Clacking away at my laptop, chunky Dior glasses sliding to the end of my nose and lips pursed in concentration, with a lifted finger I momentarily held off the doctor while I crafted a last sentence.
Surely a well-rendered sentence matters as much as a steady heart rate. I was writing my February opinion column for the Indy on love, desire and the Roman holiday Lupercalia, while receiving blood transfusions in a Cincinnati hospital bed. Landing there was my own bloody valentine—ironic comeuppance for downplaying the holiday's savagery.
My gesture was not simply a power play, Ph.D. versus M.D., but an insistence on being respected. Because without exception, every doctor who came into my room was fascinated to distraction to learn that I am transsexual. One doctor asked me if I were born female or male, and when I told him, he seemed perplexed and asked if I had had sex reassignment surgery, and then asked about cosmetic surgeries and then still seemed confused. But the most troubling issue was that I had wound up in the hospital for reasons unrelated to my sex. I needed care for pain and blood loss, but with an IV in my arm and secured hospital floors, he had me positioned to satisfy his curiosity.
Over the last two years, I have been in three hospitals: University of New Mexico Hospital, Duke University Hospital and University of Cincinnati Hospital. At each institution, to different degrees of unpleasantness, doctors and nurses have demanded that I discuss my transsexuality whether I am in for pneumonia or stomach disease. When I was admitted to UNM Hospital, unable to breathe, an intake nurse, after trying to flatter me with "I had no idea you were transgender," talked to me about accepting his gay son and the challenges that came with that decision in rural New Mexico, while I gasped and shook my head empathetically. While at Duke University Hospital, a senior doctor brought 10 interns into my room to not just discuss my sex change but to eyeball my very sex. My patience curdling into frustration, I asked how this information mattered and why it required an audience. Seemingly imperious, he said, "It does matter." Perhaps it does, but I could never get a good explanation as to exactly how, nor why these sorts of encounters happened so often during my stays.
My exasperation hardly ends with the medical establishment. When people know about my transition, there is an instant feeling of intimacy, as if I have surrendered my privacy to them and become a trusting friend. Acquaintances will confide their dreams to me or make unwarranted advances, and otherwise feel overfamiliar with me. And even folks I generally adore have a tendency to suppose something special or transgressive about my identity. As it happens, a dear friend and I have been engaged in an ongoing debate about "queerness." For her, to be queer is the highest of accomplishments, an exalted mode of existence. When I tell her that I am not so queer, that my identity is rather commonplace, she looks askance at me. But it is true: I don't have remarkable insight into the numen of sex systems. I am not liberated from the conventions of gender, sex or sexuality. Nor do I represent the body's triumph over nature or godliness.
At one time in my life, not wanting to be ensnared in my past, I celebrated an unhindered present. I disowned who I had been for who I had become. I withdrew from family and old friendships and met new people without discussing my transition. Later it dawned on me that rather than dismissing my history I was denying it, which felt isolating and self-effacing. Maybe we all have the feeling that we haven't quite lived our life until we have narrated it.
While I do not see sex change as extraordinary, I understand that my experience gives me a particular sensibility. And since I do not live in "stealth"—a word used by some to describe a life in which no one knows you are transgender—I have had to expect questions about my transition, even if I don't really want, nor know how, to answer.
Grateful as I am by nature, reluctant to tell it all, and surprisingly lucky in other respects, I find it difficult to dig through old miseries and doubts. I do my best, though, to be honest in discussions about transsexuality. I have written about sex change for academic and journalistic venues, but always my effort is to place transsexuality within an unsurprising sphere of experience. In this I share the sentiments of a young man who wrote to the Governor of Washington state, explaining how marriage equality matters to him: "No one should have to be extraordinary to be ordinary."
Several years ago I attended a show at the Exit Theatre in San Francisco. Veronica Klaus was performing her one-woman show Family Jewels. Veronica sums up frustrations and sentiments when she ponders, "People ask me if I feel like a woman. Do I feel like a woman? The truth is, I have no idea whether I feel like any other woman. I have no idea whether I ever felt like any other man. All I know is that I feel like me, Veronica, a person whose existence is partly innate, partly instinct, partly art, the art of creating."
As I tend to repeat, transsexuality is life loving itself, loving its capacity for invention, change and possibility. All that seems arcane about transsexuality—hormone replacement therapy, surgeries, name changes—can be understood as marks of healing and of the desire to live well. For me, and perhaps because it is my experience, there is something simple if undefinable about transsexuality, resisting blunt definitions and analyses. It just is. I accepted it as it happened, and am sure I did the right thing.