academic


These days, life is about as dull as you can imagine: teaching at the university, helping kids with homework, buying groceries, being an administrator for my academic program, and other non-thrilling activities. Except for a moment now and then, I don’t reflect on my transsexual nature/history — there’s just not enough time to wallow (er… reflect) on it these days. Most days (and even many weeks), it’s just not a topic that I think about.

Which is not to say I’m in denial of how I got here. I know all about those rocky months and years and marvel that things have turned out so well. But the days of nervousness and rehearsing my voice and mannerisms so that I could have the confidence to make a public appearance — those days are gone. I feel strongly that my mind and body are aligned and have plenty of confidence in being myself in all circumstances, and that’s a wonderful and empowered feeling, let me tell you.

So I was truly unsettled today when the following exchange happened.

I walked across campus to a neighboring department to meet with a committee that wanted my help working on a new degree, and since I run a similar program and wrote the proposal to get it approved some years ago, I was a natural “consultant” for their situation. I met the professors and administrators from this other department (I had never met them before), and during the chit-chat before we got started, the dean said, “Mary Jo…. she’s in your department, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said, picturing my wife and beginning to wonder where she might have met this dean. “She is in the graduate program and teaches a lot of our graduate courses.”

“I thought so,” he said, “We met at a party and talked about her doctorate from Big State University, where I was teaching at the time. We never crossed paths up there, but I remember that she’s in your department specifically because of our connection at BSU.”

At this point, I’m vaguely remembering this guy from a party in the past, back when I was bearded, heavier, and, well, quite a bit different than I am today. But I figure this small talk will peter out and we’ll get started.

“And what about her husband?”

So much for petering out. “Beg pardon?”

“Her husband. He teaches in your department, doesn’t he? We met once.”

“Uh, I think it’s George.”

“Don’t you know? You work with him, right?” The room’s hot and I’m backed into a corner. I didn’t come to this meeting to discuss my transition. If only I had known this was going to be a topic, I wouldn’t have minded, could have been mentally prepared. But there’s no time. I panic and say, “Sure, of course. He’s fine.”

The dean satisfied, we then proceed with the 90-minute meeting.

Odd blasts from the past like these are disconcerting precisely because I’m no longer on my guard these days, and they take me by surprise.

I don’t think I’m ashamed of being who I am, or who I’m married to. But the fact of the matter is that I denied who I was today. I denied that George is me, that I’m married to Mary Jo, that this dean and I have met some time a few years ago. After the initial panic subsided, I had no trouble allowing him to think I was just someone else in the department, someone different than George, someone unrelated to Mary Jo.

As I left this meeting, walking across campus on this crisp winter day, I began feeling terribly cowardly. I could have said casually, “Oh, you’re thinking of me — I used to be George, but as you can see, things have changed, ha ha ha.” Or I could have said with a touch of sadness in my voice, “Oh, George. He’s no longer with us.” Or I could have pretended to be clueless and said, “I’m new here and don’t think I know Mary Jo’s husband,” which, given my program’s reputation for collegiality and teamwork, would have been absurd.

Neither clever nor fast, I simply denied myself, my existence, my relationship with Mary Jo.

Maybe all trans*people go though this after transition is over, but it was unsettling and I feel like a fraud. I suppose I could defend my actions and rationalize that this polite query was just as potentially personal and painful as asking someone about their divorced spouse, maybe not having heard the news, or asking how the research project was going after its funding had been pulled, maybe not having known the funding was pulled. I suppose there must be dozens of similarly-personal, and anxiety-producing, questions, and maybe this incident has nothing to do with being transsexual.

I’m not ashamed of who I am, what I do, and who I’m married to — in fact, I’m incredibly proud and happy about my existence and my relationships. But I’m also somewhat private and not inclined to make my personal life the topic of committee meetings. I guess I just don’t know what to do when such potentially-revealing questions come out of left field. Maybe I take this incident as one data point in a larger post-transition experiment (let’s call this choice “the public denial approach”), and if it happens again, I’ll try the “full and amusing disclosure” approach to see what happens.

In a meeting at Texas A&M on Wednesday evening it was determined to go forward with the first Transgender Nondiscrimination Summit on July 23, 2009 (Thursday) at the Texas A&M campus in College Station. This will be a full day summit meeting and is free to all attendees. Specifics will be announced within the next few weeks. We do have a need to locate a volunteer to create a website for this summit. It needs to be a simple website with summit information and a registration form. Texas A&M Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Resource Center will put a link on their official website to the Summit website link. Space is limited so register early; once we have the registration process in place (it will be announced). Here is our Mission Statement:

To invite interested parties at other universities to discuss what works and what does not work in getting the phrase “gender identity and expression” into their respective nondiscrimination statements. Also, discuss strategies on how to approach the inevitable barriers that always arise. This summit is not intended to be a protest, demonstration, or rally. We want to invite the other universities’ representatives to simply discuss strategic approaches towards social justice issues related to inclusion statements.

The only official reason I went to my field’s main conference in San Francisco last week was to present the best dissertation of the year award to a deserving doctoral student. My friend Sherry, the head of this organization, asked me to do this job, and I realize that she must have known that without an official duty, I would be tempted to lay low, to skip the conference in order to avoid making myself feel vulnerable. But with an official duty, I had no choice but to chair the committee, put my new name on the program, and (most importantly) stand up in front of a ballroom filled with my colleagues and present the award.

After I wrote the initial award notes, which had to fit within 2 minutes, I worked with my voice team back home in order to tighten the wording to allow me to go slower than my George voice, and I practiced over and over, not because I thought I’d mis-read anything, but because I wanted my voice to match my new body and new look.

The awards ceremony arrived on Friday afternoon, which gave me a couple of days of attending sessions and meeting old friends. The ballroom was pretty full, probably 200 attendees, and I sat in the front row of the audience with the other presenters and recipients, all of us facing the raised dais and podium at the front of the big room. As the ceremony began, I tried to listen to the words of others, and got most of what they said, but I kept picturing myself falling down as I walked the 5o feet from my chair up the steps to the podium, alone, the whole ballroom waiting and watching. I imagined my hair getting caught on something and flying off. I imagined my voice breaking or someone yelling from the back, “Is that a guy in a dress?” followed by widespread laughter.

I recognized these fears as those formless anxieties we all get, and I allowed them to be played out and then banished from my brain.

They called me. I walked. I did not trip going up the stairs. I looked around the room. I laid out my notes deliberately, pausing a second so that I could get my bearings. I read slowly and with emotion, looking up and catching eye contact from different parts of the room. I don’t think I blundered. When I called my recipient up to get the award, I finally lost myself in the moment, and my self-consciousness faded and I just stood there smiling as I listened to his words. It wasn’t about me, although I had been worried it would be about me — it was about him and about his dissertation and about our academic field, and when my self-consciousness and my fears were vanquished, that was what allowed it to be about those things. I didn’t even think about falling or wig-exploding or name-calling as we walked down the stairs and took our seats.

In fact, after this moment, a lot of my concerns about embodying Joyce evaporated. I had faced a large professional hurdle and had passed the test. I met new people at the reception, chatted with old friends, and felt as if it was probably going to be possible for me to continue being a professor in this field.

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.

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