I am far too sensitive these days. I see demons in every corner, doom in the next instant, despair in each offhand remark by friends. I was like this last night at a Christmas get-together with friends. We were sitting around, sipping our holiday cheer, chatting about university politics and plans for the spring.
Somehow (and I can’t remember how it came to this, but how do conversations ever get where they’re going except that they’re a form of group free-association?), someone mentioned an undergraduate student we have in our department who is transsexual and who came out this past fall. She had a boyname like Robert and picked a girlname a little out of the ordinary, Serendipity, and those professors who had her in class piped in about her name, her dress, her passability. They opined as to whether she had surgery or not, and were fairly ill-informed as to just about everything related to GID and transitioning, which isn’t surprising at all. In fact, the members of the party behaved exactly as you’d expect — certainly not trans-phobic, clearly sympathetic, and generally live-and-let-live. The word “unfortunate” was used several times about Serendipity: “what an unfortunate choice of dress,” “Serendipity is such an unfortunate name,” “he, or she (i don’t know!) has an unfortunate build to have chosen to be a transsexual.” One professor explained to the group that Serendipity is perhaps the most popular transsexual name out there, and it was unfortunate that Robert chose such a weird name, even though it was a typical TS name. Of course, this was news to me — as I don’t recall ever seeing or meeting any TS by that name. There was some gentle ribbing of the biggest, most masculine partygoer, as someone said that he might consider going that way, and since his initials would remain the same, he’d get to keep his monogrammed shirts.
My friends and colleagues are wonderful people and would not deliberately make fun of anyone; however, at this point, my mind turned to imagining them talking about me, or if not them, then some other group of well-meaning colleagues. “Joyce is such an unfortunate name! What was he thinking?” or “He’s the most selfish man, er… woman (what is he, anyway?) I’ve ever met — didn’t he, er… she think of the kids?” or “He’s got unfortunate features that will always make him ugly — it’s really unfortunate that he, er… she… wants a sex change.”
I had been happy and engaged, and I withdrew immediately into my sad inner mind, feeling like these imaginary voices were right, that I am an unrealistic fool for doing this, that I will soon cease to be a member of any friendly discussion and become a permanent member of the outside, always cordially spoken to, but always excluded. I felt myself slide into this self-conscious, self-critical mood I recognize all too well, and then I was angry at myself to allowing this mood to take over. “After all,” my rational self said, “these are your friends and they’re going to be just fine with your transition. If I were closer to being out, I could have had a really interesting Christmas discussion, but instead am sucked into this spiral of sullen despair.”
I cried in bed, telling Mary that I hoped that maybe I’d die in my sleep rather than face this humiliation, which was an awfully mean thing to say, but that’s the kind of nonsense that pours out of this bad place, even though I don’t really want to say it. These are horribly unproductive, unmotivated moods, and I hate myself for falling into their traps. I want to learn how to pull out of these spirals before they take over my psyche. These were harmless comments about a student who happened to be TS, but she easily could have been gay or African or Marxist and still receive similar comments, and there was no reason for me to run for the refuge of self-pity.
This morning, having been wrapped in love by my family and having watched my children play with their Christmas toys, I’m feeling much better and now perceive that our discussion of Serendipity last night was indeed serendipity, for it was certainly the discovery of something important entirely by accident or chance. The chance lesson? I got a glimpse into the gossip I can look forward to — not malicious or mean, but certainly inquisitive. I got a disclosure-free lesson into how my colleagues are likely to react to my announcement and a vision of how I myself might react to the inevitable barbs (intentional or unintentional) I’ll feel in the future. While I failed last night, I learned that these feelings or failures are somewhat normal, and that they, like coming out, will get easier to deal with the more I encounter them.
In the Grateful Dead’s Scarlet Begonias, Jerry sings, “Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.” Instead of despairing over this incident, I realize that I owe a lot to this serendipitous Christmas gift I received last night, and I also owe something to Serendipity herself, who, as soon as I’m out in the department, is going to get my invitation to lunch to talk about her bravery and to learn from this youth where she got her thick skin and how she learned to deal with much harsher comments than I felt last night.