Thursday, October 30, 2008

ought I mention...?

So, my sister is a writer, and has written several beautiful essays about my transition and how it's impacted our family, etc. We talk frequently about co-authoring a book. She has had a piece accepted by the NY Times which will be published soon, and I couldn't be more proud of her.

I'm also faced with something of a quandary. I haven't mentioned to anyone at my new job (or in my new town) anything about my transsexual history. I'm very chatty about my queerness, as is my wont, since that figures much larger in my day to day life than my transsexuality does. I think my queerness is in many ways more of a defining element of my character, though, as always, teasing out my queerness from my transsexuality isn't always the easiest or most fruitful task.

Anyway, the moral of the story is, I don't know whether to mention anything to my coworkers/friends that in a few days, there will be an essay about me and my transsexuality in a major national newspaper, which mentions me by first name. My full name isn't in the piece, but my sister and I have the same last name, which isn't terribly common, and it mentions the city I've recently been living in, as well as our home state, so, well, I don't think it'd be terribly hard to put two and two together.

But on the other hand, I really have no idea whether anyone would put two and two together and connect it with me. One thing I've found is that for most people, the concept that someone they know (especially someone whose gender/sex is not particularly ambiguous or androgynous) might be a transsexual is waaay far down the list of things that cross their minds.

So I figure either a) no one who knows me will read the piece (unlikely, since I work in a University, and academics tend to enjoy the Sunday NY Times); b) folks will read it and see my name but not see my last name in tiny print on the byline, so will make no connection to me (distinct possibility); c) folks will read it and also read the byline and think "Huh, that's funny! I know an Eli with that last name! What a small world." (strikes me as a distinct possibility); d) folks will read it and think "OMG, I know that guy!" followed either by "No wonder he's so knowledgeable about trans/gender issues!" or "I never would've guessed he's really a she!"

Clearly, it's that last option that has me wondering whether I should do any pre-emptive disclosure, and it's the two very different scenarios that have me really wavering back and forth as to what to do.

Ideally, I'd like to be open about my transsexual history in a matter-of-fact manner. I'm not ashamed, I'm not a particularly private person, I do think that my transsexual experiences have given me the occasional interesting and useful perspective, and it's a fact of my life that I grew up being perceived and treated as (and believing myself to be) female. While I don't consider it anyone's particular business how my body is configured (which is mostly the only thing still relevant about my transsexuality, given that I live as male now), I do like talking about myself, and sometimes it's nice to say things like "Well, when I was a speaker at the Lesbian Community Project's New Years part in 2001..." and be able to provide appropriate context for why I had that experience. Not to mention the community service/outreach component of being known as a transsexual person and role model.

But the (sad) fact is, I just don't trust people not to have that latter, worrisome response- "Oh, that guy is really a girl?!"

Many, many people do not understand what it means to be trans, do not understand how to appropriately respond to transsexual people, do not understand about the varying relationships between gender identity and 'biological sex' (placed in air quotes because that's a phrase that's thrown around in uncomfortable ways, too. ). It's tiresome and painful and wearying to deal with that ignorance, and I (selfishly, maybe) don't want to deal with it.

Ah, but there's the rub. I don't want my cissexual privilege (as Julia Serano might say!) taken away from me. All of these people in my life have been assuming that I'm not a transsexual, because that's what we do in this culture- that's what cissexual privilege means. You are assumed to be cissexual (that is, not a transsexual) unless proven otherwise, which means that transsexuals are forever and ever the strange and invalid "other" to be contrasted with the norm.

And I understand that there is a somewhat circular operation in place here: if more people know I'm a transsexual- particularly people who already perceive, understand, and accept my maleness on a gut level- then more of those people are likely to let go of their ignorant, offensive notions of transsexuals as 'fake' men and women, thus diminishing the power of cissexism.

Now, it's possible to contest that cissxual privilege without putting my own body on the line by declaring my transsexuality at every opportunity. That's called being an ally, and being trans and being a trans ally are not mutually exclusive terms. I can (and already have- remind me to tell the stories of America's Next Trans Model coming up at the LGBT club, or talking about books to be used for the new proposed LGBT studies class) be an ally and stand up for trans education without disclosing my transsexuality and thus inviting people to strip away my cissexual privilege...which often involves mentally stripping me, because I pretty much "look like a guy" now, so folks who find out that I'm trans pretty much (I'm speculating here, but hey, it's likely) think "So this guy wasn't born with a dick?" and dude, I don't want everyone thinking about my dick all the time.

But it's also undeniable that being a transsexual role model can have a positive impact. And while I hate the narrative of "keeping secrets" that gets forced onto trans folks, I also dislike feeling the residue of that narrative. I do feel like I'm not able to be completely forthright with the people around me, and while that's not entirely my fault, it still sucks.

The problem with that 'secrets' narrative is that it implies that the 'secret' is that I'm 'secretly' not a real man. But really, at this point, I'm secretly a man with a transsexual history. There's plenty of incentive, as I've been mentioning, to keep that transsexual history secret, since the world at large still equates 'transsexual man' with 'not a real man.'

Anyway. The narrative of this particular post (screed?) has started to wander, so I'm going to stop, albeit not having found myself any closer to deciding whether to disclose my transsexuality to my coworkers.

I think the bottom line is that I'm getting to the point where I'm close enough with some of them that I'm comfortable enough and would like to be able to share my personal and/or medical history, so I'll probably end up doing that. And the folks that I'd like to tell are the folks that I'm friends with, whom I can probably count on to be decent, relatively sensitive folks. As always, I never know how much credit to give people when it comes to being sensitive. I've had people I've assumed would be really cool open their mouths and say incredibly offensive things (see, ANTM story, forthcoming) and I've had people I've assumed would be resistant turn out to be totally comfortable.

The thing is, as with any sensitive topic, if I tell one person, I have to be comfortable with the possibility that everyone would know. Not that I think my coworkers are blabbermouths, and not that my transsexuality might not come to light by some other, unknown to me means, but still- I believe that one oughtn't tell sensitive information to anyone without coming to terms with the fact that it could mean telling everyone. And, since I don't trust EVERYONE as much as I trust my new friends when it comes to not being offensive...well, I'm still not sure what to do.


c. said...

Well, not at all to discount all the dilemmas that arise as a result -- but, SUPER huge congratulations to Kate, that is incredible!

kkryno said...

I wouldn't know what to tell you. It only takes one person to break your trust, and then all of your worries would be reality. I would hope that would not be a bad thing for some to know, but it seems like there is always one a-hole...
I think you have good judgement where people are concerned.

So happy that you and your sister are able to educate people on such an important subject. Good luck.

Have a good week-end.

Anonymous said...

Do you feel it is important for others to know?
If so, why?
Do you feel that all transsexuals should disclose, or that it is dishonest not to? Do you feel that in general others have a "right to know"?

trent said...

Dah! "And dude, I don't want everyone thinking about my dick all the time." Ha yes, exactly that.

I'm a pretty strict follower of the "don't bring it up unless someone else brings it up first" rule, but then, I would guess I'm a much more "private person" than you are! I think it's probably safe to wait and see if anyone you work with can do the math with the Times article -- it would suck if you felt the article (congrats, by the way!) was "forcing" you to come out prematurely.

In my (limited) experience, it sometimes happens that people "get it" and never "confront" you about it, which is also a possibility in this case. When I interned in NYC, for example, I noticed in my second or third week that my coworkers had, inexplicably and without any sort of discussion, shifted pronouns when speaking to or about me. It was really weird for a day or two, but I guess the point is, I never actually had "the talk" with any of my coworkers. They just, you know, got the memo and moved on.

I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but I think it's super cool that you've been able to function in this job as "just a guy", no trans strings attached. Privilege, yeah, but what's the goal here? Me, if I passed, I wouldn't tell a soul. My personal well-being, as far as validation and acceptance, would surpass any need to "educate" folks about transness and the trans community. But different people have different values about identity and community and disclosure.

On the ups, if you work with relatively open-minded academics, the "thinking about your dick" thing might only be temporary. And you're way ahead anyway because these people already know you as Eli, so their first impression of you won't be "holy crap transperson!" -- you're already past that with this crowd. They'll just have to incorporate the trans piece into their already-formed idea of you, rather than label you outright as a transperson, and see you as only that. I think that counts for something.

Best of luck, however you choose to approach the issue. I'd be interested to hear how it pans out... I'm still trying to figure out how I'd handle it myself, if it came up. Unnecessary prep, probably... everyone I work with thinks I'm a lesbian anyway.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I've been reading your blog for a while now, no recollection how I stumbled upon it...
I am also an avid reader of the NYT, I recognized you in the first line of the story :)
It was a beautiful article.

Anonymous said...

after reading the article, I think your sister (and probably you) ought to re-think the term "biological child" just as many of us have thankfully re-thought "biological male/man". Just as a trans male is not a cyborg, neither is an adopted or foster child somehow inhuman or "not real".

a certain degree of grief and frustration is understandable. but devaluing the family bonds of children conceived in any circumstance of sterility, infertility, etc etc should not be an acceptable response. XY is not equivalent to male, and contribution of genetic material is not equivalent to fatherhood- I'd hope you'd know that well enough already

Elaine said...

My mom just emailed me a link to your blog. She has found herself looking for intelligent, articulate writing about trans life and choices and was delighted to read your sister's article and then to discover your blog.

My partner and I live in the Bay Area and are right in the middle of discussing our reproductive options. Does he get a hysterectomy? Do we try to freeze his eggs? Should we have children now so I can be a surrogate for his eggs? Should we instead ask his brothers to help us so our children will have a genetic link to both of us?

Transitioning brings up so many questions about being out, being an ally, being visible, being queer, etc. We never even contemplated how difficult the reproductive choices would be until stumbling into a conversation about, damn, we would have the most adorable kids.

I loved reading Kate's article and feeling the familiar pangs of emotion that I feel with Asher.

Good luck and thank you both for making me smile and cry :)