A brazen bit of name and place dropping:
At the White House last week, President Obama spoke of the strides his administration has accomplished for LGBT people as well as the fact that there are still so many things left to do. It was his eighth LGBT Pride Reception, and as I stood just feet from him, I found that that word, "pride," was a thing I felt deeply. I know he has "evolved" on LGBT issues; I have no problems with that, for it's what thoughtful people do. In the end, through their own soul-searching, they get it right. I felt pride in a president who has gotten so much right.
A lot of my friends were saying that they felt proud of me. I'm not sure why. What I had done required no soul-searching at all. They tell me it was "brave" of me to transition back in the 90s, before people understood transsexuals and before there were any other examples of anyone doing what I was doing as a teacher, but I wonder how brave it can be to do the only thing in the world that you actually can do. In 1998, I knew I had only two choices laid out clearly before me: transition or die. There was no third option; I could not go on living as I had been.
"In 1998, I knew I had only two choices laid out clearly before me: transition or die. There was no third option."
In the beginning:
Not that it was an easy road. At the time, we had a couple of gay math teachers and a gay English teacher. There were a few others, but they weren't out, and the ones who were out didn't talk about it. And then I came along. I'd been working in the English Department for fifteen years when I lost the battle against gender dysphoria. I mean I had known all my life, of course, since I first noticed that there was a physical difference between girls and boys (and I'm a fairly bright person with five siblings, so that was at about age three) but I had long abandoned hope of ever actually transitioning. When I was growing up (the 60s and 70s) doing that was unheard of and, as I later discovered when I did hear of it, very, very expensive. So my daily childhood prayer (Dear God, just let it be gone when I wake up) was slowly replaced by something more like an unattainable fantasy.
Not that I didn't try once in awhile. I had to: I'd been harboring a deep secret that had rendered me "the weird kid" in my neighborhood and school. I needed at least to make the token attempt to bring it into the open, even if I was terrified of what might happen. There was a "Dear Abby" column once, a woman writing for advice because her son was going to become a woman. What can I do, Abby? How can I even face my friends? Abby kicked her butt: Your child is a transsexual, and will be facing a very difficult life. It's a one in a million chance, but there you go. All you can do now is to love and support your daughter and stop thinking about yourself. (I loved Abby.) So I took the letter to my mom and just gave it to her to read. I stood there while she did, waiting for her response. Finally, she looked up, stared at me for a long moment, and said, "Honey, you aren't one in a million."
I never tried after that. She'd proven that she just didn't see the problem, or didn't want to discuss it. Either way, it was over; she'd shut it down. (Ironic footnote: later, after transition, I asked her about that. She had no recollection whatsoever of the conversation.)
Anyway, I just gave up, allowing a "male" personality to take over my daily life so I could live it. And I lived it as well as I could for the next 28 years. I went to college according to a sort of checklist.
What would a guy do? Well, join a fraternity. Check. Though it was a scholars' fraternity... Get a girlfriend. OK... so I spent the whole of freshman year trying to find one. What did I know of that? I'd never really had one before except for a brief relationship with a girl my sister set me up with in high school; I had agreed mostly as a kind of beard. Speaking of which: grow a beard. Check. In May I finally found a girlfriend. Check. Decided it was so hard to find her, I'd just marry her. Did.
I basically abdicated running my life to this second personality I had invented; it was the only way I could live. And yet I told myself I "had it all under control." Ha! I'm not sure what kind of "control" there is when you are thinking about something every minute of every day. Still, we are capable of incredible self-delusion. And anyway I didn't really give a crap about my life; I just wanted to live it as well as I could, get through it, and get it over with. I told myself I was thirty when I was 28. I called myself middle-aged when I was in my lower thirties. I was in a rush to move things along.
"I basically abdicated running my life to this second personality I had invented; it was the only way I could live. And yet I told myself I 'had it all under control.' Ha!
We ended up with three children, though the last ten years of our marriage was mostly a friendship. And during those ten years, my mind was coming apart at the seams: I'd met a transperson -- ironically through my wife -- and just meeting him had opened so many doors I couldn't shut again that by 1998, terrifying or not, I knew I needed to take a leap.
The actual transition part:
You can't do that here! Everyone told me this wealthy, conservative suburb was the last place I'd be able to make this sort of thing work. But I thought: Might as well try. One of the gay math teachers, when I told him what was going to happen, said, "Well, I guess that takes the pressure off of us!"
As far as my research, the school's research, and the research of the myriad news outlets that covered my transition could tell in those pre-internet days, I was the very first school teacher in America who had ever transitioned on the job without stopping, remained in the same assignment, and made it work. I just left in June as Mr. and returned in the fall as Ms. on a day when TV news trucks lined the streets in front of the school. Both Chicago papers did feature stories about me; the Tribune offered me the cover of its glossy Sunday supplement for an interview. Oprah, Jerry Springer, and Rachel Ray wanted me on. I was the talk of all of the TV news and talk radio stations. But I granted no interviews: I had little children and, in those days, I was afraid of violent reprisals. I didn't want my children caught in the crossfire should anything happen. Nothing ever did, but of course violence against transpeople is an ongoing concern even today.
I had plenty of support from the school and from the students and parents I knew, so things went surprisingly smoothly, give or take a bump or two in the road. The few harassments I had were quickly dispatched by the administration and never happened again. It wasn't perfect, but it was far better than I had hoped: I lost my marriage and several long-time friends, my father and one sister wouldn't have a relationship of any kind with me for the next seven years, and some old-boy colleagues just couldn't figure it out. But most of my friends and family, as well as my children, were still with me, and I still had my career, so all in all I thought I'd fared very well despite the anguish, the tears, the pain, and the difficulties.
But that was 1998, and the world is a totally different place now. I see it around me, in the news, in the lives of my students, and in the life of my own transgender son. Today I just introduced myself to you. In future blogs, I'll discuss some of these changes and how they've come about, and what current political issues might mean for the future of LGBT-especially trans-youth and adults in the U.S..
This post is part of HuffPost's Journey Beyond the Binary blog series, an editorial effort to bring diverse trans and gender non-conforming voices to the HuffPost Blog during and after Pride month. As the LGBTQIA community celebrates great strides forward this June, it's important to acknowledge the struggles still pertinent to trans and gender variant members of the community. Please email any pitches to email@example.com