24 September 2009

I'm (Mostly Not) Coming Out

I started attending university again right after I began transitioning. Since I had not yet changed my name legally I came out to all my professors before the first class session so that they would call me by my proper name, not my legal one. I didn't explain much, just that I was transgender and to please call me Lucy. Oddly(?), no one asked me any questions except for my Intro to Women's Studies instructor which led to many long conversations in which she revised her opinion of transgender since she'd only had theory prior to then; theory which did not survive contact with an actual trans woman who refused to let others define her life with their theories. It wasn't only a one-way exchange since I was still struggling to come to terms with my transition and place in society as a trans woman.

Now I'm back in courses for a new year, having been in transition, including HRT, for two years and with my name legally changed. Hormones have reshaped my body and I've grown more comfortable with being a woman. Because the university has the right name on everyone's class rolls, there was no burning need to meeting with my professors prior to classes beginning. I figured I'd just talk to them during their regular office hours. It took me a while before I noticed that I was getting properly gendered by everyone in my classes, students and professors, even with my height and lower voice. I've met with all my professors now and passed up the opportunity to come out as a trans woman. There seems to be little point. Why should my geology professor even care? He unhesitatingly calls me "ma'am" (He's charmingly polite.) whenever I interact with him which is really all I care about.

So, I'm not coming out as transgender in my classes. With one large exception, which I'll get to in a moment. Because, honestly, cissexism means that there's a fair chance that if I do come out I will no longer be regarded and treated as a woman. Sadly, many cis (and even some trans) people regard trans people as not being "really" whatever gender they are. Polite ones may humour us by using proper pronouns and forms of address without actually accepting us. Frankly, I don't have the energy to fight against that sort of thing. I need to get good grades to get into graduate school and having to devote energy to educating someone would hinder that. Except...

Except that I'm taking a Women's Studies course this semester entitled "Gender & Technology." I'm sure everyone can see where this is going. One of the topics we will be covering is technologies of the body and the syllabus specifically mentions intersexuality, transsexuality, and cosmetic surgery. Which is perfectly reasonable. However, feminism has a bad history with regards to transsexuality (and intersexuality, for that matter) as it has spent far more time criticising and theorising about transsexuality and transsexuals than actually listening to us. Considering one of the criticisms levelled against transsexuality is that the body modifications that transsexuals often undergo are a form of self-mutilation like cosmetic surgery (which you'll notice is being discussed in this same topic), you can begin to see why I might be concerned. More to the point, even with a supportive instructor in my Intro to Women's Studies course, I had to actually yell at the other students in my class for being shitheads when this topic came up, outing myself to the class in the process. Also playing a role is the fact that Dr Bernice Hausman is a tenured professor here, affiliated with the Women's and Gender Studies Program. Some may know her as the author of the book, Changing Sex: Transsexualism, Technology, and the Idea of Gender, which has been criticised perhaps most famously by Julia Serano in Whipping Girl as well as appearing prominently as an example of what not to do in a guide for cis people writing about trans people. She headed the (then) Women's Studies Program from 2003-2005, which is coincidentally the last year she seems to have written anything about trans people (She now seems to have moved on to breastfeeding based on her CV). Her acceptance here does not lead to great confidence about this being a supportive academic environment for trans people.

So, I am going to come out to my Gender & Technology professor and inquire just what and how she intends to present transsexuality to the class. And, depending on how that goes, I'll be coming out in the class discussion as well. Because I really can't see how I'd be able to avoid it and stay true to myself and other trans people. While it is not my responsibility to educate others, I'm not going to duck doing so. I'm sure there will be those who will see me as lesser afterwards, but hopefully more will be open to learning. I'll let you know how it goes.


  1. Even if they see you as lesser, my esteem for you has only increased. I've had people call me brave when I tell them that I've survived with cancer. I always think that's really b.s., because surviving isn't really a choice. It's just something that happens. However, what you are doing is REAL bravery. When you willingly do something for those around you, even when it may come at great personal cost, THAT'S brave. Those other students may not understand what a gift it is to have you there to speak from experience, but I hope they take the time to learn from whatever you contribute to this class.

    I'm really proud of you.

  2. One of the topics we will be covering is technologies of the body and the syllabus specifically mentions intersexuality, transsexuality, and cosmetic surgery.

    Crikey, yeah, I can see why you're worried, to include cosmetic surgery in there comes across as at best ignorant as to why that might be highly problematic, and at worst, that they're going to try and draw some kind of comparison.

    And yeah, the fact Bernice Hausman lectures at your university worries me too (and, as an aside, oh great, another transphobic lactivist!?) because, as you say, it doesn't exactly make the place seem supportive.

    So I think that yeah, this is a fucking brave move, like Bint says. And one to be incredibly proud of. (And you know I am always proud of you and know I'm lucky to have you.)

    I guess you'll get some idea for how it will go in class, after you've talked to your professor.

  3. I can't really add much to what Bint and Ruth said, but I will echo them - this is really brave of you. Bravo. :o)

  4. I'm absolutely unqualified to speak about trans issues. You're the only transgender person I know, and that's just through twitter. But I just had to say I think your name is lovely (my daughter is named Lucy too). :)

  5. I'm in a doctoral program at the university that saw fit to give Hausman her Ph.D.

    Having been here a while now, I no longer know who is 'humoring' me and who isn't. I'm sure some people aren't simply doing so - but I'm sure others are. Moreover, when the time came to seriously discuss what I was wanting to do for my dissertation - an historical analysis of how trans people have been, and are continuing to be, marginalized and even politically erased by people of the Hausman mindset who are within the LGB(T) movement - suddenly, nothing I could do, say or write was legitimate. The fact that I was getting elements of that research published was irrelevant - as was the fact that other scholars were citing that work. Viviane Namaste nailed it: The only 'acceptable' thing for a transsexual to talk or write about is his or her own transition.

    You have to admit - its a pretty creative way they have of keeping us out of their ivory tower.

  6. Thanks to everyone for the supportive words. I'm sorry to hear about the problems you're running into with your dissertation, tlh. That's precisely the sort of thing I'm worried will happen to me in graduate school as well as I plan to do much the same sort of work.

    I've also posted a follow-up to this post: I'm Coming Out More.