Transitions are a normal part of life: puberty, retirement, job changes, marriage(s), divorce, illness, a new haircut, etc. If you are lucky, and maybe it’s not a matter of luck at all, the transition can lead you to a sense of wholeness. This might happen when you marry the right person, or perhaps when you find the right job or career. Both of these happened for me. As a teacher and as Kim’s husband I found, or created, my wholeness, and now I am working on adding to that wholeness my roles as a writer and home owner – more transitions. One’s identity is a suite of roles – but that’s the subject of another blog post.
But sometimes these transitions operate at an even deeper level. Mike was a fraternity brother of mine in college, and now she is Michelle. She made the transition just a few years ago when she was in her 70s. Last weekend Michelle came to visit us at our home on Torch Lake. Kim and I learned a lot, and as frequently happens, the questions grew along with the answers:
Did Michelle find or create her new identity? She reports that she didn’t actually “find” it, for she always knew that her assigned-at-birth male gender did not fit. (Think about wearing shoes that are the wrong size, to make a trivial analogy.) In a sense she did “create” her new identity, for she made a conscious choice and then acted on her choice, but she did not create herself the way a painter starts with a blank canvas. Michelle uses an archeological analogy, where she brings to the surfacea self that had long been buried. In a talk she gave at our Amherst reunion, where we reconnected, and again at our home, Michelle was clearly bringing her female self to the surface. She chose her clothes carefully, and her style is distinctly feminine. We did not see her without make-up, and her wigs are flattering and, dare I say, appealing. While many of our conversations were rather academic, dealing with hormones, psychology (she is a psychotherapist), diet and surgery, she also enjoyed “girl talk” with Kim. I was excluded from these, though I did catch some discussion of manicures and pedicures. I learned that some of the girl talk had to do with Spanx panties, and I wondered if the ghost living in Michelle responded to women’s panties the way I do when Kim lets me fold the laundry.
Does Michelle wish to “pass” as a woman, or does she wish to be identified as a “trans” (transgendered person)? It was hard for me to tell. At one point she compared herself to a missionary bringing the Word about trans as real people to the unconverted, who she expected to find here in northern Michigan. (In her talk, available at MichelleAllisonLMFT.com,on the ‘About Michelle’ page) she very helpfully explained what terms are currently offensive, which are OK. Who knew?) This would suggest that she wants to be identified as “trans,” but I’m not sure. Her voice is the same as it used to be, but Kim points out that her own voice is lower than Michelle’s, who is doing vocal exercises to feminize her voice. She has great legs, for a woman, and shows them off. Her back and shoulders appear rather masculine, perhaps the result of her building a large stone wall even after her testosterone was chemically blocked, but this judgment might be a result of my own stereotypes about women.
Does she want to have a romantic relationship? Yes, and she is pursuing relationships through online dating sites. With a man or a woman? The examples Michelle discussed, briefly, were with women, though most likely lesbian women. I did not inquire about how those physical relationships might work, but as a person in his mid-70’s, I don’t think that’s as important as I did in my youthful 60s. In any case, it’s none of my business.
Are doctors being trained to deal with the trans population? The traditional set of specialties does not appear to offer a comfortable fit. But the trans population in the U.S. is surprisingly (to me) large, with the latest estimate 1.4 million adults, and so larger hospitals are certainly equipped to provide care. I’m not sure how insurance companies deal with all this.
How did Michelle’s transition impact her friendships? Not very much. She is still in touch with her old friends, and she repeatedly said how her ex-wife is her best friend, despite the understandable turmoil that led to their divorce. When I dropped Michelle off at the airport in Traverse City, I told her that I was very happy, despite all the changes, that the same Mike who was my friend at Amherst, the same intelligence, wit and perception, is still very much alive. And why not? I use this continuing friendship as an excuse for slip-ups in my use of pronouns, where I reverted to he/him instead of the she/her sitting with me.
How did I feel about having Michelle, a trans, as a guest? Kim and I discussed her visit a little beforehand, often making pronoun errors, but these errors largely disappeared as soon as we greeted Michelle. The only discomfort I felt was when we went to restaurants and to one Land Conservancy event, but this discomfort was entirely in my anticipating weird or offensive responses from waiters, waitresses, or Conservancy personnel. I was very pleased that either everyone saw Michelle as female or they saw her as a valued person/customer, with us, and her identity as transgendered was ignored. Five years ago a trans person would have been a real curiosity, but that’s not the case anymore, even among people who may never have met one. Good for us.
Michelle, when she left us, described her experience with us as “transformative,” something she knows something about. What did she mean?
Well, here are my comments. Probably far longer than you can use, but as you know I’m a person who has a lot to say. And brevity is not my long suit. I don’t know how to tell you to use these. I’d like to say some are not that important, but since this blog is kind of a portrait of me, I feel a certain compulsion to ’get it right.’ You can edit or publish anything in these comments you choose (or dare as in the case of the sexual stuff). By the way, I have no problem telling you that I retain a penis which is pretty functional—another reason I will not be likely to pass. I think most of what I’ve written addresses the questions you raised. And I assume you can figure out which of my text goes with your questions. I hope I haven’t made too much annoying extra work for you. And thanks for giving me the option to respond and comment—it was a lot fun writing about this stuff, and I may have come up with some formulations I’ll like enough to use in some future setting.
I have pondered long and hard about your understandable use of my dead name. I appreciate that ‘Michelle’ is new to you, both as a name and a person. You have a history with my former self and have only recently been exposed to me as I am now. Here is an opportunity to understand some things about twists and turns of gender dysphoria. For reasons that are purely non rational, seeing my dead name in print multiple times is very unsettling; knowing it will be read by a large number of your subscribers (almost all of whom will never know me) still multiples this discomfort. I’d really like to give you license to write and express in your most authentic voice--but in this instance I really just can’t pull off the degree of distress tolerance that would be needed.
On friendships, most who have known me more recently comment that I express a brighter mood and seem way more comfortable in my own skin. That is certainly how I see myself; for those friends I am a new and improved version of the person I used to be. Version 2.0
Being a guest in the ‘up north’ part of MI seemed uneventful to me. I’m touched that you had some anxieties about how I would be received. Although there are places in our Great Land where I might not be warmly welcomed, I perhaps naively assume the Stringers would not nest in non-affirming territory. I mentioned that I have waited to be at least mildly called out in public, even in the very Blue state of Connecticut. After three plus years out (and with my very overt attention seeking, femme presentation) it’s still smooth sailin’. I make it a policy to stand tall and proud, and I think that helps make it work for me.
Remember there is one’s gender identity: deeply felt in the recesses of the mid brain and uncovered (or found) by one’s own personal archeological enterprise. There is then a social expression of that gender identity. This is where one’s creativity comes into play. Viewing myself as an artist, I do see my body as a canvas to be decorated: personal ornamentation is also a common way of describing it.
‘Girl talk’ and related activities (clothes, jewelry, hair styles, shopping as a woman) are among the most rewarding of feminine experiences. These are moments when I feel my female identity most strongly and am so proud to be in the company of my sisters. Their acceptance and inclusion of me into their circle of intimates is the best!
Regarding responses to intimate female garments, here is where your cis male nature contrasts with my trans awareness. If I understand you correctly, your access to women’s intimate garments is a brief window into a private and special domain. When I wear my clothes (which are women’s clothes in every manner), I typically have a feeling of overall wellbeing and pleasure in these actions. The contrast for me is between my closeted life, where cross dressing was a very guilty pleasure and a bra was ‘hot stuff', and my current life whereby this is the only manner of dressing I know anything about. And what I know about it is that it is completely without guilt or shame--and that is a most deliciously exhilarating feeling. Gender euphoria displaces gender dysphoria.
‘Passing’ can be a rather vexing issue. While I want to present as looking very youthful (for my chronological age), attractive and feminine, I’m also very proud to be trans. I entertain the conceit that it makes me ‘a very special person.’ Add in my less than feminine voice and other ‘tells’ I’ll likely be read as trans anyway, so why not let it work for me. My ideal would be to be convincingly a female and able to pass, but then choose not to pass. Youth and a pile of feminizing surgeries will work wonders. However, youth is behind me and I have little interest in spending my remaining years in a state of post-operative recovery. In the interest of accuracy, my most recent and highly effective elimination of testosterone was achieved surgically (orchiectomy).
Medicine for trans people. In general there are few experiences less appealing for a trans person than a medical visit ( a public bathroom can be fraught also). The word gets around who are the trans friendly practitioners (and that includes therapists as well). Everyone I see is at least very good, and most are terrific. And it’s getting better. Insurance companies are the bane of everyone’s healthcare, even more so for the trans population. They determine what is ‘medically necessary’ to address one’s gender dysphoria. And those decisions are made exclusively by cis people, the vast majority being white men. I suspect that they are among a large segment of our population who at a deeper level suspect that gender dysphoria is not all that ‘real.’ Top surgery for trans males and gender affirming bottom surgery for both genders are well covered, but a whole array of other procedures are not.
Romance! I’d like to see what an intimate romantic relation in my proper gender would be like. An interesting artifact of attempting intimate relationships as my former self was that I really wanted to be the woman I was with--you can see how this might impede genuine intimacy. My pool of available candidates is relatively small due to my age (older folks are more straight and non queer). Most women who identify as lesbian, will categorically preclude any involvement with a trans woman (they require a ‘real’ or woman born woman). I retain my orientation toward women despite my gender shift. If I get lucky, it will be a woman who is bi, or more properly pan sexual; meaning they are attracted to a variety of gendered identities. As far as the details of sexual activity, it’s not that complicated. Those who wish to be penetrators can use their penis (if they have one) fingers or dildos; those who wish to be penetrated can offer their vagina or anus; and all the other options such as oral sex and touching are of course available.
Finally, using ‘trans’ enables me to bring in other words containing that root. Very often my very presence in certain spaces is ‘transgressive’ (hopefully in a kind way); also, I seek to be ‘transparent’ with my various agendas available for easy inspection. And I try to have experiences that are ‘transformative’ in that I am changed, usually in some way related to emotional experience or a deepening sense of identity. My visit with you and Kim was transformative in that I left having been ‘opened up to some new delights…’ as per the Rumi poem I use in my presentations. I hope you both felt some of that also.