March 2009

Among the many changes I have realized these past couple of years is my desire for touch. I used to be standoffish and disliked public displays of affection, touching only for handshakes or family hugs. When I look back on this old self, I feel quite a bit of pity for a man who was really uncomfortable touching and being touched.

Today, however, I find that touch is hugely important to me. I don’t think this new sense is just about hormones (although they have played a part), but also about feeling unified in body, spirit, and mind. And it’s not about gender because I know women who don’t touch very much and I know men who touch a lot. Maybe the non-touchers feel constrained by their upbringing or their sense of social norms in ways that touchers are not. Maybe in losing my repression I also blurred my boundaries between my sense of self and my community.

I touch everyone now: I touch friends (men and women alike) on the arms and hands and shoulders, and I hug my kids and partner and friends. I notice a very different relationship between my body and my society — much more physical, both in the giving and in the desiring.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that when you see me, it’s ok to touch (just as long as I get to touch back).

When it’s over
and the energy has faded, barely lingering like the faint twilight colors on the encroaching black night sky,
and the tears have dried, leaving little dusty trails on the cheeks and wads of tissue discarded in little piles around the house,
and the feelings have become muted — pale, yellowed pages in an old newspaper that someone saved for a now-unknown reason,
and the clutter of the wreckage has been swept into the gutters and ditches of your consciousness,

Then comes a feeling of detachment and otherworldliness
where this house is no longer recognizable as your home, but just some building that someone inhabits,
and these hands belong to someone else, no longer yours,
and these works — some complete and some barely conceived — are as foreign to you as some dusty book on the library shelf,
and these thoughts, once bubbling and unstoppable, seem out of place like the muffled rantings of delusion at a bus stop.

Is it over?

Dim alien dreams overlay a cloudy native history, rendering all unknowable, unrecognizable.
The past is burned away, leaving a stark landscape of black promise.

The only official reason I went to my field’s main conference in San Francisco last week was to present the best dissertation of the year award to a deserving doctoral student. My friend Sherry, the head of this organization, asked me to do this job, and I realize that she must have known that without an official duty, I would be tempted to lay low, to skip the conference in order to avoid making myself feel vulnerable. But with an official duty, I had no choice but to chair the committee, put my new name on the program, and (most importantly) stand up in front of a ballroom filled with my colleagues and present the award.

After I wrote the initial award notes, which had to fit within 2 minutes, I worked with my voice team back home in order to tighten the wording to allow me to go slower than my George voice, and I practiced over and over, not because I thought I’d mis-read anything, but because I wanted my voice to match my new body and new look.

The awards ceremony arrived on Friday afternoon, which gave me a couple of days of attending sessions and meeting old friends. The ballroom was pretty full, probably 200 attendees, and I sat in the front row of the audience with the other presenters and recipients, all of us facing the raised dais and podium at the front of the big room. As the ceremony began, I tried to listen to the words of others, and got most of what they said, but I kept picturing myself falling down as I walked the 5o feet from my chair up the steps to the podium, alone, the whole ballroom waiting and watching. I imagined my hair getting caught on something and flying off. I imagined my voice breaking or someone yelling from the back, “Is that a guy in a dress?” followed by widespread laughter.

I recognized these fears as those formless anxieties we all get, and I allowed them to be played out and then banished from my brain.

They called me. I walked. I did not trip going up the stairs. I looked around the room. I laid out my notes deliberately, pausing a second so that I could get my bearings. I read slowly and with emotion, looking up and catching eye contact from different parts of the room. I don’t think I blundered. When I called my recipient up to get the award, I finally lost myself in the moment, and my self-consciousness faded and I just stood there smiling as I listened to his words. It wasn’t about me, although I had been worried it would be about me — it was about him and about his dissertation and about our academic field, and when my self-consciousness and my fears were vanquished, that was what allowed it to be about those things. I didn’t even think about falling or wig-exploding or name-calling as we walked down the stairs and took our seats.

In fact, after this moment, a lot of my concerns about embodying Joyce evaporated. I had faced a large professional hurdle and had passed the test. I met new people at the reception, chatted with old friends, and felt as if it was probably going to be possible for me to continue being a professor in this field.

At our recent academic conference in San Francisco, Mary Jo was a fabulous partner and “introduced” me to all her friends, even if we knew each other before in a sort of funny, but also serious, ritual we repeated over and over. And it wasn’t just for fun — I think having her conduct the introductions made things go very smoothly. After all, I can imagine our friends thinking that if my changes are all right with Mary Jo, then how hard can it be for someone else to engage me normally?

The question that came up a lot more than I anticipated was about our relationship and what it’s called. Are we lesbians? Heterosexual married couple with a quirky husband? Am I the wife? Husband? Former husband? What is Mary Jo? A victim? Wife? Partner?

Everyone agreed that our relationship defies conventional labels. Maybe “queer” captures it all? It’s clear that many people need a label for the relationship, but I think Mary Jo and I realize that this need is theirs, and not necessarily ours.

Lesbians also noted with no discernible humor or irony that Mary Jo is clearly the butch of this relationship and I am very obviously the femme, something we’ve talked about between us, but haven’t really had discussed in public settings before.

Mary Jo’s lesbian friends not only generally think that we could call ourselves lesbians, but also believe that it’s ironic that we’re grappling with the kinds of questions our lesbian and gay friends have faced all of their lives. Yes, it’s a twist of nomenclature that we’ve never grappled with before, and perhaps never appreciated in our same-sex couple friends. Maybe one can intellectually grasp what another couple is going through, but cannot truly feel it and “know” it unless one had lived it.

Last week, one facet of my field’s big academic conference that tested me and my embodiment was the sheer fact that I was no longer isolated in my own department or my car or small places of my choosing, but that I was attending a conference composed mostly of women attendees. Even though I’ve been Joyce for almost a year, I can’t say that I’ve had to wait in line for the bathroom before. I’ve never been in a large gathering of women for days on end where I had no choice but to dive in and use the facilities.

It sounds small, I know, but you can imagine the paranoia someone with less confidence with me might have (and I’m speaking ironically, I hope you realize), jumping in line with 20 other women to use the bathroom, milling around in the bathroom chatting, and tidying up hair and face before going back out. The tiny, paranoid voice in my head occasionally said to me, “You need to lay low — they all know you’re a man in a dress, but they’re humoring you. If you blow it, they’ll call the tranny police on you.”

But this fear, as with so many other fears I’ve felt in this transition, was groundless. The more you do it, the less gargantuan it all seems until by the end of the conference, I had really banished the little negative voice from my head.

I still assume everyone knows who and what I am, but I care less and less whether that’s true or not. I have slowly replaced the tentativeness I felt in becoming Joyce with increasing confidence, and maybe this is what girls experience during adolescence as they venture out and learn how to engage the wider world.

I noticed something interesting at my recent academic conference — by and large (although there are a few exceptions), women recognized me more quickly and embraced me more warmly and engaged me more deeply than men. If a man took 10 seconds for his brain to reboot and then was tentative and distant in the minutes after that reboot, women rebooted in 3-5 seconds and showed virtually no hesitation to talk about friends, the conference, or my presentation. I think they must feel a certain need, perhaps a hallmark of feminine culture, to compliment my presentation, and those comments were very much welcome.

I’m going to need to spend more time thinking about this, but it occurs to me that women have generally responded to me throughout this past year quite a bit differently from men. It may be as simple as a sense that someone has “left one side to go to the other,” and thus needs to be welcomed (for the women) and puzzled over (for the men). But it’s probably a lot more complex than that.

I suppose it’s not surprising that a major life change that involves sex and gender will engage sexed and gendered people in ways that class, race, and education (for example) might not.

As I process this question, I would certainly appreciate your observations, dear readers.

At this national conference in San Francisco, I knew that lots of people would be interested in how Joyce “turned out,” so I planned my conference attire carefully. I know it sounds silly, but what else can you control besides your presentation? I orchestrated my 4 days at the conference to represent Joyce (or different parts of Joyce) accurately and professionally, not too frilly and not too butch. What I was hoping was that friends and colleagues would recognize the old me in the new presentation.

I began with black cord pants, tailored white dress shirt with stitching that resembles whale boning, and a sharp black and white jacket, along with patent black shoes. Second day was black/white wool dress slacks with a silk green blouse, no jacket, reprising the patent shoes. Third day was my big day, the day I was supposed to announce to a ballroom filled with participants the results of the committee I chaired this year, selecting the best dissertation of the year in my field. I chose a suit with a knee-length skirt and long jacket, subtle pinstripes of deep red, brown, and cream, and a dark red shell, along with brown heels and sheer black stockings. On the 4th and final day of the conference, I chose a brown-themed knee-length skirt and circle patterned blouse (red, gold, black, tan), and my brown heels with chocolate brown tights.

All four of these outfits were comfortable and served me well from early morning all day, well into the night. I cannot speak for others and how they perceived me, but for my own part, I feel these outfits helped me do what I wanted to do.

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