Saturday, July 23, 2011

Where Were You on July 22, 1972? --or-- So How Far Back Does This Go, Part 2

The answer to the first question is Cap Chat on the Gaspe Peninsula in French Canada.  If that answer means something to you, then you will already be ready to ask me whether I was under the break in the clouds.  If not, you will just have to read on . . . or skip everything and scroll to the end.

A controversy has raged for decades in the T community over who is a "true transsexual."  Who has earned his or her stripes, so to speak, to be accepted into a program of hormone therapy, real life test, and eventual sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) or, as we prefer to call it today, gender confirmation surgery (GCS).  For years, the litmus test has been that a "true transsexual" is one who can't go on living with his/her gender dysphoria, someone who is likely to commit suicide if not allowed to transition.  Given that psychologists, psychiatrists, endocrinologists, and surgeons work closely with transsexuals and write the "letters of passage" at each key step in the transition process, many do all they can to prove they are "true transsexuals" in order to get the coveted letters.  They will jump through whatever hoops are necessary to prove to the world that they should be allowed to move forward into their new lives.  They would stand on their heads at the top of a flagpole for days if that would help.

I do not pass this litmus test.  I am 56 years old, and although confusion over gender identity goes back to deepest childhood, I functioned at a high level for decades in academic pursuits and two careers.  At work I would smile, perform well, get awards, raises, and promotions . . . and be secretly miserable in my personal life.  Coming out vocally now is a choice, just as keeping my gender identity hidden was a choice at earlier key points in my life when I could have come out but for various reasons did not.

My personal theory is that there is a spectrum of T-ism.  Some must transition and must do so early in life just to stay alive.  The rate of suicide **is** high.  In my case, I usually was able to channel my anguish and confusion into other passions that were acceptable in U.S. society.  In that sense, I was lucky.  For my entire life, however, I was haunted by the thought of what would happen to all those awards, promotions, and other honors if anyone knew what engine lay behind them.

"What about talk therapy?" you ask.  "Surely psychiatrists and psychologists have figured out how to cure this, haven't they?"  I met my first psychiatrist in 1990, who told me I was just depressed and prescribed anti-depressants.  Later I worked secretly with an RN just a few blocks from my office in Laurel, MD, who had experience with gender conflicts, and talking things through really did ease some of the angst.  But no one has ever figured out how to make it go away.  Something such as gender conflict that has been with a person from earliest childhood and perhaps even back to the womb is not something that can be "talked away" or "medicated away" decades later.  At best, it can be grudgingly endured.

Lower School (8th grade) Graduation, 1968
I speak as someone who did want it to go away.  By the time I was a teenager, I was both pulled strongly in the direction of transition even as I would argue with myself that I had to make this go away.  I didn't even know what transition was in those years.  My first realization that there was such a possibility came, of all places, from Gore Vidal's "Myra Breckinridge."  I discovered it on my Mom's bedside table when I was about 14-15 and began reading it when I was home alone.  Then there was the movie biography of Christine Jorgensen in 1970.  I never saw the movie.  I would have been too afraid to buy a ticket.  But oh how I remember the advertisements.

By 1970 my youngest sister with her developing show business career was frequently on the road.  When she was, I got to sleep in her bedroom . . . where I experimented with everything.  My  Mom and Dad never let on that they knew, even after Mom caught me once red-handed.   I was also a budding amateur photographer and was doing everything I could in the darkroom to see what I would look like if I could superimpose my head on the body of one or another of my female relatives.  (How much easier that would be today with Photoshop or GIMP!)

Did I ever date in the normal sense?  Well, my sister set me up on a blind date to take a friend's younger sister to the school dance.  Visiting my cousins in Michigan, I also tried a "first date" that went nowhere.  That was it until I was in my 20s.  I just wasn't interested, even as I tried to force myself to believe that if I could just force myself to date like "normal guys," I, too, would become normal.

My passions were my salvation, the instrument that did allow me to survive.  The first real passion of my life was space, the space program, and astronomy.  (In even earlier childhood, I had a passion for making "inventions," including a secret one probably familiar to most Ts in which I was going to use a vacuum cleaner and funnels to make my breasts grow.)  I followed every Mercury and Gemini flight, recording the launches on our 4-track reel-to-reel tape recorder.  I loved to lie out on the lawn and look at the stars, and I remember reading Tony Simon's 1962 book for children, "The Search for Planet X."  I fell in love with the romance of the starry sky.  We moved to New York City when I was 12 years old, and I began to hang out at the Hayden Planetarium.  I joined the Amateur Astronomers' Association of NYC, even becoming the youngest "meteor recorder" the club had ever had.  I built my own telescope in the planetarium basement, and I would spend many a night on the roof of our apartment building doing as much "serious" observing as was possible from mid-town Manhattan.  At school, when it became increasingly clear that I had a head on my shoulders and an unusual passion for the sky, the taunting terror of the locker room ceased.  (Taunts such as "Your knockers are bigger than my sister's!" had a double edge for me.)  I was left alone, more of my classmates began to associate with me, and in the end I received the school's award for best physics student.

But yes, I did have friends!  Not many, true, but I formed one friendship that has remained to this day.  For the most part, we were the ones who were on the fringe of the mainstream school groups, going our own strange way as others were looking for dates, dreaming of motorcycles, and smoking pot whenever they could get it.

Hopefully Arriving in Cap Chat
So why was I in Cap Chat on Canada's Gaspe Peninsula on July 21, 1972?  I was there for the total solar eclipse, of course!  Our amateur astronomy club rented a bus, and we loaded aboard with telescopes, cameras, and backpacks.  We set up in the morning, watched as the Moon took its first bite out of the Sun, . . . and then watched further with sinking hearts as thick clouds slowly made their way up from the horizon, finally covering the Sun.  Totality was approaching, and then a break in the clouds appeared.  For maybe 30 seconds we were able to see a razor-thin crescent, all that was left of the Sun, before the clouds again obscured it from sight.  Seconds later we were immersed in darkness, and we knew the total phase had begun.  We never got to see the corona, and an hour later we were packing up for the long ride back to New York.

Setting Up
Others at Cap Chat were luckier.  Only a kilometer or so away, the break in the clouds passed over the Sun after the start of totality.  A lucky few at least got to glimpse the corona.  That is why, to this day, any eclipse chaser who meets another who also was in Cap Chat that day immediately asks, "Where were you relative to that break in the clouds?"

After the Eclipse:  The Clouds Break
My passion for the sky became my hope, my career, and my survival.  Today, as attitudes towards T-ism change in the United States, there are many others my age who, after long and successful careers, are coming out and saying, "I, too, am transsexual and always have been."  Perhaps none of us pass the time-honored litmus test, but here we are anyway.  Although we may have been successful, being transgender was almost always a major stumbling block in intimate relationships.  We could be as outwardly successful as all get out while inwardly we were just as equally miserable behind closed doors.

But today, 39 years after Cap Chat, I say thank you to NASA, to old brass telescopes, to 19th century astronomers in their knit observing caps on frigid nights, and to the stars themselves.  Thank you for giving me a passion that let me make it through when many others did not.  Peace to all eclipse chasers and those who love the romance of the Milky Way on a clear, dark night.

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