“Nice to meet you,” said my colleague at a reception a few weeks ago. “I don’t believe I know you,” she continued with warm smile and outstretched hand. “Hi, Nancy Lee,” I said, using her name and playing along with what I thought was a friendly joke, “I’m Joyce, and yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Still straightfaced, she looked at me and asked, “What department are you with, Joyce?”

“Your department — I’ve been your colleague for 10 years and I’m the head of the graduate program, as you know.”

A lightbulb began to burn, turned on by the dimmer switch inside her brain, as she began to realize who I was and the facial expression turned from eagerness to shock and embarrassment. “Oh…. well…. nice to see you here,” she mumbled and, turning on her heel, walked away to greet someone else.

If it weren’t for several obvious facts, I would empathize with her. If this were her first time encountering Joyce, long after my disclosure letter in the spring and the farewell to George, followed by a long summer of absence, I would be the one turning red with shame — it has never been my goal to shock anyone with my transsexual transition.

If it weren’t for the facts that

  • we had served on a committee together that met at least 3 times over the summer
  • we spoke at the faculty retreat and I gave a report to the rest of the faculty
  • we have attended at least 1 faculty meeting together this fall

….. if it weren’t for these facts, I might make sense of the episode by arguing that she had been ambushed by a transsexual and was so shocked that she didn’t know what to do. However, these facts, it seems to me, turn the tables on my colleague and reveal what must be the truth — that she didn’t realize what Joyce looked like because she hasn’t looked at me during all these events. I either do not merit her attention or I’m too monstrous to view (like the Gorgon who can turn you to stone if you look at her).

I personally like the latter image, the tranny as powerful Medusa who can capture your attention and freeze you in your tracks, her power a combination of the viewer’s terror and insatiable curiosity. No one wants to look, but they have to — maybe not in direct-eye-contact confrontations, but rather in furtive glances captured across a meeting room or around the corner or over someone else’s shoulder. It’s the classical mythology equivalent of looking at a car wreck on the highway as you drive by.

I was incognito, not as some deliberate spy-novel scheme involving disguises and fake accents, but as myself, and the paradox is that the label “incognito” isn’t anything I applied to myself, but is a product of Nancy Lee’s averted gaze. For months, she was clearly able to avoid looking at me, and thus was able to avoid the stony fate that awaited her. Her plan backfired at this reception, when she sized me up from across the room, made direct eye contact, walked purposefully across the room, and sought an introduction and, in one fell swoop, the label “incognito” erased in a puff of semantic smoke at the same time she felt her muscles begin to turn to stone.