A Guest Post by Jamie Ray
I appreciate Jamie’s straightforward style; the tough stuff is not avoided, even when tackling the issues means getting tackled back. I encourage you to click the pic and explore some more.
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I HAVE SOMETHING I NEED TO TALK TO YOU ABOUT
I’ve had two cycles of coming out, once as a butch lesbian when I was 17, and again as transgender in my fifties. I came out the first week of college. It was cumbersome then. I had to do it by telephone, mail, or in person. Mostly in person. I was never actually in the closet; I never tried to hide my gayness. I looked like a butch lesbian (short hair, flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots); I was visible. My mother had a hard time with it.
I finished grad school during the recession of 1981, and had a hard time finding a job. I came out on the second day of work, and never had to come out again. Everyone knew. I never had patience for people who thought that being gay was nobody’s business but their own. I believed in gay liberation. If you weren’t out, loud, and proud then you were a coward.
I met my partner, Donna, in 1982, and we’ve been together since 1983. There were only a handful of open transsexuals then, and they were all male to female. It is hard to explain why I muddled through life as butch when I knew that I wanted to be a boy. I think I felt that everything was manageable – I had a job, a partner, an apartment in NYC, a dog, and a life. I avoided things that set off my anxiety (e.g. wearing anything even vaguely feminine). I didn’t identify it as dysphoria, and I tried to cover it up. I explained that I was a casual kind of person and I didn’t like to get dressed up. Donna sensed that I was uncomfortable and sometimes disconnected. We kept going, but we both knew something was not quite right. Maybe it was just the run of the mill mid-life crisis.
About four years ago I was talking to my therapist about some incident in my childhood and she said to me “lots of girls feel that way” and I looked at her and said “I’m not a girl.” I don’t know if that counts as coming out as trans or not, but it blew the lid off my coffin. I knew right away that what I said was true, and that there was no pretending that it didn’t happen. I didn’t know what variety of transgender I was, or if I was going to transition, or what I wanted to do about it. So I did what I always do, which is to read. A lot. I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone else about it, and I hid my reading from Donna by using a Nook.
I’m not a secretive person. I didn’t like hiding what I was going through from Donna. She is my best friend, but I knew I hadn’t thought out the implications/repercussions of being trans, and I knew that she would have her own feelings, and I didn’t think I could handle both of us being upset about it. A lot of relationships break apart when a partner transitions. I should add that I was self absorbed and obsessive about being trans – and I still am an insufferable bore about it (or as she puts it “all trans all the time”).
I made it about 8 weeks from the therapy session to the “I have something I need to talk to you about” moment. All I knew at that point was that I was really was transgender, that I probably wanted to change my name, and that I needed to figure it out. I knew that a binary female to male transition did not seem compelling, which was confusing, because I thought that was what I should want. I had a classic trans childhood and therefore I should have a classic trans transition. Coming out while confused is not the best way to do it, but holding it all in and away from Donna didn’t seem like a good idea either. I blurted it all out. I’m transgender, I always wanted to be a boy, I still do, I don’t know what to do about it, but I have to do something, and I had to tell you, and our relationship is more important to me than anything else.
Donna and I met doing feminist anti-war political work (The Women’s Pentagon Action). Donna is a staunch feminist (as am I), and we spent many hours together over the years trying to smash the patriarchy and dismantle the military industrial complex. Her initial reaction was as if I had told her I was having a sex change operation and then enlisting in the Marines. Anger, betrayal, shock, and fear that this way going to destroy our lives together. How could I do this to her, how could I hide this from her for so long, why couldn’t I stay the way I was? You are not a man, I’ve been with men and I know men, and I don’t want to be with a man I want to be with a woman. I don’t know if I can stay with you.
Donna was upset and alone with it. She asked if she could talk about it to her friends. It meant outing me. I told her OK, whatever she needed to do to deal with it. Most of our friends were really her friends. She told them all, one by one. I didn’t have to do it. Her friends listened. Several times I thought Donna was going to leave. I told her I would go slow, give her time, go through it together.
Coming out as transgender is different than coming out as gay. Most people (even back in the 70’s) accepted that it meant I was attracted to women. The only question they would ask was whether I was seeing anyone or how long I had known I was gay. Because transition is a process, it is more complicated to explain.
I’m comfortable with people knowing that I identify as trans (a lot of people who are transgender are not), but I have trouble explaining what kind of trans I am (the butch, non-binary, pronoun challenged kind), and why I’m not going the whole medical/legal/social transition route, as if anything else invalidates my gender identity. I find it difficult to correct people when they accidentally use my old name, or just assume I’m a cisgender butch. I’m tired of explaining that top surgery is not self-mutilation any more than breast reduction or augmentation are.
Donna adjusted OK to my changing my name (she asked me to wait 6 months so she could get used to it) but had a really hard time with my getting top surgery (although now she is fine with it).
It has been a long slog, but we are still here. Maybe it is because I haven’t gone the binary transition route. Maybe it is because I listened to Donna’s pain instead of interrupting it or trying to fix it. Maybe it is because she sees that I am more present and comfortable and fun from letting my transness out, that it fits me. I don’t know. I do know that Donna is my fiercest protector, and when anyone says anything transphobic around her they better be prepared for a fight. She is still my best friend.
Notes: If you are not familiar with trans terminology (e.g. cisgender or non-binary) this is a link to a comprehensive glossary of trans terms. If you would like to read more about my story, two good posts from my blog are: The Last Time I Wore a Dress and The Tipping Point. The Tipping Point was featured in Freshly Pressed in 2013.