March 2008

I caught myself whistling today as I walked from my department’s main office back to my own office. And at one time in my life, that wouldn’t be any big deal, as I have been known to whistle all the time. Throughout my life I have felt as if I had running soundtracks in my head that were as reliable as movie soundtracks at signaling my mood. Sometimes lethargic, sometimes speedy. Legato or Staccato. Minor key or major key. Droning in repetition or wildly improvisational.

Guess what I realized when I caught myself whistling today? I don’t think I’ve whistled publicly since this identity crisis began. I don’t remember the last time there was a soundtrack in my head.

I’ve played a lot of music and listened to a lot of music, but I haven’t had the soundtrack or the whistle. I believe that I lost that part of myself during the past 18 months, submerged under 20,000 leagues of pain.

Like the spring buds, it is beginning to show signs of reemergence. Maybe after a long period of turmoil–grief, pain, strife–the things that were pushed aside to make room for grieving, feeling pain, struggling slowly begin finding purchase in the soil of a new identity.

This is very exciting, and the weird thing is that I honestly had not noticed this part of me had gone missing.

Why didn’t I notice the soundtrack had quit? The glib answer is that it must have something to do with transsexual transition and all that goes with it. More seriously, though, what else has changed that I haven’t noticed? Am I going through life oblivious as to the most central things of my personality? How do I regain mindfulness? Are all good parts of myself recoverable after a period of healing? And who is the final authority on what parts of me are lost–I don’t feel as if I can trust myself on this matter, any more.

My friend Allyson suggested I order a copy of for the Bible tells me so as a way of understanding biblical literalists’ objections to homosexuality and, by extension, transsexuality. I had read some reviews of the film in a couple of other online forums, so it was in the back of my mind, but since Ally seems to have the knack of knowing what’s right at any given time, I didn’t question her advice and ordered a few copies of the DVD (you can order copies from the film’s website or from Amazon for approximately $20).

Right off the bat, let me say that I love the movie and feel an even stronger sense of calling (which I’ve written about) than I did before. The issues of family acceptance that face transsexuals are virtually the same as for homosexuals, and the message of families coming to accept their loved ones is incredibly powerful and moving. The film uses 5 families of various sorts and various denominations to anchor the concepts of guilt, denial, grief, love, and eventual acceptance, and this is its strong suit. Aimed at a moderate audience who is interested in figuring out how to bridge the seemingly unbridgeable gulf between religion and homosexuality, the film is quite successful, and ought to provide moderates from both camps with ample materials with which to start building that bridge.

I recommend the film highly.

However, as a piece of persuasion to be wielded on a biblical literalist or fundamentalist, I think the film has flaws. I had initially hoped that this would be the kind of thing I could send along in an initial coming-out letter to family and friends who rely on the fundamentals of scripture as a way of softening the blow of my news for them, but I think that would absolutely be the wrong thing to do. Since my field is rhetoric and argumentation, I’m coming at this film as an argument — a series of claims linked with a certain logic for the purpose of convincing one’s opponent of the correctness of those claims. And as an opening argumentative move, this DVD is inappropriate for the following reasons.

First, I think it muddies the trans* waters with the gay/lesbian message — and I’m afraid as much as I hear the message of “acceptance of family” as the film’s message, I’m afraid the person to which I’m coming out would only hear the “acceptance of homosexuality” message. Practically speaking, if someone is homophobic, I don’t see any reason to try to pry them off this position at the very same time I’m trying to gain acceptance as a trans* person. One step at a time.

Second, if the film started with the introduction of the cast of characters, I think it would get off to a better start with fundamentalists. The opening images of gay pride and the issues around homosexual marriage set up the viewer for a confrontation, even though the message is a quite a bit more moderate than that. I’m afraid the fundamentalist would turn off the film after the first 5 minutes, and I don’t think I’d blame them.

Third, I wish the film didn’t occasionally have that smart ass attitude that it occasionally foists on the scriptural literalist. There’s a cartoon that adopts a patronizing tone and several scenes that cut from an assertion of biblical literalism with an expert that says such a reading of that passage is childish, to recall a couple of examples. A steadily straightforward and respectful focus on faith and families (which is already a strength in the film) would be more persuasive for fundamentalists.

Fourth, there’s an argument advanced at the very end of the film that should either be fleshed out more because it’s important, or should be omitted because it’s a bit off the mark of the central message of the film. This argument is an analysis of where homophobia comes from and how IT IS THE PROBLEM for society, rather than homosexuality. The film argues that the intolerance and scapegoating of the OTHER is common in societies and that fear, coupled with an identifiable OTHER leads to violence, discrimination, and hate. I think that’s very reasonable and has been argued successfully in different contexts. But after this point, the film gets into an interesting and worthy assertion that needs to be fleshed out–namely, that underneath homophobia lies misogyny in a number of guises, not the least of which touches home for us, dear readers. The problem men have with homosexuality that they have to picture men having sex with each other, and this picture requires them to imagine themselves (or another man) behaving sexually like a woman. And as we all know, being called a sissy or a woman or effeminate, or being treated as such, is the WORST thing in the entire world for a man and is suitable grounds for hate and violence. The film doesn’t go any further than this micro-point and it seems to me that it’s worth fleshing out much more fully and theoretically, perhaps in a different setting. A quick Google search turns up a few things that tie together hypermasculinity, homophobia, and misogyny, such as “Homophobia and Misogyny,” “The Stranger,” “Gay Spirituality Blog,” and possibly the book (or at least the introduction) Hating in the First Person Plural, Ed. Donald Moss, much of which is sample-able on Google Book Search.

There you have it. I believe the DVD is inappropriate as a starting move in loving and gentle persuasion for family members and friends, but I also think it’s a wonderful item to be watched together later in the grieving, negotiating, hand-wringing process if these family members and friends are interested in trying to adapt their fundamentalism to their acceptance of the transsexual transitioner. If nothing else, this DVD would (in those situations) open up lines of discussion that might form the basis of acceptance that would not threaten religious beliefs.

I have remarked here that my transition has proceeded from the inside out, meaning hormones, therapy, and talk with Mary Jo and others. There’s not much to show to the world for all this work right now, except perhaps a happier countenance that reveals an inner peace. One of my friends was observing that this lack of wardrobe (or any external presentation) brings up an interesting question of whether my sense of style will change (or has changed).

If you think about it, it’s awfully interesting to have nothing in my closet, isn’t it? (I mean, considering how full it’s gotten through all my disclosures, I guess it makes sense there’s no room for clothes, but that’s all about to change.)

I think the first thing to ponder is whether a person’s sense of style about their profession and their general relationship to the world is something that changes in a transsexual transition or whether it stays stable (but just shifts gender expression). By “stable,” I mean that a preppy man’s style would transition into a preppy woman’s style; and a “change” style would see that preppy man’s style transition into a goth woman’s style (just to pick something really different). In reading newsgroups and support lists and blogs and memoirs, I really can’t get any general sense of a trend. Some transsexuals make changes to their sense of style and others don’t.

If the transitioner feels that his/her old, repressed person had a style that was similarly repressed or stunted, then I can see where they might feel like overthrowing that style, especially if they aren’t in a field with definable uniforms and dress norms. For my own part, being an academic, I think there is a moderate range of styles of expression, probably more free than other white collar jobs, but not nearly so free as actors, artists, and musicians realize.

What I know about myself is that I’ve never been showy, and can’t possibly imagine becoming that way even through a transsexual transition. I’ve always been drawn to conservative, but stylish, suits, and I suspect that I will still be drawn to conservative, classic looks for professional wear in women’s wear. My favorite suits have been Armani and without having a lot of experience in women’s suits, I would imagine you could do worse than Italian.

For casual, I also feel like I’m going to be pretty stable, going from jeans and shirts for men to jeans and shirts for women. The other day when I went out to dinner with Miles and Khloe I wore jeans and boots, a cream-colored stretchy t-shirt with medium-length sleeves, and a bronze-patterned jacket that Mary Jo bought from Coldwater Creek. I liked the look, and could see doing a lot of it for casual settings.

But where I’m a lot less sure (and even downright confused) is in leisure-wear and business-casual styles. I could do dresses, skirts, pants, or all manner of separates. I do think a few classic and simple dresses (including the basic black dress) would be nice to have for times when I don’t want to wear a suit or pants, but I don’t think they’re essential right now. At this point, that’s about all I know, which is awfully vague, I realize, but it’s all I’ve got.

Perhaps more interesting than simply choosing what I want to look like is the question of balancing my stunted senses and feelings with those more sophisticated and refined around me. I’m trying to be mindful of these differences between my own sense of style wants to be (even if it’s ill-formed at this point) versus what Mary Jo and my friends think it should be. I already know I’m going to bristle if I want to get dangling earrings (for example) and Mary Jo tells me it’s too young (or something like that), and then I’ll be in a state of confusion as to which of the following is in operation:

  1. Mary Jo is all knowing and has the final say over my choices,
  2. I am right by virtue of some inner voice who, even if she’s eventually going to mellow out, knows what she needs now, or
  3. We’re both wrong and are commenting on my feminine choices with so much other mixed-in baggage that neither one of us is to be trusted.

You see, clothing (as with other aspects of expression) isn’t really a blank slate upon which you can completely re-craft yourself during a transsexual transition unless you’re truly dropping out of all of society and reemerging somewhere else in your new identity (and even then, I’d be really curious as to how many ingrained norms of behavior and style are retained). Rather, the dynamics of crafting a new identity occur within the context of an existing set of family and friends who are mature, smart, and professional–and while this provides a great deal of support and continuity, it’s it also fairly daunting, and I think it tests one’s self-confidence (assuming one’s new self is formed enough to have confidence at this relatively fragile time).

I don’t think this little essay is an plea for my friends and family to let me wear whatever I damned well please, or to argue that you should support me uncritically in all my makeup, fashion, and behavior choices. But I do think I would ask you, dear reader and dear friend, to put yourself in my shoes (10 or 10.5 US women’s, by the way) if you find my choices unappealing or questionable.

I followed up my note to Mitch Law the other day with a similar letter to his sister, Arwen Law, who has moved off to the deep south to be with her boyfriend. She wrote me just now with unconditional support and a promise to help make the transition easier. Like me, it turns out she had a miserable 2007 and knows just how valuable family and friends can be.

I really can’t express how joyful I feel right now.

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