09 November 2009

From Wholeness to "Juvie"

Very few things in my life have felt better than getting on my bikes this weekend. I was talking with Charlie, the owner of Bicycle Habitat, about that. He said, "Well, it's the first time you've gotten on a bike as a whole person. Of course it's going to feel better."

Today I went to pick up the bike that's going to become my next commuter/errand bike: a Raleigh Sports ladies' three-speed. It's one of those classic English three-speeds, with fenders and a chainguard. I had them give it a once-over, as it's been a while since I've worked on a three-speed hub. Besides, would the great tranny goddesses if I got my hands dirty doing something like that? I guess they'd've understood: My nails are a mess anyway. Now, if I'd just had a nice French manicure or one of those nail-paintings and ruined it while working on machinery, well, that just wouldn't do, would it?

Anyway...I wish I could've ridden during the day today: The weather was even better than it was yesterday. At least I got to ride home from the shop, which is a distance of about seven miles.

And that ride came at the end of a strange day. Or maybe it wasn't so strange, given who I am. And its strangeness comes not from any paranormal activity or anything related to it. And nothing unusual happened in my classes. It was just the feeling that was odd, almost disconcerting. It was so, in part, because of my own doing.

I talked to two faculty members today. They've always been friendly toward me, and they were today. But I could see that they were being friendlier toward me than I was toward them. I wasn't upset at them: In fact, I hadn't seen one in a while, as he was at a conference. I felt a little guilty about not being more talkative with them, and I wonder if they're reading anything into it.

It had to do with the defenses I've built up since the goings-on of last week. I really didn't want to talk to any of my colleagues, even the ones who've been supportive. You might say I've gotten a little bit paranoid: After one person--Deena, the secretary--whom I thought was an ally treated me as she did and a purported feminist--Laura, the coordinator--accused me of something I didn't do, I'm starting to feel as if I can't trust anybody who works there. And, because the department chair seems all too willing to accept, at face value, what people like them say about me, I feel as if I don't have any support. That makes me question the value of the service (on committees and such) I've performed for the department and college.

Those very same defenses came down, or at least softened a bit, in my classes. The students seemed even more receptive to me and perceptive about what they've been reading than they usually are. We were doing fairly mundane material, but the classes were a joy to do.

Equally joyful was bumping into three students I hadn't seen since last semester. They seem to be doing well; of course, they all asked how "it" went. Not that they couldn't ask about my operation; it's almost as if "it" is a kind of shorthand in the way that "the big event" is for some other goings-on in other people's lives.

One in particular was happy to see me, as I was to see her. She's very overweight and has a harelip. One day last year (her freshman year), she told me she felt I was the only one of her professors who didn't look at her as a fat girl with a harelip. Why should I?, I wondered. She's a rather smart young woman who works hard and isn't afraid to try something new: What else should I, as her professor, have seen? Besides, I thought she was very nice. That she seems not to have trouble making friends, and even getting dates, with her fellow students is evidence of that.

So here's what's strange: When I'm around my students, I feel like I'm around grown-up people, or at least people who are in the process of becoming that way. Sure, some of them do things we would think are silly or irresponsible, but they also seem to learn when I or someone else points out the error of their ways and offers advice, if they ask for it. I also know that a few of them may have had non-existent "crises" or other "situations" that they used as reasons for missing a class or an assignment. Still, I trust them, not because I'm lenient or don't care, but because I know that the only way to help someone, especially a young person, to become trustworthy is to trust him or her. If that person knows her or she did something dishonest, I would hope that he or she would learn and do something better from the chance I give. On the other hand, if you treat people as if they're going to do wrong even if they haven't, they'll do something subversive simply because they don't trust you.

In contrast, when I'm anywhere on the campus but in my classrooms, or around many of the faculty members and administrators, I feel as if I'm in some place that's a cross between a junior-high school and a juvenile detention center. The same sorts of games that go on in those places are standard operating procedure at the college, or so it seems. There's the same sort of petty cliquishness, and the same sort of intolerance of people who are, or seem to be, different from themselves.

It's telling that every handicapped or LGBT student I've taught, advised or counseled at the college has transferred or dropped out of it. It's equally telling that Latino and Asian students don't stay, and the Latino staff members feel something one longtime administrative aide expressed to me: "more like a stranger here than I did on the day I started." That day was 24 years ago.

Furthermore, there is not a single "out" member of the faculty. Three profs told me, privately, that they are gay or lesbian and made me promise I wouldn't reveal their identities. Two of them got tenure before most of their students were born; the other, I suspect, fears not getting re-appointed. I think now of the time I went to Kingsborough Community College and New York University and saw lots of faculty members' office doors adorned with "Safe Space" signs. Students know that they can talk to those profs about their sexual or gender identity and not be judged, much less "outed." On the other hand, students know only by word of mouth that they can talk to me. And they probably don't even know about those other profs I just mentioned.

I'm starting to feel I am, on a smaller scale, like Dr. Stanley Biber (who trained Marci Bowers) when he started performing sex reassignment surgery in the days when it was still called "the sex-change operation." He had to "fly under the radar," for the nuns that ran Mount San Rafael Hospital would not have approved. And, in those pre-Internet days, people found out about him through a kind of "underground" network that consisted mainly of other transgender people.

So...I can get on my bike as a whole person now. But I can't be that way at the college--not even among colleagues who've known me since I started there, years before my operation. Or maybe now they resent me for being whole instead of just a label that they saw in one of their textbooks.