mind


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.

Mike Penner (once known as Christine Daniels), a transsexual sports writer, has committed suicide, and I find myself heartbroken at the news.

April 2007 was a time of huge uncertainty in my life. I had just started hormones and was working through the horrible fears I had about being judged, abandoned, and hated. I was also beginning to get glimmers of self acceptance and was beginning to discuss my situation with Mary Jo, my doctor, and my therapist. I began to feel that I might survive GID (gender identity disorder), but I couldn’t picture just how I would go about surviving it.

Then, on April 26, 2007, I read an electrifying piece in the Los Angeles Times, “Old Mike, New Christine,” a story about the sports journalist Mike Penner who was transitioning into a woman named Christine Daniels. Here was a heroic trans*woman who had outed herself on the front page of the newspaper, a woman who was able to describe her gender distress and her subsequent decision to transition to sports readers, a woman who was instantly celebrated in her LA Times transition blog.

Two months earlier, on February 21, Susan Stanton was outed on the front pages of her newspaper. The way Stanton, the city manager of Largo, Florida, was outed in a way that frightened me to no end, and I could easily imagine my firing and destruction if anyone ever found out about me. But Christine Daniels’ self-outing felt completely different: she was taking control of her life, told her story to millions, and kept her job as a sports writer. This was someone I wanted to be like — her poise was an inspiration to me. I thought of her often, read her transition blog weekly, and even studied her coming out letter as I grappled with finishing my own letter on Christmas, 2007, only a few months away from the date I eventually mailed out my letters to the world.

It was quite a jolt, therefore, when Christine decided to de-transition in October 2008 (read here , here, and here for more information). Detransitioning is a huge thing (I wrote about it in February 2008), and there was a lot of speculation in the trans* community about Mike’s decision. Was the real-life experience not going well? Was Christine finding it difficult to continue doing sports writing? It was suggested by those in the know, i.e. those who attended Los Angeles transgender support groups, that Christine’s transition was going well and that she was happy.

Still, this decision to return to being Mike Penner spoke volumes to me, not because there’s anything wrong about figuring out your gender in the way that you need, but because I wondered if Christine had come out too early, perhaps burned bridges that could not be fixed once her public coming-out story was printed. Or was it the case that Christine felt the deep sadness of loss as she began to settle into her new life, a sadness with which I’m quite familiar. Who knows why she returned to being Mike. The derision in the sports pages was intense — if there had been sympathy among the LA Times sports readers at her earlier coming-out, this switch back to Mike was greeted by jokes about “women changing their minds,” about the “penis being mightier than the sword,” and worst of all, doubts about the legitimacy of the trans* phenomenon at all.

Christine / Mike meant a lot to me for all of the above reasons. S/he was my age and had to face a very public coming out. S/he, like myself, managed to transition and maintain her job. S/he managed to transition (and then de-transition) without dragging all her neuroses in front of talk-television, without writing a best-seller. S/he seemed to me to be a very complex, very powerful, and very frail human being. Reading the news of the suicide today feels like a kick in the gut, not just because of the terrible sorrow surrounding a life cut short, but because of the reminder of the torment attached to gender variance of all sorts, whether “classic” transsexualism, crossdressing, or gender-queering. I wish there were balm that could have been given to Mike/Christine to sooth the pain.

I wrote a short piece called Dark Places in July 2008 about another trans*woman who committed suicide, and the feeling I have now is equally wrenching. It’s too late for this online friend, just as it’s too late for Mike Penner. But it’s not too late for the rest of us — life is too short and the hurdles from outsiders too high for us to harm ourselves. Better to accept ourselves, to open up channels for outreach to those who are alone, to tell our stories. We need to tell stories of success. We need friends, families, and co-workers to tell stories of acceptance so the imagined terror is diffused. And we need to hear stories of pain and failure, as well, to remind us of the stakes involved. When we list the names of transgendered people harmed by violence every year during the Transgender Day of Remembrance (November 20), we should also recall our own violence —physical and mental — that we foist upon ourselves.

Farewell, Mike. Farewell, Christine. You were brave and well-spoken. Your story was both an inspiration and a cautionary tale for the rest of us. You will be missed.

I have arrived at an interesting point, a place that feels unusual for me and it may strike my friends as incredible. But after visiting Trinidad for GRS, after scores of laser hair removal sessions, after hundreds of hours of electrolysis, after almost three years of therapy, after reconfiguring my body to be my new self, after throwing away all my old clothes and buying all new ones, after telling everyone in the world that I was becoming Joyce, and after being Joyce for long enough that it’s becoming hard to remember not being Joyce — after all of this, I suddenly feel almost as if it’s all been unnecessary. And by “unnecessary,” I don’t mean to suggest that I have any regrets — what I think I mean is that whatever was driving this incredible change within me has vanished, that I don’t feel any urge or necessity to make any changes. And if I could imagine myself three or four years ago feeling like I do today, then I probably wouldn’t have had to make all these changes.

But there’s the rub, isn’t it? Because I was NOT at this point three or four years ago. Back then, I was eaten up with shame and guilt and anxiety and despair and couldn’t possibly imagine (no matter how hard I might try) arriving at today’s place of stasis. At this point, I don’t feel anything — I don’t have a single gender, I don’t belong to a sex, I don’t have a firm history or identity. It’s as if this huge turmoil of the past few years erased — no, burned or grinded away — the bumps and ridges of my surface like an industrial acid or a giant grinding wheel of my re-formation, leaving me smooth and finished in only once sense of meaning. I can also be seen as raw and unfinished, a jewel that’s half-way complete, not quite a stone, but not glittering, either.

I don’t feel elation, excitement, despair, or depression — just mundane rawness.

It’s a paradox because I’ve just returned from a fairly important surgery of transformation, and yet instead of feeling transformed, I feel normal. My body’s just a body. Maybe that’s what feeling all right in your skin feels like. Or maybe I’m just settling into my new parts. Does this mean I’ve lost my feeling of gender-variance? I don’t know — I don’t feel terribly variant right now, but maybe I need time to heal. On the other hand, maybe I’m on the cusp of being perfectly normal for the rest of my life (history notwithstanding).

This feeling of nothingness may seem familiar. In fact, I wrote about 9 months ago that I seemed to have arrived at a point of nothingness, but if this transition has taught me anything, it’s that just when you think you’ve reached a plateau, there always seems to be another bit of interesting geography ahead. Maybe it’s a gentle settling into a certain valley of peace or maybe it’s a completely-unforeseen peak of difficulty, but the important thing is that one is never finished.

Maybe that’s the obvious and natural way to perceive life. We’re never really finished learning or growing or experiencing life’s rough blows, so why would a transsexual believe that there is some kind of flat stasis waiting him or her after settling a huge piece of life’s unfinished business? The very act of settling that business gives rise to new insights, complications, ambitions, does it not?

Will this current feeling of nothingess, of being utterly mundane, give rise to new terrain of physical, emotional, or psychological complexity? Who knows? Probably, but there’s really no anticipating what’s over that next rise, that undiscovered country.

Last night was one of those nights that, around here, are rare and magic. The sky was clear and dark, filled with celestial bodies free from light pollution. The wind wasn’t blowing, not even light breezing, and it was so still that I could hear, sleeping with only a screen door between me and the world, the tires on the distant highway, the dogs a mile away, the buzzing of insects. I woke up in this stillness and knew without looking at a clock that it was still hours before sunrise because no birds were singing.

I tossed off the light covers and lay there, feeling the cool air on my body. The world lay still and powerfully pregnant with possibility, and as the minutes passed, I also began to feel empowered and filled with possibilities, mind and body unified, past and future reconciled. I felt myself expand to fill not only my body or my room, but all that unseen natural space outside: the night air, the neighboring countryside, the dark and starry night.

Lying here, I do not fear this expansion, this metamorphosis, but instead anticipate it. In fact, I feel more and more that portals into alternative worlds have opened, and that I am empowered to explore and learn.

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