history


I have been in my hometown for a couple of days with my two boys, as there was work to be done and Mary Jo is doing horse events this weekend. This is the first time I’ve visited since everyone learned that I’m transsexual and since becoming Joyce full-time. In the days leading up to this trip, I felt somewhat anxious, but not terribly so.

Joyce arrives in her hometown for the very first time
The drives from Bedford Falls takes about 3 hours, and I was in a desperate need for a bathroom when I arrived at my office in Empire Falls. The boys ran into the office to play as soon as I got the door unlocked, and just as I was dropping off my stuff to head to the toilet, my banker stopped me in the hall and said it was good to see me — Debra Burns is a veteran banker and I have always liked her, and I was quite happy to see she had gone out of her way to stop and chat, making very solid eye contact and a broad smile that spoke volumes. Welcome home, indeed.

Uncle Jack and sister Liz arrive to discuss family business
As Debra left to go over to her office, my sister and uncle showed up — I shook hands, made eye contact and smiled, then said that I absolutely had to dash out. I was worried that Uncle Jack would take offense since I had learned from Liz that he had worried about meeting Joyce for the first time, but when you have to pee, you simply have to pee. Turns out there was nothing to worry about, as the 2-hour discussion was easy and fruitful, and I never felt any sense of tension around “the Joyce issue.” I suspect that having business to transact really makes a difference — you can’t get too freaked out by transgender people if you want to work a deal, can you? The downside of conducting business is that we never set aside any time for talking about “the Joyce issue.” For now, however, I am happy and satisfied.

We are joined by Aunt DeeAnne at the Abstract office
We had to be at Empire Falls Title Company at 2:00, so we ceased our business discussion at 1:45 and split up to rendezvous at the title company on time. When the boys and I walked in, Jack and DeeAnne Law were already there, as was Liz, so we entered and said hello. DeeAnne may have been thinking about the house deal intensely and thus had no energy for me, but I suspect she was worried about meeting me and was having trouble making eye contact or conversing. It’s all right, of course, as no one’s head exploded and we were able to sign all our documents without a hitch.

Liz treated me and Lane and Ezra to a steak dinner to celebrate this milestone of settling the very last asset in our mother’s estate, then we parted ways and bought supplies for our ranch house at the grocery store. Didn’t run into anyone I knew.

We visit Liz and Gerald at their ranch
Later in the evening, we drove over to Liz’s house to see her grandson Rye and to say hi to her husband Gerald. He didn’t bat an eye and we joked about “you look different.” “hmmmm, is it losing 10 pounds?” “no, I think it’s something different.” And so on — it was a very nice, comfortable visit to end a very long day.

The boys and I go for a misty walk
This morning, the boys and I got up early, ate bacon, eggs, and biscuits, and then went for a nice long walk down to the creek. There were low, scudding clouds that created mist that hung on the bluffs and all the prairie birds were chirping. We saw a deer and picked wildflowers. We talked about Joyce, about coming back later in the summer, about how beautiful the plains can be, about how concepts of beauty and nature seem to depend on where you’re brought up, and about whether we would see any rattle snakes (we didn’t). It was a wonderful time together.

We visit Liz before lunch
The boys wanted to play with little Rye, their cousin, so we went back over to Liz’s place after our walk. While they were playing, Liz brought out all this unused LancĂ´me makeup, some beautiful handbags, and some unused jewelry, handing it to me and asking me what I thought about it. Not only was Liz’s sense of what would look good on me excellent, but the whole interaction felt so warm and so easy that I was nearly overwhelmed. I don’t recall ever having that sort of connection with Liz, and I found it wonderful. She gave me a necklace and matching bracelet that really completed my black-and-white striped shirt and black shorts, and she also gave me a sparkling black handbag that looks fabulous. I know it’s frou-frou and I know I’m attaching perhaps more significance to these things than necessary, but it’s a first for me and I felt like I belonged and that Liz was simply accepting her sister Joyce without dwelling on brother George at all. I’m making up for lost time and all I know is that I like this kind of interaction with my sister. I don’t know if it’s something she had to brace herself for, but our interaction seemed awfully genuine, and I’m grateful to have family like her.

Lunch and shopping in town
A trip to the bookstore, video game store, and restaurant proved uneventful.

Final visit to Gerald’s, Liz’s, and Rye’s place
After a mighty hailstorm passed overhead and Lane and Ezra tempted the fates by running out into the falling hail, we went over to the Rhapsody household one last time. The boys played with Rye and I watched the last few holes of the US open (third round) with Gerald. Liz and I talked some more, inspected her kitchen remodeling project, and generally bonded. A cool breeze was blowing from the south and as we sat outside we could see distant lighting in the thunderheads off to the east in the deepening dusk. I don’t believe I have ever felt closer to my sister, and I don’t know whether it’s because I’m finally being honest with myself, because the gender dynamic is different, or simply because we have learned to share more as we have aged. Whatever the reason, this was one of the best parts of the visit, which ended with long hugs all around.


We drive back to Bedford Falls tomorrow, but we’ll be back in late July, when I propose to hold a small party for friends of mine who are attending the Bedford Falls High School 30th reunion. I have decided not to go to the official reunion events so as not to make waves, but if any of my old friends want to see me, I’ll have barbecue and beer at my place as an alternative or a precursor to the official reunion activities. After my welcome these past two days, I’m feeling more and more at ease about the prospects of reestablishing my connections in my hometown.

A couple of nights ago, we were over at Milo and Anabelle’s house, where they were hosting a faculty couple who was in town to buy a house. Since the new couple didn’t know much about people in the department, the occasion was ripe for stories. At one point, Annabelle started to tell a story about the time that Milo and I flew to New Mexico, a story that went something like this:

I don’t know if you know, but Joyce is a pilot and she and Milo go flying on these “missions” all over the place. Well, one time, about three years ago they were flying to Alamogordo and Milo needed an air-sick bag. Joyce looked through his flight bag and rummaged around for a while and all he could come up with was a little water bottle. He also found his knife, so they cut the top off this bottle to improvise. I find that she’s quite resourceful — at least outside the department. (laugh)

At this point, Annabelle had a confused look on her face and asked, “when you tell a story about a woman who used to be a man, what pronouns do you use in the past? I’m feeling really weird about the way I was talking about you just now.”

We talked about how odd it is, from a narrative perspective, to have a character who is sometimes “he” and sometimes “she” in the story, and without a backstory, such an approach could be quite disruptive. (It could also provide the writer with playful and rich complexity, and these aspects has been fleshed out by Gayatri Spivak and others.)

On the other hand, changing the story so that the pronouns and characters are all consistent washes away the complexity of a real life. This concept is called erasure, and that’s the idea that during or after a transsexual transitions, s/he (and her friends, family, or colleagues) engage in a revision of history so that, in my case, Joyce flew that airplane, and she was always a woman, and there was never a man named George in that story. Call it a whitewash, if you will.

Erasure isn’t the same thing as “living in stealth,” as some transsexuals call creating a totally new life story with no trace of your transsexual past. Living under a condition of erasure, one may reveal that s/he is a transsexual and talk freely about it, but still revise all of their history. Living in stealth, one was never a transsexual, was always the sex s/he now appears to be, and has always had a history consistent with his/her current gender presentation. In other words, stealth always involves erasure, but erasure doesn’t necessarily imply stealth.

Near the end of her essay “The Empire Strikes Back: A Posttranssexual Manifesto,” (web or pdf), Sandy Stone cautions her readers on the harmful nature of erasure, harmful not only to individual transsexuals but also to the broader category of trans*people.

Why would tidying up your pronouns in stories be bad? What if it’s painful to remember the depression and crisis of gender that you fought so hard to correct? There’s no harm in that, is there? Well, yes, I think there *is* harm, but perhaps let’s call it “cost,” instead, and these costs are incurred by the individual and by society in general.

At the personal level, erasure makes it seem as if you haven’t had a rich, complex life, that you didn’t struggle with your identity for years, that you didn’t achieve good things in your career and family. If every version of me in my stories is Joyce, then what happened to George’s deeds, intellectual development, and personal quests?

What about those stories that only make sense with George, like the times Will or Slade hauled me to a topless dance joint to cheer me up (no cheer, I’m afraid, but they seemed to enjoy the visits)? Or the stories about being in situations that women with common sense would avoid, like walking around alone in Paris at 3:00 a.m., or sleeping under my car while driving to college on the west coast. I think those stories have a very different sense of adventure, danger, and meaning if the character is a female Joyce than if they’re a male George.

Or what about the rich and complex stories that detail George’s transformation into Joyce, beginning with early memories and adolescent experiments, and ending with real exploration of gender and sex? The only possible way of telling those stories is to not only acknowledge George’s existence, but to foreground it in the story. He’s the protagonist, after all, and the narrative tension of this type of gender story involves gender dysphoria. Erasure would prevent me from telling these stories.

At the social level, widespread erasure does two things. First, it robs transgendered people who are grappling with their identity of role models — examples of people who have gone through Gender Identity Disorder and survived. Young trans* people are especially vulnerable to feeling as if they’re the only one of their kind in the world, and that’s a very lonely position, let me tell you. Second, erasure makes it seem to society in general that transsexuality and transsexuals (or more generally, transgenderism and transgendered people) don’t exist. They must be something that Oprah’s producers dig up from time to time for ratings, or something radical gender activists write about to sell books, rather than a phenomenon that you can see in any city in the world.

In other words, the costs of erasure are invisibility and abnormality.

To be fair, we ought to balance costs with the benefits of erasure, and they are not to be trifled with. On a personal level, erasure helps create a consistent self, helps one avoid talking about very painful matters, and helps transsexuals avoid discrimination and danger. After all, not everyone is cool with transgender people, and if telling a story where you once were a “he” but now are a “she” is going to get you beaten up, then I’m all in favor of erasure. Socially, erasure prevents people from having to think about gender or sexual fluidity, which makes some people nervous. Ambiguity is frightening when morality is so black-and-white, and erasure helps lessen ambiguity. In other words, the benefits of erasure are fitting in, not making waves, and invisibility.

It’s telling that “invisibility” comes up as both a cost and a benefit of the policy of erasure, personal or social. Why? The positive side of invisibility is the camouflage that gives its wearers control over their environment and personal safety. On the negative side, invisibility constitutes a weak political position — when you’re invisible, you don’t count (literally, because when pollsters count demographics and healthcare researchers try to establish baseline data, invisible people aren’t counted). When you’re invisible and you aren’t counted, you don’t matter. And this invisibility, this not-mattering, is not necessarily related to bigotry or fear or bias (although invisible people are usually easy victims of that sort), but is a state imposed on the erased themselves.

Erasure is the process of making the visible invisible, actively and deliberately, as an artist would remove a defective part of a pencil drawing. The opposite of erasure is actively creating — drawing or sketching, to use our art metaphor — something that can be seen by others, bringing something that doesn’t exist into being on the page. This type of creativity doesn’t require anyone to march in the street or to sign petitions or to get in anyone’s face. However, this sort of identity creativity does require you to have an authentic history and to claim this odd history as your own. More broadly, mass identity creativity requires society to recognize trans* as a legitimate category of human-hood — whether it’s a good category or a bad category depends on our deeds and our participation in society, but “good-and-bad” is a different kind of question than “existence-and-nonexistence.”

Whether it’s better to be visible or invisible, drawn or erased, depends on whether you think it’s worth following a more complex path than you’d like in exchange for providing young transsexuals with role models and society with a viable category of citizen, or whether you think personal safety and narrative consistency achieved through erasure are worth not being counted and not mattering for young transsexuals and the broader society.

The strategy is not as clear as you might think. Everyone must choose the path that’s right for them, and that path is always more complicated than theory would suggest. What is important to remember is that the act of changing yourself doesn’t necessarily have to lead to erasure. The question of whether to erase or not is a completely separate question from the agonizing question of whether to change or not, and a transitioning transsexual shouldn’t combine the two.

Change is difficult, frightening, and generally weird for transitioners and their friends and family, and while these changes may ultimately give rise to a process of erasure, they may also give rise to a creative process of drawing a fully-developed and complex character for family, friends, and society to count, understand, and appreciate.

snippet of a letter to Carol Honda, a professor friend from the west coast

I’ll tell you a time in my life where you really, really made a difference. Do you remember when I had tickets to the Grateful Dead for 3 nights in a row in Oakland Coliseum? I rented a car and drove up to Davis and we went wine tasting (and brandy tasting at Domain Carneros) and you were studying something the tuba, something utterly joyous. Debra had just broken up with me and I was reeling and your friendship and the visit west and the Dead helped get me back into a good place.

Right after my visit west I dove deeply into building Joyce, not some cross-dressing, fearful Joyce, but a social, happy, out Joyce, and she was well on her way to emerging when I met Mary Jo, and although she didn’t ask me to do it, I sort of voluntarily put Joyce away with the thought that true love, family, and kids would render that part of myself obsolete forever.

You can see how well that worked.

I since learned that what they call Gender Identity Disorder never, never, never goes away. You’re born with it and you’re destined to do something about it, depending on how severely you feel at odds in your body. I love my life and my family and my kids and job, and this one thing threatened to wipe it all out. I figured (coldly and rationally) that all in all, it would be better for me to acknowledge this condition, pick the path that I knew was right (if hard), and live the rest of my life as a woman than to pick what was behind any of the 20 unknown doors with 20 bad outcomes like death by stress or anger or heart attack or ulcer or suicide.

So here I am, 15 months of estrogen (and no testosterone), 17 months of therapy, out to all my students, faculty, administrators, family, and friends — on the eve of morphing from George into Joyce for good, and life is really all very good. I feel like I’ve joined the human race. Even in the pages of this blog you can see how bubbly (on average) my recent posts have been compared to the depressing posts of not very long ago.

My own sense of gender has never been 100% masculine or feminine, as I have always felt more or less androgynous, especially when I was a little child and at other times of relative freedom from rigid expectations from family, work, or society. I was such a girl when I was growing up! Not a girly girl, but a tomboy girl, as was my sister, Liz. We did everything together: dressing up with my mother’s fabulous furs and pearls and makeup and heels, playing army man out on the vast ranch where we grew up, creating doll-houses for GI Joe and Barbie and horses and horny toads and other things to make really cool scenarios, cooking on what I guess would be the precursor to the little light-bulb-powered kids oven, and generally singing and playing and being ourselves, genderless and free. It was a really wonderful childhood.

I really can’t pinpoint when it changed. The first jolt was probably going to school in kindergarten, beginning the long, inevitable process of education and socialization. We all have to leave the nest and grow up, of course, but I think I probably felt a deep sense of melancholy at my losses. I remember being very curious about how other girls moved, stood, held their heads. At a time when boys wanted nothing to do with girls, I (not wanting trouble) wanted nothing to do with them; however, I studied them and pictured myself in their company, one of them. Sex was mysterious, as it must be for 7-10 year olds, but I distinctly remember that the bigger mystery for me lay in the riddle of just what it was that made them different from me.

Puberty must have been another jolt. I recall that I willed myself to stop being so chatty, so sissy, so vulnerable around 5th or 6th grade. I would now be the the boy with piercing and solitary silence. I would speak only when spoken to. I pictured myself as standing outside of society, a philosopher and observer of human nature not unlike Cane in Kung Fu, which debuted when I was in 7th grade. I built an immense wall around me, maybe to keep the little girl safe from the outside world, or maybe to prevent her from showing her face. I still maintained a nice balance of gendered activities, playing football and singing in choir and enjoying both equally, keeping equal number of girl and boy friends, but never, never revealed the girl behind the wall.

When I think of the story of my gendered life, it’s not so much a tragedy of horrible pain for 30 years, but rather the story of stunted development. Joyce was categorized as an oddity or an aberration who couldn’t socialize or even find embodiment, and I think my feminine side became squashed down because of not having any place to be. She was a latch-key child who peeped out of the house from time to time, desperate to become herself, but also increasingly terrified of what’s out there in the world. George was encouraged to be the winner, the guy’s guy, the competent and masculine firstborn son of the firstborn son of the firstborn son, a position that was both honorable and oppressive. Because of the honor and in spite of the oppression, those expectations sunk in, oozed down into my the dark corners of my emerging personality, penetrated every hallway, landing, and closet of my psyche, so even when I wanted to rebel, my rebellions were largely symbolic. I grew my hair longer to make my father angry. I argued for blood, no matter how absurd the position I took. I was tenacious in all things.

Regardless of these symbolic rebellions, I was also at heart the good kid, the smart kid, the golden child, and that role pushed Joyce into a tinier and tinier room because it would be devastating for such a winner with such high expectations from family, teachers, and society to admit the existence of such a horrible inner self to the world, wouldn’t it? Yes, I write “horrible,” for that’s what the latchkey child eventually becomes, being locked away, unsocialized, unrealized, unkempt and unloved. Bringing her out into the light of society would be mean disappointing all those people, and the golden child is motivated by pleasing others. Giving a life to Joyce would literally mean the death of the main character in the story of my family, the story that has been living me all my life with a script that was written before I was born.

Coming to a place of self acceptance and then disclosing my authentic self to others these past three months involved erasing that role and writing a new one for me, and that process was far more traumatic than being transgendered. A lot of my current joy comes from that feeling that I’m actually living my own life with my own complex body and psyche, perhaps for the first time since those girlish, androgynous childhood days. It’s corny, but I feel I’ve given the wounded inner child a chance to heal, and she’s getting stronger and stronger every single day, pointing the way to a fully-realized Joyce, whom I love for the first time since childhood.

This journey of becoming is powerful medicine that operates in my psyche and in my relationships, and is perhaps far more powerful than the hormone medicines that operate on my body. Sometimes it seems as if my existence is so different than it used to be — and that it’s continuing to differentiate steadily from what it used to be — that every week is like waking up from a groggy dream. I’m simply amazed at this process — hell, I’d be fascinated by this process even if I weren’t going through it myself.

But I am.

Simultaneously frightening and exhilarating, it is process that ties up a bunch of loose ends from the first half of my life and opens up a ton of new possibilities for the second half of my life. It’s astounding, really, to have finally broken through the fear and shame to undertake something I’ve known I needed to do for decades, to look at my body and recognize newness in it, to feel emotions and connections with awe and power. I may have daydreamed this transformation in youthful and melancholy fantasies, but I never, ever, visualized or imagined the power that comes with actually taking these steps, the power of life that follows the little girl who, released from her locked-in state, takes her first steps into a brave new world and becomes human.

I caught myself whistling today as I walked from my department’s main office back to my own office. And at one time in my life, that wouldn’t be any big deal, as I have been known to whistle all the time. Throughout my life I have felt as if I had running soundtracks in my head that were as reliable as movie soundtracks at signaling my mood. Sometimes lethargic, sometimes speedy. Legato or Staccato. Minor key or major key. Droning in repetition or wildly improvisational.

Guess what I realized when I caught myself whistling today? I don’t think I’ve whistled publicly since this identity crisis began. I don’t remember the last time there was a soundtrack in my head.

I’ve played a lot of music and listened to a lot of music, but I haven’t had the soundtrack or the whistle. I believe that I lost that part of myself during the past 18 months, submerged under 20,000 leagues of pain.

Like the spring buds, it is beginning to show signs of reemergence. Maybe after a long period of turmoil–grief, pain, strife–the things that were pushed aside to make room for grieving, feeling pain, struggling slowly begin finding purchase in the soil of a new identity.

This is very exciting, and the weird thing is that I honestly had not noticed this part of me had gone missing.

Why didn’t I notice the soundtrack had quit? The glib answer is that it must have something to do with transsexual transition and all that goes with it. More seriously, though, what else has changed that I haven’t noticed? Am I going through life oblivious as to the most central things of my personality? How do I regain mindfulness? Are all good parts of myself recoverable after a period of healing? And who is the final authority on what parts of me are lost–I don’t feel as if I can trust myself on this matter, any more.

I have tried to articulate how I have felt about my torment during this transition, but I really haven’t attempted to delve into my history or the specific existential or spiritual nature of that pain very much. It’s still on my “to-do” list, but until I get around to writing it, I would like to point you to an intelligent and meaningful articulation of these feelings over on Allyson Robinson’s blog, Crossing The T.

I wish I could have written these words, but having abandoned all bible study when it became clear to me that I wanted nothing to do with a God who would torment me in this way, I find that I now return to the question of existential and spiritual pain untrained, undereducated, and inarticulate.

The mist was drifting across Topanga Canyon Drive like the steam from the Wilshire Club’s locker room as I left the office and headed to the post office. My snubnosed Glock 9 millimeter was resting on the seat next to me, covered by four brown parcels, each containing a letter and a copy of She’s Not There by that he-she dame from Maine, Jennifer Boylan. I swerved into the parking lot, avoiding a hobo panhandler carrying a sign that said The End of the World is Near in hand-drawn purple magic marker. You said it, brother.

I sat idling in the parking lot while I checked the addresses on the parcels and made sure the letters inside were the right ones. Not as delicate as the many sting operations I had played when I was on the force, but still a job that required care. My hands were shaking like I’d been on a three-day drunk as I sealed each parcel and placed it back on the cushion beside me. The weathered and cynical face in the rearview mirror stared me like my old man used to, incredulous and judgmental even now from the grave like some judge and jury from hell. I stared right back, as steely eyed as a beat-up boxer facing the 15th round of a match he’s not sure he’ll survive, while his cut man is whispering in his one good ear to let him throw in the towel because this kind of brutality just ain’t worth it. With a deep breath, I scooped up the parcels, got out of my old jalopy, and stepped into the weathered local post office.

The clerk, a blonde bombshell with a New York accent, was just opening her cage when she saw my face, the first customer of the morning.

“Sweetheart, can you weigh some parcels for me?” I asked, Bogarting my S’s.

“Sure thing, Mr, er… Ms Spade.”

“Call me Joyce, sweetheart.”

“Whatever you say, doll.”

She weighed each parcel, studied the zip code, and asked if I would need confirmation that they were received. Received? I’ll damn sure know if my associates get ‘em — won’t need a piece of paper to know that.

Cutting ties with the firm — just the thought of that made me feel like I had taken a belt of scotch for breakfast and the warm flush was swirling around my stomach like a convention of moths crazily flying around a Coleman stove in the middle of a midnight rendezvous in the High Sierras. We had owned a software joint in the old days, writing computer code, hitting the road for sales trips, reinventing the world like a group of crazed musicians who didn’t know any better and thought it would only be a matter of time before we were opening for Sinatra at the Copa. We’d been through a lot, my associates and I, and dropping off these parcels felt like I was sitting at a funeral, only I wasn’t sure if the funeral was mine or someone else’s. We’ll just have to see who’s still talking when they close the casket, I thought. Might be pretty rough on me, something like this — some men take it personal, and while my associates weren’t a rough bunch, they all had my number like big brothers who could almost see your cards as you held them in your hand. Let them down? Hell, I could become invisible to them faster than falling off the Golden Gate Bridge at night in a dense fog into shark-infested waters.

One by one, the clerk put the postage on each parcel and lobbed it into the sack behind her like a cook carelessly tossing the rotten vegetables into the rubbish bin, a repetitive, routine act to her. But to me, the thud of each parcel into that basket felt anything but routine, reminding me of the sound of a .44 cartridge being loaded into a pistol for an evening of Russian Roulette, and by the time I heard the fourth and final thud, I already knew that I was fighting the odds like a washed up gambler who, banished from Vegas, drives into those little Nevada highway towns like Ely and Eureka and Austin to play blackjack all night in the truckstop/casino, hoping against hope that he might catch a break between dusk and dawn, but knowing all along that he’s running out of time and luck.

I paid the clerk, tipped my hat to her, and walked back to my car, legs shaking like I’d just been hit in the knees by a fourth-quarter crack-back block in the Rose Bowl. “Well,” I said to my grizzled reflection, wiping my eyes on account of something that had gotten in them on the way back to the car, “I guess that’s that, it’s a crap-shoot at this point and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

So now it’s a waiting game that lasts hours, maybe days, a lonely stakeout in a cul-de-sac, only one way out and you know it could turn out good or bad, but you’ve drawn this beat and now that you’ve jumped into it with both feet, you’ll stick to it like the hot tar in the La Brea pits clings to the sabre-toothed tiger and wooly mammoth.

Let’s just hope I don’t get sucked in and petrified, ’cause there ain’t no amount of thrashing that’ll get me out of that kind of pickle.

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