December 2007

Since there’s no blood test, no Rorschach test, no chromosome test, indeed, no test of any kind other than one’s own feeling of not fitting with one’s own body, how do I know I’m transgendered?

How do I know this feeling isn’t simply a cultural, social oppression from being able to dress or act however I want? What if we lived in a society where you could wear anything, do anything, talk any way you wanted, gesticulate any way you pleased? Would I still be transgendered?

How do I know about myself at all? Isn’t self-knowledge suspect at all times?

These are questions I have of myself, and other transsexuals have of themselves, all the time, and while it’s frustrating to say it to loved ones and skeptics, I think the only answer is “I just know — I’ve felt it all my life.” This self-knowledge is the kind of epistemological category that lies outside logic or numbers or empiricism, but lies instead in self awareness, perhaps the kind of epistemological categories that Mary Belenky, et al. discuss in Women’s Ways of Knowing.

I suppose it’s the kind of knowledge that an equestrian might give you when asked “How do you know you like to ride horses?” Or to a parent, “How do you know you love your children?” We might strap EEG’s and other monitors to these people and discern a little flutter in their hearts, a change in brain patterns, a shift in the skin’s temperature when they thought of horseback riding or their children, and I would hypothesize that you’d get the same kind of feedback from a young transsexual who was asked to mull on their sex and gender.

If these feelings don’t count as knowledge, then my answer to the question of “How do I know?” is “I don’t.”

Standing in front of the mirror getting ready for bed tonight, I examine my hands. Much softer than ever before, they remind me of my mother’s hands.

I am sitting by her deathbed, holding and caressing her hand as she lies there, sleeping the sleep from which she will never awake. Everything has come to this, with the world moving along outside this bedroom at a snail’s pace, visitors creeping in to ask how she’s doing, the sun rising and setting with no meaning, food appearing and disappearing with no taste.

People die every day, but there is nothing mundane about my experience. Soft, wrinkled, and now withered away, these hands babied me when I was little, prepared meals for me, sewed clothing for me, played classical music on the piano, propped open my eyelids looking for lost contact lenses, shook my hand when I received my graduate degrees, and held my babies when they were born.

My hands have diapered those very babies, strung electrical wire, built barb-wire fence, packed parachutes, driven tractors, held horse-reins, played guitars, graded student papers, typed scholarly articles and letters and countless emails, caressed my wife, straightened my children’s tousled hair.

These hands have changed and are changing still. No longer calloused fence-building hands, they are now my mother’s hands.

In this vision, I am not only the one sitting beside my mother’s deathbed, but I am also my mother, biding my time, fading out of existence, waiting for a metamorphosis. I feel the helping hands of others in my sleep, and I hear their assurances that everything will be all right and that it’s ok to let go. But like her, I hang on to this existence, restless in my death throes — it’s all we have known, she and I, this life — as Hamlet says, it’s better to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than to travel the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.

At the end, lying in the very same bedroom of her childhood, she is surrounded by her family, me holding her hand on one side, my sister holding her other hand. Friends support her out of this existence, holding hands and praying. The nurse takes her pulse and gives us updates and we watch with dreadful anticipation her final breaths. She dies. We sit with her body, brushing her hair, touching her still-warm hands, grieving for ourselves, but also feeling relief that the pain of this life is over.

Will anyone sit and wait with me as I shuffle off this coil? I want to believe my friends and family will, but I also fear being alone. Can I count on helping and caring hands when I need them?

Am I lucky or what? Just when I thought this was all my own personal crisis, I learn from multiple sources that 2007 was the year of the transsexual. Not that I mind, at all, as I’m sure I’ll benefit from being part of a trend, but I wonder if these pronouncements aren’t a little premature.

Today’s Wall Street Journal‘s Taste section has a typically bland essay touching on the major issues with this groundswell of transsexual rights, ultimately taking the stance that trans-activists are a little like extortionists in their disproportionately hostile responses to theories and theorists they don’t like, and the rest of normal society is being blackmailed into enacting rules that seem further and further away from common sense.

The San Francisco Bay Times, a gay newspaper, also opined today that trans-people had a really good 2007, pointing to legal and social improvements. Christine Daniels, the LA Times sportwriter who came out in April, gets the main photo, and that’s fine with me. What’s good about this article is its balance, not just reporting on politics or society, but also film, dance, literature, public speakers, television, and music. There is a lot of trans* activity happening out there. By the way, the author, Jacob Anderson-Minshall, writes a weekly column about trans issues called TransNation.

The big political failure, as most GLBT observers already know, is when the “T” got booted out of the ENDA bill by an act of political expediency of Barney Frank and the HRC. It’s not the end of the world, but many in the GLB community feel T must be included in the acronym soup while others think T is dragging down the GLB agenda. It remains to be seen if the loose coalition sticks together, or whether protection of gender expression, which is much more visible to “normal” society than sexual orientation, continues to be singled out by conservative groups as the end of the world as we know it (

See also:

When in the course of transsexual events it becomes necessary to move beyond telling people about your transition one by one, it’s time to write a letter. Not just any letter, mind you, but one that has been crafted for every nuance, one that isn’t too simplistic but that also doesn’t go into all the myriad explanations that you’ve discovered about your condition over the years.

The letter has to let people know in no uncertain terms what’s going on with you — it must not be apologetic or pathetic, but optimistic and excited about the future (even if it’s been hellish getting to this point). The letter needs to make certain logistical things clear, like what your new name is going to be, when you’re going to start looking like your new sex, and what kind of schedule you’re going to be keeping until the dust settles.

In short, the “I’m a transsexual” letter is a complex rhetorical genre, and there are many variations of it, all of them more or less effective for their own circumstances. Some letters are bombshells, as was Christine Daniels’ letter of April 26th, 2007. Christine was Mike Penner, sportswriter of the Los Angeles Times, and this letter was his/her column announcing her transition. It’s a wonderful read, snappy and informative with lots of lines worth stealing.

Jenny Boylan quotes her letter in She’s Not There, and it’s got a nice blend of humor and fact that you would expect from an accomplished novelist.

The TS Roadmap website distinguishes between the coming out letter for family and friends and the letter designed for fellow workers at one’s place of employment, and has lots of advice for what should go in each type of letter.

My letter has been in progress for many months. It started as a rambling dictation on my little digital recorder in the car on the way home from work one day. I had not planned on writing it, but I just turned on the recorder and found myself saying, “dear friends, colleagues, and family,” and speaking honestly to them about my situation, and it was therapeutic and helpful for me at that particular time. I took this recording and wrote it into a wordprocessing document and used it for many months to look at as “my letter.”

Mary read it and said bluntly, “it’s too long.” So I started revising, and eventually came up with a much shorter version. However, when I read it after a month or so, I realized it sounded whiny or apologetic, and while that’s maybe a good interim kind of tone to have, it’s not what you want for the real thing. So I revised yet again, and think I’m getting really close.

I’ve also been working on a separate document that covers “Trans 101,” or the general issues around gender and sex that help explain things, but which are too detailed to be included in the letter. This blog, the “Trans 101” document, the recommended books and websites — all constitute appendices to the letter, if you want to think of them that way. You’re hoping that the reader, someone you care enough about to write them this letter in the first place, is going to want to know more, is going to want to know as much about trans* as you do, and that they’ll plow into these appendices with gusto so they can understand all the nights of despair, the slow self-acceptance, and the various joys you’ve encountered to this point. In reality, the letter will probably be the only thing most of them read, and that’s why it needs to include a little bit of everything.

Something I’ve noticed about my letter — as it gets closer to being finished, the task of coming out to people begins to become more real. I feel a little like Penelope weaving the tapestry in the daytime, unweaving it at night because when she finishes, she’ll have to pick one of her suitors — part of me wants to finish so I can mail it out to people, but part of me wants to keep revising because as long as it’s not quite ready, I still have a private life and do not have to respond to anyone about my plans. Maybe this is a little like my Indian Summer posting from a month ago. Honestly, I’m feeling more and more ready to do this thing, and my letter is getting more and more refined. When I put the pencil down, I guess it’ll be time to turn in my work, eh?

Next Page »