I just returned from my discipline’s big academic conference in San Francisco, and with the exception of my local students and faculty, no one had seen me or “met” the new me, even though they knew of my existence. So in a lot of ways, this large conference was a second coming out, one that involved embodiment and being, and one that paralleled last year’s conference.
You may recall that last April, I visited New Orleans to attend my field’s annual academic conference, and picked that moment to tell all my old professors, graduate student buddies, and other colleagues around the country about my impending transition. Last March and April were times of widespread disclosures about the facts of my situation and were designed to alert everyone as to what was about to happen. These comings out involved revealing knowledge to others, but I was still George (or sort of still George). When people found out, there were usually a few moments of disbelief or shock or looking around for a secret camera, followed by a slow recognition that this was a real thing that was happening, and that they were being asked to comprehend and process something very new and surprising.
In the months after last spring, I not only revealed the information about Joyce to others, but I became Joyce physically, living and embodying that knowledge, and slowly, through summer meetings, and get togethers with friends, faculty retreats, and student advising, I slowly became Joyce and the knowledge that people had of my transition became the being of my transition.
At this year’s conference, I realized that until I revealed my name tag or said my name (i.e. Hi, I’m Joyce, used to be George), I could travel incognito around the conference, around some of my oldest and dearest friends. While that surprised me initially, I realize that there is a big, big difference in knowing the facts of something and experiencing them in the flesh. In fact, I’m pretty sure that even after chatting with an old friend, my “true” identity didn’t sink in until much later.
As such, I began to see these two conferences, a year apart, as defining two kinds of coming out, one epistemological (dealing with knowledge) and the other ontological (dealing with being). I know they are two different kinds of coming out because as I met colleagues who “knew” the facts of George’s transition into Joyce, there was still this shock of recognition when they put 2 and 2 together upon meeting, studying my name badge and realizing just who they were seeing. Just like last year, this year’s meetings involved fluttering eyes, brain obviously crackling with contradictory information, stammering, and finally, after a brain reboot, a gracious and cordial “how to you do?”
What’s this like? I had been so comfortable being Joyce for almost a year that having to meet all these new people was a bit startling to me. But remembering the difficulties of my local colleagues and my sister and my family a year ago, I realized that this second sort of coming out is very important for people who used to know me. Mentally, it must be difficult to have George tell you he’s changing sex and to replace his images in your mind’s eye with something different. The knowledge of this impending event doesn’t displace all the memory holders in your brain, doesn’t provide you with any scaffolding upon which to build a new mental model of Joyce. Sure, the facts do provide you with critical information, but it’s information that exists in a void, in unembodied space. It’s like reading about what to expect when you visit Athens and not really “getting it” until you’ve actually been in the city for a couple of days.