Tag Archives: history

In the Shadow of Illness

I don’t remember ever being told my father was dying. I must have been too young when I internalized this information. I think I always knew he was sick, and since my dad was an AIDS educator, it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the disease did.

It was the 1990s. We were only beginning to knew what AIDS was, and at 8 years old, I only understood what it had done to my father.

My memories of these days are so scattered, and I try to pick up the pieces, scrambling them together like a puzzle made of my own sadness.

I’m still missing some of the pieces – and as an adult I am discovering that the process of getting to know my father nearly twenty years after his death is something I am going to have to fight through. I have letters, written to him, and written from him to others. I have his artwork. I have his writing. I have the play he wrote about his disease.

But I will never remember what he smells like. How do I grab hold of his smell, or his tone when he was happy? The question I begin to ask myself is not “who was he?”, but sometimes “Who am I?” in the context of my lineage.

People tell me I look like him. I have been told that I dance like him once or twice. But I cannot draw like my father, and our writing styles are vastly different. Where does the person I have become line up with the person that he is, and how do I integrate these things into a whole?

When all you have is fragments, where do you begin?

The discovery of who my father was is slow.

Whether or not we realize it, our parents are integrated into our identities at early stages in our development. But there was no father to take with me to the father daughter picnic for father’s day, and I remember having to explain myself whenever a classmate at a new school would ask why I wasn’t making my dad a card.

As adults, we’re expected pretty frequently to identify with our families – especially in highly socialized rituals like weddings. When I got married last year, strangers would ask, “is your father going to walk you down the aisle?” or say, “Oh, your father is just going to love lifting this veil off your face!”

I’ve never been a Daddy’s Girl. I don’t even know what that means. I do know that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to acknowledge and remember a person who I don’t really know. This year I’m forming an NYC AIDS Walk group in his memory – to walk in his honor and raise funds to fight the disease which killed him. But I don’t want to know my father through his disease. I don’t want to have him be just an illness. I want him to be my parent.

The problem is that even when I ask the people who knew him best about his life, they can’t tell me about the relationship we might have had because none of them are his child. These splinters of memory – reading books about hippos, playing rocketship/astronaut games before going to sleep (and sharing my bed with him when I stayed the night), having my art hanging on the wall – a child’s sketches, next to his artwork during a showing— reading his dedication to me in the play he wrote. These are the things I can cling to.

But they’ll never be enough.

I don’t know if this is what it’s like for everyone when they lose a parent – but I know that I still grieve 20 years later, in part not because I miss him, but because I miss what he could have been in my life. I miss the may-have-been moments.

As a child I remember that I clung to the idea of his physical remains – his ashes, because they were the only reminder I had that he had been there at all. I sometimes envy the people who have gravesites to visit, because at least then there is an acknowledgement outside of their memories – a physical space to occupy when you wish to remember. I don’t have a gravesite, but I do have physical touchstones. As a historian, I suppose it does help me to have these artifacts of his life. I own his archive.

I didn’t know, for example, that my father could read German until I found letter written to him exclusively in German. I didn’t know that his artwork wasn’t always abstract, and that the things I love in art are influenced by the work he did when I was around him. I don’t know how I’m like him, but I want to know. I remember going with him to teach AIDS education classes to adults – I have letters thanking him for his teaching, and these are the things I choose to carry with me. I haven’t done the work in a long time, but I think it may be a way to connect with him – something which I did with him before that I can carry on as an adult. The disease is so different now, but the reality remains the same.

It happened to me, it has happened to others: their parents die from AIDS, but instead of everyone understanding it like they would cancer or another terminal illness, the sideways glances of misunderstanding cloud their faces. The politics of sex education and gay rights muddle the story of my past, and I am forced to politicize the very nature of my identity. The teddy bear gay pin sits in my jewelry box. The ACT UP pin sits next to it. The photos of drag queens and letters from family sit in my office, and I need to find a way to synthesize the historical image of my father with the reality. I need to understand where I came from without forgetting what I already know.

He was Tanya Ransom, a drag queen. He was Michael, an artist, educator and playwright. And he was a patient. And he was my father.

N.B.: If you would like to donate or walk in the AIDS Walk Team I have begun, it is team 4884!

Artwork by Michael "hiv" Norman and Elsa Sjunneson

Artwork by Michael “hiv” Norman and Elsa Sjunneson

Leave a comment

Filed under LGBT, Personal

“They’re Trying to Help a Dead Girl”

The hacking collectivist group Anonymous released a video of the Steubenville football players who took a 16-year-old girl from house to house and sexually assaulted her. They simultaneously posted evidence on twitter, pushing the gang rape into the territory of pure unadulterated public torture.

Anonymous released this video on the same day the House of Representatives refused to vote to re-authorize the Violence Against Women Act.

Since when is it not in the best interest of the United States to protect women from violence? I have hope that when the next Congress comes into session we’ll have a different result, but I can’t get the feeling of fear out of my bones over this one.

The young men who are featured in the video of Steubenville are the kind of predators whom the Violence Against Women Act is supposed to protect us from. Sen. Patty Murray (from my state of Washington) put it best:

“The House Republican leadership’s failure to take up and pass the Senate’s bipartisan and inclusive VAWA bill is inexcusable. This is a bill that passed with 68 votes in the Senate and that extends the bill’s protections to 30 million more women. But this seems to be how House Republican leadership operates. No matter how broad the bipartisan support, no matter who gets hurt in the process, the politics of the right-wing of their party always comes first.”

There’s absolutely no reason for House Republicans to have done this. Absolutely none. This is an action which is shameful in the eyes of the state.

The actions of the boys in Steubenville may not seem related, but if we don’t expose this kind of behavior as violence, we’re not doing our jobs as a society to protect one another. This young football player is giggling about raping a 16 year old young woman. (Allegedly. Except for the part where there are photos.) This isn’t the only reason the two are linked. Even with VAWA we’re not doing enough.  Like the football team, people who are well-regarded in their communities tend to be above reproach when it comes to the issue of sexual violence. A woman whose husband beats her every night is less likely to be believed, if she reports it, when that husband is a well-respected man. It was the Violence Against Women Act which helped to institute marital rape as a crime in all the states of the Union, as prior to 1994, there were still some states which allowed it.

This kind of violence is unconscionable, and the fact that the GOP will turn its back to violence against women makes me question their privilege. I hope none of them have known women who have suffered at the hands of abusers,  that none of them have had to listen when they heard the story of a friend or family member who was raped or beaten. Because, if they had, surely they would have voted with their conscience rather than with their party.

Yes, the supporters of VAWA  are trying to help a dead girl. They are trying to help a lot of dead girls, all of them who needed help and didn’t receive it. I am sickened today by the notion that there are people in this country who are likely laughing along with the boys from Steubenville – and I hope you’ll reconsider if you cackled at his jokes about Marcellus Wallace and Obi Wan Kenobi, because at the root of those “jokes” is the willingness to condone violence against a person and to use her for her body alone.

We should all be helping to end violence. We should be doing better.

Leave a comment

Filed under Feminism, Politics, War On Women

World AIDS Day

I grew up in a world most people will never see.

My childhood was one where I knew about chest tubes, how to use syringes, running jokes about biohazard signs. I learned what sex was at the same time that I learned what death was. I wore plastic gloves more often than any child did in my grade level.

My father had AIDS. He died in December of 1993.

I usually do a heartfelt post about how I miss him, and about what the experience was like to live with it. But today I’m turning the tables. I’m making this a Q&A. You – the readers, ask the questions. I, the writer, will answer them. The only thing I ask is that you keep it respectful – even 19 years later, there are scars on my heart that are still raw. But I miss teaching, and I miss carrying on my father’s legacy – he took me with him when he taught AIDS prevention classes, and I have done that work since then.

Today I am a (mostly) open book. Ask away, I’ll take questions until end of day Saturday.

 

UPDATE: I’ll be adding stories as I think of them. Continue asking questions – since people have been shy, I’ll extend the deadline on queries – because this is seriously about answering YOUR questions. Here’s a short anecdote from the annals of my AIDS infected childhood:

“FUCK AIDS” I said. I think I was around seven years old, I may have been younger, I may have been older. I can’t remember the exact context, but I know I was angry about my father being sick. My mother had explained swear words to me in the recent past, and she had told me that they were adult and angry words, and that I could only use them in the appropriate context. So I did. I remember this: I didn’t get punished, because I’d used the right word, in the right context.

I swore.

Northwest AIDS Walk 1991

Northwest AIDS Walk 1991

9 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dressing in the Past to Learn in the Present

The Mary Sue ran a piece about a young woman named Stella Ehrhart yesterday. She does historical costume for school every day. By which I mean that she dresses as different historical figures each day for school. In the article she is pictured dressing as Helen Keller, Billie Holliday, Grace Kelly – she pulls most costumes from a book called 100 Most Important Women of the 20th Century.

I was that child. My halloween costumes were almost always historically themed (sometimes fictional, since I had a penchant for Sherlock Holmes.) I had a medieval themed birthday when I was seven, a Sherlock Holmes Murder Mystery Dinner when I was 9 (Victorian themed costumes requested), a Foreign Dignitaries Tea when I was 11 (come as a historical foreign leader and celebrate my birthday), a Revolutionary War themed birthday party when I was 14.

I also wore Victorian clothing to school a lot, and in Middle School and High School, during Spirit Week, I attended classes in full Victorian garb on ’80s day. Because they didn’t specify which eighties.

I bent genders while I was cosplaying history a lot of the time – but I did dress as women too. I think in my own explorations the lines of gender became a problem for those surrounding me rather than issues of cultural appropriation which may be at play here.

I have always loved wearing historical costume. I have worn actual Victorian clothes as Halloween costumes, dressed as Suffragettes and flappers, political figures and Presidents. For me it was a part of my passion for history – and it still is. While we’re talking about how fabulous it is that this 8-year-old girl is dressing up as historical figures every day, adults do it too. I attend Jazz Age parties in New York City, I’ve been to the Jazz Age Lawn Party, to Wit’s End, to many other events where some people do go far to wear appropriate era clothing. I hope that someday, Stella gets to meet the adults who value wearing the clothing of different eras as much as she does.

Basically, I think this kid is awesome.

That being said, I do really hope that the adults in her life are talking to her about the differences between her and the people she portrays on as she explores history. I hope they explain to her that Helen Keller’s disability is not a disability she has, and that putting on her disability would be inappropriate. What I mean by this is, I hope she’s just dressing as these people, and not trying to act like them. If she’s writing in peoples hands, I’d feel like that was an inappropriate use of the historical figures she admires. I’m sure there will be other discussions she has with people – about race, and not appropriating others skin colors or cultures. Essentially, I hope she learns where the line is between respect, and appropriation. So long as she’s not putting on racial inflections of language, I think she’s got it all right.

I’m not saying Stella should stop – I think she’s doing something really cool and I want her to continue. But I just hope that people are having the childhood versions of these complicated discussions with her now, so that when she gets older, she has an understanding of why this might make people uncomfortable. It’s not easy, but I hope that along with admiring and becoming these historical figures, she learns to respect the differences between them, and to interact with those differences in thoughtful ways.

She’ll make one hell of a historian someday if she does.

Leave a comment

Filed under Disability Issues, Feminism

Internet Archive

Glimpses of Tanya Ransom
It isn’t often that I get to see my father perform. Actually, it’s a pretty rare occurrence. I think the last time I saw him perform was when I was seven years old. Maybe 8, I can’t really recall. The point, is that this is very unusual. yesterday I got to watch a video of my father performing at the Pyramid Club. It is where my parents met, where much of my extended family got to know each other. It is for this reason that I am grateful the internet exists, because without it I may never have seen this video. You can see my mothers response to the experience of finding this video here.
N. B – How to Survive a Plague comes out this weekend. I hope you’ll see it –  I plan to. It is a part of my history, and part of my life.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized