03 February 2010

What I've Become, What I'm Becoming

It seemed that today everyone was having a crisis of one kind or another. Someone's dog died; someone found out her husband has been cheating on her; another's car broke down. And students got disenrolled from courses and were begging me to sign them into classes that are already bursting at the seams. Luckily, my department chair offered to be the "heavy" so that I wouldn't have to tell the students "no;" luckily for her, the college said I couldn't sign students into two of my courses because the rooms in which they're being held are small, and if even another student is added, fire code regulations would be violated. Not to mention the things a student (or his or her family) can do if something happens to the student and they find a good lawyer.

This was supposed to be my "easy" day this week. Do you wonder why I'm tired and cranky?

At least I had one really good conversation with Tess, an adjunct faculty member who's also teaching at another college, working on a PhD, taking care of her aging father and dealing with an ex-spouse. I guess my life isn't so hard after all.

Anyway, she and I have been having more and longer conversations lately. Well, as happens in conversations, "way leads to way" and she asked me one of the more poignant questions anyone has asked me lately. "Are you trying to 'fit in'?" she wondered. "Or do you want to live in a trans subculture and be an activist? Or something else?"

After thinking about it, I said, "All of the above." I wasn't trying to be ironic (As my Inner Valley Girl says, "I'm sooo over that!") or even coy. On one hand, everything I've done for the past few years, including the surgery, has been directed at my goal of living as the woman that I am. On the other, I've become the woman I am through some means that are very different from what those who have XX chromosomes must do in order to become women. I cannot live in my past, but I cannot deny it, either.

Plus, having focused so much on myself makes me want to help others, especially those who are following a road like mine. At the same time, although I have always been female in my heart, mind and spirit, the woman I am now is still fledgling, and will probably be so for some time.

I described some of this for Tess, and added: "Well, you know, I have been accepted by other women--and, for that matter, by men, too--mainly to the degree that I fit into their expectations of a woman who's more or less my age. And I feel that my presentation is, for better or worse, a pretty accurate representation of who I am."

"Well, you did get a chili pepper on Rate My Professors and were called 'the best-dressed professor at this college.'"

"I enjoy getting dressed. And I knew early on that it would help me to 'pass," and, later, to be accepted."

"Well, that's generally true. You dress for the position you want."

"True. And I don't want to live in a gender subculture. But I also want to have the choice to become who I need to become. And I'm still learning what that is."

"That's what life is."

My conundrum is this: Because I'm a transgender woman, I have to learn about and redefine, not only myself, but what's around me. Sometimes I even have to create the terms by which I define myself because even the terms of other women won't always do the job. And, as near as I can tell, other women must do the same thing.

Also, while other transgender women have shown me that it's possible, if difficult, to do what I've been doing, I can't always use them as models. Christine Jorgensen tried to fit into society's expectations of a woman in the 1950's, going so far as to study nursing because it was one of the few professions available to women at that time. She looked like a movie star of her time and married a handsome man--just as women were expected to do in those days. That meant, of course, that she had to be a heterosexual woman, as that was understood at the time.

Following her, Jan Morris and Renee Richards were able to continue in their careers after their transitions and surgeries. They had a few more liberties than women of Jorgensen's generation had, but they still saw--as society saw--their "success" as women in terms of how they were able to blend seamlessly into the female race, and into society generally. Of course, Richards' fame (or infamy, depending on how you look at it) prevented her from doing that, at least to some degree. Jan Morris was never quite as famous, so while people who heard of her knew that she was a transsexual (That was the term used in those days.), she wasn't seen in terms of her past to the degree that Richards and Jorgensen were.

I don't have the looks that Jorgensen or even Morris had, so in that sense, I wouldn't be seen as "successful" in my transition as they were in theirs. But I have more options and terms for defining my womanhood than they had. The question Tess asked reflects a way of seeing my gender identity that is changing and even passing: I think that within my lifetime, it won't have to be a choice between being a "woman" and being a kind of genderqueer. I'm still learning what I will become; perhaps it will help someone else learn about his or her path. Within my lifetime, perhaps, someone will be making choices and defining him or her self in ways I can't even imagine, and someone will ask that person about something that has yet to be named. Perhaps I will have had something to do with that, if only in the smallest and most peripheral way.