Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Pregnancy of the World by Susan Faludi

Ha’rat Olam

 In 2014, Time magazine hailed the “Transgender Tipping Point” in a cover story that, with a thousand concurring stories from all corners of the media, enshrined gender identity as the cutting edge of civil rights. That same year, the United Nations passed a resolution condemning discrimination and violence based on gender identity, and governmental bodies from the Danish and Dutch parliaments to the New York state legislature and the New York City mayoral office proclaimed the right of citizens to change their birth certificates to match their chosen gender, even without surgery

The drumroll continued into 2015, when President Obama tweeted Caitlyn Jenner to commended her ‘courage’ (hours after she appeared in a satin corset on the cover of Vanity Fair), and transgender rights became  slogan on the presidential campaign trail. In the media, trans identity was fast solidifying into an emblematic narrative, with all the requisite tropes of victimization, heroism, and celebrity. Rarely did the fanfare convey the daily texture of complicated ordinary lives.

In the summer of that year, I received a letter from Mel Myers, who, back when he was Melanie, ran Melanie’s Cocoon, the guest house in Phuket, Thailand, where my father recovered from her operation in 20-04. Mel had finally succeeded in moving his longtime girlfriend to the United States, but at a cost. “When the time came to bring her to America and get married, I had to transition back to male,” Mel wrote. “My facial feminization surgery is covered with a beard, my reassignment surgery makes bathroom trips awkward, and I cover my beautiful breasts with loosed fitting clothes”. He said that sometimes he wished he’d continued as Melanie and sometimes he wished he’d hadn’t had the operation in the first place, “now I find myself living in limbo . . . I had my previous life as a male, I had my life as Melanie, and now I have my life as neither male nor female or both female and male.” He remembered the time when she, as Melanie, had served as “a poster child of sorts, someone who trans girls would look to for guidance and encouragement, “ but those days were in the past.

He and his wife had opened a Thai restaurant in the suburbs, and Mel was making ends meet working for the TriMet transit authority. “I see all walks of life driving a city bus. They’re little snapshots of humanity, like a quick line sketch of life, it catches life’s essence. I see myself reflected sometimes. It is enlightening sometimes and sometimes it is kind of scary,” he wrote. “I gave up a lot to be who I am.”

Back in my father’s motherland, as in the U.S. media, questions of identity were in full flower. The ruling Fidesz Party celebrated 20124 as the rebirth of Hungarian identity. That spring, the rightest party won the national elections again, and handily – with an assist from the newly minted media law, which stifled the independence of state-financed media, and with the manipulation of electoral rules  that allowed Fidesz to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority with only 44.5 percent of the vote. Jobbik, the openly anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party, expanded its base even further, nearly edging out the long-standing Socialist Party in the Hungarian Parliament and becoming the most popular far-right party in the European Union.

Fidesz also swept the European Parliament election that year (and Jobbik came in second). And in the municipal elections that fall, Fidesz won control of every country assembly and all but one of the largest cities, including Budapest. When the polls closed in October, Fidesz leaders celebrated their party’s electoral trifecta. “Three is the Hungarian Truth,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban exulted in a speech that day, invoking the (Latin) maxim that “everything that comes in threes is perfect. “The party’s triple victory” Orban declared, solidified a national ‘unity’ and would “make Hungary great in the next four years.”

Four months earlier, the Hungarian Supreme Court has issued a ruling in support of the identity prerogatives of the political right. The court found that a TV news channel had violated the media law’s ban on opinionated press commentary by describing the far right Jobbik as . . .far right. Jobbik’s lawyers had argued that “far right” didn’t fit the party’s chosen identity, which was “Christian nationalist.” The judges concurred: “Jobbik doesn’t consider itself an extreme-right party, thus referring to it with the adjective ‘far right’ constitutes an act of expressing an opinion, making it possible for the viewer to associate it with a radical movement and induce a negative impression.”  The court’s ruling continued, in words that could have been lifted from the identity-sensitive speech codes on a college campus or the “Preferred Gender Pronoun” directives of the blogosphere: “ Even a single word, a single epithet, may exert influence on the viewer.”

On the world stage, criticism of the Hungarian government was reaching a fever pitch: the European Commission had threatened to take legal action against Hungary for undermining the independence of its judiciary and central bank’ fifty U.S. congressmen had signed a letter to Orban demanding that he condemn Jobbik’s “anti-Semitic and homophobic positions”; and media outlets around the globe were calling the nation an ‘autocracy,” the “EU’s only dictatorship,” and, in the words of one German newspaper, the new “Fuhrerstaast.” Orban was eager to turn the page. His administration hired the high-powered New York public relations firm Burson-Marsteller to reengineer its image. The Hungarian government vowed to prove its critics wrong: it would make 2014 “Holocaust Remembrance Year,” officially commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry . “2014 must be the year for facing up to the fact and for apologizing,” Janos Lazar, Organ’s state secretary and chief administrator of the initiative, asserted at a press conference to unveil the nation’s makeover. “ We must make the apology a part of our national identity.” To that end, Fidesz announced it would open a new museum about Jewish persecution in Hungary and erect memorials and exhibitions to pay respect to the ordeal of Hungarian Jews.

But plans for a Jewish-friendly “national identity”  year were soon unravelling. To direct the new museum of Jewish persecution – the House of Fates (installed in a defunct train station and devoted exclusively to ‘child victims’ – the government appointed Maria Schmidt, Orban’s historical advisor who also directed the House of Terror, the museum that had shrunk the Holocaust to a footnote. After Jewish organizations protested her selection, Schimdt unleashed a full-throated attack on these “left-liberal opinion leaders” who used “intellectual terror” and “prescribe whom we can mourn and whom we can’t, for whom we can shed a tear and for whom we can’t.” By such behavior, “they exclude themselves from our national community.” Meanwhile, the Orban government inaugurated another establishment, the Veritas Research Institute for History, to produce a history of Hungary’s last century that would ‘strengthen national identity.” Placed at its helm was right-wing military historian Sandor Szakaly, who promptly declared the 1941 Hungarian government’s deportation of eighteen thousand Jews to the Ukraine (where they were massacred by SS and Ukrainian militia) was just “a police action against aliens.”

Then the prime minister’s office unveiled plans for a monument to be erected during Holocaust Remembrance Year in Freedom Square, dedicated to “all the victims of the 19th March German invasion of Hungary”. What “all” meant became clear when the government issues a drawing of the monument’s design: An imperial eagle representing the Third Reich savagely descends on an innocent and helpless Hungary in the form of the archangel Gabriel. Prime Minister Orban described the monuments as “morally precise and immaculate.”

Some months after, I would stop on my way through Freedom Square to inspect the results. The swooping German eagle was even more supersized than the drawing had suggested, more garish, a cartoon bird of prey with armor-plate feathers.  The archangel Gabriel was a supplicant, hands held up in surrender, his delicate and bare-breasted frame a study in feminine vulnerability and innocence. Pity, O God, the Hungarian. A few feet away, a home-made counter-memorial by Holocaust survivors and the families of victims protested the assertion of innocence with a display of cracked eyeglasses, empty suitcases, and photographs of murdered relatives.

The ruling party responded to such criticisms with outrage. Janos Lazar, the state secretary who had promised that 2014 would be a year of “apologizing” for the Holocaust, accused Jewish leaders of ruining the government’s commemoration and “fomenting discord between Hungarian and Jews who have lived in unity and symbiosis for centuries.” The House of Fates director Maria Schmidt chimed in again with her own tirade: “To let international Jewish organizations have a say without having contributed a single penny to the costs of setting up the institution is contrary to the responsibility of the sovereign Hungarian state for its own past, present and future.” Those who disagree “fail to understand that this time we are dealing with our very identity.”

.  .  .

On the morning of May 14, an hour after the doctor’s phone call, I climbed the four flights of stairs in the internal--medicine building of St. Janos and travelled a iong corridor to its terminus at the physician’s station, where Dr. Molnarne was seated.

“Explain to me why she died,” I insisted, but she insisted she didn’t know. “Sepsis, heart problem, stroke. Could be anything.”

She gestured towards a large transparent trash bag. “Here,” she said. “Don’t forget this.” The sack contained my father’s “effects”: damp towels, her compression hose (for varicose veins), a set of unwashed eating utensils, her reading glasses, her terry cloth slippers, and the plastic sip cup with her name on it.

A maid making a desultory  show of mopping the floor began prodding me out of the way with her mop handle.
”Stop it!” I snapped. She made a face and plowed past me.
Do you want to view the body? Dr. Molnarne asked.

My father lay on the far cot by the window in the overpopulated ward, the cot where I’d sat with her the day before. She died without privacy, but at least, I consoled myself, she hadn’t died alone. Early morning shadow dimmed the room. A sheet covered the bed and her body, a white rose placed on top of it. I inched the sheet aside to find another shroud beneath, wound around her. I felt for the beginning of the winding and unspooled it slowly from her head and shoulders. Her face was turned towards the window. Her eyes, so resolutely shut during her last miserable days, were open. I began to shake, and then, control faltering, to sob. An elderly patient in an adjacent bed leaned over to pat my back. ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said .I was grateful for her touch. And oddly comforted by the knowledge that my father had died here in the female wing, surrounded by women.

I studied my father’s face, averted as it so often had been in life. All the years she was alive, she’s sought to settle the question of who she was. Jew or Christian? Hungarian or American? Woman or man? So many oppositions. But as I gazed upon her still body, I thought: there is in the universe only one true divide, one real binary, life and death. Either you are living or you are not. Everything else is molten, malleable.

I tucked the sheet back around my father, a nurse came into the room. She presented me with a repurposed bandage envelope, containing two small items that hadn’t made it in to the trash bag of my father’s loose effects. The nurse had collected them while preparing the body.

When I left for the United States a few days later, I would take the items with me, along with another token of remembrance, the cloth-bound prayer book my father had received on the occasion of her bar mitzvah, on the day a boy became a man. “For you,” the nurse, as she handed me the envelope. “Stephanie’s” Inside it was a pair of pearl earrings.

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