“Nice to meet you,” said my colleague at a reception a few weeks ago. “I don’t believe I know you,” she continued with warm smile and outstretched hand. “Hi, Nancy Lee,” I said, using her name and playing along with what I thought was a friendly joke, “I’m Joyce, and yes, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Still straightfaced, she looked at me and asked, “What department are you with, Joyce?”

“Your department — I’ve been your colleague for 10 years and I’m the head of the graduate program, as you know.”

A lightbulb began to burn, turned on by the dimmer switch inside her brain, as she began to realize who I was and the facial expression turned from eagerness to shock and embarrassment. “Oh…. well…. nice to see you here,” she mumbled and, turning on her heel, walked away to greet someone else.

If it weren’t for several obvious facts, I would empathize with her. If this were her first time encountering Joyce, long after my disclosure letter in the spring and the farewell to George, followed by a long summer of absence, I would be the one turning red with shame — it has never been my goal to shock anyone with my transsexual transition.

If it weren’t for the facts that

  • we had served on a committee together that met at least 3 times over the summer
  • we spoke at the faculty retreat and I gave a report to the rest of the faculty
  • we have attended at least 1 faculty meeting together this fall

….. if it weren’t for these facts, I might make sense of the episode by arguing that she had been ambushed by a transsexual and was so shocked that she didn’t know what to do. However, these facts, it seems to me, turn the tables on my colleague and reveal what must be the truth — that she didn’t realize what Joyce looked like because she hasn’t looked at me during all these events. I either do not merit her attention or I’m too monstrous to view (like the Gorgon who can turn you to stone if you look at her).

I personally like the latter image, the tranny as powerful Medusa who can capture your attention and freeze you in your tracks, her power a combination of the viewer’s terror and insatiable curiosity. No one wants to look, but they have to — maybe not in direct-eye-contact confrontations, but rather in furtive glances captured across a meeting room or around the corner or over someone else’s shoulder. It’s the classical mythology equivalent of looking at a car wreck on the highway as you drive by.

I was incognito, not as some deliberate spy-novel scheme involving disguises and fake accents, but as myself, and the paradox is that the label “incognito” isn’t anything I applied to myself, but is a product of Nancy Lee’s averted gaze. For months, she was clearly able to avoid looking at me, and thus was able to avoid the stony fate that awaited her. Her plan backfired at this reception, when she sized me up from across the room, made direct eye contact, walked purposefully across the room, and sought an introduction and, in one fell swoop, the label “incognito” erased in a puff of semantic smoke at the same time she felt her muscles begin to turn to stone.

The farrier (horse-shoe guy, for you non-horse-people) called Mary Jo on a Thursday about a week ago to say he was in the area and wanted to come do her horses a few days early. Not one to pass up excellent equestrian craftsmen’s services, she told him to come on. The only hitch in the plan is that this fellow will only shoe horses if someone holds the horse (i.e. he won’t do the work himself by tying the horse to a post). Mary Jo called and asked me to butch it up and meet him at our barn and hold the horses until she was finished with her class, at which point she’d return home to relieve me.

I didn’t really have a choice, and having the day off, I said I would be happy to help out. I was already made-up and had been considering shopping, so I put on my jeans and 3/4 sleeve v-neck shirt and went to the barn to assist.

I was not sure, though, just what Mary Jo had told Terry Marx, her farrier, about me or our situation. I assumed he knew nothing and decided I would play the role of Joyce, her helpful friend at the barn. I introduced myself, we shook hands, and then got to work. Terry is a good old boy who really knows his horse feet, making custom shoes for odd sizes in his portable stove/kiln in the “shop” on the back of his truck. He also loves conversation, and after a bit of getting-to-know-you’s, we had a lovely, long discussion about everything from horses to animal husbandry to Mary Jo’s other friends to the upcoming election.

He asked flirty, polite questions like “so, is this your first time? I mean, holding a horse while it’s being shod?” or “Do you ride with all the other lovely ladies at this barn?” And I answered as honestly and as neutrally as possible, not wanting to out myself or to compromise Mary Jo’s credibility with this country boy on whose expertise she depends. It was clear, however, that I knew a lot about the operations of the place, about the irrigation and the house and the tractors, and that even though I didn’t use “we” at all to describe Joyce and Mary Jo, it was obviously there, floating in between the words and the concepts.

When Mary Jo arrived, the second of two horses was just being completed, and I said I would finish the job, so we all stood around talking for another 20 minutes or so, at which point, I told Terry I enjoyed helping. “Likewise,” he said.

Mary Jo stayed behind to help tidy up, and when she returned to the house 15 minutes later, she said that he asked her confidentially and playfully, “Mary Jo, what’d you go and do, leave your husband and hitch up with her? Have you switched sides?”

“Well, yes, something like that,” she said, and then explained that yes, her husband was gone and yes, she had taken up with Joyce, but that the wrinkle was that her husband had become Joyce. Instead of being horrified, Terry was fascinated, and asked all sorts of questions, ultimately telling Mary Jo that he thought it was great and that he’d like to know all about it.

I found the whole story incredibly fun and affirming, not just because Joyce had “passed,” but also because this incident is another in a series of events that confound the stereotype of salt-of-the-earth country people, such as populate the Bedford Falls area, as intolerant rednecks. Red their necks may be, as they’ve been laboring in the sun and don’t have long hair, but intolerant they are not. I don’t know if I’m simply statistically lucky and I have happened upon the few tolerant people there are around here, or whether my experience represents a valid statistical sample of the population. I prefer to think the latter.

I feel more and more a part of my world, not just the elite and progressive world of the university, but also the agricultural and service and retail world upon which we rely for things like food, clothing, services, auto care, schooling, sports, and entertainment. And this feeling is wonderful.

A few weeks ago, my friend Milo Kinderbock and I decided we’d attend this new aircraft expo held at the Bedford Falls airport after receiving postcards advertising the event. Milo knows everything about airplanes, and I’m just interested in finally buying one that will take me and Mary Jo and the boys places.

Milo and I decided we’d fly in the morning since we’d already be at the airport, so I picked him up, went to the airport, and accompanied him while he worked on some touch-and-go’s. Afterward, we drove across to the other hangars, where the vendors were showing off their new planes and serving sandwiches to the potential airplane buyers. There were a couple of Cessnas (including their new composite airplane they bought from Columbia), one Mooney, two Pipers, one Beechcraft, one Diamond, and several Cirruses (SR-22’s mostly). Milo and I split up, strolling among the airplanes, reading information about their performance and costs, sitting in the cockpits to get a feel for them, and talking to the sales people.

It didn’t happen suddenly, but within 10 minutes or so, I became aware of a pattern in the way my interactions with sales people went, and the lightbulb finally went off when one of the sales people asked me, as I was sitting in the cockpit, what sort of flights my husband and I usually took, and that I’d find this particular model very comfortable while he did the job of flying. “Oh,” I realized, “Everyone thinks I’m Milo’s wife and he’s shopping for the planes.” And I wasn’t the only one to form this impression. Later, Milo confirmed that this was also his feeling and that he had nervously told one or more salesmen, “Oh, no, that’s not my wife — that’s my friend Joyce, who’s also a pilot.”

I must confess I felt a mixture of feelings when I realized that this was the impression. First, I had a deep sense of pleasure at being taken for being myself and not some guy in a dress masquerading as a pilot. In other words, even though she was on the receiving end of sexism, Joyce was warmly flattered at the overall impression.

Second, while I think I would have been horrified at the thought a year or so ago, I found the idea that Milo and I were seen as couple very cute, and part of me didn’t see what the big deal would be. Why wouldn’t we be husband and wife shopping for a plane? Milo and I were so surprised by the sales people’s attitudes, we discussed later, that we really had no chance to gather our wits and play these roles, but I wouldn’t have minded.

Third, my response to the sexist attitudes only came to me a bit later, when I reflected on the event and on the fact that I am far more likely than Milo to write a check for a plane today and that I am a more seasoned pilot than Milo (at least for now). Everyone told me that such things would happen, but I nevertheless found myself surprised at it. Why would everyone assume Milo is the pilot, the one with the money, and the responsible one, simultaneously assuming I’m his wife, his passenger, and not interested in the engines or airspeeds or avionics? You, dear readers, are smiling at my naivete, but those were my thoughts and feelings: I concluded that the only difference is that these sales people are predisposed to treat the men more seriously than women. Whether they’re deliberately sexist, or whether they’re channeling solid marketing and demographic data, or whether they’re reflecting the historic reality of airplane sales, I cannot say.

My women friends shake their heads and say, welcome to the club, honey — you won’t find it cute or interesting after the hundredth or five-hundredth instance, and I know they’re right. It’s one thing to have heard all my life that these attitudes are real, but quite another to be their recipient, and whatever flattery I feel at being validated as a woman is undercut by the the diminishment I feel at being treated as an incompetent, ignorant, or economically dependent.