Bear with me as I engage you in a thought experiment.

When we (and I guess I mean society) think of sex change, I assume we all have some idea of what we mean by the concept. At the simplest, we imagine the man changing into a woman (or vice-versa for FTM’s). Fair enough, and we can stipulate that this is the fundamental change.

But what does that mean? If we take 50 variables that define us, those that might be thought of as more “man” or more “woman,” then which of those must change before the transitioner and society perceive a change from one sex to the other? Is it necessary to change every single physical/social attribute to affect this transition? Is it possible to change 50% of the variables? 25%? 10%? What is the minimum change necessary?

And “necessary” is an interesting concept, isn’t it? It seems to me that there are at least 2 constituents for “necessary” and probably more like 5+. What the transitioner feels is necessary to “be” the opposite sex may be very different from what her/his family feels is necessary for the transitioner to assume the new sex. And this family sense of “necessary” may be different from what colleagues or general society feel is necessary. I think that “necessary” probably defines something like a set of changes that is perhaps more than minimal but less than average.

For the different groups, “necessary” probably means changing enough variables so that the transitioner falls more or less into the bell curve of the attributes of the target sex. We could empirically test this hypothesis by simply asking a bunch of people if a given person “passes” as their target sex (realizing, of course, that the bias in that question would be inherent and would skew all results, but this is a thought experiment, so it’s permissible).

For the transsexual transitioner, I think there are many more variables that he/she sees as essential to “feeling” like their target sex, but variables that others might not see or even recognize as “necessary.” I would put hormone therapy into that group — softer skin and redistribution of fat are recognizable by others, but I don’t think they could articulate the variable “hormones” unless they were sufficiently current on transsexual transition literature.

Ok, back to the minimum variables necessary.

Beard. Everyone I talk to agrees that getting rid of a man’s beard is necessary for successful male-to-female transition. Unless you’re doing something called gender-queer (or really pushing the boundaries of the binary gender concept), wearing facial hair is probably a bad idea.

Male pattern baldness. Although women do experience thinning hair as they age, the receding hairline is typical of males and would need to be addressed in a male-to-female transitioner.

Heavy body hair. Even though women of certain ethnicities have somewhat heavier arm and leg hair, it’s much thinner than men’s hair, and it seems to me that if you want to wear short sleeves, doing something to minimize your heavy hair is required. This would go for one’s chest and legs, with the understanding that there is a lot of room for body hair on women, so complete hairlessness is not necessary.

Masculine scull. Most women don’t have the “brow-bossing,” or the strong jaw, or the square chin, or the long distance between the bottom of the nose and the top of the lip, at least not all in the same natural woman’s face. Changing these features in men is the cornerstone of FFS (facial feminization surgery) and seem to make sense to me from a purely biological perspective. Just which variables one is “required” to change, however, is up for grabs.

I’m running out of ideas here because for my thought experiment, I’m looking at lots of women who dress like men, don’t wear makeup, are tall or broad, who aren’t chesty, and who don’t wear makeup. If you take any one of those variables and ask yourself if it’s absolutely necessary for the category “woman,” I think most of you will realize that none of these variables is required — you may have your own aesthetic ideas about women and femininity (we all do), but what I’m asking is whether the lack of eyeshadow or breasts or skirts would necessarily negate the category “woman” in a person. And if they aren’t required of genetic women (or the cisgendered), then they’re not required for transgendered.

Note: If one is aiming for complete stealth such that no one knows of their birth sex, then genital surgery would be a requirement, assuming that normal people would seek normal sexual relations and would want their genitals and their gender presentation to be aligned. I'm not going to engage this issue here, although it's important for some transsexuals -- I'm more interested in social presentation than sexual activity since Mary Jo and I are going to continue as a couple. Those of you who are aiming for stealth transitions could weigh in on this issue with a lot more authority.

You may be saying, “Ok, I get the theoretical part of this argument, but the fact of the matter is that you, George, cannot present successfully as Joyce if all you do is fix your beard, get a wig, and lighten your arm hair. It is true that there are women with strong chins, and women who are taller than average, and women who wear jeans all the time and don’t own a skirt or a dress. But you rarely see a woman who ‘violates’ more than one or two variables.”

You make a fair enough argument, and if these observations are the case, then is there something like synergy at play? Would a reasonable person say that there is a kind of general impression created by all these variables such that society doesn’t raise an eyebrow at jeans or strong chin or arm hair or no makeup as long as the rest of the variables fall into the norms of what we think of “woman?”

Don’t we see this concept employed in fashion or makeup when we read/hear advice about maximizing your good features and minimizing your bad features? “Good” and “bad” are categories we supposedly agree on, (and that’s a pretty huge assumption), but might we agree that some good features of women would be those that accentuate femininity, approachability, and fertility, and “bad” features might be those that accentuate masculinity, unapproachability, and infertility? Or maybe it’s more superficial than that, such that “good” means busty, feminine, and model-like? I don’t know, but the concept of “fixing” your features via clothing and makeup is definitely omnipresent in marketing and in interpersonal advice.

With this in mind, we might note that women with certain types of chins or jaws are advised to avoid certain necklines; those with long faces are advised to avoid certain lengthening hairstyles; those with high- or low-waists are advised to wear certain types of waists and hems and accessories. Is this type of camouflage what we’re talking about when we’re talking about synergy in the sex and gender variables regarding transsexuals?

I’m prepared to agree–as long as we acknowledge the following: it appears as if cisgendered men and women are under the same obligation to “fix” their abnormal features as are transsexuals. If this is the case, then I’m brought back to my original question about what is absolutely necessary for a transsexual to fix to be considered his/her target sex.

If most of what counts as “man” or “woman” is something like collective social hypnosis (i.e sleight of hand, camouflage, and and adhering to some of the variables that count as “man” or “woman”), then would it be possible for a transsexual transitioner to simply begin portraying him/herself as the target sex, insisting to friends and family and society that she/he is now the opposite sex, but without changing any but the “required” variables? What would that be like?

More specifically, what would it be like if I, George Bailey, got rid of my beard and my body hair and either got sufficient hair transplants or a wig to get rid of my receding hairline, and then simply declared to everyone that I am now Joyce? No dresses, no makeup, no voice work, no accessories. But clearly not doing gender-queer, either, meaning that I adopt an acceptably female face (no facial hair), perform acceptably feminine body language, use an acceptably feminine name, and consistently perform feminine presentation.

Would this type of minimalist sex change be perceived (because we’re talking about perception, aren’t we, and not reality) as legitimate or would it be perceived as a hoax? Could I tell everyone I’m changing my sex and then not make a huge leap across the binary to the totally opposite side of the gender binary? And if I did that, and if I did that consistently, would my attempt at collective social hypnosis work on everyone around me? Or would I be living in a delusional state of self-hypnosis with everyone around me laughing inwardly at the emperor’s new clothes? How much of my gender presentation is in my own head (i.e. how much I believe I’m a woman) and how much is externally-observable (i.e. how much others believe I’m a woman)?

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but this thought experiment hurts my head because in the past I always thought that changing sex meant going from typical (and easily identifiable) male to typical (and easily identifiable) female, changing as many variables as possible so as to adhere to every single physical and hypnotic variable out there: hormones, breasts, beard, underwear, makeup, body language, voice, dresses, bows, pretty purses and accessories, feminine (or even frou-frou) gestures. After engaging in this thought experiment, however, I realize that I know almost no real professional women who look like that or act like that, and that realization tells me that this image must have little to do with reality and everything to do with a mass-hypnotic belief in a strong gender binary.

How do we wake up from the hypnotic state? Do we, like Neo in The Matrix, want to wake up? And what advice do we give to those of us dealing with image issues (whether transsexual or anorexoric or breast-size or nosejob or any one of a hundred types of desires that our society supposedly believes in)? What is “necessary and sufficient” for all of us to modify/exaggerate/minimize for us to simply “be” ourselves and to live happy and productive lives?

Six weeks definitely makes a difference. You may recall my blog post on going to speak with my department chair on December 20 and how I felt constantly bombarded with the “fight or flight” response. Well, Dr. Drummond and I took it up to the next level in the academic chain of command today by going to speak with the dean of the college of Arts and Sciences, Janet Wilson.

We walked briskly across campus on a very pretty winter day with the sun shining and a light breeze blowing. No overcoat was required. He asked me how I wanted to do this, and I said I had been disclosing my transsexuality to quite a few people lately and have learned some things about doing it along the way. He said he’d just sit there for support and pipe in if necessary.

We entered the dean’s office and sat around a round table. Dean Wilson shut the door, sat down, and engaged in the obligatory chit chat for a couple of minutes until she paused, leaned forward, and said, “So, what are we here for today?”

Compared to six weeks ago, this meeting was a breeze, probably because I’ve come a long way in self-acceptance even since December, but also probably because I’ve had practice at talking to people about my situation, and the more you do it, the easier it gets. The first thing I realized is that no matter what questions someone has, they’re very unlikely to pass out, scream, or hit me over the head with a hammer. The worst that has happened to me, and it wasn’t bad at all, has been 30 seconds of “ok, for real? is this a joke?” This incredulity is pretty typical and doesn’t reflect badly on the person and it doesn’t make me feel bad, either.

So I sat there, heart beating normally, eyes focused, having no flight or fight feelings, actually eager to disclose my situation to her. I did a quick introduction about finally dealing with something that has plagued me for all my life, and she was obviously very interested in what I was about to say, because I don’t suspect she hears this type of disclosure every day. So, about 60 seconds into this introduction, I said something like, “and what I’ve known about myself all this time is that I’m transsexual. And what I’m doing about it is changing from male to female.” It was sort and sweet, and then I quit to give her time to respond.

“Gosh,” she said (something she’d repeat several times during our meeting). She asked surgery questions, workplace questions, and personal questions for perhaps 10 minutes, and then asked, “What do you want me to do?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I’d like for you to watch my back and simply be aware that this is going on. If there are things you’d like do to, like sensitivity training, memos to units, or what-have-you, that’s really up to you.”

She asked me about my name and about changing all my personnel files. I explained my choice of name, which she understood. She asked if I needed sick leave, to which I replied, “I’m not sick and don’t anticipate missing any of my duties at all.” “If you need it, though,” she said, “you can take all you need.”

We talked about my department and about there being no precedent in the university for someone transitioning on the job. She asked Sean if he thought our department would have any problems and he said, “No, if anyone has any sort of problem with this, they’ll almost certainly just be quiet and avoid Joyce.”

Near the end of the meeting, we discussed the schedule, and when I would begin presenting as female. I explained that my general plan for the spring is to try to keep control of the disclosures until grades are due in May, at which point, I was fine with the news getting out. If things leak faster, I said, it won’t be the worst thing in the world, but my preference is to tell close friends and colleagues this spring, and save the more general, organizational disclosures for May and June. She said that makes sense.

She said she’d need to tell the provost and would think on how and when she wanted to do it. I agreed, not only because it’s the right thing to do in an organization, but also because I don’t want some reporter ambushing him or the president or the chancellor with a “what about the tranny in your university?” kind of question and have them look clueless or stupid.

We parted with very friendly talk, and I felt that in this bureaucratic disclosure meeting I was calm, in control, and reassuring whereas six weeks ago I was nervous and unsure of myself and my situation (I don’t know if Sean Drummond perceived it to be the case, but that was what it felt like inside my head).

Up the ladder we go, as my trajectory and landing point become more and more real to me and others.

PS — I received the following supportive email from her on 2-9:

Dear Joyce,

Your putting your trust in me in this matter is an honor to me. What you are doing is wondrous. Forever, gender was immutable, and now the possibility exists to change. But beyond that, you are taking the huge step of changing and actually living what could have stayed a theoretical. You are very brave.

I think what I will do is find a time when the provost and I are standing alone on the same spot for a minute and then let him know the general outlines. If such opportunity doesn’t arise naturally rather soon, I’ll call. If he wants to pursue it further, with you, we can set up an appointment.

We’ll be in touch.