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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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Soulmate

Today is our 19th wedding anniversary. It’s been a wild ride from the start. All marriages have their challenges,  but I don’t know of many which have survived as many as ours.

We started dating in the summer of 1989, but our real relationship was actually born months later when we attempted to break up. Both of us had announced to friends that we were going to end the relationship. We walked into a room to have “the talk.” It was the first truly honest conversation we’d ever had. During the course of it we discovered that, far from wanting to break up, we wanted to date this cool new person we had just now met for the first time. Friends who had expected and even wished for the breakup were baffled, and so were we. But from that moment on nothing was going to keep us apart.

Though they’re likely to deny it today, both of our families were against us getting married. They said we were too young – we were only 22 at the time. But there were plenty of other objections. E was still in college, while also working as a line cook in a restaurant. I had just graduated college, working for barely more than minimum wage while trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. My family was devoutly Catholic, and E was protestant. We had no money in the bank and a mountain of college debts. We were living together – against our parents wishes – in the first floor of a dilapidated old house we wistfully recall as “the house of plague.”

But we had decided, patiently but persistently, that we belonged together. The more anyone else objected or tried to keep us apart, the more fiercely we clung to each other. When we decided to marry it was almost a defiant gesture aimed at all of those who didn’t want to take our relationship seriously.

Our lives had already become effectively married well before the wedding. E was the first person to ever accept me completely. She was the first person I ever came out to, even when I hardly knew what to call the thing I was coming out as. There was no secret about my life I couldn’t share with her, nor in hers she couldn’t share with me. She accepted my weirdness, as I accepted hers. Rather than trying to “fix” one another we accepted each other as we were. Since other people would only recognize the depth of our relationship if we had a ceremony and legal certificate, we did the wedding thing (only after, it should be noted, my parents flipped out when they discovered our plans to elope).

Because we married so young we we’ve seen each other change and grow SO much over time. We’ve been there through each others highs and lows. We’ve shared amazing joys and gut-wrenching sorrows. Sometimes we’ve felt like the perfect couple. Other times each of us has wondered whether we even belong together. The rises and falls are roller-coaster wild and unpredictable but, so far, every time it seems like we’re heading over a cliff we get to the bottom and chug right back up again.

My gender transition presented a new and formidable set of challenges for us.  The emotional stress of transition pulls apart lives and marriages like almost nothing else, and we were not spared any of it. It has caused us to question our relationship about as fundamentally as anyone possibly can. And yet, gradually, we came through it together feeling closer than before.

However, as was the case early in our relationship, there are once again many people who want to break us apart. The notion that we’ve been together for 19 years, have three children together, and insist we want to stay together hasn’t prevented friends and family from repeatedly advising divorce. And that’s just the people who actually know us.

Now that we’re presenting as a same-sex couple there are fresh hordes of people who want laws passed against marriages like ours. Because I’m transsexual there are also some, including those from the church I was raised in, who want to declare our marriage annulled because I’m obviously insane, and so is anyone who would choose to stay with me. Still others want to consider our marriage invalidated because they don’t believe any marriage which survives gender transition can possibly be a “real” marriage on both sides of the divide.

I wonder if all the skeptics and doubters have any clue how strong a relationship can be.  It’s not that it’s easy. Marriage takes work. But ours has been battered and tossed a lot more than most, so we at least have a pretty good idea about what can’t bring it down.

We used to believe it was our honesty that kept us together, but looking back that’s really not true. We’ve lost and regained our ability to communicate honestly many times, just as we’ve lost and rediscovered our friendship more than once. The marriage persevered through it all.

I think the real thing keeping us together through every challenge is that nameless thing we discovered all those years ago when we first tried to break up. Whenever we seriously ponder ending our relationship it just doesn’t make any sense. I don’t just mean it would make us sad, though surely that is true. But also it literally makes no sense. We fit. Out of all the people in the world we somehow found each other. The odds against it were staggering. The challenges were there from the start, but so was an amazing sense of belonging that we don’t experience with anyone else.

Just as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect marriages. Ultimately there are just marriages that work, and those which don’t. Ours is a marriage that just works, and the explanations are beside the point. We belong together and we are together and those two things don’t come together every time a couple says “I do.” But it did for us and I treasure it.

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I was reading an interesting column, “How do you tell your family you are transgender?” in The Guardian today, when I came across an anecdote that resonated with me.

…I was more surprised that on coming out, friends and family might initially see my transition as some sort of ‘death’. Carrying on our relationships as normal soon proved that all that was ‘dying’ was my masculine façade.

Ah, yes. My old nemesis, the “your transition is like a death to me,” analogy. It’s a frustrating response to deal with because it’s unquestionably an emotionally honest reaction when coming from loved ones. But, if I’m being equally honest emotionally – hearing it feels like a dig, a cheap shot, and a guilt trip rolled into one. It’s a not-so-subtle accusation that you are taking someone precious and loved away from someone you care about. But the only person involved here is you – and you’re listening to this death talk while you’re standing right there. Like I said – frustrating!

It’s also a difficult reaction to get because you’re conflicted in how to address it. On the one hand you want to respect the emotional impact of your transition on the lives of others. You want to give them time and space to sort things out without rushing or pushing them. “It’s like a death to me,” represents a non-trivial statement relating to the enormity of emotional importance your transition represents to them. That’s not a time when you want to correct terminology, or argue over the aptness of a particular analogy. You just want to listen and understand.

On the other hand, having people tell you to your face that you’re at least somewhat dead to them can’t help but feel like an insulting refusal to accept you for who you actually are. If someone directly says “you’re dead to me,” we understand that means total rejection. The less direct version may be intended quite differently, but it doesn’t feel all that different.

Maybe this disconnect is an opportunity to illustrate how incredibly important gender is in defining a person. After all, most people talk about our transitions like they’re arbitrary choices. Even sympathetic people frequently try to talk us into less dramatic alternatives than transitioning (e.g. maybe you’re just gay, maybe you should wait until after your kids are grown, maybe you can just handle these feelings by cross-dressing in private, etc.).

But if changing our gender expression is like a death for those dealing with someone close to them changing their gender, try to imagine what it’s like to live your whole life trying to repress your own gender. What I mean is, if gender is so gosh darn important in your relationship with one another person, how can the fact that this same thing affects every relationship that person ever has not be treated with proportionally more importance? Why should your emotions about their gender be treated with such respect, while their emotions about their own gender are up for debate?

Because the truth is, we’re not becoming different people when we transition our sexual identity. From our perspective what we’re doing is shedding a mask, allowing us to finally become truly intimate with the loved ones in our life. We’re still the same people, but we’re shedding the main barrier which has kept our relationships more distant than we would have liked. Far from death, we finally feel like we can fully participate in life! We’re hoping our loved ones will enjoy relating to us as our true selves, rather than relating to our affected self-portrayal through a mis-gendered mask.

In closing, I want to express that there is clearly a grieving process involved for some people when a loved one transitions. I’ve seen it up close and personal. This is every bit as valid and natural as the feelings of the person doing the transitioning. But if we could just lay off the “death” analogy and find other terms to talk about it, it would probably be a lot healthier for the continuing relationship.

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I had an interesting conversation with my supervisor at work this morning. She’s the only one in my department currently in the know about my impending workplace transition, and she’s super-cool about it. So, quick aside, yay for that.

But one of the topics she wanted to talk to me about raised a few red flags. She wanted to know where I was in my talks with HR on the details of my workplace transition, because she was thinking that her own boss probably needs to know sooner rather than later. Not a terribly alarming request on its face, after all he is the manager of the overall business unit and I had always assumed people like that would need to know sooner than the general announcement to everyone else. But something about her tone and body language told me something else was going on that lead to her emphasis on this point. So I asked about it.

The motivation turned out to be a mixed blessing. He (this is the supervisor’s boss – we’ll call him SB from here on out) had attended a meeting yesterday during which I gave a presentation to some high level folks within our company. The meeting went well. Afterward he complimented me on the presentation, which was nice. But apparently after that he talked to my supervisor about how they needed to work on creating some kind of higher level position for me, lest they risk losing me to another company. Which is fantastic to hear and all but… well you take these things a bit differently when you’re planning to transition on the job, and the people saying these things don’t know about that yet. And this was exactly the reason my supervisor was bringing it up.

She explained her thinking… My brain is going to be the same after my transition as before. I’m not losing any of the capabilities that SB seems to admire at the moment. But she is worried he might have a hard time coming around to that realization. She’s hoping that getting him the news earlier will help so that by the time I actually transition he won’t be looking at me like some different person.

Ultimately it comes down to one of the biggest challenges I forsee at my job after transition – respect. How many people (and I know this number is not zero) will lose all respect for me once I transition? How many of those people will be in positions to affect my career? How many of those people will it be possible to win back as weeks and months pass? Will I ultimately need to find another company where they will never know me as anyone other than Diana?

It’s heavy stuff, and not the kind of thing where the anxiety is unwarranted. I sometimes wonder if I “peaked too soon” at my job. Like maybe I should have done good work so I didn’t get fired, but stayed a lot more below the radar, so that I didn’t have such a visible reputation. Can I possibly transition my respect along with the rest of me?

So now I’m wondering if SB’s talk about creating a higher level position for me is really good news. Or does it just increase the size of the target on my back come transition day?

The answer is not long in coming. The workplace transition is, by our current ballpark estimate, about three months from now. People like SB will find out some weeks sooner. As the clock says, “Tick, tock.”

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A Revelation

I’ve been blaming myself for years for losing friendships and family relations because I never reached out to them. Of course I never reached out, I thought. I’ve been crippled by my stupid gender issues. I’ve spent a considerable amount of therapy coming to terms with this grievous fault of mine.

Now I’m starting to notice… those people never reached out to me either. And this goes for when they didn’t know anything about my gender weirdness.

I’m noticing this because, now that I’m out of the closet, and now that I’m reaching out a lot more to other people… by and large those people still don’t reach out to me. I’m the one who picks up the phone or sends the e-mail. And if I ever stop… it’s pretty clear I’ll never hear from most of them ever again.

I’m not really sure how to think of this. I could despair and decide this means I totally suck. Or I could get desperate and beg. Or I could launch some kind of publicity campaign to get more attention regardless of the meaning.

I’m inclined to think this just shows I never really fit into life before coming out, which is exactly how I felt all the while. Makes sense that others felt it too, and therefore they don’t feel any reason to be close to me now that I’m becoming whole as some person they truly never knew in the first place.

All the more reason to look ahead, rather than look back. Ahead is life. If you look back you turn to salt. The Bible says that. I’m paraphrasing.

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