November 2008

As I lay in bed this morning, the red fire of this morning’s sunrise burned through the octagonal eastern window in the bedroom, drawing an orange octagon on the opposite wall, moving swiftly across its surface with the speed of the earth’s diurnal turning.

Fire has been on my mind lately, glowing there in the periphery of my consciousness for weeks. I dream of it, I hear words in my mind about it, and I see images of it in my mind’s eye.

It’s not the destructive fire like California grassfires, and it’s not the productive fire of cooking or forging metal or cauterizing wounds. The images I envision are the fires of purification.

I am enveloped in sin and shame and guilt, and I’m certainly not a nice person, having been selfish and self-absorbed these past two years. Counterbalancing my incredible excitement about personal growth is a simmering guilt at having removed a husband and father from my family’s environment, replacing him with a changeling, and not necessarily a bad person, but clearly a different one, and that disruption to those I love, while an inevitable fact, still hurts.

I want a fire to burn away that pain.
I want to be a better person.
I want to feel a purifying fire burning away that selfishness, guilt, and shame.

Is it possible to atone? To make it up to my loved ones? To forget myself and my travails and simply be?

Lately, I feel as I’m slowly being burned away
by the the fury of the pyre, the purity of the fire,
The drizzle of purifying flames dripping like candlewax on my flesh, my habits, my psyche.

The unneeded flesh, burning away;
The unwanted baggage, in flames, smoldering;
The unwelcome pain pale embers, their smoke rising into the still morning sky;
The newlyspoken desire stoked with the fastburning kindling of impatience and doused with the teakettle of prudence.

burning shame
burning guilt
burning tears
burning desire

unbearable burden that must be borne still

Woodsmoke and sinsmoke and egosmoke and transmoke billows up through the trees, where it mixes with the atmosphere and is diffused, its essence vanishing on the breeze as it is carried away to be mixed with the dust and the clouds and the wind.

At the same time as this diffusion of my sins, what’s left of me is becoming distilled and clarified and filtered and purified by the self-immolation brought about by my change.

However intense or emotional this spontaneous combustion, as I wander in the fiery desert, seeking rest, looking for a place of stasis in an ek-static lifeworld, I know that I will never truly be pure.

To be pure is to to escape my self-centeredness, and even as I write about my guilt, the adjective pure becomes the adverb purely becomes the verb purify becomes the noun purity, built into the noun purification, layered and layered purefyingly, purificationally, purification, purificationalistically.

The ego hasn’t burned away at all; it’s just taken another form, one clothed in atonement instead of despair. Like the ancient mariner, I feel I am destined to keep repeating my story, my words the fire of my confession. My hope is that these words are more than self-indulgence, but may, over time, finally burn away my albatross of shame and eventually provide some heat or light that is actually useful to someone else.

Sometimes lately (and it’s not all the time), I don’t feel very real. You may laugh all you want and retort that I’m wrong, but what I’m feeling precisely is this: although I’ve left George far behind, I don’t feel particularly like Joyce (whatever that’s supposed to feel like). Naturally, one can’t force how one feels, but I wonder if part of the problem is the difference between what I imagined it would feel like to be Joyce and what it’s like actually being Joyce.

All outside observations aside, I find myself wondering what is the barrier to achieving that feeling, and it seems to me that such a feeling must be bound to be tied up in expectations. In other words, I wonder if I’m thinking of being Joyce as a choice between “either” and “or” (i.e. I’m either all woman, or I’m not real).

Logically, I find this all very funny because I know there is a large spectrum of reality between “all woman” and “nothingness,” and I tell myself I should just feel being myself right now, and be done with it. But this isn’t about logic, is it? It’s about feeling, and I can’t pinpoint whether this feeling comes from my head, my social circle, or my body, or maybe a bit of all three.

Let me be specific with you because this isn’t so much of an existential problem as a bodily one. What I know is that I am increasingly frustrated with my body, especially my hip-to-waist ratio. I guess I always pictured Joyce as voluptuous, but when my pants keep falling off of my non-hips (which is pretty funny when I look back on these events), I think I feel less than legitimate.

One voice in my head tells me that I have to try to let that frustration go, and embrace Joyce as she emerges because this feeling has nothing to do with trans*issues, but plain old body image issues. As I’ve learned from talking honestly with women this past year, everybody wishes she were just a little different: bustier, less hippy, thinner, and so on.

However, another voice tells me that my frustration (and my “let it go” remedy) isn’t nearly so clear cut, that while I’ve had years to imagine Joyce in a particular way, those imaginings were never terribly concrete, and that it’s perfectly fair to want the body to match the inner image.

The fact of the matter is that unless I want to have more surgeries, I may have to learn to live with what I’ve got. I will never have child-bearing hips from which to hang skirts and pants, but as my friend Violet often tells me, I have to learn to rock the body I’ve got. I like the sound of that — now I just need to learn how to do it.

On December 2, 1959, at 10:22 p.m., I was born in the hospital that my great-great grandmother built with oil money 25 years earlier. Both my mother and father were born in this hospital 20 and 21 years before this evening. I am told I was delivered in a blizzard.


A few days ago, I received a crisp new birth certificate stating (contrary to the facts stated above) that it was not George Bailey, a boy, but rather Joyce Bailey, a girl, who was born in that hospital. On the one hand, I am happy to have the document — it is one more piece of paper that legitimizes my existence. On the other hand, I feel a bit odd about it because (let’s face it), that’s not the way things happened.

In the delivery room on that dark December night, as far as anyone present knew, I was a normal newborn boy, and that’s what the attending doctor certified. I have the old certificate, the birth announcements, the blue clothes, to prove it. This boy was surrounded by love and expectations from the beginning, imbued with male privilege and power and family history.

This new document erases that fact and replaces it with something that simply didn’t happen. If my parents’ first-born had been a girl, would she have ended up where I am now, or would social and family expectations be such that she would have aspired to something very different? It’s an impossible thing to consider.

But one doesn’t have to ponder this impossibility — the new birth certificate doesn’t undo my life, but just documents it differently. In the UK, they don’t replace your birth certificate when you’ve changed sex, but they issue a Gender Recognition Certificate, supposedly indistinguishable from a normal birth certificate, and when you think of it, this approach more accurate because it leaves the original document untouched. In other words, there are two birth certificates, the original and the new one. In 100 years, when UK genealogy-hunters go back, they can find that John Barleycorn was born on a certain date and that he became Jane Barleycorn 30 years later. What will my progeny find when they go looking for George’s birth certificate? Nothing but a changeling swaddled in pink and left in the little boy’s place.

If the legal documentation doesn’t leave a trace, then it’s up to us to make the past intelligible through telling our life stories.

This past weekend, I caught up with friends from high school at an artsy hideaway in the Texas hill country. They knew of the George-to-Joyce transition, but had not actually seen me, so I naturally went a bit neurotic in the days leading up to the visit, worrying about what I should wear and how I should look. I packed at least 5 different outfits for a 48 hour visit.

I should not have worried because within minutes of sitting down and talking, it was like old times, singing high school musical numbers from Annie Get Your Gun, and Sound of Music (yes, we were all choir nerds). We learned about everyone’s families, various jobs, relationships, and the various twists that befall everyone in the course of living.

And despite having to pay for houses and raise kids and worry about health, I’m happy to report that my high school friends are following their bliss. They have moved to healthier climates, they are pursuing careers and hobbies that suit them (and not someone else), and they are serving society by being authentic to themselves and their ideas.

The gathering felt almost mythological. On the one hand, all of us have transformed so radically since high school, physically, sexually, spiritually, that it was incredibly inspiring to have these life-travelers as friends. On the other hand, we are more or less the same people we were 30 years ago, and we noted the incredible bond that we formed way back then that could allow us to pick up the threads of conversation after such an enormous gap in time with hardly a beat.

I felt loved and accepted, and I found myself wondering, knowing what I know now about myself and my friends, if I had come out as transsexual in high school, would their love and acceptance have sustained me against the rejection (real or imagined) I would have faced.

Even as I write these lines, I suddenly remember dreams I had in the 70’s where I did change sex and where these same friends didn’t skip a beat in their friendship and love. Of course, this musing is nothing but a thought experiment, but I find myself picturing a young Joyce interacting with these friends in high school, and when I think of these images, I find myself smiling.

If you weren’t looking for it, you might have completely missed language on the Obama transition website (Change.Gov) pledging not to discriminate on the basis of gender identity, among other things. On the page regarding those who seek appointments to this administration, you’ll find the following language:

The Obama-Biden Transition Project does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or any other basis of discrimination prohibited by law. (emphasis added)

According to employment lawyer Daniel Schwartz, who was quoted in an NPR report, gender identity nondiscrimination has never been part of federal hiring policies before, and expects that this pledge by Obama will form the basis of an executive order when the new administration starts. The ACLU issued a statement praising this language, as well.

I’ve reached a very puzzling stage in my development where I am neither excited nor fearful of being Joyce. Daily life feels so normal, so mundane, that it’s easy to mistake it for feeling as if nothing has happened these past couple of years. This is to say I don’t really feel like anything. I’m just comfortable and happy, and it’s an odd feeling.

After trying to get to a place where I was Joyce, this nothingness is okay with me. It’s a safe place to be who I really am, and that’s really not too much to ask of life, is it?

Nothingness sounds boring, I know, but it is only boring in comparison to the frantic and wild trip of the past 2 years. The boredom is considerable relief from the pain that has plagued me most of my life.

I am reminded of the Talking Heads’ song Heaven, where nothing ever happens, but instead of dullness, “It’s hard to imaging that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.”

I need to tell you some things. Looking back at my development, now that I’m Joyce, I’ve got to admit to you that I’m seeing a lot more details of my old self, details that may have been evident to anyone who knew me, but details that were invisible to me. Take this class picture from 8th grade, for example.

8th Grade

It’s been such a long time that I can’t remember what I must have been thinking when I sat in that school gymnasium for the school picture, having woven my way in the long line of students waiting their turn to sit for 3 seconds in the chair for the flash and the immortality that comes from having the picture printed in a yearbook. It is hard to tell. I recall thinking that I didn’t want to smile, that only goofy people smiled for photographs. Or maybe I thought I was somehow cooler in my aloof intellectual posturing.

But I don’t have to know what I was thinking all those years ago because the look tells it all. Look at those eyes behind those John Denver eyeglasses — that’s not “cool” that I’m projecting, but deep sadness, anger, confusion.

I have seen this photograph 20 times over the years and I never felt it required much attention beyond the glance of familiarity with my past, which is to say that maybe my own adult sadness, confusion, and anger never noticed anything out of the ordinary in that adolescent face. It was simply the way I was — in Jr. High as in adulthood — so why would that face mean anything special to me?

But now.

Now it feels as if someone turned on the light, or maybe the picture was restored in a museum, because the photograph looks completely different. When I see this picture now, it’s heartbreaking. The boy is so angry and twisted up and confused that even though he is a good, cleancut kid making good grades, he feels as if he’s standing utterly outside of sense and meaning and joy.

His eyes are the clencher — I honestly have not studied the eyes until now, or maybe they seemed familiar because they were my own adult eyes. But the squint of anger feels painful. I used to think I could take on an emotionless stone-face, and maybe this picture is how I did it, but this image, this face, is anything but emotionless. This is the face of emotional defiance with a caption that says, “I dare you to try to get inside. I’m smarter than you, more stubborn than you, and I have a wall so thick that you will never get close enough to know my secrets.”

I am aware of the dangers of using an interpretation from 2008 to understand a picture from 1973 — these two versions of me are forever separated, even if each of us was aware of each other at some level. I know that it is intellectually unfair to explain his thoughts via my history and my knowledge of how his life turns out.

But what is much more interesting to me is how my current perceptions have changed so much — and these perceptions aren’t limited to conversations and relationships, but extend to the way I perceive myself, both now and in my past. Maybe it sounds like a split-personality, but I feel that my relationship with myself has changed dramatically these past 6 months.

How many other images or events look radically different in the light of transition? How much more will be revealed about my alienation as I settle into this new life, this new body, this new sense of presence?

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