friends


Just when life seems completely settled, just when you think the transition blog has died and shows no sign of life or activity, something odd happens.

Like this email I received out of the blue this morning from Slade Taggart (and this is the total text—no subject line, no salutation, no signature block):

Please remove all your blog posts referring to my middle name.  I find it reprehensible that you would write about me using my name on that blog.  Also, please transfer your business to another firm.  Finally, please don’t call, text, or email me.

I’m not sure what he’s been seeing on his emails, texts, or phone records, but I can assure him (and Slade knows this well) that I haven’t called, texted, or phoned since he cut off communications way back in August of 2008.  I’m guessing he was Googling his various names, and ran across his middle name in a search engine and then, much to his surprise, read about himself as a character in my blog.

In any event, you’d think that pseudonyms would be sufficient, wouldn’t you?  I’m certainly not removing the blog posts, but have further anonymized his character by changing it to Slade Taggart.

I would point out, however, that all the anonymizing (or pseudonymming, or whatever else one wishes to call it) in the world doesn’t change the fact that a dear friend had (and continues to have, apparently) a visceral reaction to my existence, and that this reaction and its accompanying rejection constitutes a major event in my story.  It’s a psychic, social, personal, and historical explosion that cannot, and must not, be erased if this story is to be told accurately.

And blowing a gasket about a pseudonym I use in this blog, and then calling it reprehensible, strikes me as pretty hypocritical.  If we want to talk about reprehensibility, why don’t we talk about abandoning your life-long friend when she needed support, shall we?  Or how about holding on to some sort of deep anger or fear for four and a half years, only to write, out of the blue, this absurd email?  What kind of psyche does it take to push distasteful things this far away from your history for the purposes of keeping up the facade of togetherness?  I’m an empirical thinker, as you know, and the hard facts that Slade doesn’t want to acknowledge is that virtually everyone who cared about me before still cares about me now.

So, applying Occam’s Razor to this data set, which is the more likely hypothesis?

H1 — 99.5% of Joyce’s friends are fools or dupes or deluded

or

H2 — 0.5% of Joyce’s former friends, including Slade and perhaps no one else, is correct in desperately holding on to their their rejection, fear, and anger.

When it’s over
and the energy has faded, barely lingering like the faint twilight colors on the encroaching black night sky,
and the tears have dried, leaving little dusty trails on the cheeks and wads of tissue discarded in little piles around the house,
and the feelings have become muted — pale, yellowed pages in an old newspaper that someone saved for a now-unknown reason,
and the clutter of the wreckage has been swept into the gutters and ditches of your consciousness,

Then comes a feeling of detachment and otherworldliness
where this house is no longer recognizable as your home, but just some building that someone inhabits,
and these hands belong to someone else, no longer yours,
and these works — some complete and some barely conceived — are as foreign to you as some dusty book on the library shelf,
and these thoughts, once bubbling and unstoppable, seem out of place like the muffled rantings of delusion at a bus stop.

Is it over?

Dim alien dreams overlay a cloudy native history, rendering all unknowable, unrecognizable.
The past is burned away, leaving a stark landscape of black promise.

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.

At our recent academic conference in San Francisco, Mary Jo was a fabulous partner and “introduced” me to all her friends, even if we knew each other before in a sort of funny, but also serious, ritual we repeated over and over. And it wasn’t just for fun — I think having her conduct the introductions made things go very smoothly. After all, I can imagine our friends thinking that if my changes are all right with Mary Jo, then how hard can it be for someone else to engage me normally?

The question that came up a lot more than I anticipated was about our relationship and what it’s called. Are we lesbians? Heterosexual married couple with a quirky husband? Am I the wife? Husband? Former husband? What is Mary Jo? A victim? Wife? Partner?

Everyone agreed that our relationship defies conventional labels. Maybe “queer” captures it all? It’s clear that many people need a label for the relationship, but I think Mary Jo and I realize that this need is theirs, and not necessarily ours.

Lesbians also noted with no discernible humor or irony that Mary Jo is clearly the butch of this relationship and I am very obviously the femme, something we’ve talked about between us, but haven’t really had discussed in public settings before.

Mary Jo’s lesbian friends not only generally think that we could call ourselves lesbians, but also believe that it’s ironic that we’re grappling with the kinds of questions our lesbian and gay friends have faced all of their lives. Yes, it’s a twist of nomenclature that we’ve never grappled with before, and perhaps never appreciated in our same-sex couple friends. Maybe one can intellectually grasp what another couple is going through, but cannot truly feel it and “know” it unless one had lived it.

I noticed something interesting at my recent academic conference — by and large (although there are a few exceptions), women recognized me more quickly and embraced me more warmly and engaged me more deeply than men. If a man took 10 seconds for his brain to reboot and then was tentative and distant in the minutes after that reboot, women rebooted in 3-5 seconds and showed virtually no hesitation to talk about friends, the conference, or my presentation. I think they must feel a certain need, perhaps a hallmark of feminine culture, to compliment my presentation, and those comments were very much welcome.

I’m going to need to spend more time thinking about this, but it occurs to me that women have generally responded to me throughout this past year quite a bit differently from men. It may be as simple as a sense that someone has “left one side to go to the other,” and thus needs to be welcomed (for the women) and puzzled over (for the men). But it’s probably a lot more complex than that.

I suppose it’s not surprising that a major life change that involves sex and gender will engage sexed and gendered people in ways that class, race, and education (for example) might not.

As I process this question, I would certainly appreciate your observations, dear readers.

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.

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.

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