Last Tuesday was the last day of the spring semester, and it was also was my last class of all time presenting as a man. [We won’t get into how well I’m pulling that off because I’m apparently not doing very well — good thing I’m a transsexual is all I can say.]
As I dressed that morning, I felt a sense of ritual occasion. I chose my best Armani suit, deep and dark with subtle stripes, dark purple shirt, expensive tie, and nice Italian shoes. It’s a good look, professional without being stilted. In fact, someone else has my blessing to continue this look with a similar suit. I, however, am finished with it. This past month at school has been difficult as the weather has become warmer because I just cannot really take of my jacket any more (I’ve always been a “jacket-off” kind of professor). With the semester finally over and my relationship with students no longer based on the power of giving grades, I am fully out (in several ways).
But that wasn’t the last men’s suit I have worn. I wore what I think is my final suit as a man on Friday, when we attended the funeral for Mary Jo’s father. I chose a black Italian suit with faint gray pinstripes and a subtle tie with blues and blacks. Despite the fact that I’m feeling completely like Joyce, it did not even cross my mind to attempt to present as female or to dress down for this occasion, since it was a time for Mary Jo’s family to gain some closure.
I have worn many nice suits over the years, and I’ve always liked the look of a decent suit. I wore one for my wedding, for the funerals of my parents, for graduations and other ceremonies. I’ve worn them in my classes, bucking the trend for professors in the humanities who prefer the casual look. I’ve worn dark suits, gray suits, light suits, pinstripe and solid suits. My suits were cheaper when I was younger and have become increasingly expensive over the years.
When I have worn these suits, I always wear a tie, and I have tried to invest in nice-looking ties over the years. When I took my professor job, I bought perhaps 30 Jerry Garcia ties on Ebay and they became my steady repository of color and style to complement my Italian suits for the past 10 years.
If you buy a cheap suit that looks stiff and you look uncomfortable, then all you’ve succeeded in doing is being a “stiff suit.” If you wear a suit because it’s the only way you acquire power, then you’re the classic “suit” from middle management. Both of these are wrong reasons to wear suits. If, however, you have a nice fabric and you feel comfortable in the suit, then I find it becomes like a haiku for expressing you — you’ve only got so many fashion syllables to work with, and a suit gets so much done so sparingly that you can do it almost without thinking: suit, shirt, tie (almost in any combination you want).
As I contemplate retiring all these suits and acquiring new ones for women, I feel as if such mindlessness is gone. There is more to think about — not just the suit, but the blouse, the accessories, the shoes, the jewelry. Sure, the basic foundation of a good, comfortable suit probably remains the same, but there are many more accents. If a man’s suit is a haiku, then a woman’s suit is more like a sonnet, still constrained in some way (14 lines, in this case), but with a great deal more volume, subtlety, nuance, and range. It can be overdone or underdone in ways I have not had to face before.
Perhaps the issue of suits is really just a metaphor for all parts of my life — sure, I do need to buy new clothes, but a transsexual transition involves a great deal of bringing things and actions and beliefs that used to be automatic into a new consciousness or a new setting. Stance, vocabulary, attitude, relationships — virtually forgotten as conscious acts that we all learned as adolescents and refined over the years are now suddenly brought into question for revision, awkwardly and self-consciously in many cases. No, it’s not just a matter of thinking, “Wow, now I need to buy new clothes,” but rather, “Wow, I have to re-visit and re-learn how I ‘dress’ not only my body, but also my entire persona and every way that it interacts with others.”
Fortunately, a woman’s suit and a men’s suit are still just suits, both in the same category of professionalism and seriousness. And so are these other dressings of interaction: talk, eye contact, body language. They need adjustment, not radical change. It’s like learning to order food in England instead of America, perhaps requiring a slightly different vocabulary and employing different units of measurement and currency, but the goal of getting food and drink in one’s belly is still the same.