December 2009


Only a few minutes ago, our two kids, Lane (13) and Ezra (11) were at each other’s throats on the first day of Christmas vacation, swinging pecan branches at each other and calling each other retard, stupid, and idiot. After breaking them up and asking them to help me with something, they settled down to their tasks. As I was getting dressed in my room, I heard the sound of playing, of make-believe. Lego spaceships and cries of “oh no, I’m hit” and “check out this cannon” filled the house, and it reminded me of earlier times with smaller kids, maybe toddlers, laughing and singing.

It was a wonderful moment listening to the kids. One of them had on a Halloween wig with tight curls designed to turn you into Napoleon Dynamite, and he took it off to make the other brother wear it, saying, “You wear it — it’s too hot.” And the other boy, not missing a beat, said, “Now you know how Joyce feels.”

They continued playing with Legos, happy, oblivious, just kids, leaving me with a host of swirling feelings.

Nothing is straightforward for me, and the joy I felt at their childhood, their clear empathy with me and my wig, and their total easiness about me and my transition and my name — all of this joy was mixed with a sense of melancholy. I recalled a house filled with small children, a house with a mother who was a woman and a father who was a man, a house populated with normal, ostensibly happy people, and I felt for the thousandth time the sense of guilt I have at having derailed this image, this story, this normalcy, even as I feel a new story being created around a new family. I feel a sadness at becoming “Joyce” more and more and “Dad” less and less, even as I rejoice that the kids have adapted so well, have accepted me as I am.

You will recall the great compromise we hammered out called the “Just Joyce” plan. It has worked so well that I sometimes fear erasure as the cost of family success. It’s a life I can live with, but it also involves negotiating among my past, present, and future selves without emplotting my life as a tragedy, a comedy, a thriller, or any other prefabricated genre, and that’s something I continue trying to figure out.

These days, life is about as dull as you can imagine: teaching at the university, helping kids with homework, buying groceries, being an administrator for my academic program, and other non-thrilling activities. Except for a moment now and then, I don’t reflect on my transsexual nature/history — there’s just not enough time to wallow (er… reflect) on it these days. Most days (and even many weeks), it’s just not a topic that I think about.

Which is not to say I’m in denial of how I got here. I know all about those rocky months and years and marvel that things have turned out so well. But the days of nervousness and rehearsing my voice and mannerisms so that I could have the confidence to make a public appearance — those days are gone. I feel strongly that my mind and body are aligned and have plenty of confidence in being myself in all circumstances, and that’s a wonderful and empowered feeling, let me tell you.

So I was truly unsettled today when the following exchange happened.

I walked across campus to a neighboring department to meet with a committee that wanted my help working on a new degree, and since I run a similar program and wrote the proposal to get it approved some years ago, I was a natural “consultant” for their situation. I met the professors and administrators from this other department (I had never met them before), and during the chit-chat before we got started, the dean said, “Mary Jo…. she’s in your department, isn’t she?”

“Yes,” I said, picturing my wife and beginning to wonder where she might have met this dean. “She is in the graduate program and teaches a lot of our graduate courses.”

“I thought so,” he said, “We met at a party and talked about her doctorate from Big State University, where I was teaching at the time. We never crossed paths up there, but I remember that she’s in your department specifically because of our connection at BSU.”

At this point, I’m vaguely remembering this guy from a party in the past, back when I was bearded, heavier, and, well, quite a bit different than I am today. But I figure this small talk will peter out and we’ll get started.

“And what about her husband?”

So much for petering out. “Beg pardon?”

“Her husband. He teaches in your department, doesn’t he? We met once.”

“Uh, I think it’s George.”

“Don’t you know? You work with him, right?” The room’s hot and I’m backed into a corner. I didn’t come to this meeting to discuss my transition. If only I had known this was going to be a topic, I wouldn’t have minded, could have been mentally prepared. But there’s no time. I panic and say, “Sure, of course. He’s fine.”

The dean satisfied, we then proceed with the 90-minute meeting.

Odd blasts from the past like these are disconcerting precisely because I’m no longer on my guard these days, and they take me by surprise.

I don’t think I’m ashamed of being who I am, or who I’m married to. But the fact of the matter is that I denied who I was today. I denied that George is me, that I’m married to Mary Jo, that this dean and I have met some time a few years ago. After the initial panic subsided, I had no trouble allowing him to think I was just someone else in the department, someone different than George, someone unrelated to Mary Jo.

As I left this meeting, walking across campus on this crisp winter day, I began feeling terribly cowardly. I could have said casually, “Oh, you’re thinking of me — I used to be George, but as you can see, things have changed, ha ha ha.” Or I could have said with a touch of sadness in my voice, “Oh, George. He’s no longer with us.” Or I could have pretended to be clueless and said, “I’m new here and don’t think I know Mary Jo’s husband,” which, given my program’s reputation for collegiality and teamwork, would have been absurd.

Neither clever nor fast, I simply denied myself, my existence, my relationship with Mary Jo.

Maybe all trans*people go though this after transition is over, but it was unsettling and I feel like a fraud. I suppose I could defend my actions and rationalize that this polite query was just as potentially personal and painful as asking someone about their divorced spouse, maybe not having heard the news, or asking how the research project was going after its funding had been pulled, maybe not having known the funding was pulled. I suppose there must be dozens of similarly-personal, and anxiety-producing, questions, and maybe this incident has nothing to do with being transsexual.

I’m not ashamed of who I am, what I do, and who I’m married to — in fact, I’m incredibly proud and happy about my existence and my relationships. But I’m also somewhat private and not inclined to make my personal life the topic of committee meetings. I guess I just don’t know what to do when such potentially-revealing questions come out of left field. Maybe I take this incident as one data point in a larger post-transition experiment (let’s call this choice “the public denial approach”), and if it happens again, I’ll try the “full and amusing disclosure” approach to see what happens.

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