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.

I have been taken to task by bippy101 in a couple of comments about not sharing my emotions and relying too heavily on my head instead of trusting my heart. I also spoke with a dear colleague in New Orleans a few weeks ago who felt that I am “holding back” in this blog. I have been familiar with such observations all my life, but these days I feel as if I’m much, much more in tune with my emotions and that I am able, in turn, to convey those feelings in my writing much better.

The posts in question, if you want to read our exchange, are “Normalcy,” in which I talk about how wonderful it feels to go out in Boston and just do normal things, and “Marriage.” The gist of both sets of comments is that, as bippy puts it, “you talk of the surface of things and not the emotions of things; what’s it really feel like?”

I’m game, and I’m willing to try tell an emotional story, “stuffed with the stuff that is fine, stuffed with the stuff that is coarse” (as bippy cites Whitman). But before I try, I would like to do what I think I do best, namely, try to understand the nature of emotional writing so that I may recognize it. I know, I know — it’s an intellectual response but that’s how I want to start, and I promise I’ll follow up with another post that aims at the most coarse, emotional writing I’m capable of.

The first thing I have to get my head…. er… heart…. around is just what we mean by head and heart, what we mean by emotion in writing. Is what I need to do is express my emotion better in writing? In other words, is my writing being judged deficient? Or is the writing just fine, but it’s just that I don’t feel at all, and thus have nothing emotional to write about? Or is the complaint that the readers feel too little, or the wrong sort, of emotion when they read my writing — in other words, is there a problem with the transmission of the concepts?

Let me start by assuming that what we’re talking about is using writing to express myself. Just how do you express emotion in writing? I have generated a list of no particular order or thoroughness as a way of starting. I don’t know if any one of these would be seen as more emotional or less emotional, or if they’re simply different techniques for the job:

  • Metaphor. I feel like a single glove in the lost-and-found box.
  • A clinical description of the emotion. My heart was pounding 140 beats per minute as I imagined all those people reading the blog and finally learning what I’m really like.
  • A story. When I told her I was a transsexual, we lay there in the bed, listening to the wind in the trees. After a long time of sobbing and sighing, she turned to me and asked if I still loved her.
  • A collage of images. Eyes of skeptical shoppers, tags on bras that read 38C, 38B, 36A, but no 38A, a “4-items” tag to try on clothes, blue-light special, intercom announcing a sale in aisle 42.
  • Physiology. After a good session of group therapy, I always feel just like I have eaten a big, fat bar of chocolate. Peace must exist in those same overlapping neurons, no?
  • Internal monologue. Fine mess I’m in. Wonder if that student was smiling because she… how could she? Do I stand out? Where can I run? Where did I put those keys? What would happen if I suddenly looked like Joyce — tight throat, panic, run for the exits, knocking people down. Call the fire marshal. No escape ladder big enough for this.
  • Imitation of conventionally-recognized emotional writing. Like schoolgirl’s diary or text messages “OMG I can’t believe that person looked at me like that! I thought I would die right then and there!” or novelistic conventions like flashback “never, not since the night that my father died, have I felt so trapped.”
  • Emotionally-sharged words or images. I’m not sure words themselves are charged, but we imbue them with power, and that’s where this idea comes from: “My psyche has been brutalized” or “That email was nothing short of child abandonment.”
  • Outward signs of emotions. “As I lay there that night, hot tears of dread and pain poured out of my eyes, followed by sobs so deep that my stomach muscles were sore the next day.”

Do any of these techniques strike you as more emotional or less emotional? More or less authentic? I ask because all expression has to take physical form at some point, and when you decide to turn an idea into words, you are forced to pick word #1, then word #2, and so on, as you build your writing. All techniques are learned and may seem to some as forced, to others as completely real. I would probably argue (if this were an argument) that the “realness” of any emotional bit of writing may be conveyed by pretty much any means, and that consistency probably has more to do with believability than the style does.

The second thing I think I’d like to ponder is where, precisely, emotion lies. Is it in the words? The reader’s reaction to those words? The writer’s mental state in crafting those words? Somewhere outside?

Since words are signs and since emotions belong to people, it seems unlikely that the words themselves are the location of emotion. Reader response theory would say that the emotion lies in the reader: the writer tries to create resonance through techniques she has learned and can only hope that the reader feels something.

But what does “feels something” mean? Do I want to transmit my emotions across time and distance directly to my reader so they feel the same feelings? That can’t be right. Do I want empathy, anger, or some sort of reaction to my words?

If I cool-ly, emotionless, use a word that normally inflames people (and you can imagine all sorts of racial, homophobic, xenophobic, ideological, and misogynistic words of your own), and you are filled with emotion, then that’s gotta define some sort of emotional writing because of a deliberate use of a word designed to evoke feelings.

Likewise, I might pour my soul on the page, every word filled with emotion, and the reader may feel nothing (they don’t care, or they’ve seen it all before — who knows?) — that also has to be defined as a kind of emotional writing by virtue of the emotion of the writer.

I guess I’m perplexed by just how you write emotionally. If I’m honest and emotional and I use my best skills and my most honest soul to write a line, let’s say like this one, “I became so anxious today that I felt all reason slip away and it was as if I was a trapped animal,” is that sufficient to convey to the most hardened aesthete what kind of emotions I felt today?

I myself am not a poet. I’m private and write for you, dear reader, only to the extent I try to convey what it’s like to be me. The coarseness you desire feels dangerously personal, but it occurs to me that avoiding that sense of danger is precisely what you chide me for, the danger of feeling deeply, of going beyond what feels to me to be a gaping openness in discussing my gender and my relationship with the world in this blog.

I’m game, but I need to ask my third and final question — is all coarse writing necessarily dangerously personal? Is it possible to simply convey emotion without crossing that line? And what about the converse: Is it possible to write dangerous coarseness without crossing an emotional line? In other words, are those two things yoked? I’m thinking of some examples, such as Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover or Molly Bloom’s soliloquy that comprises the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or in cinema, Jimmy Stewart’s eyes as he realizes the danger he’s in at the end of Rear Window or the farewell scene between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman at the airport in Casablanca.

My hunch is that we all have our levels of taste, and what seems raw and emotional to you seems crafted and dull to me. I’ll give it a try, dear reader, and you can see what you think. Ultimately, though, isn’t “emotional” writing kind of like “authentic” writing — you’ve gotta be pretty gutsy to declare what’s authentic and inauthentic, don’t you?

At the end of an extended period of longing, it would be nice to finally belong, but it seems to me the odds are quite slim. I hold out hope for legitimacy and membership and belonging, but I feel relegated to sit on the sidelines or out on the back porch or over in the ghetto where my desires for identity can be acknowledged as authentic, but never have to be accepted or acted upon.

Where am I from? Nowhere.

And that’s where we who are true to ourselves retire, rocking on the porch, self satisfied with that formal feeling that comes after great pain, but never self actualized. Othered, we wave to each other and nod knowingly in our gated community, seeing way over there the shining city on the hill where belonging takes place. Out here on the perimeter, there are no stars. Here, we long but do not belong.

This is a follow-up post to my previous post on the nature of authenticity and legitimacy in any sort of transition.

I’m well aware of the tension and fear about not being a legitimate woman when my transition is complete — I think it’s often a constant fear for transsexuals, sometimes one that plagues them and other times something that’s they’re mildly aware of. I’m feeling quite authentic, but I’m anxious about being legitimate.

But what about sexual orientation? Mary Jo and I have discussed the fact that assuming I’m taken to be a woman, then we will be taken to be a lesbian couple. We talk about it from time to time and brainstorm how that social perception is going to affect both of us, but it has not sunk in for me that this identification involves belonging to a category called “same sex couple.” Having just come out to a lesbian couple who are longtime dear friends, though, I felt this morning a sudden pang of illegitimacy.

Not only do I feel illegitimate as a woman, never having been a girl or had a period or worried about being pregnant, but I also feel completely illegitimate as a lesbian. Just as I’ve enjoyed the male privilege all my life, Mary Jo and I have enjoyed the heterosexual privilege all our lives.

What rights do we have to identify as lesbians? How do you get to be lesbians? Is it a simple matter of private practice, or these days is there an expectation of a larger social identity? Helen Boyd often remarks on MyHusbandBetty.com that crossdressers would be a lot more sympathatic if they actually took the time to learn about women instead of imitating them, and I feel something similar about same-sex relationships.

As I look ahead to deeper and fuller transition (we’re only 10 weeks from May 24th, when everyone knows), I find myself anticipating challenges to legitimacy from various directions. I expect to be taken aside and be put in my place by women (you’re not a legitimate woman), men (everything we did together in the guise of a masculine bond was illegitimate), and lesbians (you’re just a straight couple who got thrown an interesting curveball, but you’re not legitimate lesbians).

I don’t know what to to with these feelings except to acknowledge their legitimacy and to engage my friends and colleagues authentically and humbly. I may not have been a woman, or a lesbian, or an activist, or a queer-studies theorist, or any number of categories into which I may transition, but I have an authentic desire to learn.

I have written elsewhere about the problem of using terms like authentic, true, and genuine to describe a transsexual’s new self because such terminology casts his/her former self as fake or false. I am, as you probably realize, very interested in keeping all of the good parts of my persona that I have developed over my male life and carrying through into my new female life.

However, I’m not against the word “authentic” at all. You might say I’m very interesting in retaining authenticity, and my use of the word seems perfectly aligned with my goals because it suggests a continuous personality, one that is committed to fine-tuning, self-improvement, and generally being authentic to its nature.

I have been focused on the adjective “authentic” for the past 6 months, but I suddenly find a new word, “legitimate,” has crept into my consciousness and I would like to take this little essay to distinguish between the two terms because I think they tie up some concepts that I have been grappling with in earlier essays.

Authentic
First, let’s look at authentic.

au·then·tic [aw-then-tik]: not false or copied; genuine; real:
In terms of synonyms, authentic, genuine, real, veritable share the sense of actuality and lack of falsehood or misrepresentation.

From the Greek, autos “self” + hentes “doer, being,” we get the word authentes , or “one acting on one’s own authority,” thus rooting the action firmly within the doer and not with the rest of the world. One who is authentic is being true to herself and is accepting responsibility for that truth about herself. As we move towards being more authentic, then, we are communicating to ourselves (and perhaps others) an effort to align our bodies, actions, dress, and other things with our own sense of self. As Polonius says to Laertes in Hamlet, “to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans’t not be false to any man.”

In previous essays, I have argued that self acceptance makes up only about 50% of transsexual transition, with re-forming one’s social ties comprising the other 50%. I like the term “authentic” and the action of trying to become more authentic as this personal journey to one’s self.

Legitimate

The second part involves legitimacy, I believe, and here’s why. If authenticity is all about the self, even having “self” as a Greek root of the word, then legitimacy is all about the rest of the world because of the root leg-, meaning legal (think “legal” and “legislation” for such words).

le·git·i·mate [adj., n. li-jit-uh-mit; v. li-jit-uh-meyt]

1.according to law; lawful: the property’s legitimate owner.
2.in accordance with established rules, principles, or standards.
—Synonyms 1. legal, licit, sanctioned, valid.

Why look at law, you ask? We’re not talking about laws that congress or city council passes, but rather any set of rules that are created and reinforced. And what’s important about this concept isn’t the law-making process (which queer studies would identify as heteronormativity or perhaps rigid gender binaries), but rather the idea that your legitimacy does not come from within, but must be conferred upon you by others, the keepers and enforcers of these rules and norms.

You may recall a discussion Mary Jo and I had with Sherry Gladstone and John Oleander back in November when we were in Greece for a conference. I had asked Sherry what was required to change one’s identity (she had just finished a graduate class on racial identity), and she said “loyalty.” In my blog post where I tried to process this concept, I took “loyalty” to be equivalent to “commitment.” But having started thinking about legitimacy, I instantly realized that “legitimate” and “loyal” have the same roots that tie both concepts to law:

[Loyal: French, from Old French leial, loial, from Latin lēgālis, legal, from lēx, lēg-, law; see leg- in Indo-European roots.]

My understanding of “loyal,” however, was fairly accurate in that blog post because it involved the transitioner agreeing to adhere to the norms of the desired group, making an argument, in effect, to be allowed into that group eventually, or to be made legitimate by virtue of having followed established rules, principles and standards of that group. I noted that it’s still up to the desired group to confer legitimacy upon the requester, and that power that’s held by others would comprise the other part of a successful transition, something I also wrote about in “Minimalist Sex Change.”

The rules and norms that are most evident in a sex-change would be those around the categories of “woman,” “man,” “feminine,” and “masculine,” since sex and gender are getting changed in a transsexual transition. And I’m aware that I will be asking for legitimacy from society to become a woman by virtue of adhering to the generally accepted norms of “woman” and “feminine.” That request produces plenty of anxiety on its own because a request to belong always implies the possibility of rejection, doesn’t it?

However, I think there are other requests that I’m becoming aware of, and I write about those categories and the difficulties in requesting membership in those groups in the next blog post.

See also: “Valid” and “Authority

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