I received this email invitation in my Facebook account the other day, and was reminded of a couple of previous incidents, one with Mara Keisling and one with my local newspaper. I think things are different now, but despite the benefits to the trans*community, I still think family has to come first. Selfish? Overly protective? Maybe.

Hi Joyce,

I’m working for a production company that is producing a documentary for PBS about being an out LGBTQ person in America. It’s going to be a 1-hour national PBS documentary event that will share a layered collection of powerful, compelling and poignant stories of LGBTQ Americans and their families. We’ll be interviewing some celebrities along with typical (and not so typical) Americans who fall along the spectrum. Your story came to mind and I was wondering whether you were interested or comfortable with sharing your story?

The production team has done Emmy Award winning work: check out the link below to learn more about their films and the team I’m working with.

Looking forward to hearing back from you.

My response:

I’m going to have to think about this and confer with my wife. What do you think the odds are of getting any air-time? How specific would the documentary be regarding my workplace, etc? I ask not because of myself, but because Mary Jo and I agreed we’d keep the trans* stuff low-key for a few years for the sake of the kids, who are in Junior High right now. Once they’re out of high school in 5 years, then publicity would be much less of an issue.

Her response:

I think the odds are high for on-air time if you agree to being interviewed and are comfortable sharing your story. I completely understand the decision to be low-key, but we are definitely looking to profile a handful of dynamic individuals who are living extraordinary lives. We’re looking for people who are comfortable discussing their experiences, so again, the chances are high that we’d be looking to discuss workplace/family issues. Up to you, really, and again, completely understandable if this type of thing is a little to “close to home” as far as your desire to maintain the privacy of your family, etc. Not sure when we’ll actually begin filming, but PBS has rolled out a bit of funding and we’re in development right now — I honestly think that you represent ad really key and interesting part of the LGBT community and so you immediately popped into mind when I thought about people I’d like to see represented in this piece. Think about it, and if you’d like to speak further to one of our Senior Producers about further details and possibility of involvement, you can email the producer at xxxx@xxx.xx.

My response:

As much as I’d love to do this, and as much as I agree with you about being a good example of a successful transsexual with a healthy job and family and social life, my hunch is that it’s simply not the right thing to do for my family at this time. I feel a bit selfish as I write this — I realize that I have all sorts of privilege that allows me to say no to you and to put on blinders regarding other trans people who might benefit from seeing the documentary, but I have to go with my gut feeling that it’s unwise to introduce media into a family that has worked through a lot of issues, but that still has far to go, including two boys entering puberty.

I remain happy to help your production company with background material and with other interesting ideas. For example, my local PFLAG chapter has a very progressive approach to trans people in addition to its historically activist stance around parents and friends of lesbian and gay family members. If you ever do a documentary about PFLAG or about supporting diversity in the Bible Belt, our chapter would be a great place to start.

In any event, please accept my apologies and convey my regrets to your producer.

Joyce

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 writing about coming out to family, it’s easy to forget that it’s not all about me, that I have a partner who also has a family. For a variety of reasons, Mary Jo decided not to tell her family about my transition last year. Her father was deeply ill last spring, and died at the end of the spring, when we were coming out to everyone in a juggernaut of disclosures, and she didn’t want to burden her family with her own dramatic news. Her brother Lawrence and his family are moderately close, but not intimate with Mary Jo, and they run in completely different circles, and I think she felt it would be an extra layer of complexity that we didn’t need at the time. In any event, whether or not to come out to her family was a decision that lay in her hands all along.

And it worked for a time. But the more I settled into being Joyce and the more the walls of anonymity and pseudonymity I had built between my various electronic communities began to blur, it became harder to remember whether person X might know or whether we had told person Y. Like a lie, it became difficult to remember which story we had told different of her family members. When I answered the phone and it was Mary Jo’s mother, there were inevitably pauses and the question, “Who is this?” and I either had to quickly revert to George mode or say “Joyce,” and leave that name hanging as a stranger in the house while I called for Mary Jo to pick up the phone. Mary Jo’s niece Katherine had noticed odd things with Mary Jo’s “relationship” status in Facebook, and had asked her parents what was up.

Not wanting to say, “Oh, it’s a joke,” Mary Jo decided that it was appropriate to tell, and thus it was that Mary Jo wrote her brother Lawrence and sister-in-law Rhonda to explain our situation. I don’t know how she wrote the letter, i.e. whether she phrased it as “we have changed” or “my husband did this to me” or “this happened to me initially, but I’ve come to love it,” and I didn’t ask to read the letter. I think your loved ones need to be able to come out to their relations in whatever way they choose.

The package mailed, we sat back and waited until Mary Jo saw an email in her inbox last night from Rhonda with the subject line “Surprise Letter.” “Hey,” she yelled across the house, “I think I got a letter from Rhonda. Should I open it?”

We looked at the subject line as a child would inspect a surprise package under the Christmas tree, and thought about what it might hold, whether rejection, confusion, anger, or acceptance. Properly steeled to the task, Mary Jo opened the email and read to herself while I waited in the other room. A few chuckles from her were encouraging and then she yelled, “I’m forwarding it to you — it’s going to be all right.”

Relief and another facade taken down. New family discussions initiated. Maybe a new wave of understanding across generations, geographies, and ideologies. Here’s Rhonda’s email, followed by Lawrence’s email a day later.

Rhonda

Thanks for letting us know what’s going on in your family. First, please be assured you, the boys, and Joyce are always welcome. I can’t image the changes coming about for all of you, but realize a great a deal of soul searching and mental anguish has taken place for all involved. I guess I should feel shocked and horrified, but I really don’t. I am involved in a book study with a church group (we’re reading The Shack), and were discussing subjects that are hard to comprehend just last Monday. A fellow teacher that works for the state shared that a guy at the department just announced that he was changing to a woman. The group discussed that some people just become trapped in a body that doesn’t conform to their minds and inner self. Good luck on the marriage part — I don’t know what I’d do. I don’t know that I would want to be “married”, but I would still want my friend and buddy. I do feel the boys’ pain. As a middle school teacher, I already think middle schoolers are possessed by their hormones. They can cry one moment and curse fluently the next. They can be the most understanding, comforting bunch of kids that would give their lunch money to save a stray dog or to defend a fallen student, and yet, they will punch each other and tease the daylights out of a student for minor annoyances. Please keep the boys talking with you. They’ll need it.

I read the letter first and then shared it with Lawrence over supper. He really didn’t seem too shocked either. Maybe it’s part of getting old, we don’t shock easily and it just really doesn’t seem that big a deal. I really do feel for you having to share a house with another woman, though. I am perfectly happy that my daughters no longer live with me. I now deal only with my fluctuating hormones and occasional teary phone calls from the distant hormones. Just be firm in your guidelines. Don’t lend clothes and shoes. Make-up sharing is only for special occasions. Don’t share girl secrets unless they can be trusted not to tell. I’m glad you had the forethought to get the saddles in advance. Be sure to plan big for Joyce’s menopause–a cottage at the beach?

Lawrence

Very interesting news in your snail-mail package. I’ll confirm what Rhonda said in that we’re not especially shocked by the news and hope we can be as supportive as you need us to be. Certainly, you and the family are welcome here anytime. I wouldn’t know where to start with the questions and Rhonda is reading the book you sent along. I’ll try to read it this week and it might cut down on some of the questions. But we’ll likely save a chunk of this for when we see you in a few months.

As for Mom, I don’t think she’ll be especially shocked by the news. She’s surprised me how more-receptive to changes she seems to be now that the burden of worrying about carrying for Dad has been lifted. Incidentally, Rhon and I might jet down there on the “budget” airline that now runs for about $125/round trip. If we do, it’d be sometime during Rhon’s “spring break” which is the first full week of April. So if you’re not planning to tell Mom, you might give me your thoughts if she has picked up on any of this and starts asking me questions. We’ll obviously be talking about this for some time so I won’t load up one e-mail with every question that comes to mind. Again, just let us know if we can do anything for you and the family.

[See also Blood is Thicker Than Water, Part 1, Part 2, and Parts 3-7.]

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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