07 October 2011

Coming Out From The Cold

Last night, I went out for a cup of tea with a York College prof.  I hadn't done that--or, for that matter, gone to lunch or dinner with a faculty member or any other co-worker from York--in a long time.  What is even more remarkable is the circumstance that led me to the cafe with that prof.

We have been greeting each other in passing practically since the day I started teaching there.  At first, I couldn't understand how someone who was a full professor with tenure, and has been with the college for decades, would want to talk to me.  But I quickly came to suspect that he wanted to offer me something, or needed something from me.  Actually, what he was offering and what he needed were exactly the same thing, which is the reason why I didn't make an effort to build a friendship with him.  

Plus, when I first started working at York, I tried to keep an upbeat attitude and tried not to upset anybody.  I actually succeeded, at least to some degree, at both for the first three years I worked there.  I was labelled the "queen" or "angel" of the department in which I was teaching; people liked me because I was about as close as I've ever been to being inoffensive to almost everybody.  Furthermore, I didn't hang out with any of the "wrong" people.  Somehow I sensed that, in spite of that prof's stature and apparent influence, being seen with him--at least too often or for too long--might not be a good thing for me. He had developed the sort of cynicism I was trying to avoid but, as I've learned, is a means of survival (though at what price!) for a faculty member at York.

Mind you, I rather liked him.  He was clearly more intelligent than most of the other people there (including yours truly!) and I sensed that he was one of those tough people who would use his combat skills, if you will, only for defensive purposes.  Which is to say, of course, that underneath the armor a real, honest heart was beating.

You may have guessed where this story is going.   I quickly realized that he was transitioning from male to female.  During the summer, he sent me e-mails in which he told me that he has been taking hormones and has had hair implants.  He is also making plans for his operation; his female partner has been supporting his transition.  

I am referring to him by male pronouns only because, for the moment, he is still presenting as male and working under his male name.  However, he revealed him nom de femme to me and, between us, I will always refer to him by that name and female pronouns.  He is not adamant about my doing so; it's simply something I want to do for him.

Last night, we greeted each other and parted in exactly the same way:  an embrace.  I did not want to let go; at one point, I sensed that he didn't want me to.  He is, in many ways, stronger--or, at least, tougher-- than I was when I first started my transition.  Plus, he is more knowledgeable about the ways of his workplace and the unspoken prejudices of some of the people in it than I was.  Part of the reason for that, of course, is that he has been there for much longer than I've been.  But, ironically, I think it also has to do with the fact that my parents have been supportive of me in ways that his aren't:  One is dead and he hasn't spoken with the other in about ten years, he says.  Of course, I wouldn't trade the relationship I have with my parents for what he has.  But what he has--essentially, no hope that anyone in the college's administration, not to mention many faculty members, are capable of or willing to have more wisdom or integrity than they have--has undoubtedly helped him to navigate the psychological minefield of that college.

After that opening embrace last night, I felt exactly the same thing as I did the first time I "came out" to anybody: an enormous sense of relief, as if I was finally being honest with somebody.  It's a bit like finding yourself in a tunnel but also finding, at the same moment, your way through, if not out, and knowing that the tunnel is the route to wherever you need to go next.  So you have a sense that, if nothing else, you're going to get there, if not out.

Having talked with that prof last night doesn't make me feel better about the college.  We agreed that the students are fine, that the most homo- and trans-phobic, and all-around-bigoted, people are found in the college's administration and among some sectors of the faculty. We have almost exactly the same impressions of various faculty members and administrators there, and the ones each of us trusts are the same.  (They include, among others, a longtime History prof and, interestingly, most of the Foreign Language faculty.) But we also know just how treacherous and simply mean-spirited some of the others are, and can be.  So, the college is not a safer or better place for me now than it was before, but at least I now know that someone understands, and I understand her.

He and I made tentative plans to get together with his partner next weekend.    In the meantime, there's someone else I'd like to talk with.  I've seen him in the hallways at York, but I don't know whether he's seen me.  From what I can see, he's a student--and in the early or middle stages of transitioning to female.  Every time I've seen him, he's been with other students who seem to be friends, or friendly acquaintances.  I hope that his path at the college, for however long he remains there (Only one of the gay or lesbian students I've had in my classes stayed in the college for more than one year!) , is smoother than what the other prof or I have experienced.  


Miss Kitty said...

WOW. What an amazing story, Justine. Thank goodness you were there to help your colleague during this tough yet freeing time. Hugs to you both!


Justine Valinotti said...

Miss Kitty: Thank you for the hugs and other emotional support you've given me--and the friend and ally I've finally acknowledged as such.