is ultimately ironic. “Be kind.” Wow.

I was told earlier this year by my former in laws that they now consider me “divorced” from them, given that one year had passed since the death of my wife, and thus they were done pretending to be kind to me. They did so with the explanation that, since she had planned to divorce me, but her lawyer postponed the proceeding, and so it was not finalized before her death, that they considered us “divorced in every way — except for legally.” Um, yeah, that’s sorta the most important part of that sentence.

Soon after, I learned from my mother-in-law that she and “Wendy’s family” had taken steps to take custody of my children away from me in those early days following her passing (but they stopped, because — in her words — “it’s really hard to take children away from a custodial parent, and it’s very expensive.” Also, I said, it was against what Wendy herself wanted and had put in writing to avoid exactly that from happening).

“Be kind” indeed. They say “of course this is not about you being transgender.” They defend their rejection of me as being about how I “treated Wendy.”

  1. Do they mean how I treated her when she called me “the bitch who killed her husband,” and told me the very sight of my feminized body filled her with disgust?
  2. I moved out at her demand, rather than put out the mother of my children. I guess that’s how I mistreated her?
  3. Maybe when I took a job across the country to help support her and our kids? Or when I quit that job and moved back the day she died, instead of uprooting them to Los Angeles?
  4. Or when I badgered her to see a doctor about her stomach pains in November 2014, and for long after, until eight months later, she finally did and was diagnosed with stage four cancer?
  5. Or when, upon learning that diagnosis and repeatedly after, I offered to quit my job in L.A. and move home?
  6. Do they mean when I called her doctor behind her back on a Friday night so he would urge her to go to the ER? She had refused and she said she’d call him after the three-day weekend, then, a few days later, wound up in shock and died in intensive care? Had I treated her the way she wanted to be treated, she’d no doubt have died at home before the weekend ended.
  7. How about when she screamed “There’s a man in the ladies room!” at our town pool because I was passing through, fully-clothed?
  8. When she tore my wig from my head in anger one night before I left for work, and left a permanent scar down the side of my face that I still see every single day?
  9. When she unexpectedly withdrew all the money from our joint bank account, leaving me with nothing, and “took over responsibility” for the utilities and mortgage — and then for the first time in the dozen years we lived in our house, the lights went out, the cable got turned off and the mortgage company filed for foreclosure?
  10. Maybe it was when I paid-up all those utility bills and reached an agreement with the mortgage company to save our home?
  11. It must be my fault that the house was infested with mice and sorely lacking in everyday maintenance, while I was 3,000 miles away. Was that my fault, too?
  12. And when she borrowed money from family, it’s of course my fault that I did not repay those loans (which were at the time considered gifts, but magically turned into loans after her passing).
  13. Lastly, was it the day I agreed to bind my breasts and present as “Don” one more day for our daughter’s bat mitzvah, so she could have the illusion of me as her husband once more? It broke my heart to keep my word, but it made her happy, and so I did. Two days later, the police were at my house because I went back to living authentically and she was furious.

I mean, I get it: she needed someone to hate for wrecking our marriage, for dashing our dreams of growing old together and for the cancer that ravaged her body. And no, I wasn’t perfect or blameless. I wish I had done more to help her, if she’d have let me. Instead, she put all that anger on me, and told her family everything was my fault.

So, I’m the villain. But of course, it’s not because I’m trans.

My children’s response to me being excluded from the family Passover Seder, and disinvited from a cousin’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, was to send a message, one that their mother had said to her cousins, after I transitioned: “We are a family and wherever one of us is not welcome, none of us will attend.” I love my kids. They are the very best of their mother and father, and I am doing my damndest to be a loving, supportive although single parent. I am a dad who does the job of mom. It’s not easy. It’s without doubt the toughest job I’ve ever loved.

Despite this standoff between us and “Wendy’s family”  — I’ve told them, we are the ones who really are Wendy’s family — I firmly believe it’s important for the children to keep in touch with their cousins and their mom’s relatives. Although I set all their cell phone numbers in my contacts to “Do Not Disturb,” I encouraged the kids to call their grandmother often and to text with the cousins. I’m not the one trying to keep them from seeing their relatives; that’s on them, for not respecting their mother’s wishes, and mine.

I encourage them daily to “be kind.”

So after I suggested this sleepover, and they accepted, imagine my discouragement when one of the cousins asked if instead of having me drive my daughter down to meet them, that I would instead send my oldest, who is 18 and a licensed driver. He also works two jobs and doesn’t really need to add a road trip of at least one hour each way to his day. In addition, he’s still very angry over my exclusion and decided on his own to stop communicating with them. I told him I understood his reasoning but strongly urged him to reach out to them when he feels comfortable doing so. Thus far, he hasn’t. So I’m not going to give them the excuse not to face me and in doing so impose an extra burden on my firstborn.

We agreed on a date and time to meet, which was not only generous of them but allowed them to keep me from entering their house. But then, the cousin tried once more to do an end run around my kids’ firm insistence that where I was not welcome, we would not go. It’s all of us or none of us, with the exception being a sleepover. I felt that was different from a family gathering.

I was stunned when the cousin emailed again, asking once again to turn the sleepover into a family gathering after all, ignoring what I had already made clear, that my oldest had to work and had no desire to see them or even text with them.

“I will text and see if he would like to (if he is not working) come with his little brother on Friday to pick up his sister and hang by the pool for a little.”

Really? What part of “my children don’t want me excluded” is hard to comprehend?

When does the urge to “be kind” kick in?

The cousin concluded her email with a response to my plea, promising to not bring up the issue of my exclusion with my daughter, given this is a matter for adults.  I asked that we at least be civil to one another if they cannot see fit to treat me as a member of the family. She agreed and then added one, clear-cut, unkind comment:

“That said, our position has not changed.”

The “position” she speaks of is one in which they treat me, not as the widow of their cousin, or the single parent of our children, but as a divorcée to be kept at a distance; a facilitator to provide them with access to “Wendy’s children.”

What surprises me about that is that even if they want to label me as such, that does not remove me from my role as the kids’ parent! I’m still their dad, even as a woman, and because of the gender roles our society places on us, I have learned to embrace being a mom. I don’t dare claim to be their “mom,” a title we hold dear out of respect for their mother. But my kids have seen how I have grown into this role and how much I enjoy it. And, probably to the in laws’ chagrin, I am good at it, too.

I am proud to boast that my children are resilient, strong, score at the top of their class, have friendships with good, upstanding children and are loving to just about everyone. Even people who are mean to me. And most of all, these kids have learned from the example their parents have set: my children are kind.

I think the same of my in laws’ children. But I wonder what lesson my wife’s cousins are teaching them when they treat me this way? Someday, my children will tell their children about these times, and I am certain that the shame their parents should feel will instead be inherited by these innocent kids.

All I can do is continue to do as I say and as I do, to be kind, even to those who are not. And I pray for their hearts to be turned. Which reminds me of the Irish proverb:

Irish Proverb

Her eyes told me everything: The massacre in Sandy Hook

newtown-victims

Four years ago this morning, after working all night gathering news for a major TV network, I was headed home to my family in Connecticut when I got a call asking me to divert to Newtown. 

There were reports of multiple gunshots there.

 

My boss was candid: “You’re going to be our first eyes and ears on the ground. We are hearing, and it’s unconfirmed, there are a lot of people dead, and the worst part: many of them are children. Just get us some solid info. Be safe,” she said.

 
I drove into town before all the barriers and roadblocks were set, to keep curious onlookers and predatory media away from the crime scene.
 
I found myself on a street outside a firehouse, where eventually a couple emerged, and before I could ask the woman what had happened, her eyes locked with mine.
 
It was clear to me in an instant what had happened.
 
I saw in those grieving eyes the worst nightmare any mother could imagine. The look of someone whose entire world just ended.
 
I didn’t ask her a thing, not her name, not the circumstances of the tragedy still unfolding. I knew why I was there, what I was supposed to do, and what I was told to do: find out what happened and report back.
 
My instructions did not include making this family’s day worse. I mouthed the words, “I’m so sorry” to this mom whose eyes met mine, and let her pass.
 
I would work until late that night, walking all over town with a camera, interviewing witnesses, doctors, police spokesmen, and securing a live location for both the evening news and a special report, from which to broadcast live: a church that was holding a prayer service for the victims’ families and first responders.
My memory of that day is a bit like swiss cheese, with lots of holes, but I recall that I wasn’t out to everyone yet, and I remember how much I cried later that night, released from the burden of holding in the tears for so many hours.
And that wasn’t the only thing I had to hold in. Another woman working for a competitor and I went knocking on the door of a family down the road from the gunman, not to ask questions but to use their bathroom.
 “At least you could pee behind a tree,” she whispered to me, as we waited for a response.
“That’s the privilege of men,” I said to her, “and that’s not who I am.” She mistook my meaning, but her message was clear when she responded.
“Well, yeah, this is more civilized and practical, and who knows, maybe they’ll even talk to us.”
Actually, no, and they wouldn’t let us use their bathroom, either. Another neighbor did, but they claimed they had no idea about the gunman, his mother, or the families of those murdered.

We thanked them for their kindness and agreed to not tell anyone else about it, for fear their bathroom would become, in their words, “Grand Central Station.”

Every TV news truck within a hundred miles converged on sleepy little Newtown that day. Reporters and field producers and network correspondents and anchors and guest bookers and camera people and truck engineers and black car drivers, dozens and dozens of them.

And several hours after the sun had set and the world had seen what we had learned, I finally got to go home and hug my own first grader, tighter than I ever had before. 

I did so for every one of the parents in Sandy Hook who could not do that, and I thought of the mom I had encountered… as well as all 20 moms and 20 dads, and the families of the Sandy Hook school employees, whose world ended that day in a hail of senseless gunfire.

Get Out When You Can!

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14055013_10210281391411337_1557086871318331737_n.jpgMy latest YouTube video is dedicated to the wonderful women of my widows group, who have helped me to feel human again by getting me out of the house and connecting with them outside our biweekly sessions to explore our grief.

We all went out recently, had a few drinks, had a lot of laughs at a local comedy club, and bonded. I’m so grateful to them for including me and making me feel welcome and a part of their sisterhood.

Not one of us would give up a chance to have those we lost back in our lives, but since that’s not possible, we have each other. And my video this week is really for every person who feels cut off, and alone. It’s important to get out, make new friends and find connections. To find time for ourselves to grow and be with other grownups once in awhile.

I’m very glad my friends found me!

 

Stop. Look. Listen.

Stop Look Listen copy

This morning, shortly after I woke up, I posted some “New Rules,” a la Bill Maher, but not to support him, rather to match my own thinking… and I’d like to expand upon one in particular before I turn in.

This new rule is something I myself have worked to fully incorporate into my life both online and in the real world, and I am making strides but it’s not something I think I will ever say, “Ah, well, cross that one off the list; it’s done.”

Here it is:

STOP.

I am a woman of white privilege, and no matter how hard I try — and I do — I’ll never, ever, EVER be able to grasp what it means to live as a black person in America. Or any person of color. Especially not a trans person of color. Especially not a trans woman of color.

My new rule of “STOP” means this: when a person of color shares with you their experience, and what life decisions they make accordingly, do not judge them and add your two cents — about anything.

STOP.

Even if you struggle, too.

Even if you disagree or have another point of view.

Even if your first thought is, “well, from my perspective…”

STOP.

What every single white person I know does is immediately think, “that’s not my experience.” I do it, too. And what should, in my opinion, happen next, is for us to go:

“Hmmm.”

Silently.

Think on it. Ponder. Share. Let your action be to raise up the voice of someone who doesn’t have your privilege. Not to point out the difference between us.

‘Cuz I’ve learned one thing: they already know the difference. There is no need nor any point to be made.

And to those who dismiss someone using the term “violence” to describe how someone feels when they are oppressed, even though it may be verbal or through an action not typically associated with physical violence, I encourage you to take the time to understand and grow, rather than reject out of hand something that does not come from your experience.

STOP. LOOK:

“It’s oppression on top of oppression to dictate how oppressed people should rebel.” — Unknown.

The thing I’m talking about here is intersectionality. As Sherry Hamby wrote:

“The burden of violence and victimization remains markedly unequal. The prevalence rates, risk factors, and consequences of violence are not equally distributed across society. Rather, there are many groups that carry an unequal burden, including groups disadvantaged due to race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual identity, place of residence, and other factors.”

It must STOP.

I do not write this to rant or pontificate but to raise up the voices of others. I’m not going to name names, but when I tried to share one person’s insight and solicited the thoughts and comments of my friends, that person fled, feeling attacked. She told me she felt victimized by violent and racist comments.

Not one of you will agree that your comments were racist.

Not one of you will agree that your comments were violent.

Not one of you will agree that you attacked her.

STOP. LOOK. LISTEN:

The point is not whether you intended to be racist, to be violent, to attack someone. Perception is reality. And I can see how these comments hurt her, but I was powerless to add my voice to support her because before I could notice there was an assault on her, she withdrew the post I had shared from my wall, blocked those of you who offended her, and blocked me from seeing it now. That is her right; it’s hers, and she felt attacked, and is justified in responding to those attacks as she sees fit.

I did see at one point the accusation that she played “the race card.” Several folks said to me that she “introduced” race into the conversation, and that you didn’t see it as an issue of race.

And let me just point out to you one thing each of you who said that to me share: every one of you, including me, is white. To sum up, the black woman said she felt the comments were racist, and the white women and men told her, “it’s not racism.”

Privilege conceals itself from those who have it.”Jarune UwujarenJamie Utt, Everyday Feminism.

There is no “race card.” Race is not something you get to deal, or fold, or shuffle so that you wind up with a better hand. It’s not the same as gender, because even though most of us are stuck with whatever we’re dealt, at least we who are transgender are at long last able to tell the dealer they made a mistake. It doesn’t improve our hand all that much, but

I can only imagine what it is like to be both transgender and a member of a race that is oppressed. What I am learning is to not judge, and to listen instead of speak.

And that, in my opinion, is a good place to start.

Three Years Later

On this date in 2013, my world, such as it was, fell apart. The New York Post published an article based on an ill-advised email I had sent to “friends,” following a medical catastrophe.

I had just been discharged from a hospital where I spent a week recovering my memories and trying to figure out so many things: what year this was, who I was, why did my driver’s license have a picture of me wearing a wig, a gender marker with an F, and this other name that people called me.

Dissociative amnesia, I am told, was the result of a seizure that struck one night at the dinner table in late July. On that same night, as my wife rushed me to a hospital, my mother’s second husband died at a hospital in Florida. It was a bizarre, hard to fathom experience that I still have trouble explaining.

And that’s the worst thing I could have done: tried to explain. It was diagnosed as “transient global amnesia” at first, which spawned endless puns, and the doctors advised me upon my release that I needed to be cautious and not make any hasty decisions.

So, of course the first thing I did was tell my job I was returning to work as the man I once was.

File this under, “Things You’ve Done You Wish You Could Take Back or Do Over.”

Reaction among most of my “friends” and supporters was just short of Salem, only instead of burning me at the stake, I was set ablaze on the internet. Thank God for those of you who stood by me, then and now. And those of you who returned as my friends, I cannot blame you for joining the witchhunt, or standing by as I twisted in a tornado of my mind’s own creation.

To this day, I cannot explain what happened to me other than that I was clearly not as ready as I thought I was to continue my transition. One doctor compared it to a circuit breaker snapping, or a fuse blowing, when too much energy was required than it could handle.

Through that date, I had come out to my wife, to my children, on the job and to the world. I wasn’t regretting a thing, except of course the end of my marriage. That was devastating, but understandable and anticipated. There was no going back, no putting the genie back in the bottle.

IMG_3136And yet, for all of August 2013, that was what happened. I lived as Don again. A man with a generous set of moobs. A man who peed sitting down as that was the only way. My identification, which I had been told had been quite easily switched to “Dawn” and “female,” was not so easily changed back, however, given I could not get a doctor to write a letter that I was undergoing a gender transition from female to male. I ran into roadblocks that I could not overcome and decided to just lump it and explain it as best as I could, should the subject come up, like when I had to present a driver’s license to a cashier.

Those kinds of quiet explanations are understandable. However, telling my “close friends” at work what had happened, in writing, was the height of stupidity. I had no idea at that time who my enemies were, and how or why anyone I called a friend would leak my email to gossipmongers and tabloids.

If only I had just kept it all to myself. But if you know me, you know that’s like asking a shaken soda bottle to please not explode when you open the cap, pretty please?

I was under enormous pressure to get back to work, and earn the money we counted on for survival. I felt obligated to prove I wasn’t this “transgender woman” the identification papers and newspapers and websites said I was, and I wanted more than anything to be with my wife and children, not living separately from them with a couple of gay guys an hour away.

And then, slowly, I started to realize, every time I looked in the mirror, the face staring back at me wasn’t the one I thought it would be. Where did she go? Who was I, truly?

My nights were plagued by dreams of being this other person, a woman. My days were filled with embarrassing moments such as walking into the ladies room while still presenting as a male.

And I wasn’t sure what to do with all those shoes, and clothes, and wigs… until I decided, actually I do want to go back to the lovely guys who took me in when my beloved kicked me out. I chose to move this time. And when that letter came, that fateful letter, it clicked.

To: Dawn Stacey Ennis

From: National Institutes for Health (NIH), Bethesda, Maryland

It said in part: “The patient is a successfully transitioned woman, born male, who…” I stopped reading. That’s ME, I thought.

What the hell happened? Memories flooded back. I realized what I had done in my deluded state and cried, and hugged my roommates, unsure what to do. I had killed and buried Dawn Stacey Ennis, and I had not the slightest clue how to bring her back to life. How to resume my authentic life.

I realized the delusion was not that I was trans; it was that I could be anything but.

By September, I would be back on HRT and by October of 2013, I resumed my presentation as my authentic self, in secret, away from work and family. I was further back in the closet than I had been when this all started.

It was not until May of 2014 that I finally came out, again, and have lived true.

I have tried to be a voice for those who do voluntarily detransition, to stand up against those who would shame them, for fear it taints all of us. What I learned was except for those very few who never were trans, that no one transgender ever really detransitions; they stop presenting, they can deny who they are, but they are always, endlessly transgender. And sadly, closeted.

Three years later, I cannot say I don’t have regrets, but I am a better person, a happier person, a more authentic person than I ever was when I pretended to be someone I wasn’t.

I like to think it took nothing short of a medical catastrophe to make me think I could be him again, and that when I got better, the truth came out. I am a successfully transitioned woman named Dawn Stacey Ennis, a woman born male.

And although the road to me has not been easy, there’s not a woman alive who can say that it ever is.

“One is not born a woman, but becomes one.” – Simone de Beauvoir

The Coping Cabana

Exactly three years ago today, my children met the real me, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s about six months since we lost their mother. Some might say my kids lost both their mom and their dad. And I say, no: that’s not the case.

That’s because they have what I call the DadMom: a woman called “dad” who does the job of “mom” and brings the best of both worlds to bear to raise my strong, smart children.

The focus of my “Life After Dawn” now more than ever is to meet their needs, lift them up, and dry their tears.

Grief is not our state of being but it is something we are dealing with, every day, each in our own way. And not one of us is handling it in the exact same way or on the same timeline.

Here’s a video about how I help my children cope with their grief. I welcome your comments and questions, here, on my YouTube channel or via email at dawnennis@gmail.com

Thanks for watching!

A trust has been established by Wendy’s brother, Robert Lachs. Anyone wishing to donate to the fund may send a check, payable to “Ennis Family Scholarship Fund Trust” to Robert Lachs, 1729 E Prairie Ave., Wheaton, IL 60137, or click here to donate via GoFundMe.

Thank you.