24 March 2008

My New Old Friend

I've been e-mailing with a friend who told me he's been doing something very, very different. What's up, I wondered: it turns out, my friend has had gender identity disorder since very early childhood. George, it turns out, is Joyce.

My immediate reaction was to smile (albeit with a bit of a dropped jaw: I'm sure Joyce is enjoying the list of things her friends imagined might be the new and different thing she has been making arrangements to talk about). I quickly dashed off an e-mail to say something like this: I know I speak for Politica too; we love you; we support you--and your wife; we are your friends, and we are part of your support network.

My second reaction was to laugh. George was, is, the kind of person who's done everything. Grew up on a ranch, can ride a horse. Has lived abroad, is multilingual. Helped found a business, has disparate graduate degrees, isn't afraid to stake out controversial positions while listening well to others. George is (forgive the mixing of names, genders, and tenses: I'm mixing time and space here) gentle and forcefully quiet, so these experiences don't come out one after the other as any kind of bragging. It's just that in virtually any conversation, it seemed to turn out that George had relevant expertise. He knows the stars (that ranching big sky background, I guess). He's lived here, and there. He's parachuted. And what does the man who does everything do? Become a woman. That struck me as funny, just as the fact that George owned his own parachute did the night I found that out.

Joyce is an academic--smart, eloquent, rational. Her e-mail to me, while personalized, is one that I imagine she's sent to many friends and family members over the past few months. She gave me some reading tips (including Jennifer Finney Boylan's utterly compelling, you really-should-run-out-and-get-it, memoir of her MTF transition in her 40's, She's Not There), and mentioned that she has a blog, something she's been using to chronicle her thinking over the past year and a half, a period which opened in deep depression and has slowly moved through her decision to transition, heartbreakingly beautiful meditations on any number of aspects of the transition, and more recently, chronicles of telling family members, thoughts on conversations with friends and family, all mixed with snippets from the past. I skimmed through the blog in its entirety, and have been reading it more slowly and carefully, learning more about my friend, rethinking our past, imagining our future.

I want to be clear--for Joyce, and anyone else-- my immediate reaction to this news hasn't changed one bit. I loved my friend George; I love my friend Joyce. I feel closer to Joyce, in part because it's now clear a big wall has tumbled down , in part because I've been reading her blog, which contains some intensely intimate entries (albeit public intimacy, staged by a masterful rhetorician). At one point in her blog, Joyce hopes that her friends are writing through their reactions to her news. So this entry is one such point for me.

Cartoonist Scott McCloud has some work titled "I Can't Stop Thinking!" In some respects, I can't stop thinking about Joyce and her wife Mary Jo. I have other trans friends, but none that I've known in the midst of transition. I just can't stop thinking about Joyce. In the couple of weeks I've been thinking about this news, I've had vivid dreams, one about George being a gay Olympic swimmer who was transitioning to being a woman, and in the dream it turned out that his partner (also an Olympic swimmer) was also a man transitioning to be a woman. How convenient! I've also had several nights of dreams involving wild animals running free, like on an African savannah. No plot, just lots of movement and energy and freedom and elation. Somehow, it seems connected to the news about Joyce, and it feels good.

One of my favorite memories of all time involves George, Mary Jo, and their children. We all went camping one year, to a big festival, and it was so very hot one day that we left the festival and went to a state park nearby. We lazed around in the river, we lazed on a picnic blanket, singing songs, telling stories, laughing at the wonderful young boy that was George and Mary Jo's oldest son. That afternoon was perfect in the way that only a lazy summer day can be: a big blue sky, warm temperatures, warm water, good company, and only the rhythms of pleasure to guide us. We wrote about this day in our holiday letter (back in the days when we sent holiday letters in December. This year, look for more of a Fourth of July holiday letter. We're working on it, really.)

Now I'm thinking: did that day really happen? Having read Joyce's blog, I'm seeing the past through another lens, a lens of struggle with gender identity disorder that grew worse over time. We've not yet seen each other to have a longer conversation about this, and I wonder whether that afternoon sticks in their minds, too, with the clarity and perfection it does in mind. But how perfect could it have been if George, relaxing in an inner tube, was struggling with desires and secrets and selves he thought couldn't be revealed?

A few years ago, I met George in the hallways of our national professional association conference. Politica was in the midst of a pretty bad set of flare-ups associated with some of the chronic medical problems she has. "That's not fair," he said to me. "That's just not fair. Not fair at all." I was touched by the sweet vehemence of the phrasing. Now, I think back, and just as firmly say, "that's not fair" about the painful choices George had to make, moving through the world as a man. And I wonder, too, whether in that moment, George was aware of that pain, projecting some of it into his comment about Politica?

On Joyce's blog, she mentions being--as George-- at another conference and having a terrible time, sure that her colleagues would not be happy with the news that she's transsexual. I remember seeing George at a public event, and in my memory now, George was standing a bit apart from the crowd, looking sad. Is that real, or am I projecting sadness and separation into the past because of the blog posts I've now read, because of the memoirs I've now read? As I read the blog post about this moment, I thought "but you could have told me! I'd have hugged you." As I did hug George at the time.

I don't know how to trust my emotional memories of the past, now that I realize how much more was going on than I knew. But what I did know, was real, and the foundation of a good friendship.

I should, logistics willing, be seeing Joyce and Mary Jo sometime next month. I'm looking forward to it--I've always treasured the spontaneous meals we've managed to arrange at conferences, but this time, I'm hoping we'll be able to plan a time to be together and talk. Joyce may be looking forward to talking about anything but all this, though. I remember a point after Curious Girl came home, after her surgery, after her medical conditions seemed to be more stable. I realized I could answer the question "How are you?" without explaining her condition in great detail, or talking about adoption. It was rather liberating. I talk about feeding issues and adoption regularly, of course, but it was good to know that I had other narratives available to me. I wonder whether Joyce feels the same way: gender identity is a compelling narrative, but perhaps she wants to tell other stories.

We found a Shona sculpture in an art gallery, and bought it for Joyce and Mary Jo. The sculpture symbolizes spiritual evolution through physical transformation, and the contrast of polished curves and textured ridges seems like a tangible and beautiful reminder of friends afar. (You can see similar sculptures online, although this isn't where we bought it and I don't know the site.)

I'm still e-mailing Joyce on George's computer account.

Sometimes, I just stop and look at her name, and it seems to pop off the screen and rotate. Who are you, Joyce? I turn the name over and around, learning my way around its shape on the screen or page. Joyce isn't--alphabetically, materially--the same shape as George. Curious Girl would say, "I'm still getting used to it." (Note to self: as this is getting long, I'm going to write about my conversation with Curious Girl about all this separately.)

I'm realizing what mundane things I didn't know about George. Like clothes, and where they come from. George was, is, a pretty spiffy dresser at work: classic clothes, not flashy, good quality, nice looking. At home, nice quality clothes, practical clothes that would change depending on the activity. On the blog, Joyce wonders about where to shop for her new look. Me, I hate to shop, but I understand the questions about the new look (questions I have, in fact, about our upcoming move. Do professors at German University dress differently than professors here?) Joyce wonders whether a shirt from This Store, a skirt from That Store might be suitable. I never think about clothes like this. I bet Joyce dresses better than I do (she certainly knows more about makeup than I do!). It's interesting, discovering ways in which my friend is thinking about clothes. I'd never have thought to think that way.

As I said in one of my e-mails, it's a good friendship that is still unfolding all these years later (even if shopping for clothes isn't the most profound example. But there's something about the material intimacy of it all that fascinates me).

Some days, I wish I had a chance to say goodbye to George. But then, what would I say? And isn't George in Joyce?

George had a wonderful voice. I used to love being at his house when his mother would call, just to hear him say, "Hello, Mama," with wonderful elongated syllables in Hello and a lilting southern accent on the phrase. Of course, Mama passed away a few years ago, so I'd never have heard that again anyway.

I do wonder what Joyce sounds like.

It's not so simple as George vanishing and Joyce appearing. Gender is innate, but gender is performed, enacted, learned. Politica reminds me that George was really one of her few good straight male friends--but it turns out, he's more queer than straight. So it's not so simple. George, transitioning to Joyce, is making choices about intonation, fashion, gesture, voice...so many things. There are many narratives intersecting here: the creation of a trans identity, the creation of a female identiy, the refashioning of an academic identity, perhaps creation of an activist identity. Not to mention the recreation of a family identity, and the reshaping of friendships. So losing George isn't the only story, if it is a story at all.

As anyone who's been reading here for a while knows, I think a lot about adoption as something that happens at a moment in time, and something that unfolds over time in terms of identity and relationships. I've found myself wondering how much similarity there is between the kind of thinking I've done on adoption and the kind of work Joyce is doing now. Stories about making peace with the past, stories about making a coherent narrative of fragmented parts of the past...obviously there are many, many differences between these two situations, but the kind of emotional flexibility that adoption has promoted seems useful as I think about Joyce. Facts can be interpreted on multiple levels, interpretations can change over time, and sometimes contradictions just have to be lived with. George is(n't) Joyce; there are losses and gains, continuities and disjunctions.

I'm sorry Joyce struggled with such sadness at various points in her life. Reading the blog, I can't be anything but inspired as I look at the evolution she's gone through, and so pleased at the community around her--some of which I share with her as academics working in related fields, some of which I share from a period of shared geography, some of which I can see online.

I have a new, old friend: I like it.


JD said...

What a fascinating and lovely post! I would like to say more, and read it more closely, and WILL, just as soon as I get this conference paper put to bed. But the beauty shines through even on a quick read.

kathy a. said...

what a wonderful, thoughtful, caring post.

a professional colleague made a similar transition, perhaps a couple of years ago. i only knew him slightly, through a mutual friend and by reputation for the work he had done. i saw her a couple of years ago at an event, and thought, "wow, she looks just like M," but of course, there was good reason for the resemblence.

i saw her again at a conference last month, and was thinking about how many things she must have needed to decide along the path. she looks very happy.

Magpie said...

So interesting. And yes - "What does the man who does everything do? Become a woman." - is funny.

timna said...

Thanks for writing the process thoughts! The Boylan book is excellent, I agree. I had my Foundations of WS students reading it this semester for the first time. Just when I thought I couldn't fairly ask them to read one more book. It's changed so much of the tone of the discussion. It's an online class and I'm amazed at the empathy this semester's group has. Have to think that some of it is that text.

hope your friend finds many friends like you for her.

Joyce said...

a gay olympian swimmer! I love it.

These common memories stand out for me, too -- and no, all the happy times weren't tinged with sadness. My happiest times were moments of nothingness -- nothing but the feeling and the joy -- completely free from identity. Our times in the hot tubs and the state park and countless other places were like that, sitting in the photo album of my mind like chronicles of perfection.

I do remember the conference, my dear. I remember standing outside by that fountain. I remember the crushing sadness of those days, the fear and the despair. I remember our cordial exchange, which was wholly unsatisfactory to me, a lost soul who longed to jump in your wise arms and beg you to tell me it'll be all right. You've always known what to do and say, and I felt outcast at that moment, cordially talking about academics and the weather. "In the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo." Like Prufrock, I felt completely out of place, out of society.

Your blog post is touching on about a hundred different levels, my love, like reading Leaves of Grass and its myriad little observations.

I'll write forever if you allow me, but let me end here with a barbaric yawp about your thoughts on adoption and transsexual transition. It's apt on several levels as I adopt a new persona, complete with all the difficulties of getting to know the new person in the house. I'm asking my friends to adopt someone new, just as I'm asking Mary Jo to adopt a new spouse. There may be a legal moment in time when the adoption becomes legal, but you've hit it straight on when you talk about the continual unfolding process of adoption. I hope I'm worthy of remaining in this new family of mine.


Arwen said...


Thank you both. One of my family is transitioning right now, and I have a number of trans folks in my extended circle of friends and co-workers. I am often scared of misstepping where I would wish to be supportive. There is a lot of baggage in gender, and I talk about gender issues all the time.

Being transgendered obviously feels different and requires a different coping strategy than my own experiences. I have the sense that the description of gender has a different set of resonances; a greater meaning. Because of that, my language fails me - I don't want to ride in with a privileged lexicon, and tramp all over with heavy feet.

Thank you for showing how the dialogue might be start.

Wordgirl said...

What an amazingly thoughtful and thought-provoking post -- especially with relation to construction and unfolding of identity -- and the similarities between Joyce's journey and that of adoption.

I think Joyce is very lucky to have friends like you.



liz said...

I have nothing to add to what others have said here, I just wanted to ditto my appreciation of the thoughtfulness of this post and Joyce's response.

Thank you both.

rachel said...

This was a great post. One of my scariest professors in college transitioned after I graduated - after retirement! So Joyce, you may be over 40, but you're not the oldest I've heard of.

I met this professor again, years later, and knew her instantly. That face had haunted my dreams so long, because HE had been terrible to female students. Just awful. He was known for it. But seeing her after the change was really moving for me. She was so different. Happy. Gentle. Like this was the way she should have been, and she was sorry she hadn't been, and she knew she'd been a real bastard. I'm half choked up just remembering. I was so lucky to see her again, and gain some understanding.

Anonymous said...

The person with whom I shared an office's husband (at my first real job) transitioned--almost as soon as I started working at that tiny college. I met him as Rich and three weeks later, he started dressing as she on weekends. By January (the new term--she was a professor), she was Rachel full time.

This remains as one of the more surreal aspects of my time there--I had barely met Richard, and as spouse of new colleague, he was rather peripheral in my new job....but all around me people were mourning the loss of someone I never really knew. When she'd stop by the office, we had a great time talking---she shared my sense of humor--but I was always aware of other's eyes on us, and their difficulty in saying her name.It was years before I could label that experience as grief and not prejudice. One of my department said, "I just wish we'd known before it was too late. I would have liked to have said goodbye."

I had totally forgotten that comment until reading your post.