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Family Ties

Ah the sweet taste of exclusion. I had almost allowed myself to forget. That’s a dangerous tendency often born of complacency in the wake of a successful transition.

This weekend marks the first time I have been officially excluded from a family gathering. Family from all over the country traveled to my town to celebrate a wedding. They all received invitations. I received a personal note telling me, in gracious terms, why I was not invited.

It stings.

I have declined to attend some recent family events, mostly because I was worried about stealing focus from the events’ intended honorees (with a family spread across the country, my coming out was a remote activity, so my re-appearance was bound to cause a stir of some kind). But in those cases at least I was invited, and my schedule as much as my intent would have prevented me from attending regardless. This is the first time a formal barrier was erected explicitly to keep me out.

It’s a jarring disconnect from my everyday life. I’m not accustomed to living as a second-class citizen. My friends don’t treat me like one. Nor do my neighbors. Nor the parents of our kids’ friends. Nor their school. Nor my co-workers. None of these people seem ashamed to be associated with me.

And that gets at the heart of what hurts in this case. In places where I’ve been given a chance, I thrive. People go out of their way to let me know how much they value me. Some of them know my history. Some of them don’t. Once the awkwardness of transition subsided, it really hasn’t mattered.

But in my family it’s another story. In that case people still go out of their way to let me know, in various ways, that they’re ashamed of me. The fact that I have changed from a suicidally depressed wreck, into a happy and successful person is ignored. The fact that the former was a straight man, and the latter a queer woman seems too much of an impediment to overcome.

I realize now I’ve been living in a bit of a bubble. I don’t get mis-gendered in public any longer. I no longer worry about going to places I would have previously avoided out of shame or fear. I live in an area of the country which is abnormally LGBT-friendly. As a result, I’m unaccustomed to being singled out as “different” let alone unwelcome.

Things have changed for me over the past year. I’m no longer living the life of a shame-filled trans person newly hatched from my closet. Now I’m living my life as Diana. Period. The fact that I’m married to another woman is a problem I’ll let the bigots to seethe over. I simply enjoy the love of my spouse and our children. I enjoy my friends, my work, and am finally rekindling old hobbies that fulfill me creatively. I’ve got a pretty good life going… finally! And knowing how close I came to ending it all… well it colors the whole world brighter, and makes me appreciate life all the more.

I’m not sure my life has room for family members who seem, intentionally or not, to view me as the miserable, wretched creature I felt myself to be while in the closet. That’s not me. And I don’t play along with that role any more.

What’s more, I’m not willing to associate with anyone, no matter how closely we might be related, if they expect me to assume a second-class role. I’m not ashamed of who I am. In fact, now that I truly know who I am, I have come to believe I’m a pretty cool person.

Unlike most others, I had to walk through hell just to become myself. I threw open the doors to my darkest fears and most shameful secrets… and then I broadcast them to the whole world. I offered my heart on a platter to anyone who wanted to take a stab – and believe me, I felt every dagger. Then I rebuilt myself from the bloody remains, showing the world who I had been inside all along, with no promise that anyone other than myself would accept the person I finally became. The experience nearly killed me. But I finally made it through.

My family may not understand that journey. They’re sure as hell not proud of me for it. But that really doesn’t matter. I’ve got a dignity they can’t touch. I’ve got love in my life their blood can’t match.

Sometimes, unbeknownst those who would exclude, they’re not really keeping others out. They’re keeping themselves in. Which side of the line sounds like freedom?

For those of you following this blog you might have noticed a gradual decline in posting frequency. The odd thing is, I really haven’t noticed it much. Which is to say, I haven’t missed it. Which is also to say, I don’t see this posting desert of a blog changing any time soon.

I speculated about ending Salad Bingo about a month ago. I’ve decided that’s not what I’m going to do. Every now and then I’m sure I’ll have a trans related essay pop out of my keyboard, and I’d hate to lack for a place to post it. So the blog will remain. But the posting will be – at least for the moment – on an extended hiatus.

But before I head off into the business of getting on with my life, I suppose a bit of a retrospective and some closing thoughts would be proper.

I started Salad Bingo a little over a year ago, but it feels like a lifetime ago. At that time I was looking forward to the beginning of my Real Life Experience, under the WPATH Standards of Care and the experience of coming out in my workplace. I had previously completed a couple of years of therapy in preparation for that point, but I was hardly “cured” yet.  I was still full of so much fear, doubt, and shame.

I was constantly battling expectations of total failure. With every step forward, I half expected to lose everything. But I had come to accept that standing still was no solution. Only the feeling of progress toward an authentic life held the demons of suicidal depression at bay. And so I rode the roller-coaster of emotion that came with each necessary but terrifying step. A lot of those emotions were the basis of my earlier posts here, but some were so intense I didn’t even try to give them words.

As the year progressed I broke down walls, coming out to friends and family alike. In the process a number of dormant relationships were rekindled rather than broken. And while I envied the support many others received from their parents, few others had a partner as consistently supportive of their transition as Ellen was for me. In the process our relationship – and our family – has grown stronger and closer than ever before. Over the same period of time my frosty relationship with my parents gradually warmed as well.

Coming out at work was a huge challenge for me – emotionally, professionally, and potentially financially. But I’d favorably compare the support and professionalism with which the matter was handled by my company to anyone’s. It went from the main issue dominating my life into normal and routine within a shockingly short period of time. The support of my colleagues and management never wavered a single time.

And so I reached a point this past spring where it became apparent to me that I had begun to experience life on the gentle downward slope of a successful transition. For the first time in my life the life I was living felt like it “fit.” The overwhelming sense of wrongness and gender dysphoria, which had once been so strong it almost killed me, had retreated to a couple of isolated areas which are well on their way to being corrected (e.g. “the surgery,” which is being planned in private rather than blogged about in public).

The main challenges I see looking ahead are no longer specifically transsexual challenges –  they’re human challenges. I have some serious catching up to do in learning to live a healthy and fulfilling life as a mom, spouse, sister, daughter, professional and friend. But I finally feel like I’m properly equipped for the task. As I confront these things I am finding the greatest insight and camaraderie by reading and interacting with non-trans people  – most often but not exclusively other women. In saying this I mean no disrespect to the trans community. In fact some of the friends I hope to keep with me moving forward in life come from that same community. But it won’t be our transsexual past that holds us together going forward so much as our shared humanity, finally unleashed from its transsexual prison.

In short, I have experienced a lot, shared a lot, and learned a lot in the preceding year. If my words have helped anyone else with their own struggles, I’m very pleased. I’m grateful to those who read my words, and especially those who took the opportunity to comment or e-mail as a result. Having people to interact with as I’ve gone through this challenging time has helped me quite a lot.

So that’s all for now. I may post again on occasion, but I’ll set no expectations around frequency. I’m not deleting anything. The old posts will remain. I’m still writing quite a lot, but not about the topic of this blog, so it won’t be posted here. If anyone feels the need to reach me, the e-mail address in the right side bar is your best bet.

As the saying goes, this is not adieu but au revoir.

Decision

A topic that inevitably comes up when people grapple with understanding transsexuals is the “decision” to transition from one sex to the other. That word – decision – is quite a hot button for transsexuals. It’s often even a hot button among transsexuals.

Because, you see, there is a strong belief among many transsexuals that we didn’t decide anything. We were born with a condition not of our choosing. It wasn’t any kind of decision to be who we are. Transition, for many of us, wasn’t so much a decision as it was a coping mechanism trying to make life bearable after it had become intolerable to live as a person we knew we were not.

I fear I’ve previously been a bit flip about this issue. The most directly I have spoken about this in the past has been to say, “I didn’t decide to transition. I decided not to kill myself. Transition was simply the result of that choice.” I’ve said that more than once.

While that statement is true, I now recognize that characterization as a kind of evasion. It’s a truth that fails to enlighten, and that latter part is not accidental.

At the age of 37 I suffered a total breakdown. I was barely able to leave the house, and when I did I was either drunk or severely hungover. This was not an event. It was my life. And it was getting worse. No end in sight. And I didn’t care.

Here is a comment I placed in response to a nearly identical question on the (incidentally excellent) blog Is This Me?

(in response to the question: “What exactly was the problem you had with being a man?”)

“It wasn’t any one thing, in the end it was everything. I literally couldn’t function anymore. Total breakdown. Psychological, emotional, and physical.

At the time I didn’t attribute this to “being a man,” I attributed it to my life not being worth living. Being a man just seemed like a reality I had to accept, like I accepted that I had to breathe and eat and sleep.

And I did accept it. And also I didn’t want to live any more. It didn’t occur to me until lots of therapy later that these two things were related.

It was through therapy that I came to see that this one embarrassing secret – the thing that turned out to have the name “transsexual” – was at the root of all the rest. I knew I had weird emotional baggage around gender issues, but I was still not my therapist’s most easily convinced patient on the topic. I didn’t tell her I wanted to transition. I insisted it was impossible, so what else could she offer?

But gradually I made baby steps toward transition – purely mental ones at first. Allowing myself to believe hypothetically that such and such was possible, and such and such was true. What would that mean? And I realized that if those things were true I would actually want to live. So that told me those things were pretty important.

It STILL took a lot more convincing to believe those hypotheticals could be possible in reality, but that was the nature of my decision process leading to transition.

So for all of that, I leave it to those who read this to decide for themselves what exactly it was I “decided.”

Edit: p.s. If you want more detail – mine and others – there’s more good stuff in the comments section at the blog I linked above.

A recurrent theme I’ve observed lately on trans blogs is the mis-application of Harry Benjamin’s Sex Orientation Scale (S.O.S). This scale was published in 1966 with the release of Benjamin’s groundbreaking book The Transsexual Phenomenon.

With a few significant corrections (e.g. later researchers have noted that sexual identity and sexual orientation are certainly not as closely correlated as Benjamin’s initial scale implied), I think the scale holds up surprisingly well. But it doesn’t hold up well at all in the case of people who want to use it for purposes divorced from Benjamin’s intent.

The S.O.S. was developed to address the need for a diagnostic tool which accounted for a group which, at the time, was entirely unrepresented in the medical literature. Previously when seeking professional treatment, transsexuals had been (mis)classified as either homosexuals or transvestites and (mis)treated accordingly. Benjamin wanted to call out, in practical terms usable in clinical practice, a more suitable set of guidelines for accurately diagnosing and effectively treating transsexuals.

He knew it wasn’t a perfect tool – in fact he took pains to point out some of its known flaws. Here is a telling excerpt from Benjamin’s introduction of his S.O.S (all emphases below are mine):

“The following chapters will make use of the types from I to VI in relating case histories and in establishing a diagnosis of the respective patients. Referring to Table I will then enable the reader to get a somewhat clearer picture of the particular individual and his or her problem. It should be noted again, however, that most patients would fall in between two types and may even have this or that symptom of still another type.

Or, in laymans’ terms, these are approximations. They’re intended to help physicians establish patient diagnoses. Don’t expect any single individual to fall neatly and perfectly into any of these types. They’re intended as practical guidelines, not hardbound rules.

He goes on to say:

“It has been the intention here to point out the possibility of several conceptions and classifications of the transvestitic and the transsexual phenomenon. Future studies and observations may decide which one is likely to come closest to the truth and in this way a possible understanding of the etiology may be gained. If this etiology should ever be established through future researches, classifications may have to be modified accordingly. In the meantime, the S.O.S. may serve a pragmatic and diagnostic purpose.

Layman’s translation: This ain’t gospel. It’s a work in progess. I’m relying on you – medical professionals – to keep this thing in harmony with the best available evidence. I hope you find it useful. If not, please make it better.

Here’s a quick flowchart showing Benjamin’s message about the purpose of the S.O.S.

Another item of note: Benjamin didn’t put much stock into the whole “early” versus “late” transitioner when it came to his standards. And he most definitely did NOT see these types as something any given patient must fulfill to the letter from initial presentation through final treatment. He observed patients initially diagnosed as one type who dramatically shifted to another over time, based on the totality of the evidence. He accepted this as a natural part of the diagnostic process.

Unlike less reputable researchers into transsexual lives, Benjamin didn’t assume that a patient was a liar for revealing something which challenged his preconceptions. He always assumed his own understanding of all the intricacies of how this condition affected individual lives to be incomplete.

Benjamin makes it pretty clear how he himself used these standards in relating examples of three different types of transsexuals. One such story begins with the patient showing up at Benjamin’s office at the age of 28, married, father of three children, a successful salesman, and asking for help because his recurrent transvestism was threatening his marriage.

Type III transvestite, you might think? Benjamin implies that was his initial diagnosis. But as more evidence came to light his diagnosis changed. That person described above is his example of a Type VI “high intensity” transsexual. They don’t get any more transsexual in Benjamin’s book.

If an expert like Benjamin could err so dramatically in diagnosing a patient, why do others seem so certain they can grab a few facts about a person – like marital status, age, and crossdressing history – and make a slam-dunk, unchangeable diagnosis every time?

Benjamin’s work was all about helping people. He found transsexuals a miserably unhappy and tragically underserved segment of the population. He didn’t look for someone else to blame. He rolled up his sleeves and made fixing this problem his life’s work. Those who use that work as a basis for belittling, mocking, and abusing others could not be more divorced from the example of Harry Benjamin himself, and do his legacy no favors.

Nature’s Children

Just a quick link to share today. It’s not a new article. But I’ve been returning to it recently as a resource for countering some of the usual “transsexuals are unnatural” arguments, and I thought others might find it helpful for the same purpose.

It’s from The Organisation Intersex International (OII) Australia:

“I believe that transsexuals are intersexed individuals.”

Incidentally, the article’s position regarding the proper role of science in addressing these questions is one I strongly share. How come so many people who want to use “nature” to refute our existence seem so resistant to actually examining the natural evidence?

Stumblings

Recently I’ve been wondering how much longer I can keep this gender transition-themed blog going. When I started the blog, just a few weeks from one year ago, transition seemed to be an endless well of ideas and experiences capable of fueling the blog’s engine for all time. But now?

I’m frankly running out of steam on the topic. While I don’t claim to be finished with transition my any means, my life isn’t about transition any longer. The distinction is important.

I still read a lot of transition blogs – though admittedly not as many as I once did. I keep looking for some hook to make writing about the same kind of stuff seem relevant to a life which has moved into normalcy. I haven’t found it yet.

This revelation pains me in a way. I never intended to become someone who transitioned and then disappeared. While I have longed for a normal life, I have always maintained strong empathy for those who still suffer from the condition I’m increasingly looking back upon.

But I’m struggling to find any relevance in joining the life I am now building with the transition culture I’m unexpectedly leaving behind. These things, I am finding, are not alike. You cannot live in them both at once. One will win out.

I don’t want my life to all be about the “trans” aspect anymore. I understand how and why that stuff remains important to some. But that isn’t what I’m about. After a certain point it isn’t remotely descriptive about the kind of person I am.

I would like to think there is nothing about my new life which is closed off to anyone – the trans aspect is neither excluded nor required. When it comes to anything important I have to say, I welcome any and all challenges to this belief.

Getting Oriented

This is a post I’ve been putting off for quite some time. In the trans world it’s an emotionally loaded topic. Heck in the non-trans world it’s scarcely less so. But it’s also a really important factor in how and why my transition journey has proceeded in the way that it has. So, in the name of telling my full story, I’ve finally summoned up the courage to talk about my sexual orientation.

Throughout my life the concept of sexual orientation has been challenging for me. It was incredibly difficult to separate my sexual attractions from my inner gender struggles. I had a perfectly acceptable body for the purpose of gettin’ it on, but it didn’t feel like the right body. I was born and raised male. But if I closed my eyes and imagined a sexual encounter I always saw myself as a female. Then, when I opened my eyes… *sigh*. Eventually I learned ways to cope, but those were hardly simple and easily explainable – even to myself.

As a consequence my internal view of my own sexual orientation was impossibly tangled. In real life terms I conformed to the expected heterosexual norm. But if I secretly thought of myself as a woman, did that mean I was just as secretly a lesbian? That didn’t feel right either.

It especially didn’t feel right because, while I found plenty of girls attractive,  I was also attracted to boys. I didn’t know much, but I was pretty sure that wasn’t a lesbian thing. I never acted on the male attraction – even when gay friends mistook my trans vibes for gay vibes and tried to put their moves on me. But I knew the desire was there.

You might think I would have just concluded that I was bisexual and left it there. But that was far from clear. I was haunted by doubts about what my feelings might be if I had been born a girl. Would I still find girls attractive in that case? Maybe I was only attracted to them because it was the only form of “boy/girl” relationship in which I was allowed to participate. Maybe I was confusing wanting to be a girl with wanting to be with a girl. Or maybe I only imagined I liked boys because being with a boy would make me feel more like a girl. Anytime I tried to think about it and analyze my feelings I just spun myself around in circles.

So there I was acting the part of a heterosexual male, but in secret all my sexual feelings were based on the notion that I was a female. And I liked to date women, but I secretly wanted to date men too. But in the latter case only if I could be a woman.  So yeah… I was pretty sure whatever I was “straight,” “gay,” “lesbian,” and even “bisexual,” didn’t cover it.

Eventually I fell in love and got married. Before I proposed I confessed all the gender confusion I had going on inside my head, so that no secrets remained between us. It was my good fortune that Ellen (have I mentioned, she said it was okay to use her name instead of just calling her “E”?) didn’t seem remotely put off by this notion. At times she actually seemed happy about it. At the time I was too busy being grateful to notice that this might mean something significant.

Anyway, we started dating at age 19 and have remained monogamous and exclusive ever since. That certainly simplified the most practical problems around my still unresolved sexual orientation. I don’t want to get graphic about our love life, but let’s just say gender was a rather fluid concept in the bedroom. Again, I was too busy being grateful to notice that this might mean something significant.

When gender transition came along, my unresolved sexual orientation came along for the ride. I watched transitioning friends play out almost every possible scenario of the orientation spectrum. The frustrating aspect for me was that they all seemed so darn certain in comparison to me. They had an orientation they identified with before transition and another one (not always the same) after transition. I didn’t have one – not really – before or after. I expected my own “true” sexual orientation to “arrive” at some point, but I kept waiting… and waiting.

I went from describing myself as heterosexual to calling myself bisexual, but that still seemed a vastly oversimplifying word. Confining my orientation to terms like “hetero,” “homo,” and “bi,” felt like a three dimensional thing shoved into a two dimensional space. You might not think it should matter – after all I was in a monogamous relationship. But it mattered quite a lot to me.

Then there was the situation with Ellen. I may not have a clear sexual orientation, but surely she did. And when my body changed from one sex to the other, how could she remain interested? This became a persistent fear, even though Ellen kept insisting it wasn’t a problem for her. For a while I returned to the pattern of being too grateful to notice that this might mean something significant.

But I still wanted to understand myself. I was tired of being baffled by my own sexuality. Everything else in my life was finally making sense except this one thing. It agitated me like a pebble stuck in the bottom of an otherwise comfy shoe.

I asked a friend of mine who used to moderate a women’s bisexual support group for advice. She related her experience in coming to understand other bisexual women. These women started with just as much confusion about their sexuality as me. They never fit in the “hetero” or “homo” box. These weren’t trans women, but they were every bit as divorced from hetero and homo norms as I felt. In time, they figured out what worked for them personally and they were happy.

Based on that new understanding I decided to finally talk it out with Ellen. I wanted to know how she – as a heterosexual woman – could accept a partner who transitioned from male to female. Was she really a closeted lesbian all those years? Was she not truly as okay with my transition as she appeared? I needed her to understand my growing understanding of my own sexuality to make sure she was still alright with me.

So, after years and years of dancing around the topic, I decided to ask Ellen what she considered her own orientation to be, trying to figure out how my own sexuality could possibly compliment hers.

“I consider myself pan-sexual,” she replied, like it was no big deal. (The original conversation was verbal, but more recently she explained it like this in an e-mail which she permitted me to quote here):

In many ways I’m more comfortable with the term ‘pan-sexual’ because it is less limiting. Although there are many detailed definitions, my favorite would have to be, ‘The term pan-sexual generally is used for a person who does not classify their sexuality with a person’s sex, but their gender. They believe that there is a set difference between sex and gender – gender being the socially constructed condition of being male or female, and sex being the biological condition of male or female.

I was floored. I had been frantically trying to figure out my own sexuality all the while assuming hers was fixed and “standard.” Suddenly it hit me… If her sexuality had been so “standard,” our relationship would probably have never gotten off the ground.

I didn’t marry a heterosexual woman. In retrospect I’m not sure I could have done so. Too much pressure to be the “man” in her life that way, and if she wanted one of those I’d have long ago driven her off.

And I didn’t marry a lesbian, because until recently no one like that would have had me for more immediate reasons.

 I married someone who, like me, was confused by the whole concept of sexual orientation. Who looked at the sureness of her peers on the topic with confusion and a bit of envy. I married someone who was trying to conform to expectations every bit as much as me. Part of the reason we found one another so compatible was because there was truly no pressure in our relationship to be one thing or the other. We could just … be.

Then there was the strangest part of our relationship of all… the monogamy. We’re both attracted to others – of both sexes. But we’ve never strayed and have no intention to do so. Whatever you might name our sexuality, “promiscuous” isn’t one of its attributes.

And so, I have come to find, the story of my orientation goes something like this: A girl in a boy’s body, met a girl in a girl’s body. They fell in love and got married. Things changed over the years, as things always must. But in the in the end nothing mattered more than their love and the family that  love created. And one day they looked back on all their own prior confusion, and looked out at everyone else who still couldn’t understand why they stayed together, and they shared a laugh. They knew they loved one another, and none of the rest mattered anymore.

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