May 2008

How do we conceive of our old selves? Do we shed them like snakeskins and move on with our lives? Or do we honor them by integrating their best parts into the new us? My preference, as you can tell from my tone, is to do the latter. My psyche is permanently bound up with my past, and while I understand why some transsexuals choose to jettison their past, I think it’s sheer folly for me to pretend that George doesn’t exist and never existed.

I wrote a few months ago about the appropriate ritual for a transsexual’s journey and concluded that neither a funeral nor a welcome-home party was up to the task, but that graduation might come close. I have been thinking about this topic on and off during the spring, and in an exchange with JackyV in the comments to “Round the Clock,” I stumbled across another, perhaps much better, metaphor — retirement.

Rather than seeing this transition as a clean break from George, I see this process as the ultimate gift to him. It frees him from his toil, much of which was clueless, but a lot of which involved covering up my existence. He’s a good-hearted man who I hope did all right by family and friends and I genuinely like him. But he’s earned his retirement. I give him permission to stand down, to lay down his arms, to drop his ever-cautious guard that made him reserved and lonely. I want him to get a good night’s sleep and lounge by the pool and live a playful retirement.

But I also want him to write me postcards from his travels from time to time, to impart his wisdom and patience to me, to even share some of his caution and skepticism with me. I want to write him on the cruise that never ends and tell him I’m sorry for causing him so much pain and that I think we’re going to make it. I want to send him pictures of the family he built and let him know that he’s always in our hearts and minds. He may not be present, but he is fully integrated into our family and into my being.

I know family and friends are worried that in sending George into retirement, I will lose my values, my scholarly and administrative skills, and my very being, but that prospect seems unlikely. Sure, I’m going to do things a little differently, present myself in a changed way, emphasize different things in my interactions with others — but my values are ultimately George’s values, even though they may be wrapped up in a different package. I certainly don’t want to let him or his legacy down.

Thanks and bon voyage, George, lifelong protector and conspirator.

COLAGE is an unbelievably valuable organization for kids of transgendered people (as well as GLBQ, but I’m most interested in the transgendered issue for obvious reasons). They have a wonderfully rich page at their website to support transgendered families, and they have just revamped their “Kids of Trans” portion of the website, where you can find a newly released 40-page publication designed just for kids, “Kids of Trans Resource Guide,” along with discussion boards and publications for parents who are transitioning.

While I was writing poetry and worrying about swimming suits and work clothes and a thousand other little things, something happened.

I slipped into being Joyce full-time, well ahead of my anticipated schedule of July. Considering how much planning and processing and prognosticating I’ve done over every detail of my life for the past two years, this turn of events seems surprising. Funny thing is that I didn’t really even say to myself, “Joyce, today’s the first day of full-time,” or “wow, today is the very last day of George.” The concept never crossed my mind.

It’s just that when I got ready for work on Tuesday, having been the real me since Saturday morning, I just dressed normally and continued being me. It seemed the natural thing to do. I don’t think the idea that I’m Joyce full-time and forever actually crossed my mind until Wednesday or perhaps even today.

I think I would chalk up this turn of events to the students who were here in Bedford Falls for a 2-week seminar as part of their degree requirements. They learned of Joyce in April and were accepting and encouraging, going so far as to ask (when I came to work as George), “What’s up with this look? I thought you were Joyce.” Mary Jo and I held a party for them last Saturday, and many of them came to see the house and to meet Joyce, and I felt all my resistance begin to crumble in the presence of their acceptance and normal party activities. The next work week, George fell further and further away and felt more and more awkward to maintain. When Saturday, the last day of the seminar, rolled around, I went to work as Joyce–linen pants, white shirt, salmon blazer. And from 9:00 until the farewell dinner was over at 8:00 pm, that’s the way I was. I held a focus group, introduced a lunch speaker, did advising with my students, conferred with other faculty, went to a group therapy session, bought a few cases of beer, and went to a Japanese steakhouse for our final dinner together — and somewhere in the day, I forgot who I was.

And by “forget,” I mean that I quit thinking about who I was. Or maybe it was that I remembered who I was.

Since then, it’s been Joyce round the clock, experiencing the mundane world in really interesting ways, which I’ll catalog in short blog entries as they occur. For now, though, I am still a little dazed by these events — maybe one simply realizes she’s ready and regardless of the calendar, just steps through the gate.

Looking back, one notices that the gate is no longer there, primarily a product of one’s mind instead of external forces. I’m standing on the other side and see no portal, no reasonable boundary between the old me and the new me. I am very surprised to see how easily I fell through and how easy it is to be me

She said she wanted to do this
told all her friends
bragged about the big jump
laughed and joked all the way to the ladder

So vulnerable climbing the steps
painful progress to the top
fighting with herself not to reveal the fear
and to show bravery to the entire pool

Worried, but trying not to show it,
we below also balance bravery with fear.
light-hearted encouragement:
“It’s easy, honey! The water’s fine!”

Treading water, necks tilted back looking up, yelling encouragement
to the one we love, seeing the fear and excitement on her face
fatigue in our arms and legs, but we don’t dare call it off ;
we paste the supportive smiles on our weary faces.

She’ll jump in time; everyone does eventually
you don’t see little old men and women living up there,
camped out on the threshold for the rest of their lives,
faint-hearted youthful adventurers who weren’t able to muster the courage,
dreams unrealized, failure their legacy.

But it seems like it takes forever, and we’re tired of treading water.
can’t she see how easy it is? How easy it will be?
it’s as easy as falling down.
Driving home she will go on and on and on about the day,
about jumping over and over and over and over
and about how much fun it was and who she jumped with;
amnesia about the trepidation we now see in her body language
as she stands up there in the wind,
knees locked, jaw set, fists at her side,
toes dangling over the edge,

We have all been there, facing our demons,
and having finally jumped off our own high boards,
we float to the frothy surface, grab a breath,
and look up at the board and ask what was the big deal?

* jumping off this high board,
* holding her breath longer than ever before,
* swimming all the way across the deep end,
* touching the grate at the bottom of the pool,
* doing a flip off the low board,
* changing in the bathroom with all those people watching:

She will face these gateless gates of summer,
open them, pass through them;
her life, her jump, her indecision,
in the twinkling of an eye it will be gone

[see also “On the High Dive“]

In an earlier post, I complained that “trans-” anything doesn’t really get at the complexity of sex, gender, or clothing, and depends entirely on a binary view of these things to work, at least metaphorically.

I’d like to continue with my thoughts on “trans” in this post, not looking at metaphor, but rather at naming. How do we name a phenomenon this complex and rich and so tightly intertwined with other cultural intrigues? Is it fair to lump all this richness into a word like “transgender?” “Transsexual?” A particle of a word like “trans?”

What shall we say about this phenomenon and these people that doesn’t erase all that rich difference but that also conveys some common sense of our lives and interests to others? After all, the name we use is probably more important in this second mission (informing, teaching others) than what word we use among ourselves. A transvestite knows the difference between a transvestite and a transsexual and a gender-queer and a drag queen, and we can play with those terms among ourselves and enjoy the rich complexity and humor of it all. But when it comes to talking to employers, family, friends, civic leaders, law-makers, law-enforcers, religious leaders; when it comes to working with other kinds of “diverse” people like gays and lesbians and all variants of ethnic and racial and cultural minorities; when it comes to conveying our experiences to others for the purposes of helping them to understand and to build connections, at least in early stages of mutual understanding, I think it’s important to use a term that is grasped and understood and retained.

A lot of people call us all “transgendered,” but that term has problems I’ve already identified elsewhere. “Gender variant” is probably a better general term, but it hardly rolls off the tongue. I have noticed that the question of naming is tricky enough that some writers, myself included, sometimes just truncate everything as “trans” or “trans*,” and hope it suffices.

And an even further distilling takes place when “trans” is turned into the letter T. The problem with being T is that everyone uses it and says it as “trans” — not trans-gendered or transsexual, but simply “trans,” like trans-fat or trans-national, our linguistic siblings, except that “trans” isn’t the part of the word that really matters. It’s not the trans, but the fat you’re worried about. It’s not the trans, but the Atlantic, that makes trans-atlantic meaningful. And calling me “trans” or “T” doesn’t get at the meaty issue of sex and gender. It’s simply a smoothing over of embarrassing things so that a “rainbow” group leader can say something like this shorthand: “We have done a good job recruiting G and L, and an OK job at Q, but we have virtually no B membership, but we are hoping to increase both B and T in the coming year.” Like algebraic equations, these variables represent values, but as long as they remain as single letters, the complexity of those values, people, and actions remains hidden, bureaucratized and acronymized and anonymized.

As annoying as this truncation is, however, and as frustrating as it sometimes is for trans* people to have been lumped into an unwieldy acronym community with lesbians, gays, bisexuals, queers, and others to make LGBTQ, I believe it is far better to have an acronym that some people (administrators, law-makers, and support groups) know and recognize than to be invisible and unnamed. In other words, I’d rather be a mere letter T in this sentence uttered by a mayor or governor or president–“We need to ensure that the LBGTQ community is protected from discrimination in employment” — than to be in this sentence, fully and linguistically accurate — “Come on, boys, let’s string up the tranny.”

See also “Trans-it”

Standing on the end of the high dive,
having climbed up those long, high steps in full view of everyone at the pool,
knees trying not to wobble,
going higher and higher, taking what feels like forever
until standing safely on solid surface.

Stable and dry (nowhere to stand forever, but known and safe for now),
The rough non-slip surface is reassuring
against the wind and the oscillations of the board,
a dry, high haven.

Once you jump or fall,
the laws of physics take over
and there’s no stopping the inevitable:
you’re gonna hit the water.

But is dry what you desire?

No, you want to jump
and feel the butterflies fluttering in your stomach
and hear the wind rush by your ears
and hold your breath
and experience the exhilaration and the fear together,
and become enveloped by water below.

Lingering at the very edge of the high board,
everyone down below — family, friends, students —
treading water and yelling Go ahead, it’ll be ok.
Take the leap; you are as good as wet already.

Trust is easy with their beckonings below,
but fear — irrational or rational — still lingers and swirls around you
like the breeze in your dry hair,
suggesting so many ways to fail:
Broken eardrums
Poor form
Suit falling off because of the force of the belly flop
Dying of embarrassment.

But your water nature is your destiny
and despite these fears, real and imagined,
you must step inevitably off the high dive
through space and void and into that pool.

Toes over the edge
Painted red
Get them wet

We’ll be in the water waiting for you

[see also “Beneath the High Dive“]

snippet of a letter to Carol Honda, a professor friend from the west coast

I’ll tell you a time in my life where you really, really made a difference. Do you remember when I had tickets to the Grateful Dead for 3 nights in a row in Oakland Coliseum? I rented a car and drove up to Davis and we went wine tasting (and brandy tasting at Domain Carneros) and you were studying something the tuba, something utterly joyous. Debra had just broken up with me and I was reeling and your friendship and the visit west and the Dead helped get me back into a good place.

Right after my visit west I dove deeply into building Joyce, not some cross-dressing, fearful Joyce, but a social, happy, out Joyce, and she was well on her way to emerging when I met Mary Jo, and although she didn’t ask me to do it, I sort of voluntarily put Joyce away with the thought that true love, family, and kids would render that part of myself obsolete forever.

You can see how well that worked.

I since learned that what they call Gender Identity Disorder never, never, never goes away. You’re born with it and you’re destined to do something about it, depending on how severely you feel at odds in your body. I love my life and my family and my kids and job, and this one thing threatened to wipe it all out. I figured (coldly and rationally) that all in all, it would be better for me to acknowledge this condition, pick the path that I knew was right (if hard), and live the rest of my life as a woman than to pick what was behind any of the 20 unknown doors with 20 bad outcomes like death by stress or anger or heart attack or ulcer or suicide.

So here I am, 15 months of estrogen (and no testosterone), 17 months of therapy, out to all my students, faculty, administrators, family, and friends — on the eve of morphing from George into Joyce for good, and life is really all very good. I feel like I’ve joined the human race. Even in the pages of this blog you can see how bubbly (on average) my recent posts have been compared to the depressing posts of not very long ago.

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