The Importance of Not Being Earnest

According to my mother, who is dead, I’m a failure. Not just because I’m a sodomite. I’m a failure because I never married, never had kids, and didn’t earn a pile of money. Fortunately, my brother Jon hit the trifecta. My mother got grandchildren without my having to lift a finger or wear a skirt.

"hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do" Oscar Wilde

“hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do”  – Oscar Wilde

For all her insistence that I act like a girl, she spent her whole life comparing me to my brother. Jon was popular. His report cards were upbeat and full of praise. He had ambition. Why couldn’t I be like him? My elementary school report cards noted that I was not living up to my potential. When I tried to be just like my brother I got in trouble for acting like a boy. 

My mother was surprised when I was accepted into Hunter. Hunter College High School is a public school that admits students based on a competitive entrance exam. It was still an all girls school when I attended. “Hunter girls” were the best and the brightest. They were supposed to make their mark on the world. 

Hunter expected you to study with passion. To research subjects with enthusiasm and diligence.  We were supposed to become doctors, lawyers, scientists, and professors. We looked down upon soap operas, romance novels, and teen magazines. When we were not studying we read English classics and watched French films. We were pretentious and pollyannaish. 

I went to off to college, studied Civil Engineering, and got a job right out of school with the Transit Authority. I write subway schedules. It is an interesting job, with good pay, health benefits, and a pension. I’ve done a lot of queer political work, I write my blog. I’ve got a partner, Donna, and a dog, Gracie. Gracie leaves more of a mark on the world than I do.

From the Hunter vantage point, I’m kind of a middling success. For perspective, one of my classmates (in Ms. Morello’s Politcal Theory class) was Elana Kagan. Elana was the dean of Harvard Law School and then became a Supreme Court Justice.

The rest of the world was not as welcoming as Hunter. I came out and then I retreated. I lowered the bar because of my queerness. I set it at staying alive, refusing to ask for money from my mother, and refusing to compromise on my butchness. I did not expect to be happy. I did not expect to find a lot of pleasure in life. I did not believe that I deserved it. I worked hard. I closed down. I lost a part of myself.

Sometimes I feel like I am waking up after a long hibernation. Donna and Gracie have been waiting for this; not always patiently. I can’t answer why it took so long. I just know I’m ready to lighten up, and to stop being such an earnest stick-in-the-mud.

I don’t think I’ll ever be as much of a hedonist as Donna would like me to be. I don’t think I’ll ever be as indulgent as Gracie would like me to be. I will always prefer to watch documentaries and to read non-fiction. I will always be a Hunter girl, but this time around I want to have more fun.

Note: Oscar Wilde was a flamboyant fixture in London society. He wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” in 1895 (I read it in the ninth grade at Hunter). Shortly after the play opened he was prosecuted for being a sodomite and sentenced to 2 years of prison and hard labor. Prison broke his health. He died in 1900, destitute. 

17 thoughts on “The Importance of Not Being Earnest

  1. Georgeann

    I think it is important to be true to yourself but also to be flexible enough to leave the comfort zone and ‘be there’ for those you love. I like what you said about wanting to be able to be a certain way for your loved ones, but still feeling a bit like a stick in the mud. I think all of us sticks in the mud can relate! And I hope that you do have so much fun!

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      What I actually need help with is being silly. Only Gracie gets me going down the silly road.

      For a long time I was very hung up on making sure I didn’t need to borrow money from anyone in my family (college, buying a car, down payment on an apartment, etc.) because that would have indicated that I was not really independent. That kind of “I can do it myself” also isolated me from people who would have liked to help me out or make things easier for me. On the bright side, I can live on a budget and never got into credit card debt, on the other hand it can be hard for me to break loose and not worry about stuff. Fun, right, fun, I’m supposed to be having fun…

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  2. RonaFraser

    I think that’s great (being less earnest), as I think we have to enjoy as much of life as we can and being earnest can interfere with that), but also that we are all different people and enjoy things in our own way, so just because you do things differently, doesn’t mean you are getting less joy. That being said, I wish I’d loosen up sometimes too!

    But re “Gracie leaves more of a mark on the world than I do.” — Are you kidding me? I don’t know what kind of mark you leave in your in-person, day-to-day life, but you have certainly had an effect on a LOT of people through this blog — both on people who are going through similar things and on people whose eyes you have opened to the issues that go along with gender identity (other people who’ve not read your blog will benefit from it just because some readers will have new understanding and awareness).

    … I considered you might be just playing with the dog making a mark (peeing) everywhere, but wanted to make my point anyway.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I think the relentless winter (lots of snow and the polar vortex) combined with getting a newsletter from Hunter (with a fundraising pitch) combined to make me feel a little lower than usual. The newsletter was full of the doings of famous Hunterites (admittedly a very small percentage of the graduates become rich, famous, or win big awards but there are enough to create a bit of envy).

      Thanks for reminding me that my blog is successful, I also lose track of that because I use it to think stuff through (like why I still care about whether I’m a success by Hunter’s standards) and to push myself along towards greater clarity. Some readers do find it through Google and I’m grateful that they read it and get something out of it.

      As for Gracie, there is nothing she likes more than peeing on snow, fresh or old. She is definitely leaving her mark, and with more confidence and gusto than me.

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  3. Ezekiel

    This is a beautiful post. I recognize what you are saying about coming out of hibernation. But what I actually noticed most was that you write subway schedules…my four year old is completely obsessed with public transit (we live in Boston and he has the system memorized, he wants to go to NYC all the time to ride more subways and buses). You might think you haven’t left much of a mark on the world, but at least to my view and I’m sure to my kid, that is truly an awesome job.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Writing subway schedules is awesome, but most New Yorkers say “the subway runs on a schedule?” and then they complain about how they waited 20 minutes for the #1 train and that it was crowded.

      I was never a subway buff, but I work with lots of guys who were into trains when they were kids and grew up hoping that they’d get a job on the subway. Will send a separate e-mail with my contact info for your kid.

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  4. rimonim

    Wonderful post. You sound like a splendid success to me.

    Your mom sounds a lot like my grandmother, who helped to raise me. I’ve long had a vague sense that being trans was somehow related to my refusal to accept the ambitions she wanted for me, but I hadn’t put my finger on it. I appreciate the way you articulated it here.

    I really relate to the waking up feeling–my fiancee and I actually talk about this a lot.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Donna keeps getting on me that success and failure are not a good way to measure one’s self and that I should be asking if I am happy/satisfied with how I am living my life, which is more difficult to answer.
      Being trans does throw a wrench into assimilating into society and participating in the American dream. While we are questioning our gender and sexual identity we have an opportunity question everything else and think about how we want to live our lives.

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  5. amediablogger

    I’m really enjoying your blog posts and the questioning/reasoning. It’s wonderful to see your confidence knowing your challenges.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks. The writing definitely forces me to think more clearly and to stop chasing my own tail. When left to my own devices I can obsess my way into paralysis; blogging helps me keep moving.

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  6. urbanmythcafe

    “Hunter School” has been klonking around in my head for a couple of days: and then I remembered, “The Red Leather Diary.” It is the story of a girl who attends Hunter in the 1920’s, and gets into lots of trouble, if I remember correctly. It is worth a read.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I remember reading the reviews, and thinking I should read the book, but I didn’t. I did look it up again. In ye olden days, when the diary was written, Hunter College and the high school were almost continuous – the author entered the college at age 16, although she did not attend the high school. Her experience was probably very similar, since it was all girls/women and a teaching college (academic and professionally oriented). One of the things I want to write about at some point are my experiences in all girl’s or women’s spaces – of being there because you are female, but being allowed to act like you are not – and how satisfying that was at the time, even with all of the contradictions.

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  7. The Little Butch That Could (TLBTC)

    Sounds like it’s all about perspective to me. We see what we want to see. . .
    Again, great post. Cheers!

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  8. Lesboi

    “The rest of the world was not as welcoming as Hunter. I came out and then I retreated. I lowered the bar because of my queerness. I set it at staying alive, refusing to ask for money from my mother, and refusing to compromise on my butchness.”

    This, among many other things you wrote, really resonate with me. I realized quickly that if I didn’t want to live deeply in a closet my choices in life for a career were limited. I’m not sure I “lowered the bar” so much as looked for alternatives that allowed me the freedom to live as I chose. This often meant less pay, less benefits, less rewards, etc. I’m really happy that a lot of that is different now for the youth of today. Still work to do but it’s a much different world than we grew up in.

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    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      For a while I wanted to study law, but I knew that I would be unable to practice if I couldn’t put on a suit everyday.

      I knew when I went into CIvil Engineering that I could probably get a field job in construction – I work for the Transit Authority, and I got high enough on the food chain that it became a problem (outside meetings, public hearings, etc.) and I had to go back down a level. I’ve told each of my bosses when I’ve been promoted “what you see is what you get.” But like a innocent lover they all expected me to change. Fortunately, I have great benefits and I am not extravagant so I am reasonably comfortable.

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      1. Lesboi

        I understand. I really wanted to join the military but between the witch hunts they used to do in the 80s if they suspected you might be gay and having to wear women’s uniforms I decided I just couldn’t make a commitment to it. Plus, my narcissistic mother threatened to out me wherever I worked so I felt stuck taking jobs that were safe to be myself. Now I work for myself so I’ve done alright but I do wish that things had been different back then.

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