February 2009


I’m thinking of my parents a lot these days.

I know my transition is conflated with my grief over their deaths a few years ago, but it’s complicated in so many ways I don’t know how to untangle the threads.

I want to tell them I’m sorry for being such a shitty adolescent, haughty, argumentative, and contrary.

I want to ask them their advice about my own children, relationships, investments, and other life’s choices.

I want to see them again and show them that everything turned out all right, that my tears at their windy hillside gravesite about what I was about to do a few years ago have dried up and that they shouldn’t worry about me.

I guess I want them to accept the new me and to hear my story, to marvel over how well I’ve turned out, to sit down over lunch and talk.

Maybe I want them to tape my school artwork on the ice-box.

I don’t know what I want. I just miss them.

In a lot of ways, I have grown up to be my mother. Would she approve? Would she understand? Would my father feel disappointment at having his son grow up to be a woman? Would the reunion be characterized by hate, fear, confusion, arguing, and distance?

It’s all academic. They’re gone and nothing’s gonna bring them back. parents

I try to answer Bon Jovi’s question, “Who Says You Can’t Go Home?” It depends on what you mean by “home,” doesn’t it?

First, of course you can go home any time you want — if home is a place and hasn’t been demolished, it’s easy to return and walk the streets again.

Second, your old home is like a momentary ripple in the stream of life and while you may return to the stream later in life, that eddy, those water molecules, that day when you dipped your toe into the water — it’s long gone and will never return. If you’re lucky, you may experience the stream with similar feeling as you did previously, but there are no guarantees.

Third, if you consider home to be your past, then you might as well yearn for time travel because if you go back and try to re-live your experiences, you’ll end up the pathetic character who sings Springsteen’s “Glory Days.”

This final idea urges me to quit missing my parents, or at least quit wishing to speak with them. But just how do I do that? As I grow up and change, I need find some way to make peace with my pasts without being constrained by them.

It’s very hard to let go. It comes in stages, like grief at losing your parent

Like breaking up with your boyfriend. You go through periods of obsession, thinking about things you did, about how hurt you are, about how angry you are, about what a bastard he is, and even though you need to move on with your life, your mind keeps returning to that energy bomb of the breakup. It’s a three-dimensional event — every feeling, hurt, smell, word, image is burned into your mind’s eye like the old CRT’s would burn their images into the screen, where they would persist, ghost-like, across all other computer or television activities, if you didn’t use a screen-saver to keep the pixels turning on and off to prevent such burning. The phantom experience is always in your mind, consuming your mental energy, in full, three-dimensional color.

But one day, you realize you went the whole day without thinking about him.

And part of you doesn’t want to let it go — it was big and it was a huge part of you, and returning to that energy is energizing, even as it’s a drag on your progress. It’s a habit that has been your experience for days, weeks, or months.

But at some point, time and circumstances pull on your brain and you replace that obsession or grief with other things. The energy fades and flattens like a pressed rose in a scrapbook until you’ve only got traces of your former life: the house where you lived, the time you went camping, his beard and glasses, her tendency to take long baths, the year it snowed so hard the city shut down. And these are pasted into that scrapbook with little yellowed corners pasted onto yellowing paper where you visit from time to time, but mostly you leave the book on the shelf of your mind, where it gathers dust as it’s revisited less and less frequently.

I feel a lot like this. My old self and my new self have gone their own ways, and the natural energy of the separation draws us together in quiet moments when nothing else is occupying my mind. But increasingly, I am beginning to feel that those remembrances are a bit like an obsession over a lost love or a lost life, and in the past few weeks, I feel it’s important to let him go.

It takes more energy to contextualize my current life with my old one. Just imagine simple things like going to a parent-teacher conference to discuss some sort of problem. It’s a lot more straightforward to simply go as a parent and come up with a plan with the teacher than to overlay that scenario on my history and my changes and to bring into consciousness the thought that “I used to be a man, a father to my son, and this teacher will be thinking about that, and I need to be on my best behavior and focus on my son and not worry about myself,” and in the moment I begin thinking like that, I subvert the very thing I want to happen: being present for my son.

It has been easy to let go in some ways — the daily routine of taking the kids to school, going to the university, running errands, meeting students, and interacting with all my friends and colleagues has pushed the old me out of the physical picture a lot faster than I had imagined. But invisible things turned out to be harder than I expected. I’ve compared transition to grief in this blog from time to time, and just like grief, transition doesn’t happen in one cinematic moment of revelation, but oscillates and pulses with progress one day, and regress another, paralyzing fear one day and virtually mindless happiness the next.

I wrote about my voice and how working on it really pushed my buttons last fall, but I’m finding that I am a lot less worried about it now, a few months later. Earlier, I considered voicework as a threat to my identity, but it’s also a form of letting go. The old me hangs on in all sorts of forms, and the new me holds on to him in the form of his voice, maybe because it’s comforting or because it’s one of the last things I recognize from my old life. But lately, I feel even these emotions receding into flatness, pressed into that scrapbook, and it’s both a relief and an occasion for sadness.

It’s like when my parents died. I wanted to feel the grief deeply. I didn’t want to let their memory flatten or worse, vanish. I would feel that tendency begin to arise and I’d force the feelings back to the present because I was aware of a horrible guilt at NOT feeling grief. Eventually, I began to realize that willing my grief to emerge out of conscious effort was self-indulgent, that I had a responsibility to Mary Jo, Lane, and Ezra, not to mention my colleagues and students. I don’t know if I made a conscious decision to let go of the grief, but I did make a conscious decision to quit forcing the grief to the surface.

That’s where I am with George. He’s long gone, never to return, and I need to quit forcing myself to recall his life, his struggles, and the epic choices he made a few years ago. These feelings come up by themselves naturally, in glimpses in the mirror or in words spoken by friends, and in writing this blog. But even these such moments will diminish over time until George feels as distant as those pictures of me in high school or in college, the experiences having been flattened by time into scrapbook particles of color and snippets of feelings and thoughts dredged up out of long-term memory.

I got a bunch (75+) of fatty lumps (lipomas) removed last Thursday from my arms, legs, and torso, and it was done under general anesthesia. Some were small, but most were large, like flattened golf balls, and the result is that I’m very tender, especially around the waist.

What does this have to do with wardrobe?

Everything, because I simply cannot tolerate anything with a belt or a tight waist, probably for a couple of weeks. So when I talked this over with Mary Jo, she said, “One word: jumpers!” and proceeded to pull a variety of the garb out of our closet. My first impression, once I was wearing a long sleeve sweater to cover my arm-bandages, and once I had draped the jumper over my frame, was that I had suddenly become an elementary school teacher or maybe a granola-crunching NPR reporter.

My carefully-cultivated classic Ann Taylor look notwithstanding, I ventured out into the world with an oatmeal-colored sweater and dark green jumper, accompanied with low-heeled boots. Fashionable? I think that’s debatable. Comfortable? Absolutely, and that’s something that began growing on me within hours of interacting with people. “This is a look I could actually live with,” I found myself saying, “Maybe not all the time, but it’s fast and comfortable and not nearly the embarrassment I expected it to be.” Chalk it up to a severely limited repertoire of clothing images I hold in my imagination.

So for the next week, it’s jumpers and loose skirts whose tops can be worn either above or below my sensitive waist, mostly for the comfort, but partly for the experience of broadening the number of Joyce-performances there might be in the future.

In writing about coming out to family, it’s easy to forget that it’s not all about me, that I have a partner who also has a family. For a variety of reasons, Mary Jo decided not to tell her family about my transition last year. Her father was deeply ill last spring, and died at the end of the spring, when we were coming out to everyone in a juggernaut of disclosures, and she didn’t want to burden her family with her own dramatic news. Her brother Lawrence and his family are moderately close, but not intimate with Mary Jo, and they run in completely different circles, and I think she felt it would be an extra layer of complexity that we didn’t need at the time. In any event, whether or not to come out to her family was a decision that lay in her hands all along.

And it worked for a time. But the more I settled into being Joyce and the more the walls of anonymity and pseudonymity I had built between my various electronic communities began to blur, it became harder to remember whether person X might know or whether we had told person Y. Like a lie, it became difficult to remember which story we had told different of her family members. When I answered the phone and it was Mary Jo’s mother, there were inevitably pauses and the question, “Who is this?” and I either had to quickly revert to George mode or say “Joyce,” and leave that name hanging as a stranger in the house while I called for Mary Jo to pick up the phone. Mary Jo’s niece Katherine had noticed odd things with Mary Jo’s “relationship” status in Facebook, and had asked her parents what was up.

Not wanting to say, “Oh, it’s a joke,” Mary Jo decided that it was appropriate to tell, and thus it was that Mary Jo wrote her brother Lawrence and sister-in-law Rhonda to explain our situation. I don’t know how she wrote the letter, i.e. whether she phrased it as “we have changed” or “my husband did this to me” or “this happened to me initially, but I’ve come to love it,” and I didn’t ask to read the letter. I think your loved ones need to be able to come out to their relations in whatever way they choose.

The package mailed, we sat back and waited until Mary Jo saw an email in her inbox last night from Rhonda with the subject line “Surprise Letter.” “Hey,” she yelled across the house, “I think I got a letter from Rhonda. Should I open it?”

We looked at the subject line as a child would inspect a surprise package under the Christmas tree, and thought about what it might hold, whether rejection, confusion, anger, or acceptance. Properly steeled to the task, Mary Jo opened the email and read to herself while I waited in the other room. A few chuckles from her were encouraging and then she yelled, “I’m forwarding it to you — it’s going to be all right.”

Relief and another facade taken down. New family discussions initiated. Maybe a new wave of understanding across generations, geographies, and ideologies. Here’s Rhonda’s email, followed by Lawrence’s email a day later.

Rhonda

Thanks for letting us know what’s going on in your family. First, please be assured you, the boys, and Joyce are always welcome. I can’t image the changes coming about for all of you, but realize a great a deal of soul searching and mental anguish has taken place for all involved. I guess I should feel shocked and horrified, but I really don’t. I am involved in a book study with a church group (we’re reading The Shack), and were discussing subjects that are hard to comprehend just last Monday. A fellow teacher that works for the state shared that a guy at the department just announced that he was changing to a woman. The group discussed that some people just become trapped in a body that doesn’t conform to their minds and inner self. Good luck on the marriage part — I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know that I would want to be “married”, but I would still want my friend and buddy. I do feel the boys’ pain. As a middle school teacher, I already think middle schoolers are possessed by their hormones. They can cry one moment and curse fluently the next. They can be the most understanding, comforting bunch of kids that would give their lunch money to save a stray dog or to defend a fallen student, and yet, they will punch each other and tease the daylights out of a student for minor annoyances. Please keep the boys talking with you. They’ll need it.

I read the letter first and then shared it with Lawrence over supper. He really didn’t seem too shocked either. Maybe it’s part of getting old, we don’t shock easily and it just really doesn’t seem that big a deal. I really do feel for you having to share a house with another woman, though. I am perfectly happy that my daughters no longer live with me. I now deal only with my fluctuating hormones and occasional teary phone calls from the distant hormones. Just be firm in your guidelines. Don’t lend clothes and shoes. Make-up sharing is only for special occasions. Don’t share girl secrets unless they can be trusted not to tell. I’m glad you had the forethought to get the saddles in advance. Be sure to plan big for Joyce’s menopause–a cottage at the beach?

Lawrence

Very interesting news in your snail-mail package. I’ll confirm what Rhonda said in that we’re not especially shocked by the news and hope we can be as supportive as you need us to be. Certainly, you and the family are welcome here anytime. I wouldn’t know where to start with the questions and Rhonda is reading the book you sent along. I’ll try to read it this week and it might cut down on some of the questions. But we’ll likely save a chunk of this for when we see you in a few months.

As for Mom, I don’t think she’ll be especially shocked by the news. She’s surprised me how more-receptive to changes she seems to be now that the burden of worrying about carrying for Dad has been lifted. Incidentally, Rhon and I might jet down there on the “budget” airline that now runs for about $125/round trip. If we do, it’d be sometime during Rhon’s “spring break” which is the first full week of April. So if you’re not planning to tell Mom, you might give me your thoughts if she has picked up on any of this and starts asking me questions. We’ll obviously be talking about this for some time so I won’t load up one e-mail with every question that comes to mind. Again, just let us know if we can do anything for you and the family.

[See also Blood is Thicker Than Water, Part 1, Part 2, and Parts 3-7.]

Although the bulk of coming-out activities happened for me in February-May last year, and even though it’s the kind of news that one imagines will be on the cover of your hometown newspaper and spread like wildfire, many people did not learn of my transsexual transition in the first wave of coming out. Old school friends, distant cousins, friends of friends, children’s friends’ parents, and professionals with whom I only have contact once a year are among those that fall into this category.

What do I do? I look through my file of coming-out letters that was used so heavily last spring, open a copy, and revise, changing the future tense to past tense, adjusting some of the facts, and toning down the drama. And as I’m doing this, I marvel over what that season was like, how cloak-and-dagger, how carefully (I thought) managed and tracked — it was a big project and there were certain economies of scale at play in coming out to so many people.

By comparison, a “once-in-a-while” coming out is mentally more difficult for several reasons. First, this category of person wasn’t in the first wave because they weren’t in my daily circle, because Mary Jo and I wanted to hold back this news from them, or because I simply wasn’t aware of them. As such, my fear of rejection is much, much lower, and I find that my plaintive rhetoric of the spring is overwrought for these people. Second, coming out is simply not in the list of daily things I do, and it takes some mental effort to return to the project. Third, while I know what sort of questions the recipient is likely to have (they don’t change much through time), I’m in a much different place a year later, and it’s much harder for me to feel the extreme feelings or reactions (real or imagined) in this revelation. My existence feels so mundane to me now that I hardly feel it’s worth coming out any more; in other words, my life is normal to me, but may be extremely abnormal to others. And this is my flaw entirely, the flaw of failing to put myself into my reader’s head and matching my rhetoric with what they need — I’m just saying I find it very difficult. There’s something to be said for mutual exigency in a rhetorical act; if either party fails to feel it, I think the communication may be less successful.

Why come out to this group? When I get a Facebook query from an old high school classmate asking, “I went to school with your brother — where is he?” I feel compelled to explain that I am that person, not because I want to sensationalize my experience, but because it feels dishonest not to disclose my history. When I realize I need to meet with a family attorney or accountant, I know that they absolutely must know the truth if we are to be honest with each other, and I’m certainly not dressing up as George again to appease anyone (even if I could “pass” as him any more). When I feel a hankering to meet with my great-aunt and ask her stories of my grandmother and other family members on the Law side of the family, I realize that my transition is part of that family story, and she and her family need to know what I’ve done so that we can resume being family.

I may not be as effective or efficient at these second-wave disclosures as I was during the first-wave, but I don’t feel I can be wholly myself while maintaining a cloak of misinformation.

Starting last fall, I began working with a voice coach here in Bedford Falls. As I began to inhabit my new reality, I became more self-conscious about my voice, especially when little kids would ask me things like, “How come you talk like a man?” And I began to realize that I needed to find my voice, which is to say I not only wanted my voice to be passably feminine, but I also wanted to gain a self-authority and integrity to feel confident to speak as Joyce.

My voice coach is Bill “the Big” Lebowski, believe it or not, and he’s a fabulous resource for trans* people in my city. As wonderful as he is, and as wonderful as it’s been working with his graduate students on gendered speech, starting (and continuing) these therapy sessions was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in a long time. And not because I can’t play with my voice or recognize various qualities of vocal exercises (I can do all sorts of voices when I read stories or assume a character), but because I became aware of a deep resistance to improving my voice. This resistance built in me and manifested itself in November by my total break-down into tears during one of my once-weekly meetings.

I’m not going to solve it here. I’m also not going to get into all the specific vocal qualities and exercises I’m working on here (I’ll write some other posts about these things). But what I would now like to try to get at is why voice training sometimes makes me feel like breaking down, like a total fraud, like something artificial. I do not want to be artificial.

You may be shaking your head in disbelief, pointing out that almost everything about me could be seen as artificial — surgically-altered face, new biochemistry, new dress, new social role, and the list goes on. But none of those things feel especially odd or artificial to me. They feel natural, as if I have adjusted a personal style to be closer to my natural self than before. Voice, however is another thing. The way it stands out from my other modifications of the past couple of years reveals a lot about my psychology, I think.

Here’s my theory. If we list all my attributes and values, I believe right at the top of the list is a core identity that’s a thinker and a communicator. I feel that the only way I create value for the world is in my thinking and communicating, and those qualities are (or ought to be), I think, solid and immutable. My voice is the main conduit through which my thinking manifests itself (there’s also typing, but my fingers aren’t transitioning, as far as I’m aware). Following this train of logic, if we start messing with the voice, we threaten my core self, and the core self fights back. In other words, it feels (and felt) as if my voice was the one true thing about me and even though it has been difficult to get rid of my beard, acquire a new wardrobe, modify my body chemistry, and pursue various surgeries, it is the voice that comes closest to my core identity, and feeling as if I’m learning to do “drag” with my voice undercuts what is essential to me.

I’m not saying I consciously think like this, but I think it is a plausible explanation for my melancholy around vocal work. The objective facts of my existence are that I don’t have trouble doing day-to-day activities in the least, whether out in public at the dry cleaners, mechanic shop, or retail shopping with people who presumably do not know my situation, or in the academic world with colleagues, students, and staff who fully know my situation. It must be the case that my communications with all these parties are plausibly consistent with my presentation so that there’s no cause for alarm.

Subjectively, though, my paranoid side explains it like this: everyone knows I’m a man in a dress, and my man’s voice always gives it away, and the fact that they’re not saying anything merely reveals that they are being polite and not making my gender presentation an issue. I don’t think this rings true, as my recent experience with surgical intake, in which I was asked straight-faced if I had had a hysterectomy, suggests that no one notices anything odd about my voice and I just ought to quit worrying about it.

As last fall wore on, and as I continued to process why I felt weird doing vocal work, I developed a more nuanced version of my identity theory: I do fine in transactional conversation because there are no psychological consequences for being artificial when picking up a pizza, dropping off the dry cleaning, asking my secretary about scheduling a room. But I lose all my training when it comes to my profession because that’s where I feel I can least afford to be perceived as being inauthentic.

And that’s where things stand. My friends and vocal coaches can fool me easily into forgetting all my voice work by simply asking me about my specialty. I start speaking under control, but quickly get excited, speed up, and completely lose “control” over the new voice. I think it’s perfectly illustrative of my idea of the core identity pushing forward and saying, “To hell with all this artificiality and vocal performance; this is important stuff.”

Thus, all my vocal work will be threatened any time I make extemporaneous speech that actually matters (which is a large proportion of my speaking). I am faced with a personal improvement project that requires that I become self-conscious enough to keep this speech under control without becoming self-conscious to the point of feeling artificial. Quite a challenge, eh?

What’s left of the old me? Nothing? Something? Everything? Mary Jo asks both playfully and seriously, “What’s left of the old person?” and my answer is either that I’m just the same as I always was or that I am a total changeling.

Can I be both? Or must I be one or the other? Am I a completely different person? And if so, how can I connect everything together between the two selves? Or am I fundamentally the same as before and what can I point to that remains unchanged?

Sometimes I feel as if nothing’s changed at all, and by this sentiment, I think I mean that I feel whole and together in ways that recall the simpler aspects of my youth. So by saying that I’m the same as I always was, I believe I’m arguing for something like an essential self that I have managed to recuperate in the turmoil of these past few years. When I think like this, it’s easy to say that the only things that have changed are superficial.

But I also am struck by how much has changed. I don’t recognize my face, my skin, my dress, the way I think, or the way I relate to myself and other people. I catch glimpses (visual or just self-aware) of myself and am often stunned by who I am, and I find myself staring in the mirror or touching my arm or looking at the people around me and feeling almost as if I’ve been transported to an almost-identical world, but a world where everything is changed slightly. When I think like this, it’s easy to believe that nothing is left of the old me, not even memories, facts, intelligences, or relationships, and it’s a pretty easy step from that point to feeling perplexed about just what it’s all about.

I think the only way to reconcile these two views is to say they’re both right. I’m like Einstein’s thought experiment about the speed of light. There is a train that’s traveling almost the speed of light and to those inside the train, everything is normal: their clocks run the proper speed, they walk around the cars normally, and they remain the same size and shape. However, for an observer outside the train, some very odd things are happening: the train is longer, the people inside stretched longer, their watches running terribly slowly.

Which time, length, shape is “true?” For Einstein, both views are true.

What I do know about my own life is that its truths are very Einstein-like, and depend on where you stand relative to the speeding train of change. My equation isn’t E=mc^2, but it’s something similarly beautiful and perplexing. After all, I have multiplied my identities, divided them, added body parts and biochemistry, and subtracted beard, masculinity, and muscles. I was a whole number, an integer, then became an irrational or prime number. I used to be somewhere near the mean of a normal distribution, well inside 1 standard deviation, but now find that I have come to define deviation itself.

So having divided my old self by a transsexual transition, is everything easily divisible, or is there a remainder that makes my identity forever altered from its positive integer-ness of my youth? And just what is that remainder, anyway? Mary Jo and I would certainly like to know.

Next Page »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.