Sunday, August 7, 2011

WahooWa! -- or -- So How Far Back Does This Go? (Part 3)

In Part 1 of "So How Far Back Does this Go?" I wrote:
Let me return to the diary I kept in college.  I  never did "find myself tearing out these two pages at some time in the future," but the entire volume I kept in 1975 is missing.  That was the year in which I made my first abortive attempt to come out, dressing in public and corresponding with the gender clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  I know I wrote my heart out that year.
1972-76 for me were the years of "WahooWa!" -- the rallying cry of the University of Virginia.  I traded New York City for sleepy Charlottesville, Virgina, the home of UVa, the "Princeton of the South," known also as The University or Mr. Jefferson's University.  Thomas Jefferson's home Monticello is here, and it is said that Mr. Jefferson -- he always was and always will be Mr. Jefferson to students -- watched through a telescope as the university he designed was built in the valley below his home.  In my mind I can almost see him at the eyepiece, studying at a distance to see if his architectural plans were being followed.

The Lawn at The University
For most Americans the college years are a chance to spread one's wings and start living a semi-independent life in a dormitory or apartment and learning what it means to open a bank account, cook one's own dinner, and in general find out just what is involved in living on one's own.  It is a time of experimentation and wildness along with study and preparation for a future life.

I entered The University to fulfill my dream of becoming an astronomer.  I chose a joint major in physics and astronomy.  I took my first paying job as a night observer at the Leander McCormick Observatory with its historic 19th century, 26-inch Alvan Clark refracting telescope.  I worked shifts that went from sunset to 10pm or from 2am to sunrise.  During those shifts I had the observatory to myself as I loaded photographic plates and maneuvered the telescope to photograph star fields for the Astronomy Department's parallax program to determine star distances.  Although Virginia is a southern state, it could get very cold in that unheated dome on winter nights.  Sometimes I would welcome a bank of clouds that would give me an excuse to retreat to the heated office next door.  There I would rummage through drawers and cabinets, a treasure trove of astronomical history.  I was always on my own, and I was often dressed entirely in female clothing.

In Charlottesville I no longer had my sister's wardrobe to experiment with, but I had my own bank account and could buy what I wanted.  I was too afraid to go into the women's departments at local stores, but I lived for the mail order catalogs from Sears and Montgomery Wards.  I would save my money, place my order, and wait for the notice in the mailbox that I should come to the post office to pick up a parcel.

Leander McCormick Observatory
I was still young, shy, and scared.  I dressed at home and at work and on the three mile walk to and from the observatory.  On those walks I would choose the darkest path where I was pretty sure I wouldn't meet anyone.  Terrified of encountering a professor or classmate who knew me, I would turn on my heels and walk the other way if I saw anyone coming in my direction.  I did not understand that I could have passed easily with just a little work.  Back then, contact was to be avoided.  If there was a knock on the door of my apartment, I would pretend I was not home.  No one was allowed into this secret world, a world that scared me to death even as I wished it could be my world in reality.

And as this was going on in my private life, I took the full math sequence through partial differential equations and physics through quantum mechanics.  I fell in love with the Russian language.  (That is a story for another installment.)  I wasn't in the top tier of students by any means, but when I "took my degree" -- UVa-speak for graduation -- it was with high honors.

When the weather was nice, I loved to read the New York Times on Sunday afternoons in one of the formal gardens on the university grounds.  A watershed event in my life took place one Sunday in 1975 when the New York Times Review of Books published a review of Conundrum by Jan Morris.  I remember shaking from excitement.  Just from the review I understood that I was not alone.  Transsexualism was not just Christine Jorgensen, a character in a Gore Vidal novel, and a handful of rumors.  Here was a respected British writer and journalist -- a person who had ascended Everest with Hillary in 1953 -- who was writing openly and honestly about her transition from James to Jan in mid-life.

At the Focal Plane of the 26-inch Refractor
When Conundrum made it to the University's Alderman Library, I read it cover to cover in a single sitting.  I was enthralled and in tears.  In the weeks to come I wrote and wrote in my diary as I got the nerve to read everything I could about transsexuality in the university's science and medical libraries.  In the pre-Internet days, everything depended on the library, and UVa had good ones.  I learned of a Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins and wrote there, receiving back an invitation to come in and talk.

But I never followed through.  Even when I learned that sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) was being performed at the UVa medical center, I was too afraid to walk through the door.  The only son of my father, a self-made man who had great expectations for his children, I could not overcome the fear of coming out.  In my high school years I would write notes to my Dad, telling him things I was too fearful to tell him face to face.  I would place the notes in his briefcase, only to retrieve them later for fear that they might actually be read.  With that level of fear, how was I going to talk about THIS out loud?  There were no support groups for gays that I knew of in Charlottesville, let along transgender, a word that hadn't even been coined yet.  I would feel ashamed to knock on the door of a psychologist.  Who would stand behind me?  Who would hold my hand?  Surely everyone would abandon me, declaring me insane?  Maybe they would be right to think me so?

This, my first non-coming out, turned into my first purge.  I had been accepted for graduate school at Yale, and in a matter of weeks my Mom, Dad, and sisters would be coming to Charlottesville for my graduation and to pack me up for the move north.  I gathered together my small wardrobe, carefully wrapping everything into bundles, and walked a long distance to a deposit them in a dumpster from which I knew I would not be able to retrieve them.

Looking back today, I wish I could hug that young, scared person who was me in 1976.  Little did she know how much she would have to go through, how many torments lay in store, how much she would hurt and how she would hurt those she loved.  It's probably good she didn't know.  It would have been too much to bear.

I went off to New Haven, Connecticut, fully purged and with a simplistic belief that I could just wish this away by paying it no mind and keeping my eyes on the task at hand.  Being "cured" seemed so much easier and desirable than dealing with this.

But my interest in astronomy flagged as my romance for the night sky met the reality of a Ph.D. program.  My overall interest in living fell to a low that I would try to hide with a smile.  I could purge my wardrobe, but I could not purge my mind.  It's then that I began to think of transsexuality as the white noise of my life.  Like the 3-deg background radiation that permeates the Universe in all directions as an echo of the Big Bang, so this was everywhere.  The best I could do was drown out the noise with other noise that comes with over-achievement and overwork.  I didn't know then that I had begun a cycle, that just over a decade later I would feel a life and death necessity of talking to someone, to anyone who would listen and help ease the pain.  When I finally did cross that line, the results were even more terrible than I had feared in 1976. . . .

But that is a story for another installment of "So How Far Back Does this Go?"  Like most Americans, I look back with nostalgia at my college years, and I have a special place in my heart for Charlottesville, The University, and Leander McCormick Observatory.  For the first time I timidly tried to be me, and for a brief moment I got close.  My "WahooWa" was a timid, scared one, but I look back now and realize that as timid as it was, the voice was really, truly mine.

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