Why would you want to be a woman?

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why would you want to be a woman? We are discriminated against. The men we work with hate us. We get paid less. Why choose that?”

Jesus thought for a moment. “When I get in the shower and look down at my penis, I hate it. I feel like it shouldn’t be there.”

We were standing out in the corporation yard, away from our coworkers in the shops. 

Jesus and I had worked together at the San Francisco Water Department for a couple of years and I was glad we’d become close enough for me to ask such a personal question. I was starting to get it.

But I was skeptical. “Jesus, you grew up with male privilege. How do you know what it will be like?”

“I know because I’ve already lived as a woman,” he said. “For three years.”

Jesus is a stationary engineer. His job is to maintain the pump stations for the San Francisco Water Department. I’m the electrician whose job is to maintain the electrical components of the system. We work out of a corporation yard in the industrial southeast part of the city. Each of us works alone but we often encounter each other out in the field at the pump stations. In a world of macho plumbers and engineers we gravitate to each other, more because we are different than because we are the same. We are both outcasts and we both must live within the dominant paradigm: a sexist and racist work culture with coworkers who believe we don’t belong there. It’s their territory.

It’s 1983. I’m a temporary worker with no benefits. I could be fired at any time with no recourse.  I feel like I have to prove myself every day. I’m not out of the closet at work and I worry that this information might lead to a layoff.

The men think they can talk to me about Jesus. I wonder if they talk to him about me, but I think he is even more of an outsider than I am, transgender and Mexican. I’m a white lesbian and usually the only female. When you’re a double or triple minority you can never be sure why you are targeted for harassment. 

“Is he gay?” They ask me. And I must try to explain transgender to these dickheads.

I know Jesus endures discrimination and harassment. The men he works with simply refuse to talk to him. They pretend he’s not there. I know from experience that this form of harassment takes a toll. It’s a way to get you to leave and it often works. 

Despite all this Jesus appears to be the happiest person in the yard. He’s always singing or humming to himself and he has cemented a stereotype in my mind of Mexicans as people who smile through adversity. Yeah, I know that’s politically incorrect. I know that not all Mexicans are happy. Still, my brain forms stereotypes without my permission and I figure it’s best to acknowledge it, at least to myself. Jesus sets a good example for me. I tend to react to sexism and homophobia with anger. I can’t express it and so I walk around with the anger inside. And I take it home with me.

One day I’m assigned to work at the Lake Merced pump station in the southwest part of the city. That’s where the huge water supply pipes come in from the city’s Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The pump motors here are 100 HP and they run on 4600 volts. (The highest voltage supplied to our homes is 220 volts.) The switchgear supplying the motors hums in a giant metal cabinet.

I’m the only electrician and it’s my job to maintain this equipment. But I’ve never been trained on high voltage. The union didn’t let women into its apprenticeship program and so I’ve learned the basics in a federal job training program and from experience. I easily passed the civil service test for electrician but I’ve never worked on more than 480 volt systems.

When the chief engineer orders me to diagnose a problem in the switchgear, I do my best to appear competent. In troubleshooting, the first step is to test. I pull out my trusty tester, a little black box with two wire leads and touch the leads to the live switchgear.

Electricians reading this will know what happens next–my tester is only rated for 1000 volts.

With an ear splitting bang the tester blows up and I’m thrown backward, landing on my butt on the concrete floor.

Jesus, the engineer on duty, rushes over, looking alarmed. “Are you ok?” He asks. 

“I’m ok I’m ok,” I say. It’s the first thing we always say after a disaster, even if not true. The loud blast affected my hearing. It sounds like we’re under water. 

I could have been killed. I could have been killed. Joe, the chief engineer, knows this. He has seen the explosion and he makes a quick exit, better to not be part of this. 

The first emotion I register is embarrassment. I should have used the pole tester, rated for this purpose, but it’s a tool I’d never used before. I know I represent my gender to these men and my worth and work will determine their stereotypical view of women in their workplace. Their ideas of working with women will be based on me, until other females come along. My huge blunder will make all women look bad.

I’m embarrassed and I’m shaken, one minute regretting my mistake and the next thinking I could be dead. I could be dead. Stupid stupid stupid.

Jesus leads me into the chief engineer’s office where I try to recover, crouching in a corner on the floor, hugging my knees to alleviate the shaking. I could be dead. I could be dead.Jesus stays with me for moral support. And that’s when he tells me his story.

He grew up in Mexico City where he learned the trade of stationary engineer, maintaining the systems in big buildings. Then he migrated to San Francisco, became a U.S. citizen and got a job working as an engineer for another city department. That’s when he first decided to transition from male to female. He was living as a female, taking hormones and contemplating surgery when he was in a serious car accident. After time in the hospital he decided to go back to being male. That was several years earlier. In his present job he has always been male, but word got around and his coworkers know he once presented as female. 

But he’s not happy as male. This is not who he really is. He’s thinking again about transitioning. He’s saving money for the operation and figures it will cost about $10,000.

“I want to tell you something I’ve never told anyone at work,” I say. “I’m gay.” And with that a sense of relief fills me. I’m no longer alone here.

Jesus nods. “I thought so,” he says, “but thanks for telling me.”

This admission makes me feel I can ask him anything without offending him.

“So are you attracted to men or women? If you transition will you be a lesbian?”

“I’m attracted to women,” he says. “Gender is different from sexual attraction.”

“I know,” I say. “I don’t want to be a man, but I sure would like some of that male privilege.”

Jesus tells me he has gone to meetings of trans groups in the city, but he never feels like he belongs anywhere. He has no community.

To me this is tragic. I depend on my lesbian and tradeswomen communities to survive as an outsider.

“What was it like for you being a woman in the trades?” I ask. 

“They assume a man knows everything,” he says. “That’s challenging, because of course we don’t. But we have to act like we do. It can lead to unsafe behavior. We’re all supposed to be cowboys. 

“They assume a woman knows nothing. That has its own drawbacks. They refuse to pass on knowledge. They take your tools away and don’t want to let you do anything.”

The last thing I want to be is a woman who knows nothing. Nor do I want to out macho the boys, to act like I know something when I don’t. Doing that has nearly killed me.

Jesus would never say it. He’s too polite and gentlemanly. But I understand his point–stop acting like a dick.

A Woman’s Work

The Fight Fight Fight for Decent Treatment by NFL Cheerleaders

I admit I was prejudiced. I was one of those feminists who thought cheerleaders were the antithesis of feminism, sucking up to powerful men and athletes, embodying or seeking to embody the male ideal of woman.

But then I saw the PBS film A Woman’s Work, about the struggle of the NFL cheerleaders for better wages and working conditions. Now I think some cheerleaders are feminist heroes. 

The film documents their years-long campaign against wage theft by their employer, the National Football League. The NFL and its 32 franchises are worth $80 billion and yet, rather than do the right thing and pay their workers a decent wage, they round up their corporate lawyers and fight to keep women down. The industry, run by rich conservative old men, still views itself as untouchable. Now the cheerleaders are on the front line in the feminist struggle against male chauvinism, male privilege and toxic masculinity.

I’m a retired electrician who has fought for the last half-century to insure women’s entry to the skilled trades. The construction industry is the other side of the gendered employment coin. We were kept out of lucrative union construction jobs because of our gender. The bosses said we were not strong enough to do the work and they’re still saying it, even though we’ve been doing the work for decades. Of course just because the job is physically difficult does not mean a worker makes better pay. Quite the contrary. Plenty of women (and men) work at hard jobs for low pay. Union construction workers make good money because of union contracts.

Women wanted to work in construction for many reasons: We wanted to build something valuable, to learn a craft and take pride in it. Many of us chafed at being required to wear dresses, pantyhose and makeup to work. But the big reason was money. Men working in “men’s” jobs make way more money than women working in “women’s” jobs.

Watching this film I felt an immediate sisterhood with the cheerleaders. Their plight brought up questions for me: What do they, working in a “woman’s job” have in common with us women who work in the construction trades? The film asks “What is women’s work? What is men’s work?” Cheerleading was once the domain of men, that is until team owners realized sexy women shaking their booties could make money for them. 

I didn’t know how bad it has been for cheerleaders. Maybe no one did. They were traditionally paid less than minimum wage and not paid for much of the work they did. Some teams paid them nothing at all. They were required to practice—wage free—for nine months before the season. And they were fined when late to practice. They were constantly scrutinized for body fat and rated on the size of body parts.

The film introduces us to three women from different NFL teams who chose to fight the NFL’s sexism. Lacy’s story is compelling. The product of a poor family in small town Alabama, she had always wanted to be a dancer and she began winning dance contests early on. The first to file a lawsuit, in 2014, she worked for the Oakland Raiders. A cheerleader in high school and college, Lacy was used to being paid for her work. “Louisiana Tech compensated us well,” she says. So it was a shock to find out the Raiders and the NFL didn’t value the cheerleaders even enough to pay minimum wage. The women didn’t get paid till the end of the year, and then not at all for the nine months of required practice sessions. Hair, nails, tan and required travel were out-of-pocket expenses. Waiting for her first paycheck to come, Lacy says she didn’t know all this.

Lacy retained the San Francisco law firm Levy Vinick Burrell Hyams, known for taking on major employment discrimination cases. I was pleased that the film includes interviews with the lawyers, all women. The firm’s symbol is Rosie the Riveter and their motto is “Who would Rosie hire?” Prominent in the office, besides numerous images of Rosie, is a picture of attorney Leslie Levy with Mary Dunlap, a civil rights hero in the San Francisco Bay Area. A well-known feminist and gay activist who died in 2003 at 54, Mary was a founder of Equal Rights Advocates, a law firm that we tradeswomen have worked with since the 1970s. Without our dedicated lawyers we could never have succeeded in integrating the construction trades. As with the cheerleaders, class action lawsuits were the basis of our ongoing struggle.

Also profiled is Maria who, along with five other cheerleaders, filed suit against the Buffalo Bills, a team that expected its cheerleading squad, the Buffalo Jills, to work for free. In response the NFL used tactics that employers typically use to fight unions. The Buffalo Bills team simply abolished its cheer squad. Then they blamed the women who filed the suit, using the divide and conquer tactic and bullying the others to opt out of the suit, which has still not been resolved.

Bailey Davis is the third cheerleader profiled in the film. She filed an EEOC complaint against the New Orleans Saints. Davis was one of the Saintsations, the Saints’ cheerleading squad. That is, until she posted a photo of herself in a one-piece lace bodysuit on her private Instagram account. The Saints fired the 22-year-old in 2018 for violating a code of conduct that prohibits cheerleaders from appearing nude, seminude or in lingerie. It wasn’t the only strict rule that Davis and her former colleagues had to follow—cheerleaders for the Saints can’t have players follow them on social media, must have private social media accounts and are required to leave parties or restaurants if players are there. The company says the rules are in place to prevent cheerleaders from being preyed on by players.

“The players have the freedom to post whatever they want to on social media,” Davis told the press. “They can promote themselves, but we can’t post anything on our social media about being a Saintsation. We can’t have it in our profile picture, we can’t use our last name for media, we can’t promote ourselves, but the players don’t have the same restrictions.”

The women who filed suit against the NFL were attacked mercilessly. “I just kept telling myself I’m doing the right thing,” says Lacy.

At the same time as it keeps a tight reign on the cheerleaders’ behavior, the NFL protects players charged with domestic violence. There’s a connection here. “Wage theft, sexual harassment and domestic violence are all about power,” say the lawyers. 

Scenes later in the film show these women at home taking care of kids and husbands with a not-so-subtle message that all women’s work is undervalued. Here these women work for free and there is no time off.

Another issue, the sexual harassment and pimping of cheerleaders is only hinted at in the film, which focuses on labor issues like wages and working conditions. In 2018 Washington Redskins cheerleaders complained of being pimped out to male donors. “I don’t think they viewed us as people,” said one. 

Football reeks of toxic masculinity. And having a posse of sexy females ready to do your bidding and totally under your control is just part of the deal. Women are seen by these men as sexual objects. Decades ago the Dallas Cowboys led the way in selling sex on the sidelines while paying the cheerleaders next to nothing. “It was a business,” said members of the squad. “And we were the merchandise.” 

In the construction trades, after decades of fighting for equal treatment, our efforts are paying off. It took years to get our unions on board, but now they are partnering with women to improve working conditions. Because of our advances, when the #Metoo movement erupted I was shocked—not that sexual harassment existed in Hollywood and elsewhere, but that it was so widespread and institutionalized. The world of construction is changing, if slowly, and we are ahead of some industries.

The world of cheerleading is changing too. It’s now seen as a competitive sport that incorporates gymnastics with athletic dance. Millions of people watch and participate in worldwide competitions. The NFL needs to get with the program.

Lacy won her lawsuit, after four years of fighting, but many more lawsuits are in process. Ten teams have been sued so far. The NFL has met its match in cheerleaders. Lacy, who had not considered herself a feminist, now says, “I realize feminism is everything I’m fighting for—equal rights, equal pay, equal treatment.”

Published in New York Labor History http://newyorklaborhistory.org/web/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/WHN_wintersping2021_F.pdf

Comparing and Contrasting Burrowers in Garden and Government: Seeking Strategies for Removal

I just learned about something called  burrowing, where appointed officials make their way into the civil service and become career employees. You can’t get rid of them. Apparently there are a bunch in the federal government left over from trump. I wonder how long the citizenry will have to live with them and how much damage they might do.

Then I wonder about our own burrowing animals right here at Hylandia. One day last summer, covid-confined to our back yard, Holly and I saw the ground start to move. It was not an earthquake. Some animal was making its way just under the thinnest layer of garden soil. We watched quietly, fixated, but when we tried to sneak up and unmask it, the creature disappeared. 

“Oh my goddess we have gophers!” I yelped. 

No burrowing animals ever invaded my San Francisco garden but Holly had years of experience combatting gophers when she lived in Santa Barbara.“They love poppies,” she declared. And so we waited for the many poppies in our yard to be pulled underground just like Bugs Bunny did in cartoons. But only one plant, a sunflower, suffered root damage.

Later in the fall, looking out our picture window, we watched a tall cosmos plant shimmy as if in an earthquake. The dance went on for many minutes. Nothing else in the garden moved. The burrowers were at it again.

Infrastructure was affected. Holly continually leveled out the birdbath fountain and then it would be undermined and again tipped at an angle.

We installed raised beds with gopher wire and bought wire cages to plant in.

Then we started seeing cone-shaped piles of dirt around the garden. We saw no hole in the middle and no tunnels. We were flummoxed. Gophers leave a horseshoe shaped mound of earth near their burrows and the entrance hole is visible. 

Maybe we didn’t have gophers. But what could it be? Someone told us that local gardeners have problems with voles. I have seen voles in the mountains emerging from their burrows on backpacking mornings, but I didn’t know they lived here or were found in gardens.

We decided our culprits were voles, also called meadow mice, the cutest of the burrowing animals likely to be found in gardens, but possibly the most damaging. They look like mice with shorter tails and rounder heads, about five inches long. Voles pay no attention to gopher wire. They just climb right up into the raised beds and gnaw at the base of plants, even killing trees. 

Plants were not dying and we saw no evidence of gnawed trunks on our fruit trees. Maybe they weren’t voles. Our period of idle speculation continued for a while until we finally googled. 

The three main burrowing animal “pests” are voles, moles and gophers. When you look them up online, the whole first page of google is filled with pest control companies explaining how these mammals damage your lawn and how to get rid of them by poison or other means. 

I did find one website that was not only about extermination—the Oregon State University Extension Service. It says, “Moles, voles and gophers all improve the soil by aerating it and mixing nutrients, but sometimes their habits get them in trouble with gardeners.”

Wow! They all improve the soil! Our soil here is dense clay that resists the spade in the dry season. Could burrowing animals be good for our garden?

“The important part is for people to assess the level of damage with the level of control,” says Dana Sanchez, wildlife specialist. “Is having a few holes in the lawn enough of a problem that you need to take action?”

Thank you Dana Sanchez! Perhaps we can live with burrowing animals in our garden. We already live with rats, birds, cats, opossums, raccoons, fence lizards and squirrels.

Reading descriptions of these animals and their habits made us decide we have moles, not voles. Moles leave mounds of dirt and voles do not. Moles eat worms, slugs and insects; voles eat plants. They are way more dissimilar than their names suggest. Moles are in the order Eulipotyphla along with shrews. Voles are Rodentia, as are gophers and rats.

We learned that we will probably never see a mole. Unlike gophers and voles, they really do spend their entire lives underground. They make two tunnel systems, one deep in the earth about ten inches down and one closer to the surface. They are solitary and one mole can have a territory of two back yards. Maybe we have only one mole.

Moles are not as damaging as gophers and voles. Moles don’t destroy plants except by sometimes undermining the roots by leaving a void underneath. Would I feel the same way if we had gophers or voles destroying our plants? Probably not. I’d be scheming about how to exterminate them. My brother told me his husband once put gas down into a gopher hole and lit the fumes. It seemed like the whole yard raised up in the explosion, he said. There are videos on YouTube. Apparently people do this all the time. What would you look up? I wondered. He suggested “mole yard explosion.”

I remember during the cold war when mole also meant a spy. We used to worry about Soviet moles in the government, spies who spent lives burrowing in. Now it’s the Russians and the moles are people sitting at computer consoles far out of reach. Reports suggest they have burrowed into every part of our government, although that scandal hasn’t seen much light lately.

And we must add to that white supremacist and nazi moles. How many of these moles are still in the military? Were moles the reason the military failed to aid the capitol police in the recent attempt to overthrow our government? And members of Congress—shall we view those who voted to defend trump as moles who have now been exposed?

Now that we know moles aren’t so damaging to gardens, maybe we can live with them. But I’m not so sanguine about living with moles in the government and the military.  If I google “moles in the government” perhaps I’ll find strategies for removing the burrowers.

War Is With Us

World War Two, the defining feature of my parents’ generation, affected my generation too. Maybe more than we know.

The Sound of Nazis

I was 15 going on 16, a sophomore in high school. It was 1965 and the Sound of Music was opening at the Capitol Theater in downtown Yakima. My mother offered to drive me and three girlfriends to see it. 

Did my mother already know the story of Maria Von Trapp? Probably she knew of the post-war memoir or the 1959 Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical (she subscribed to the New Yorker magazine after all.) But whenever she learned of the story she must have wanted to see it. She had worked as a Red Cross “donut girl” in Europe during the war, passing out donuts to the troops on the front lines in Italy, France and Germany. She had lost her fiancé to a German land mine just days before they were to be married. She had witnessed the liberation of Dachau.

My girlfriends and I didn’t know the story. We were just excited to see the movie.

What a treat! We lived on the west side of town, out amidst the orchards and ranches. Our high school sat in the middle of an apple orchard. So getting anywhere required a car, even though in those days the school bus did pick us up and drop us off daily, but only after an hour spent driving around in the sticks.

The town of Yakima, Washington didn’t yet have a mall and so people still got dressed up when they went downtown to go shopping or see a movie at the Capitol Theater. When it was built in 1920 it had been the biggest and most ornate theater in the Northwest with seats for 2000.

By 1965 girls and women were no longer required to wear dresses, hats and gloves downtown. At school we were required to wear skirts, but on Saturdays we could wear play clothes—pedal pushers (zippers on the back or side only) and penny loafers with ankle socks. My mother still wore housedresses, even to clean the house, but she put on a polyester pantsuit to go to the movies.

We were teenagers, no longer children—young women really. Ponytails had metamorphosed into sleek pageboys and flips, which required sleeping on huge hair curlers. I had just converted to the popular flip, like a pageboy but flipped up at the ends instead of under. Beehive hairdos were in. You achieved a fuller look by ratting the hair, then combing over until it looked smooth.

We looked at the Simplicity pattern catalog to see what the new styles would be; Simplicity was remarkably prescient about fashion. Then we would just sew it. A-line dresses were comfortable and exceedingly easy to sew. Paisley was big. Hip hugger bell bottoms were popular and I made myself a pair with bright flowers in pinks and yellows.

Music didn’t move me like it did some others. I didn’t like my mother’s opera records or any of the odd assortment of 78 rpm records in her collection. As for popular music I just went with the flow, collecting 45 rpm records and playing them on a tiny square record player. The Beatles were big and we danced to “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me.”  My favorite 45 was “Chains” sung by the Cookies, a three-member group of Black women.

my baby’s got me locked up in chains 

and they ain’t the kind that you can see, yeah

I didn’t know then that it was written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

I was a bit of a skeptic even then, irritably literal and unimaginative. My friend Susie had gone to the Beatles concert in San Francisco the year before and told me she couldn’t stop screaming while the group was singing. I asked her why girls do that. She couldn’t explain it; she said you just felt like it. I tried hard to understand but I really didn’t get it. Why would anyone scream while listening to music?

However, we were singers. We had formed a group called The Nonettes in eighth grade (there were nine of us). We sang Hootenanny songs like “500 Miles” and popular songs like “Winter Wonderland.” We hadn’t yet heard the Rodgers and Hammerstein music from the Sound of Music but we would learn it, since we were buying the Hi-Fi 33 rpm album after the show.

I was drawn into the musical immediately. What teenage girl would not identify with Maria—too exuberant to be a nun, too in love with the natural world to be ladylike. Did my girlfriends and I see ourselves as a problem to be solved? 

The captain was like everyone’s father—militaristic, distant, full of orders, strict. But it was hard not to like the nuns even if they did kick Maria out of the convent.

We knew that booing at the movies was rude behavior, but we all booed silently when the baron’s lady friend and the children’s stepmother-to-be appeared. She would make a terrible mother to those children! Maria was so much better.

When the Nazis came on screen I heard what sounded like a low murmur coming from my mother. “Krauts,” she growled under her breath. 

Then during the scene where the family is hiding from the ersatz boyfriend, she snarled, “Bastard.”

I felt myself flush. Talking in the movie theater was strictly forbidden and everyone sitting near us could hear my mother. They were turning around to shush her. Had my mother set out to embarrass me in front of my girlfriends?

I turned to frown at her. She sat on the edge of her seat with a death grip on the arm rests, her face twisted in anger. It was only then—20 years after the end of the war—that I began to see the depth of trauma my mother and many of our parents had experienced. Joan’s father, a bomber pilot, lost his mind. Rachel’s parents, having survived a concentration camp, could not talk about the war. My father and others viewed parenting as an extension of basic training.

It would take many more years to understand how my girlfriends and I—the next generation—were also deeply affected by the war that ended before we were born. #

We are all at fault for allowing it to happen

My mother wasn’t able to talk about the Nazis’ crimes against humanity until the program QB VII came on TV in 1974. Then she wrote this letter to the editor.

Imbolc Is Imminent

Feb. 1, 2021

Dear Ones,

It’s been a rough year. Impossible to say that without understating. But, as we celebrate Imbolc, I feel like it’s a new morning.

My covid walking outfit. Brew is the local gay cafe.

I’m on the pavement thinking about the government. But I hesitate to write about that because it’s been written about so very much. Suffice to say Holly and I are maintaining our sanity here in Santa Rosa. And we ain’t goin’ nowhere. We haven’t been vaccinated partly because of a shortage of vaccine here in Sonoma County. Also because we are in no way essential.

Actually I’m lying not on pavement but on the redwood deck in the backyard after having pulled out as many oxalis as I can from the garden. I’m starting to worry about getting a sunburn when clouds roll in swift from the south. Rain is coming but it won’t be a hard rain. Not today.

This day of sun and weeding and planting and gray clouds has got my mind off wintertime. And I think that’s the whole point of Imbolc, one of my favorite pagan holidays because—spring!

Imbolc falls in the middle between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The old Celtic pre-christian holiday was a day to honor the pagan goddess Brigid, who invoked fertility rites. She also oversaw crafts, poetry and prophecy—the domain of us old folks. 

Brigid was a powerful Celtic god and so of course the christians had to turn her into St. Brigid, whose day is still celebrated in Ireland. Here at Hylandia we prefer to celebrate the goddess. I can already feel myself becoming more prophetic. Maybe more poetic and crafty too!

However you celebrate have a happy Imbolc. 

Sending big virtual hugs to you all.

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