Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Reflections on outness 1: ten years

As I sit down to write a post on this pride month, the realisation suddenly strikes me: I've been out for ten years. The coincidence seems too unlikely, too easy, so I reach for my diary. Volume III. Tuesday March 26 2007. The day I told her.

I told my mother first. It is not a path I recommend if it can be avoided. But coming out narratives are personal, and shaped by factor beyond the sexuality of the individuals involved. My own family history had made secrets a dangerous, toxic, poisonous thing. If I wanted to be able to rebuild from this, I could not keep this a secret from her. Not once I'd decided to act on it. And meeting a boy will suddenly make the insurmountable seem inevitable.

It was not an easy conversation... and it did not end for many many years. It was mostly, other than on a few fateful occasions, had in things unsaid. Silences on the phone. Requests made in passing. Awkwardly formal lunches. It was not, by any outside standards, a difficult coming out. But it required finding a language to speak about things we had never spoken about. And it coincided, I think, with an emancipation of mine. I could not put my life on hold forever, on so many fronts. Eventually, sooner perhaps than either of us expected, she caught up with me. And, as is her wont, has more than kept pace. She has broken down doors for me and my husband now. How little I thought, in that awkward, tense, angry conversation ten years ago, when so much was not said, that might be the case.

It is a difficult balance, working with people who you love who are coming to terms with something they have never really bothered to think about. You come, the son, the brother, the friend, that they think they know so well, and you tell them that you are not what they have assumed. And yet, on the other hand, you remind them, over and over and over, that you are who they know. To comfort them yes, but also because it is true. I was the classic good gay boy: I built a defence from my goodness. My good grades, my kindness, the fact I didn't get in trouble. But those things pre dated my emergent sexual anxiety. They were there to be used as weapons and defences and bargaining chips once the revelation of my differentness came, but those were exapted functions.

To me, coming out was not a clean break with my previous self. Psychologically, it was a long and complex process, rooted in a complex relationship with men, women, and masculinity. You cannot be raised with two very different concepts of masculinity and femininity (the French and the British) and not interrogate those concepts and what they mean, how they function, how they affect you as a person. And my father's abandonment of us in my early teens did not simplify matters. And so to this day, that brief version of me who existed from 2001 to 2006, who called himself "straight, but took a while to get there", I consider authentic and valid. He was doing the best he could with a psychology that was complex, in an environment that demanded simplicity. An environment that reduced attraction to sex.

A few months after I came out, I moved to America. To this day I do not know if the two events are linked. Was my burgeoning awareness of my differentness a hidden motive behind my resolve to leave? Did the realisation I was leaving precipitate an awakening, a coming to terms? All I know is that I have never felt so lost and rootless as a person as I did my first year in America, despite the intellectual satisfaction of grad school. I remember writing that I felt like a mist, less and less certain of what I was or who I was. In the end, I rooted myself again not through a new found identity, but through a project of going through all my papers and scraps of life since high school and scrapbooking my own life. Rebuilding the continuity I felt I had broken by being different, and by leaving.

I am fortunate now. That break is barely visible. All the friends and family I knew before I came out are fully woven into the new life, mingling with the new ones. My out self, my closeted self, my not gay self, almost seamlessly woven together again. If there is perhaps a slight unevenness in the tapestry, where things had to be woven together after the fact to hide a tear, well, no one notices.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A mes compatriotes alsaciens qui votent FN

Je connais une petite fille qui, à cinq ans, a été obligé par sa maitresse de classe maternelles à se tenir dans la cour d'école devant tout le monde. Cette même maîtresse lui a ensuite dis, à elle et ses camarades comme elle, qu'ils étaient responsables d'un massacre commis quelques années auparavant.*
Je connais une petite fille à laquelle on a interdit de parler la langue de sa grand mère et de ses parents avec ses camarades dans la cour d'école. Elle s'en est tiré, mais beaucoup des enfants de sa génération n'en ont jamais pu parler à leurs grands-parents, faute de maîtrise de cette langue.
Je connais une jeune fille qui a appris à effacer le gros accent de son pays, car il lui faisait tord dans sa carrière.
Je connais une jeune femme qui, lorsqu'elle appelait le rectorat à Paris, entendait toujours​ malmener son nom. Jamais d'excuse par ailleurs, car "ce n'était pas français, un nom comme ça".
Je connais une femme qui a été soupçonnée toute sa vie, et toute sa carrière au service de l'état, de ne pas être assez française. À cause d'où elle venait, mais surtout, parce qu'elle refusait de ne pas en venir.
Cette fillette, cette fille, cette femme, c'est mère, née dans le bas Rhin en 1944. Ma mère, qui parle le dialecte, dont le nom de jeune fille est inévitablement germanique, qui aime la musique allemande autant que la littérature française.
L'histoire de ma mère, c'est l'histoire de tout Alsaciens né entre 1918 et 1950. C'est l'histoire de tout une génération qu'on a soupçonné à cause de leur accent, de leur nom, de leur dialecte, de leur religion (trop protestant, trop fier du régime concordataire) de ne pas être assez français. Ça vous dit quelque chose?
Les gens, comme Marine Le Pen et son parti, qui prétendent pouvoir définir ce que sont la France et les Français, ne serons jamais les amis de l'Alsace, avec son gros accent, sa cuisine bizarre, ses noms imprononçable comme Breuschwickersheim ou Hammerschwir. Et j'ose suggéré même que les Alsaciens devraient être solidaire avec tous les Français ou pas encore français que l'on réprouve parce qu'ils​ ne ressemblent pas assez à ceux représentés dans une histoire de France de 1950. Les Français d'origine turques, les Français d'origine algérienne, les Français d'origine malienne, ainsi que les Français gay, lesbiennes, et transgenres, luttent pour ce pour quoi ma mère a luttée, et ce pour quoi moi, franco-alsaco-britannique homosexuel je lutte aussi: le droit d'être reconnu Français à part entière sans abandonner qui je suis, le droit d'être français et de parler "wie der Schnawwel-ne gewochsn isch".
Je pourrais rappeler d'autre faits: qu'un tiers des Alsaciens travaillent outre Rhin. Ou que le petit village où ont habité mon arrière grand mère, ma grand mère et ma tante fut entièrement rasé en 1918 lors de la bataille du col de la Schlucht, et que la génération de mes grands parents se sont toujours attendu à ce que cela se répète. Si ça n'a pas eu lieu, si l'Alsace a cessé être terre de convoitise identitaire, si, enfin, le monde lui a foutu la paix, c'est à cause de l'Europe, que rejette maintenant Marine Le Pen.
La définition étroite de ce que c'est qu'être français a toujours fait tord à l'Alsace, et à la France. Défiez là en renonçant au front national, et en embrassant l'ouverture et l'espoir de quelques chose de nouveau.

*Le massacre, c'est Oradour sur Glane.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Independence and maturity

I didn't get the job.

It wasn't quite the Dream Job, but it had many attributes of it. I thought I did well in the interview. In fact, based on feedback, I'm pretty sure I did do well in the interview. But someone else did better, or had funding, or was a better fit. I'm a postdoc for another year.

I was disappointed not to get the job, but not crushed. Even getting a drink to drown my sorrows felt perfunctory, unnecessary. I was OK. And I realised, that, more and more, when it comes to my career, that equanimity about where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going has come to dominate.

When I finished my PhD, then spent a year unemployed, and then started my postdoc, I was all Sturm und Drang about my career. I oscillated between being terrified I'd never make it, angry I hadn't published more, frustrated at people's failure to recognise my amazing capabilities, irritated at advice that seemed cruel, glib and out of touch. And while I still think there are problems for graduate students and postdocs, that internalization of the problems is gone. The clear, tangible work I have done over the past three and a half years in the wonderful lab I've had the good fortune to do my postdoc in has eliminated much of the bad feelings from the end of my PhD. What has replaced them is a certain degree of confidence I didn't have before, one that is rooted in a certain equanimity about my career and my future. I'm good at what I do, and I've had a blast doing it. I hope I'll get to do it for longer, but if I don't... Well it was a good innings.

Associated with this disappearance of the violent emotions with which I started this postdoc has been a quiet maturation of other skills. We recently had a change of staff in the lab which means I am now the second most senior person here. And, somewhat to my surprise, I found I've stepped up to the plate of managing people with more confidence and willingness then I thought I would. I don't have to remind myself to check in with the new trainees and discuss plans for data collection, I'm just ... doing it.

With my PI, we've reached a stage that is intellectually exciting. She's no longer primarily in the business of training me, we're now collaborators, bouncing ideas off each other about new analyses and projects. The projects are in some ways more collaborative, and yet in others I am more independent then ever: if we decide a certain paper is mine, then she trusts me to carry the project. I'm currently in charge of helping our graduate student write his first paper for publication. It's been a great learning experience, in part because I've discovered how much I now know about the arcana of publication and manuscript preparation.Of course, the independence isn't there in my own grants yet (but maybe, NIH gods permitting, by years end?), but I can feel a shift in how I approach my work, and in how other people in the lab and the university respond to me.  The trick here, one that she and I both acknowledge, is to recognize this dangerously fun dynamic is a sign I should plan to leave, not that I should stay.

Perhaps the word that best describes my mindset about what I do and why I do it now is maturity (yes, you can laugh. I'm 33, i have a lot more maturing to do I'm sure). Part of that is also the recognition that unlike my 20s, I cannot make my career the entire center of my being quite like I did in graduate school (even as I take on more responsibility). I have a husband who is making his own major career decisions. I have a mother who will not be young forever. I will not be young forever.

There will always be choices, there will always be jobs I do not get. But wherever I go from here, there are almost no regrets to be had about what I've done on the way here, either professionally, or personally. And that knowledge is I think the source of my current mindset. And it is a good place to be.

And with that, I am signing off for two weeks. My husband and I are taking our long delayed honeymoon to Spain. Some things should not be put off forever.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Hosting the Moirai

A few weeks ago, my aunt died. She was my mother's elder sister and, owing to my family's complicated history, one of the few members of the extended family to which we were all genuinely close. Like my mother, she was a proud, force of nature of a women. Based, in part, on the fact that like my mother, she was more or less on her own from a young age.
My mother's mother was born in 1900. She died six months after my birth. My mother was the youngest of all her cousins (on her father's side, she had six aunts and uncles, so there were many cousins). And I, born 83 years after my grandmother, am the youngest of her grandchildren. My eldest cousin is more than 20 years older than me. My mother's cousins (those she was still close with) were grandparent aged to me. I saw them once a year, and though our relationship was pleasant, it was never close. They were part of the holidays. And besides, when they got together with their youngest cousin, they talked of family mostly long dead, and memories long past. I learnt a lot from them about how the world had changed, and about my history, but mostly through listening to the stories they told each other.
My aunt was different. She never missed a birthday or Christmas to call us. None of us would consider going to Paris without visiting her. My mother and she did not have the easiest relationship, but they have never waivered in the affection they have shown each other's children. Perhaps sometimes, that was easier than speaking directly.
I miss my aunt dearly. And beyond her, with her passing I have lost the closest thing I ever had to a physical home in France, her holiday house in the Alsatian Vosges mountains, to which my mother always had a key. Now that I will no longer take the train to her little Paris suburb for dinner or lunch when I visit that city, it will become a little less friendly to me. I am thankful my husband got to meet her twice. I am thankful she adored him (despite the language barrier). I am thankful for the beautiful cross stitch sample she made for us, despite cancer and chemo and caring for her husband as dementia and ill health weakened him. She survived him by less than six months.


But as hard as loosing my aunt is for me, for my mother the sense of loneliness is vast. In the past years so many of her old friends have become weak and frail, have started one by one to take their leave of us. When they started weakening, my mother, who has the energy and physical fitness of a woman twenty years younger then she is, was irritated at them for not going on walks with her anymore, for no longer staying up until 2am to talk. Now she understands; she is resigned; and talks with her old friends, though more important, no longer bring levity and joy to her. She returns from trips to France drained, and needs time with her younger friends, her children and grandchildren to regain her energy.
With the loss of my aunt, only one person, a friend from Kindergarten, is left who remembers my mother's childhood. And the first five years (which for my mother were defining to her life story) are now remembered only by her. She has entered a period where, increasingly, more and more of her life can be confirmed by no one. And, as my brother points out, there is now almost no one left with whom she can speak the dialect her own grandmother (born in 1870) taught her. Strands are being cut, and my mother feels it.
Of late, she has begun to speak more of her own passing. Not in a morbid way, but in a pragmatic way. She is counting down. She knows she can no longer count on an endless bounty of more time. She senses both the urgency of doing what can still be done, and the knowledge that less is possible. In part, this is because of what is happening around her. In part, and I know my mother enough to know this, it is because of what she has read. She is preparing herself, training herself for a new phase of life. I know this because the same thought that is animating her has returned to me: the French philosopher Montaigne's famous aphorism:
"que philosopher, c'est apprendre a mourir"
"Doing philosophy, is learning to die"
To which I would add, it is also learning that others die.
With my aunt's passing, and my mother's words and stories, a new presence enters my life: the Moirai, the three sisters of Greek mythology. In the past, they have visited suddenly, and departed. But now I see they are here to stay. They are in my house, and it does not do to deny the Gods. Clotho is spinning thread more slowly, and Lachesis casts a more judicious eye on how much she draws out. And Atropos, having just used her scissors, has put them down. But they hang from her belt, always within hand's reach.

The Moirai are here, and their presence is a warning, but also a gift, in the manner of Greek gods. They are here to tell me I can no longer ignore them, and I must act accordingly in what I do.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

I am not a "good immigrant"

"We will continue to attract the best and brightest" says Prime Minister Teresa May, as she makes limiting migration the centre of her policy plans for the next five years. Her Brexit speech made clear she is willing to sacrifice everything (the economy, international cooperation, the UK's moral standing) in order to prevent those dratted foreigners from entering the country. Then yesterday happened. The American president passed an executive order blocking all entry to the country, regardless of paperwork, for all refugees and nationals from seven countries. They detained even green card holders *. And Mrs May, who'd been in Washington earlier that day to curry favor with the president, has issued only the most tepid of repudiations.
I am an immigrant to the US. For reasons of history and geography and luck of birth, I am a fortunate immigrant. I am not routinely stopped at the border. I have never had extra burdens placed on me to get either my visa or my green card. But I have never once re-entered the US without some trepidation since I first got my F1 student visa. After yesterday, that trepidation is increased.
As the events at airports around the country have reminded people overnight, in the US it is the border agency that has final say about who can and cannot enter the country. The visa you spent money and time obtaining (every time I had to get my visa renewed or issued was a day off work, and I was fortunate that I lived in London) is only part of the evidence. It is the person at the desk at immigration, at the end of the line labelled "aliens", who has final say.
One of the criteria by which a border agent can deny you entry is if they have a suspicion you carry any of a certain number of infectious diseases. When I first moved to America, HIV/AIDS was on that list. Border protection need no proof you have the disease, a suspicion is sufficient. As a gay man, you see where I'm going with this. Yes, guidebooks and immigration manuals warned me that "looking too gay" could, feasibly, get my entry denied.
When I left America at the end of my Ph.D., leaving my then partner of four years behind, I could not return to America based on that relationship. DOMA was still in force. So I found a job. Luckily, as an academic, visas for jobs are easier to come by. But the easiest one (the J1) is a non immigrant visa with a firm requirement you leave the country after two years for at least a further year. It is difficult to get an exemption from that. The H1-B (skilled workers) visa doesn't have that limitation. But some universities will not sponsor postdocs for H1-Bs, and they cost PIs money. I was lucky, I got one. But even the H1-B has catches. It is non transferable, tied to your employment, and unlike the F1 visa has no grace period: as soon as your employment ends, your H1-B expires and you are automatically residing in the country illegally. Yes, that is correct. If you're on a H1-B and you get fired, you can technically be reported for overstaying your visa that evening. This is why H1-B visa holders tend to be quiet about problems at work.
Through good fortune, a progressive presidential administration, and a liberal supreme court, I became eligible for a spousal green card while on my H1-B. None of those things were guaranteed. Under the Bush Administration, they would have been unthinkable. Under a Trump administration? Well, we can guess how likely anything that makes immigration easier will be at this point. But even then, the green card is not guaranteed (unlike what my in laws thought). It costs $1500 to apply, and the process is complex, opaque, and open ended. I was hugely fortunate in that we had extensive documentation of our relationship, and a very friendly interviewer for the final interview in Cleveland. Will that still be likely in the coming years? Will be guidance be issued? If the so called "first amendment defense act" passes, same sex couples may end up in limbo when faced with unhelpful UCSIS employees. And it may not even take that much to suddenly make spousal green cards much harder to obtain. And mine must be renewed in two years. In the UK, for example, Teresa May now only allows  British citizen to bring a non EU foreign born spouse into the country if they are earning above a certain threshold. Nothing is safe in the pursuit of reducing immigration.
So, no. I don't feel safe or OK after yesterday, despite being from the "right" sort of country, having the "right" skin colour, and being among "the best and brightest". Regardless of claims to the contrary, I know my supposed usefulness to people like May and Trump is secondary to the political capital they get from being "tough on immigration". If you doubt it, watch May's willingness to bargain with the life of my mother, who has lived in the UK legally for 40 years, but has the misfortune of being a French citizen after Brexit.
To be an immigrant, even a fortunate immigrant, is, if you keep your eyes even slightly open, to know you live at the good will of your host nation. And when that good will appears to be running short, no one, not even "good immigrants", is safe. It was not so long ago that the very permanent resident status I have now was explicitly denied to me by federal law. It is not so long ago my sexuality would make me suspect at the border. And, as a former H1-B holder paid out of a federal grant, "American Jobs for American People" is a chilling phrase. Permanent residency is usually treated much like citizenship for job eligibility purposes. Now, with this administration, I begin to wonder how safe that is.
People's lives were ruined yesterday, make no mistake. Some people will die as a direct consequence of that decision. But every green card or visa holder in the country woke up this morning, and wondered just how much the little bits of card we carry in our wallets are worth, and what might have them become as worthless as those held by Iranian, Syrian, Iraqi, Libyan, Sudanese, Yemeni, and Somali citizens who called America home.
I am an immigrant, I am angry, and I am more afraid than I was before.

* I'm aware that as of today, Priebus has claimed to walk that back. But I'll believe it when I see it.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

And Whither then? I cannot say

I started writing this blog over two and a half years ago. I'd been toying with the idea of starting a blog for a long time. It was a response to a growing frustration at my lack of engagement with the world, my lack, for want of a better word, of production. I had felt that throughout my twenties I had read, watched, listened to so much. I had consumed voraciously. And I pondered and digested my consumption. Yet nothing came of it. I left no mark.
So, eventually, restless, I resolved to start writing about something, anything. It is a small outlet. I am not so presumptuous as to think any of these private thoughts are actually unique or insightful. Yet I wished to return something. And I needed an outlet for those disquisitions and diatribes I would compose in my head at two in the morning, distilling a day's worth of information overload.
In many ways, this blog surprised me. It lasted longer than I thought. It wandered more then I thought. One constant was remains that I cannot predict which posts will resonate and which won't. I guess I still don't know my audience. Some posts I considered very niche have gone far. Some of the posts of which I remain proudest linger unloved.
From the beginning, this blog has been tied to my twitter presence. And in light of what has happened with the world lately, my twitter presence has dwindled. I have had to preserve myself, control my engagement. Initially, I felt guilty, like I was abandoning the fight. But I've made my peace now. I can fight better if I can control my energy. And leaving twitter lets me do that.
I had learnt that lesson earlier with this blog. I realised reasonably soon that posts that were reactions to what was going on on twitter were not always my best. And so I started deliberately not writing blog posts in response to twitter issues. Or entwining them with thoughts I had for a long time. So my blog remained slightly esoteric, detached, the results, I hope, of my idiosyncratic observation of world. After all, I'd staked a claim in the lineage of Montaigne, and I decided to stay there.
But now that I have withdrawn from twitter, can the blog exist separately? In one sense, no. Traffic to my blog is almost entirely from twitter. Without my twitter presence, my readership will dwindle. But in another sense, yes. I am proud of this blog. I find I am attached to some of this writing. That I want to be associated with it. It has been suggested to me more than once that I should take it down as a junior academic, and I have found I cannot, no, I do not want to do it. There are things here that I feel are of value.
On the other hand, no one can deny I've been writing less here of lately. Why? In part, because when it comes to our current unpleasantness, I don't know that anything I have to say is of any value. I've become self conscious in the sea of verbiage of broadly varying quality that has accompanied the turbulence of these months. Does my writing help? Does my voice improve? Or is it yet more half baked, superficially convincing ramblings of an over educated person with an exaggerated sense of his own intellect and importance?
All this to say, I have not written much of late. But the more I think of it, the more I want to write here again. Perhaps write less, perhaps write better, but I cannot leave this place, not yet.
So, if you still know it exists, watch this space. Because here, still, my voice will be heard.