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 (Salon.com).

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?

I am far too sensitive these days. I see demons in every corner, doom in the next instant, despair in each offhand remark by friends. I was like this last night at a Christmas get-together with friends. We were sitting around, sipping our holiday cheer, chatting about university politics and plans for the spring.

Somehow (and I can’t remember how it came to this, but how do conversations ever get where they’re going except that they’re a form of group free-association?), someone mentioned an undergraduate student we have in our department who is transsexual and who came out this past fall. She had a boyname like Robert and picked a girlname a little out of the ordinary, Serendipity, and those professors who had her in class piped in about her name, her dress, her passability. They opined as to whether she had surgery or not, and were fairly ill-informed as to just about everything related to GID and transitioning, which isn’t surprising at all. In fact, the members of the party behaved exactly as you’d expect — certainly not trans-phobic, clearly sympathetic, and generally live-and-let-live. The word “unfortunate” was used several times about Serendipity: “what an unfortunate choice of dress,” “Serendipity is such an unfortunate name,” “he, or she (i don’t know!) has an unfortunate build to have chosen to be a transsexual.” One professor explained to the group that Serendipity is perhaps the most popular transsexual name out there, and it was unfortunate that Robert chose such a weird name, even though it was a typical TS name. Of course, this was news to me — as I don’t recall ever seeing or meeting any TS by that name. There was some gentle ribbing of the biggest, most masculine partygoer, as someone said that he might consider going that way, and since his initials would remain the same, he’d get to keep his monogrammed shirts.

My friends and colleagues are wonderful people and would not deliberately make fun of anyone; however, at this point, my mind turned to imagining them talking about me, or if not them, then some other group of well-meaning colleagues. “Joyce is such an unfortunate name! What was he thinking?” or “He’s the most selfish man, er… woman (what is he, anyway?) I’ve ever met — didn’t he, er… she think of the kids?” or “He’s got unfortunate features that will always make him ugly — it’s really unfortunate that he, er… she… wants a sex change.”

I had been happy and engaged, and I withdrew immediately into my sad inner mind, feeling like these imaginary voices were right, that I am an unrealistic fool for doing this, that I will soon cease to be a member of any friendly discussion and become a permanent member of the outside, always cordially spoken to, but always excluded. I felt myself slide into this self-conscious, self-critical mood I recognize all too well, and then I was angry at myself to allowing this mood to take over. “After all,” my rational self said, “these are your friends and they’re going to be just fine with your transition. If I were closer to being out, I could have had a really interesting Christmas discussion, but instead am sucked into this spiral of sullen despair.”

I cried in bed, telling Mary that I hoped that maybe I’d die in my sleep rather than face this humiliation, which was an awfully mean thing to say, but that’s the kind of nonsense that pours out of this bad place, even though I don’t really want to say it. These are horribly unproductive, unmotivated moods, and I hate myself for falling into their traps. I want to learn how to pull out of these spirals before they take over my psyche. These were harmless comments about a student who happened to be TS, but she easily could have been gay or African or Marxist and still receive similar comments, and there was no reason for me to run for the refuge of self-pity.

This morning, having been wrapped in love by my family and having watched my children play with their Christmas toys, I’m feeling much better and now perceive that our discussion of Serendipity last night was indeed serendipity, for it was certainly the discovery of something important entirely by accident or chance. The chance lesson? I got a glimpse into the gossip I can look forward to — not malicious or mean, but certainly inquisitive. I got a disclosure-free lesson into how my colleagues are likely to react to my announcement and a vision of how I myself might react to the inevitable barbs (intentional or unintentional) I’ll feel in the future. While I failed last night, I learned that these feelings or failures are somewhat normal, and that they, like coming out, will get easier to deal with the more I encounter them.

In the Grateful Dead’s Scarlet Begonias, Jerry sings, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Instead of despairing over this incident, I realize that I owe a lot to this serendipitous Christmas gift I received last night, and I also owe something to Serendipity herself, who, as soon as I’m out in the department, is going to get my invitation to lunch to talk about her bravery and to learn from this youth where she got her thick skin and how she learned to deal with much harsher comments than I felt last night.

My last post was about the metaphor of the slippery slope, but Allyson used an entirely different metaphor to talk about coming out, and I’d like to muse on it here if she’ll indulge me. She talked of the Tipping Point of coming out, the point at which the momentum to talk about your transsexuality shifts from yourself to others. Initially, she explained, you’re completely in control of your coming out — you strategize it, run dialogs in your head, and pick the person and situation. And those initial disclosures ask (demand, in fact, because of their nature) the other party to keep this information confidential, to come in the closet with you, so rather than moments of coming out, they are moments of building community inside the closet. However, the more you come out to people, the more crowded the closet becomes, and human nature being what it is, suddenly there’s no closet and people are coming to you to ask about your transsexuality. At this point, you’d better be ready to react because your proactive stage has ended.

The tipping point, said Allyson, is that moment where you shift from proactive to reactive, from controlling the situation to surrendering to it.

The metaphor is clearly physical, just as the slippery slope is physical, but in this case, the physical concept being used is the see-saw or the scales. Being closeted is like a see-saw with a huge weight (the closet) on one end, and these little moments of healing, of therapy, of telling people, are tiny weights loaded onto the other end of the see-saw. It appears as if nothing is happening for the longest time, and you begin to wonder if it’s all worth it, if you’ll ever feel whole, if this tortuous in-between feeling will ever end. Then you put one more weight on the end and voila! — you hit the tipping point. The big weight lifts gently off the ground and the momentum begins to shift. Another disclosure and the weight moves further, and all of a sudden you’re no longer acting to pile little weights on your end, but reacting to the momentum of the shift of the see-saw.

It’s a cool image. My scales are still firmly planted on one end, nary a shudder in the balance. But the other end is not empty — it has Mary Jo’s love, my increasing self-acceptance, my department chair’s kind words and acceptance, my friends Allyson and others in online forums — and I begin to anticipate the tipping point in the not too distant future, not with fear, but with eagerness and excitement.

[See also Slippery Slope]

In argumentation, we talk about the slippery slope fallacy, or the idea that if you are at position A, and want to postpone or avoid position B at all costs, then even a tiny compromise away from A will lead to a series of other compromises until you arrive at B despite your dislike of that position. It can also be called the Domino Effect, but in either case, the metaphor is the same. It depends on physics and scientific laws in order to work, and since we all know about physical things like falling down, slipping down a slope (icy or muddy), and how dominoes fall into each other, it’s a very easy figure of speech to understand and appreciate.

Picture the person standing at the top of an icy hill (position A), not wanting to be in the frozen lake at the bottom (position B), but saying to herself, “what would it hurt if I take one step down this hill? I’ll be careful, and I’m still a very long way from that cold water.” However, having taken that first step down the slippery slope, she has to take another step and another, and before you know it, she’s in the water.

The slippery slope isn’t the same thing as a compulsion, where a person feels she must eat, or buy high heeled shoes, or wash her hands 10 times a day because a compulsion doesn’t connote a journey from one point to the next, but rather a type of stasis, or standing still. The slippery slope always suggests motion towards an inevitable end once that first step is taken or that first domino falls.

In transgender lore, we talk about the slippery slope all the time. Someone says, “I want to crossdress, but if I do, I’m afraid I’ll want to go all the way.” The metaphor is that there is a natural (like gravity) desire within a transgendered person to “go all the way,” and even the tiniest acknowledgment, the tiniest action that leads towards that ending will cause a chain of events. Wearing lingerie, then dresses, then makeup. Buying wigs, taking a femme name, going out in public. Taking hormones, having surgery, ultimately becoming a woman.

There are those who fight the slippery slope, those who dismiss the entire idea of a natural journey, those who look forward to starting the slide towards the end, those who fear it with all their souls.

Myself? I’m slipping and building speed, despite whatever tentative schedule or diary writing I did a year ago that desired anything but this. I wrote that what I wanted was just enough of a step so I didn’t feel bad any more, and maybe that would be some kind of androgyny. Having talked to Sean Drummond, my department chair, a couple of days ago, I now find it slightly more desirable to tell someone else. Having met with Allyson yesterday and talked about family lives, I now find I’m more eager to move ahead with my family. Having written these blog entries, I desire more communication with others, and I find it very difficult to restrain myself from disclosing too much on Facebook, in email, or in conversations with colleagues and friends.

I’m slipping, but unlike the metaphoric slip towards an undesirable ending point, I find I’m becoming more and more excited and optimistic about both the trip down the slippery slope and also the destination.

[See also the Tipping Point]

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