February 2009

Although the bulk of coming-out activities happened for me in February-May last year, and even though it’s the kind of news that one imagines will be on the cover of your hometown newspaper and spread like wildfire, many people did not learn of my transsexual transition in the first wave of coming out. Old school friends, distant cousins, friends of friends, children’s friends’ parents, and professionals with whom I only have contact once a year are among those that fall into this category.

What do I do? I look through my file of coming-out letters that was used so heavily last spring, open a copy, and revise, changing the future tense to past tense, adjusting some of the facts, and toning down the drama. And as I’m doing this, I marvel over what that season was like, how cloak-and-dagger, how carefully (I thought) managed and tracked — it was a big project and there were certain economies of scale at play in coming out to so many people.

By comparison, a “once-in-a-while” coming out is mentally more difficult for several reasons. First, this category of person wasn’t in the first wave because they weren’t in my daily circle, because Mary Jo and I wanted to hold back this news from them, or because I simply wasn’t aware of them. As such, my fear of rejection is much, much lower, and I find that my plaintive rhetoric of the spring is overwrought for these people. Second, coming out is simply not in the list of daily things I do, and it takes some mental effort to return to the project. Third, while I know what sort of questions the recipient is likely to have (they don’t change much through time), I’m in a much different place a year later, and it’s much harder for me to feel the extreme feelings or reactions (real or imagined) in this revelation. My existence feels so mundane to me now that I hardly feel it’s worth coming out any more; in other words, my life is normal to me, but may be extremely abnormal to others. And this is my flaw entirely, the flaw of failing to put myself into my reader’s head and matching my rhetoric with what they need — I’m just saying I find it very difficult. There’s something to be said for mutual exigency in a rhetorical act; if either party fails to feel it, I think the communication may be less successful.

Why come out to this group? When I get a Facebook query from an old high school classmate asking, “I went to school with your brother — where is he?” I feel compelled to explain that I am that person, not because I want to sensationalize my experience, but because it feels dishonest not to disclose my history. When I realize I need to meet with a family attorney or accountant, I know that they absolutely must know the truth if we are to be honest with each other, and I’m certainly not dressing up as George again to appease anyone (even if I could “pass” as him any more). When I feel a hankering to meet with my great-aunt and ask her stories of my grandmother and other family members on the Law side of the family, I realize that my transition is part of that family story, and she and her family need to know what I’ve done so that we can resume being family.

I may not be as effective or efficient at these second-wave disclosures as I was during the first-wave, but I don’t feel I can be wholly myself while maintaining a cloak of misinformation.

Starting last fall, I began working with a voice coach here in Bedford Falls. As I began to inhabit my new reality, I became more self-conscious about my voice, especially when little kids would ask me things like, “How come you talk like a man?” And I began to realize that I needed to find my voice, which is to say I not only wanted my voice to be passably feminine, but I also wanted to gain a self-authority and integrity to feel confident to speak as Joyce.

My voice coach is Bill “the Big” Lebowski, believe it or not, and he’s a fabulous resource for trans* people in my city. As wonderful as he is, and as wonderful as it’s been working with his graduate students on gendered speech, starting (and continuing) these therapy sessions was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in a long time. And not because I can’t play with my voice or recognize various qualities of vocal exercises (I can do all sorts of voices when I read stories or assume a character), but because I became aware of a deep resistance to improving my voice. This resistance built in me and manifested itself in November by my total break-down into tears during one of my once-weekly meetings.

I’m not going to solve it here. I’m also not going to get into all the specific vocal qualities and exercises I’m working on here (I’ll write some other posts about these things). But what I would now like to try to get at is why voice training sometimes makes me feel like breaking down, like a total fraud, like something artificial. I do not want to be artificial.

You may be shaking your head in disbelief, pointing out that almost everything about me could be seen as artificial — surgically-altered face, new biochemistry, new dress, new social role, and the list goes on. But none of those things feel especially odd or artificial to me. They feel natural, as if I have adjusted a personal style to be closer to my natural self than before. Voice, however is another thing. The way it stands out from my other modifications of the past couple of years reveals a lot about my psychology, I think.

Here’s my theory. If we list all my attributes and values, I believe right at the top of the list is a core identity that’s a thinker and a communicator. I feel that the only way I create value for the world is in my thinking and communicating, and those qualities are (or ought to be), I think, solid and immutable. My voice is the main conduit through which my thinking manifests itself (there’s also typing, but my fingers aren’t transitioning, as far as I’m aware). Following this train of logic, if we start messing with the voice, we threaten my core self, and the core self fights back. In other words, it feels (and felt) as if my voice was the one true thing about me and even though it has been difficult to get rid of my beard, acquire a new wardrobe, modify my body chemistry, and pursue various surgeries, it is the voice that comes closest to my core identity, and feeling as if I’m learning to do “drag” with my voice undercuts what is essential to me.

I’m not saying I consciously think like this, but I think it is a plausible explanation for my melancholy around vocal work. The objective facts of my existence are that I don’t have trouble doing day-to-day activities in the least, whether out in public at the dry cleaners, mechanic shop, or retail shopping with people who presumably do not know my situation, or in the academic world with colleagues, students, and staff who fully know my situation. It must be the case that my communications with all these parties are plausibly consistent with my presentation so that there’s no cause for alarm.

Subjectively, though, my paranoid side explains it like this: everyone knows I’m a man in a dress, and my man’s voice always gives it away, and the fact that they’re not saying anything merely reveals that they are being polite and not making my gender presentation an issue. I don’t think this rings true, as my recent experience with surgical intake, in which I was asked straight-faced if I had had a hysterectomy, suggests that no one notices anything odd about my voice and I just ought to quit worrying about it.

As last fall wore on, and as I continued to process why I felt weird doing vocal work, I developed a more nuanced version of my identity theory: I do fine in transactional conversation because there are no psychological consequences for being artificial when picking up a pizza, dropping off the dry cleaning, asking my secretary about scheduling a room. But I lose all my training when it comes to my profession because that’s where I feel I can least afford to be perceived as being inauthentic.

And that’s where things stand. My friends and vocal coaches can fool me easily into forgetting all my voice work by simply asking me about my specialty. I start speaking under control, but quickly get excited, speed up, and completely lose “control” over the new voice. I think it’s perfectly illustrative of my idea of the core identity pushing forward and saying, “To hell with all this artificiality and vocal performance; this is important stuff.”

Thus, all my vocal work will be threatened any time I make extemporaneous speech that actually matters (which is a large proportion of my speaking). I am faced with a personal improvement project that requires that I become self-conscious enough to keep this speech under control without becoming self-conscious to the point of feeling artificial. Quite a challenge, eh?

What’s left of the old me? Nothing? Something? Everything? Mary Jo asks both playfully and seriously, “What’s left of the old person?” and my answer is either that I’m just the same as I always was or that I am a total changeling.

Can I be both? Or must I be one or the other? Am I a completely different person? And if so, how can I connect everything together between the two selves? Or am I fundamentally the same as before and what can I point to that remains unchanged?

Sometimes I feel as if nothing’s changed at all, and by this sentiment, I think I mean that I feel whole and together in ways that recall the simpler aspects of my youth. So by saying that I’m the same as I always was, I believe I’m arguing for something like an essential self that I have managed to recuperate in the turmoil of these past few years. When I think like this, it’s easy to say that the only things that have changed are superficial.

But I also am struck by how much has changed. I don’t recognize my face, my skin, my dress, the way I think, or the way I relate to myself and other people. I catch glimpses (visual or just self-aware) of myself and am often stunned by who I am, and I find myself staring in the mirror or touching my arm or looking at the people around me and feeling almost as if I’ve been transported to an almost-identical world, but a world where everything is changed slightly. When I think like this, it’s easy to believe that nothing is left of the old me, not even memories, facts, intelligences, or relationships, and it’s a pretty easy step from that point to feeling perplexed about just what it’s all about.

I think the only way to reconcile these two views is to say they’re both right. I’m like Einstein’s thought experiment about the speed of light. There is a train that’s traveling almost the speed of light and to those inside the train, everything is normal: their clocks run the proper speed, they walk around the cars normally, and they remain the same size and shape. However, for an observer outside the train, some very odd things are happening: the train is longer, the people inside stretched longer, their watches running terribly slowly.

Which time, length, shape is “true?” For Einstein, both views are true.

What I do know about my own life is that its truths are very Einstein-like, and depend on where you stand relative to the speeding train of change. My equation isn’t E=mc^2, but it’s something similarly beautiful and perplexing. After all, I have multiplied my identities, divided them, added body parts and biochemistry, and subtracted beard, masculinity, and muscles. I was a whole number, an integer, then became an irrational or prime number. I used to be somewhere near the mean of a normal distribution, well inside 1 standard deviation, but now find that I have come to define deviation itself.

So having divided my old self by a transsexual transition, is everything easily divisible, or is there a remainder that makes my identity forever altered from its positive integer-ness of my youth? And just what is that remainder, anyway? Mary Jo and I would certainly like to know.

Some people really cringe when they think about genital reassignment surgery, the mutilation of one’s manhood. This images touches a nerve, and something up in the reptilian brain screams Protect Me, Protect Me.

I, however, do not hear that voice. I’ve never really had any animosity towards my genitals, as some transsexuals seem to have. I’ve always been on fair to good terms with my penis, although I have never obsessed about its length or power or prowess or anything like that that you see in a lot of guys. And I don’t feel terribly sad about its recent hormonal incapacitation. We had a lot of good times together, but now it’s time for it to step aside and let the rest of me evolve to do what I need to do.

Not having grown up with a vagina, vulva, or clitoris, I really can’t say what it’s like to have them, what they’re like to live with, or what it’ll be like to acquire them. But I can speak with quite a bit of authority about the male equipment, and it’s actually a pretty interesting story when you step back and look at them objectively.

People joke about a man thinking with his little head, but that’s no joke. The penis has a mind of its own, and that’s a source of many of my most embarrassing moments, especially when I was younger. When I got erect, I harbored a monster in my pants, and no amount of slouching or hands in pockets or shirt-tale out (that wasn’t allowed in school when I was growing up, although it seemed like a great solution to the problem) would make any difference. I had some absolutely horrible experiences in Junior High, and I suspect that most boys do, but I am not sure (boys don’t have a Judy Blume book for this or a culture of talking about it). In my case, my equipment would remain at attention for long amounts of time, and the harder I tried to mentally control it, the more it would defy me and stay up, a giant bulge in front of me. Naturally, this usually happened when I was called on to come up in front of my class to give a report, answer a question, or sing a solo in choir, and I was always mortified. I’d stick my hands in my pockets, slouch, and hope that it would go away. Being a good student, my mind wanted to stick to the subject at hand, but down below, my non-academic head was always vying for attention.

I remember wishing it would go down, tuck itself away, and leave me alone, but puberty is cruel — it’s not about thinking, in the first place, and certainly not about wishing, and despite my pleas, my penis was up all the time.

The weird thing is that in these early days, sexual relations were never on my mind. My penis might as well have been a growth on my arm that swelled and subsided periodically. Having a penis is like having a roommate who comes and goes randomly, who pops up when you least expect her, and sometimes doesn’t show up when you wish she would. It would be nice to be able to hang a little sign out on your bedroom door “Do not disturb” and your penis-roommate would leave you alone until you took down the sign.

It takes time for the adolescent male to gain a measure of control, which is not to say that this “penile autonomy” ever ceases. Even as the body and mind mature, the penis simply reasserts itself in different ways, and hopefully, the male of the species eventually learns to co-exist with its independence somewhat.

If owning a penis is like entertaining a surprise guest, then owning balls is like having superman’s tragic weakness to kryptonite. If you’re male, you not only have this one headstrong thing in your pants, but right next to it you have these two enormous weak spots, your Achilles heels. Why a key organ of humanity evolved to hang outside the body cavity is a mystery — it has to be a creationist joke. It’s horribly funny when you think of it, especially considering how many things one has to straddle in one’s life: bicycles, poles, fences, leg straps for parachutes, motorcycles, gym equipment. The pain of having your balls smashed is sharp and nauseating and you really can’t concentrate on anything for a while. You behave as if you got the wind knocked out of you, but you can still breathe — that is, if you can remember to breathe. The nausea isn’t really in the stomach, but pretty close. The pain turns moderately quickly from sharpness to dull ache within 30-40 seconds, and if you take it easy, you can be back in business in 5 minutes. But those are 5 minutes of down time, and there’s no getting around it.

I suppose boys could take advantage of an age-old design and start wearing protective cups, like they do in baseball, but round the clock instead of only occasionally. But the cup would be yet one more bit of equipment to haul around in their trousers, and the psychological damage of so much weight down there might not balance the occasional pain from having their balls smashed. The thing about boys’ balls is that they probably only get racked a few times in their lives, but the memory of that pain always exists right up front in the “fight or flight” part of their brains, and thus makes them careful when climbing over fences and jumping onto horses and those sorts of things throughout their lives. A better design would be to locate the balls inside the body, like the ovaries, which would make males virtually invulnerable. Upon reflection, I think this invulnerability would probably also make men intolerable, so on second thought, maybe it’s all for the best: all super heroes need their tragic weakness, and males have their testicles.

These balls are housed in an underappreciated sack called the scrotum, and I say underappreciated because it’s a lot more than a container. It’s a self-contained temperature control device, and it moves, and writhes, and contracts independent of mental processes. You get in a hot bath, the scrotum loosens up, hangs low. You get cold, it circles the wagons and conserves heat. When temperature is changing, if you watch closely, you can see the skin seething, readjusting to tiny fluctuations in the environment. It’s always moving, like some protean beast that is always changing, always roaming, never allowed to rest — sort of like a shark, but without teeth.

Given these two things in their pants, the invulnerable and independent penis, and the outside-your-body-cavity key organs housed in this magical sack, I’m surprised boys have evolved to walk upright. The physicality of male genitalia is always there — both sets of goodies are out there, both right together, forming a bulls-eye in boys’ minds on the crotch. I suppose it’s just a fact of life, of biology, but given our species’ lofty aspirations to higher thinking, critical faculties, enlightenment, art, philosophy, education, love, and understanding, this design seems primitive.

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