11 March 2009


Today at the college, I felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness overtaking me after I taught my first class: The Poetics and Rhetoric of Hip Hop. The class wasn't the problem: it went well and I do sense that at least some of the students value it. And I love them. Maybe they don't know it, but they make that class great.

So why did I feel desolate afterward? And, why did my feeling of isolation intensify when Cady Ann, one of the department's secretaries, told me about her friends who are in my class and love it, or when she very sympathetically asked about my upcoming surgery?

I couldn't even be angry with her. After all, how could she have known how I would feel? Hey, even I didn't know I would feel that way after a good experience with my class and talking to her.

But even when everything's going well, the college feels like an alien and often hostile place. I feel more like a stranger, and outsider, than I did on my first day there. Faculty members with whom I used to converse have become no more than one of many co-workers I pass in the hallway.

I noticed this when I went to a bathroom in a little-used corner of the campus's main building. When I stepped out, I saw a faculty member whom I used to see just about every day, but whom I hadn't seen in months. I was actually in a bit of a hurry, as I had another class to teach. But I waved to her; she waved back and signalled her approval for what I was wearing. And, as encouraging and sympathetic as she's been in the past, I couldn't think of anything to say to her.

Lately, I feel as if I have less and less to talk about with the faculty and staff members with whom I used to talk. It seems that they are all talking about research projects and other things of which I'm not a part. Or they're talking about grant applications, or even their families or other loved ones.

If you've spent large portions of your adult life unmarried, you know what it's like to go to a family gathering, or any work-related or social function, in which everyone else has brought his or her kids, or pictures of them. And that's all anybody's talking about: their kids. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But then you start to get the sense that they're all judging you as somehow deficient for not having kids, for not being married, or not even having a steady relationship with someone of the "opposite" gender.

Well, it feels something like that when I'm on campus. Some people are just plain, flat-out homophobic and believe that trans people are just the most extreme and therefore contemptible versions of gaydom. But others--most of whom probably don't intend any harm or understand what they're doing--come off as condescending or patronizing, which of course have the effect of excluding the person who is the object of condescenscion or other, subtler forms of exclusion and belittlement.

However, they're not the majority of people on the campus or anywhere else. Instead, I feel that the ones who are sympathetic but can't truly understand how I feel are the majority. And the worst thing is that know matter how much they'd like to understand, I could never convey my feelings through any means that accurately reflect them. As an example, when someone like Cady Ann asks how I feel about my impending surgery, she's thinking about words like "scared," "nervous" or "excited." Or they talk about the pain I'm going to feel. (It seems as if everybody has been watching Sex Change Hospital.) Those are all true enough, but there's somehing else I could never quite express. It has to do with what the operation means to me and my reasons for getting it.

I am thinking, ironically enough, about a part of Stone Butch Blues. That novel begins with a letter Jess, the first-narrator of the story, writes to her old girlfriend Theresa, even though she has no address or any other way of reaching Theresa.

In that letter, Jess recalls how Theresa always seemed to understand how she felt, especially after a particularly brutal attack from the police. Jess didn't have to say a word. But she couldn't because she had, even at that rather early stage of her life, shut down much of her ability to feel and express the ways her experiences affected her. Of course, she would never cry and Theresa didn't expect her to, for she understood that Jess's sense of herself as a "butch" came from her seeming invulnerability and lack of emotion. And, in many lesbian communities (which were centered mainly in the bars), especially in pre-Stonewall days, a "butch" got more respect as her shell thickened.

In her letter, she acknowledges that her lack of expression was a main reason why she and Theresa broke up. Even though Theresa had some idea of how she was feeling, she felt the need to hear it from Jess. But Jess is holding back; Theresa also realizes that getting her to talk would force her to re-live those experiences she was trying to forget. Having had similar experiences of harassment and violence, Theresa was reluctant to press Jess into re-living traumatic experiences.

And, Jess confesses that she could not express much of what she felt because the language she had was inadequate and inaccurate. She says, "I need 'butch' words to decribe my 'butch' life," or something to that effect. What's more, she needs for Theresa and everyone else to understand those 'butch' terms, which of course she can't or won't.

This, of course, is the exact opposite of what the academic world--at least in the humanities--teaches. We're taught to take pre-existing language and to order our experiences around it, or to use that pre-existing language to validate whatever we're trying to say. However, when your experience differs, your language will, too, as it must. And that is the beginning of the complications you wil encounter. People will think they understand your experience, but in fact there is much they cannot know. And, in my case, my situation is further complicated by the fact that I have been both the victimizer and victim when it comes to homo- and trans-phobic violence.

I know that it's not the job of co-workers to understand how I feel. But what I'm expereincing is in some ways more painful and alienating than what I would feel, or not feel, if I were just someone who came and went, and about whom nobody knew anything but the job I was doing. Sometimes I envy those people who spend their working days in front of a computer.

Now, if I do say so myself, I've given you a pretty good idea of what "tolerance" looks like. You don't have to understand, or even like or agree with, whom or what you're tolerating. The ones who understand this best are the blue-collar workers at the college, almost all of whom are poor and black. They--and in particular one who confided a sexual orientation to me--understand what it's like not to be understood yet abided because they were necessary for some purpose or another.

Right now, I feel that after I recover from my operation, I'd like to move to some place--or at least find a workplace--where nobody knows me. If they want to start rumors about me, let them. At least I wouldn't have to deal with people who think they can understand me and want to do so mainly to feel good about themselves, or to feel superior to somebody.

I used to think that women talked more about their feelings of loneliness because, well, they simply talked about their feelings more than men did. But now I've come to feel that because of who we are, our sense of alone-ness is more intense, and we feel more of a need to discuss it.

Oh, shit, here I go, blaming the hormones again! As if that's going to help anybody understand anybody else...

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