Monday, December 30, 2013

To all my friends

To all my friends

As we come to the new year and I look back over the past year, what I see most, and what makes me happiest, are all of my friends. 

You, my friends, are amazing in so many ways. You are smarter, wiser, faster, stronger, prettier, funnier, kinder, gentler, and well... more than I am. You do totally awesome things in tech, in science, in scholarship, in art, in activism, in helping people, and so many other areas.

And there are so many of you, more friends than I've ever had. One of the hard things with hiding my identity for all of those years was that inside me was a little girl who wanted to be friends with everyone she met but she had to remain hidden.

I felt that friends were conditional, that they would only be around as long as I lived a lie. So I let old friends go too easily, believing they'd be gone anyway once they knew the truth. Making new friends was hard, too. Just being with people wore me out - I needed to play a role and keep my cover, so that meant I was continually watching what I said and how I acted. I was continually thinking, "if they only knew."

This year that friendly little girl who had always been inside the old me didn't have to hide any more. She was free to think the best of people, to give hugs and blow kisses, to go out of her way to reconnect with old friends, and to take the chance of making new ones. I know that people are not always what they seem, that some may let you down, that just wanting to be friends doesn't make it so. But this year I chose largely to ignore that wisdom and I set that little girl free to take the chance of making friends.

I know, I know - I'm still a long way from being in the running for Miss Congeniality, but for me the difference has been striking. I've reconnected with old friends from virtually every time in my life, and I believe I've made more new friends in this past year than in the previous 20 years combined. That makes this little girl very happy indeed.

One thing, however, gives me pause. Many people, it seems, tend to gather with those like themselves - people who look the same, think the same, believe the same. And I know that I was brought up in a small town where people were suspicious of anyone different - to be blunt, I was fed a steady diet of almost every kind of bigotry and prejudice.

In my prairie hometown people didn't always act on those prejudices, but they were in the air - racial prejudice, religious prejudice, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, prejudice against people from different countries and cultures, ableism in every form, the list goes on and on. And while I recognized (and objected to) some of those bigotries, so many of them seeped into me unnoticed and unopposed for too long. 

I wish I'd done more to stand up against those bigotries. I can make excuses - that I was young, that I didn't know better, that I didn't really have an opportunity, but the fact is that I did too little for too long. In my many years undercover in the role of a straight, white, cisgender male, I'm ashamed to say I let far too much prejudice go unanswered, simply because I was afraid objecting might call attention to myself, and that attention might reveal who I really was. 

So the other amazing thing about you, my friends, is how diverse you are. My friendships these days read like a roll of honor of all the labels I was brought up to scorn - different races, religions, cultures, countries, sexuality and gender identity, neurodiversity, to name just a few. In fact, some of those despised labels - transgender, lesbian, and atheist, for example - are ones that I claim for myself now, something not lost on the family that raised (and has now largely disowned) me. 

So I sometimes wonder how all of you amazing folks can be friends with me. I've tried and continue to try my best to see and neutralize that prejudice and bigotry, but the traces remain, like old scars. What can I bring to the table then? When I ponder that question, I realize that all I can offer is that little girl who  just wants to be friends.

For me being friends is not a trivial thing. It means doing my best to know you, the struggles you've faced, the triumphs you've had, how your past has shaped you and how you shape your present and future. It means acknowledging our differences in privilege, culture, belief, background, and more while embracing and celebrating our many connections. It also means having the trust and generosity to help each other improve those connections and to help each other in general. And finally, it means genuine respect for who we all are, without condescension or appropriation.  

So if I can be a good friend by that definition, if I can stand by, and stand up for, my friends, I think it will be good enough. I hope and believe such friendships can improve our lives and our little parts of the world, and for this little girl that's a darned good start.

All of this is very long and labored way for me to say how much I respect and value all of you, my friends, and hope to grow our friendships (and many more) in the future.

(and by the way, if you read this and thought, "she's not talking about me, she's talking about her other friends," you're wrong. I meant you, too.)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

One year later

A milestone

One year ago my name change became official, and I became Naomi publicly, officially, professionally, and in every other way. Transitioning was probably the hardest decision I have ever made - I had to come to terms with both possibly losing everything and doing it with the whole world watching. 

It seemed like I was contemplating jumping off a cliff. I was terrified yet determined - I knew that I had to make that leap, whether I would end up soaring or crashing to the rocks below. So on October 22, 2012 I leapt off the cliff. 

At this point I am nowhere near done transitioning, and there are both physical and behavioral changes that are still in progress. But while I'm not finished, at this point I've hit many "firsts" as Naomi... the first time getting my hair done professionally, the first time going to work, the first time flying, the first time traveling internationally, the first time meeting old friends, the first time meeting former students, the first tech conference, the first time speaking in public, the first time networking professionally, the first time talking publicly about being trans, and so on. 

Strangely none of those situations was particularly uncomfortable. In fact, sometimes I would catch myself and wonder why I wasn't more uncomfortable and afraid, more ill at ease. But strangely, I almost never was.

Instead I found myself oddly at ease, acting as if it was completely natural, even when I had to explain being trans to rental car clerk in Nebraska or when I interacted with Japanese colleagues who had previously known me only as Vern. In fact, long transitioned trans people have been surprised with that comfort, thinking I seem more like someone who transitioned 10 years ago, rather than a noob of less than a year. 

I can think of only a couple of reasons why I that might be so. First of all, when I decided to move forward, I decided that I could only transition if I came to terms with the world knowing I was trans at a glance. I felt that if I had a problem with that, I would never be able find peace. I made my way to that acceptance before I took my first hormone pill.

The second reason is the one that I would think is the greater one. I think the reason being Naomi has seemed so natural for me is that it is natural. I've never been more at home in my own skin, a phrase that I could never even fathom before. I sleep better, I feel more comfortable around people, I can even be comfortable and at peace with myself, at least sometimes. I'm sure that the correct hormone balance is a huge part of it, but just as important I can now be who I am, rather than who I was supposed to be. And that is huge.

I know at least some people who think that I am now a happier, warmer, and more friendly person than Vern was. (Someone even went so far as to call me "bubbly." I think that's pushing it... but I was not offended.) I do know that it just seems natural to put more of myself into relationships. And I definitely get more out of them.  

So you could call this Naomi's first birthday. Yes, it was a very long time coming, but I think it was worth the wait. 





Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Feminism and Me

Am I a feminist?

[Disclaimer: I chose this title deliberately, and I write this with some trepidation. This is not meant to be "Feminism and the Transgender Woman", nor "Feminism and the Older, White Transgender Woman", nor even "Why Feminism (and Feminists) Sometimes Scare Trans Women". This is about me and my experiences with, and perceptions of, feminism. I freely admit that my knowledge and understanding of feminism may be flawed or at the very least incomplete, but my experiences with something people call "feminism" are real. ]

Now that I've transitioned and now that I'm occasionally speaking about what I've observed in the FOSS and Python communities as both male and female, I sometimes get comments or questions involving "feminism". Sometimes I'm be asked if I'm a feminist, but more often what I say is addressed with the assumption that I am a feminist.

I do understand that assumption - a lot of what I'm saying sounds feminist. There is a good reason for that - I'm one of the few who have experienced what being both male and being female in our world is like, and I've seen the differences in reactions from the same people in similar situations. To be blunt, I've seen that sexism, male privilege, and misogyny are very real. 

And I naturally have a real interest in the position of women in our society in particular and in the world in general. As I go about my life now I'm seen as a woman, if I'm lucky - that's certainly my hope and the way I see myself. If I'm not quite so lucky I'm perceived as a man who is trying to be a woman, which is problematic in a bunch of ways no non trans person is likely to ever fully understand. In either case my life is much better if being a woman is not a bad thing. So I definitely share a lot with feminists in terms of what I see as problems and what I see as solutions.

It's complicated

And yet, whenever that word has been cast in my general direction - whether it's during the Q and A following a talk, or in an online discussion, or wherever else - whenever the word "feminism" comes my way, I duck. I do my best to back away and deflect it. I say, "it's complicated."

Why do I back off? What on earth could cause me duck? What makes it "complicated"?

It's a trans thing

A big part of it is the precariousness of a trans woman's situation. No one, or at least very, very few of us, has the strength to fight battles all of the time. No matter how we feel about being trans, life is definitely easier if we're not making a point and not being gender expression warriors every waking moment. I've done my best to be completely open about who I am as I've transitioned. I've gotten the hang of charmingly explaining my situation to doctors, dentists, lawyers, insurance agents, bankers, even car rental clerks, simply because that's easier than insisting on privacy. But coming out all of the time is tiring.

Sometimes it's easier, and many times it's safer, and almost always it's more comfortable to just blend in. But there's the rub.

Many women, even not particularly feminist women, roll their eyes at the efforts trans women make to "fit in" as feminine. They will tell me that they don't worry about hairstyles, that they rarely bother with make up, that they throw on just any old thing to go out, and so on. And of course the implication is that my concern with all of those things - with hair, makeup, clothes, accessories, etc. is a case of trying too hard. I think in most cases they mean well, that they're trying to tell me to relax, that women don't really need to worry about such things to be women. 

This always strikes me as bit of cheat - the salon I frequent seems to be awfully full of women who don't appear to be transgender, the places where I buy accessories seem to pretty well visited by cisgender women, and the cosmetics sellers are clearly not primarily serving the trans community. So it would seem that many, (but not all) women do pay attention to such things, even more than I do. And I would bet that some for some of them it's because they feel they must, for others it's because they want to, and for still others, as for me, it's a combination of the two.

And yet, it is true that women don't have to worry about such things - if one is born a woman, that is. Yes, there is some social pressure to conform to society's expectations, but many women do just fine without worrying about many of them.

But if you happen to be trans (and especially if you have a body and face that has been through many years of testosterone masculinization) the rules are different. If you dress too girly and frilly you're over the top, a parody. On the other hand if you're not overtly feminine enough, if you don't make a pretty darned good attempt to look the part, you must not be "serious" about being a woman and people will fault you for not being "convincing". In some cases, people's access to hormones and other medical treatment (not to mention restrooms) can depend on making the grade in terms of feminine presentation. I actually ran across a voice therapist who made it clear that she would only see me if I was dressed in a properly feminine manner, even if we were having a session via Skype. And of course, "properly feminine" was her call to make, not mine. (I found a different voice therapist.)

In other words, I simply don't have the same range in many areas as natal women - I'm left with a somewhat narrow and fairly conventional range of clothing and behavior if I want to be accepted. Most of the time I'm actually okay with that range - I spent a lifetime wanting to be able to express who I was in a way that society might understand. But like it or not, this exact advice is given to trans women all the time - to carefully observe the cisgender women around you, throw out the extremes, and model yourself on those in middle, blend in with the social norms, do what is expected. Extremes and calling attention to yourself are to be avoided. 

Feminism, on the other hand, has historically been justifiably suspicious of attempts to make all women match that kind of standard. So the trans reality doesn't always mesh with the feminist one. (I'll leave out discussion of "trans feminism" for this post, since it seems mostly to be of interest to and acknowledged by trans women.)

It's a feminist thing

When cisgender women, usually more or less feminist women, tell me that they wear less make up than I do, that they have fewer accessories than I do, that they do less with their hair, that they worry less about body hair, etc. than I do, I do get the message that I'm somehow too obsessed with appearances and not what's really important. In other words, I'm made to feel that I'm not doing it right, that the very way I'm being a woman is letting down the cause, and is invalidating any claim I might have to be a woman. It's a classic double bind - damned if you do, damned if you don't.

And in fact there is a small, vociferous, and agressive segment of radical feminism that takes that point even a bit further. Trans women are, they argue, stooges of the patriarchy, tools used to prop up and reinforce inherently repressive gender constructs. Our very efforts to be female both give support to artificial (and harmful) notions of gender and at the same time violate and mock something innate in natal females. They suggest that we are not women, will never be anything but mutilated men, and are not to be trusted nor allowed in women's spaces. In fact, they would very much prefer it if we were in some way or another just made to go away. 

Maybe it's just me

I won't claim to be well read in feminist theory. Nor will I pretend to have any idea of the true intent of feminism, and I doubt that there is complete agreement among feminists on such a thing. 

But all of this leaves me feeling feminism is a game where I can't win. The way that I feel I need to be a woman seems almost to make me ineligble for that particular club. And in fact some of it's most strident members seem to agree and then some. I do realize that there are many feminists who would strongly disagree with both of those beliefs, but I'm certainly not the only trans woman I know who has felt the same thing.

I've experienced misogyny, sexism, and (straight male cisgender) privilege from both sides. I totally believe in the notion that all people should have the same ability to act, the same safety, the same respect for who and what they are. I also feel the need to share what I've seen in the hope that somehow it helps people understand, that it contributes. 

And yet, when I'm asked in public if I'm a feminist? That's when I have to say, "it's complicated."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Stories and Metaphors

It's funny how sometimes, even in total ignorance, you can manage to get a metaphor for something totally right. This is probably not something to be too proud of, since that one nugget of truth is usually surrounded by many others that are so much less right. In this case I'm talking about metaphors for transition. Right before I publicly started that process I thought of it in terms of leaping off cliffs and of taking flight. And while those images did capture both the terror and exhilaration of that process, in a more fundamental way they fell short of the truth, they were incomplete and inadequate metaphors for the process. 

Why do metaphors matter? I'm convinced that humans are creatures that need metaphors and stories to make sense of life. We need metaphors and stories to shape how we understand the world, how we see ourselves and how we respond.

So the nature of those metaphors matters. If we choose to tell ourselves a story of victimhood and oppression, our view of the world and our futures will be colored  by that view. And if we choose a story of triumph and challenges overcome, that too, will shape our worlds. At least in choosing the image of leaping off the cliff I was acting rather than suffering, choosing my own path in spite of the obvious danger, and that was good.

The Grand Canyon

However, as I think about it now, it's an older metaphor that reflects the experience more accurately. When I was first contemplating transition it seemed like a daunting task. A personality built over decades had to be dismantled, roles and behaviors learned over the years had to be unlearned, and connections forged over a lifetime had to be broken. Only then, I thought, could I start to build the new personality, roles, and behaviors that express who I really was and wanted to be. 

The image I saw was an immense canyon - a deep wide chasm that I wanted to cross. And the only way to get across was first to slowly, painfully, and patiently make the journey to the bottom. Then, I thought, the actual moment of transition would be a tiny hop across a narrow stream, really not much at all. That would be followed, of course, but the long slow climb back out the other side. 

That image resonates with me these days. In fact, I spent years making that descent, so slowly that people didn't realize - my  hair grew longer, I changed my job, my city, and so many other things. Old connections were left behind, often sadly. It was a long trek down, but eventually I did get down to that critical point. And in fact, when I got to that point at the bottom, I was right - it wasn't so much a leap off a cliff as a hop over a tiny stream.

Now, I'm on the climb back up the other side. The climb was exhausting at first. I am creating the woman I need and want to be as I go, deciding how she likes to dress, what things she likes, and who she is. Not all of the old person has gone, but almost everything is up for consideration, almost everything has to be learned, in almost every aspect I feel like I'm a novice, being judged by a more experienced world.

And probably more importantly, I'm considering how that woman will walk through the world. Again, not everything has changed, and probably some things never will. I still can't resist some jokes, and on the flip side, the reserve I got from my taciturn Scandinavian upbringing and a lifetime of concealing who I was will never go entirely away. But there is room for important change. The woman I am becoming is perhaps no kinder and gentler than the man was, but she is definitely more free to express and even celebrate kindness and gentleness. Free from the man's implicit self-loathing she is more able to embrace the good times and to cherish her friends.

And that has lead to a joyous surprise. On the way down I thought that most connections were truly broken, that each person I had left behind was gone for good. I am now learning to my joy that I was wrong - the way up has increasingly been populated by old friends, each one of them as invigorating as a cool drink. And each one of those old friends I meet along the way, each one who manages to see the new me, remember the old me, and then pull the two together, makes the journey that much easer. 

It's hard to be whole without a past, and it turns out that this has been one the key lessons of the climb back up out of the canyon - not only must a new personality be forged from the shards of the old, for it to be truly whole it must embrace all of the old one's past, the pleasant and the painful, the sadness and the joy. 

This was the part that I didn't understand when I first contemplated the process years ago. I saw the journey to the bottom, I saw the trek back up. I even guessed at the insignificance of the stream. But I didn't understand the true work of the climb back up, and I didn't see all of the friends who would be there to make the journey such a pleasure. 

All of which is really a riff on my earlier post. There I said that I would be unlikely to reach out to old friends because I didn't know if they would want to see me. To put it another way, I was afraid of being rejected. I've now come to see that staying away from old friends out of the fear they might not accept me is not the way to continue my climb.

Many old friends have found me and reached out first, and I treasure them. But I have also started making the contacts on my own, and that is just as important. Offering myself, the real me this time, to old friends and acquaintances is a sign that I value who I am, something that wasn't so true before. It's a move forward in hope and trust, which are hugely important to the woman I am.

What this means is that I'm going to hesitate less and worry less about getting in touch with people. Of course I'll still treasure those who find me. But if it strikes me, if I am reminded of or some how run across someone I used to know, I probably won't let fear of rejection stop me from reconnecting. And I think that's a good thing.

Farewell and Welcome Home

It's time for a change

I've come to think it's probably time to change the name of this blog. The original title was meant to be a bit droll, a pop culture reference, with a comic soap opera feel to it. It seemed right as I started into transition, echoing the questions I knew so many people would have.

But at some point, that drollness wears thin, and at some point the focus changes. One hopes there less place for questions, and less need for soap opera angst.

A new name

So I've been thinking of changing the name to a phrase that has echoed in my head since I first heard it. It came from an old friend wishing me luck and congratulating me on the eve of my transition. He said, "farewell and welcome home." 

It captures in four words what's struck me most about this whole experience, the need for loss in order to gain myself, the need to leave home in order to find a truer home.

It struck me as almost premature back then - then there was just a hope that I would be home, not a certainty. Now, months later, no matter how far it seems I still have to go, it's increasingly certain. Yes, finally I am home. 

So thank you, Mr. Park. "Farewell and welcome home" it is.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

When you don't know what to say...

This is for anyone I haven't been in touch with since my transition. Well actually, to be more precise it's for anyone who hasn't been in touch with me since my transition, but still has some kind feelings towards me. It's for those who have somehow learned about what I've done and now feel in an awkward spot. 

If you're disgusted or outraged at who I am and what I've done, or if you really just have never felt any connection with me, we don't have much to talk about. We can just ignore each other and be happy. And if you're a really close friend and comfortable with transgender people like me, we've probably already been in touch, and either we have plunged on in spite of the strangeness or we have gone silent. So it goes.

Stuck in the middle

But perhaps you're stuck in the middle. I'm using that phrase deliberately, since it's a feeling that many of us trans folk know all too well. In your case, you're stuck in a grey area - you don't know what to say and probably you're not even that certain that I'd want to hear it if you did. Perhaps it took you a while to process the news and by the time you did, you felt the opportunity had passed. Maybe you're waiting to hear from me, or for an "important" reason to contact me. But you sometimes think about me and the thought of getting in touch crosses your mind.

The first few months after my transition this situation honestly never occurred to me. I was so wrapped up in the business of transitioning, which is one of the most self-centered processes in the world, that I assumed that all of those silent people, all of those people who probably would have reached out with a word in many other situations, were lost to me. I assumed that they must hate me because they were silent when I could have really used a word. I can tell you that I got many, many more messages of support at the death of Molly, the smartest dog in school and my best friend, than I did when word got out that Vern had been retired in favor of Naomi. Even putting aside the obvious truth that Molly was orders of magnitude more likable than Vern ever was, it was a striking contrast. 

In a way it was just a confirmation of what I'd always feared and expected - that coming out as trans means losing people, giving up friends and old connections. In short, it means that you are less loved. Like so many trans folk of my generation I had always feared this and now it seemed to be coming true. 

But, as has often happened in my transtion, I was wrong. Over time something surprising happened - I started hearing from people. And it's continued, a slow but steady cadence over time. Sometimes it's old friends who I thought had drifted away. Other times it's been former students I had assumed wouldn't be interested in the bizarre case of a former teacher going from man to woman. Still other times it's been former colleagues I haven't seen in years.

There was a hand written card that showed up at work one day from a former colleague I hadn't seen for a decade. There were thoughtful emails that showed up out of the blue, Facebook conversations, LinkedIn connection requests, and so on. But all of them were really the same - messages from people who really had no reason to get in touch other than they wanted me to know that the connections we had shared were still there. And those messages are treasures to me.

The more I read those messages, the more I was struck by an underlying theme. Former colleagues made vague excuses about why they hadn't gotten in touch sooner. More than one student suggested that I certainly wouldn't remember them, or maybe I wouldn't care much to hear from someone I'd known years ago when they were just a kid. But in every case there was the theme of "I wanted to contact you sooner, but..."

I think there are really just a couple of reasons that people hesitate. First, the assumption that perhaps I somehow don't want to hear from people from my past. This is an interesting spin on the trans narrative that had scared me as child - the idea that the only way to transition is to sever all ties with the old identity and those who knew it. If those are the rules you're playing by, then contact from the past would be the ultimate embarrassment, and anyone insisting on that contact would be insensitive at best. That's the path called "being stealth" and I've rejected it, but it's still a part of how people think about trans people and transition.

For my part, I never left a one of you behind because of my transition. I had to physically move away and leave much of my old life behind in order to transition, and that made me sad. But I love too much of my life before to ever renounce it. Particularly now that the dust has cleared I find talking about old times is just sweet nostalgia. Vern is gone, because he was just a persona I had to use to survive, but the same person is still here. So no one need be afraid that a connection out of my past will be embarrasing or painful.

The other reason is simpler - people just don't know what to say. Maybe you don't even know how you feel about transgender issues. Maybe you thought you had a neat solution in your head, but now that you find out you know a trans person, you're not so sure. Do you offer condolences? But clearly the person changing is happy. Congratulations? How can that be sincere when you've just lost the person you thought you knew? Suppose you say the wrong thing and offend? Wouldn't that be worse than saying nothing at all? What do trans people want to hear anyway? In the face of such uncertainty, the natural human response is to hesitate. And after a while it's hard to act.

So let me tell you how things are my side

I have to confess that I'm in a similar position. I'm not likely to contact you first, either. I'm pretty cautious about contacting people who knew me before. I'll see you get recommended to me on LinkedIN or Facebook, and decide not to add you. I'll see a personal announcement and start to respond, but then hesitate. I just don't know how you feel about trans people, whether you'd be embarassed or angry or just wonder why the hell someone like me thinks you'd want to be in touch. I hear a voice in my head saying that you probably don't want an obvious connection with me on your wall. And let's be honest - if you connect with me on the social networks it will be pretty clear you're connected with a trans woman. You'll see trans related items in my streams, you might even get suggestions that you connect with other trans people. It comes with me, and I keep thinking that most people don't want that. 

All too often I find myself thinking I need to ask permission to connect with people or to join groups or even to say hi to old acquaintances, that I need to apologize for imposing myself on people. I'm trying to get myself out of that pattern, to tell myself that I need to move past that, that I need to just move ahead and let others worry about how they'll react to me. And with people I'm just meeting, I can do that - I plunge in and let them decide how to take me. But with the ones that knew me before I find that much harder to do. 

What to say when you don't know what to say

So what I really want to say is that you don't need to worry about what to say. It's okay that it took you a while to sort out your feelings about suddenly having a transgender person you know - after all, it took me decades to sort out how I felt about it. What do I, as a transgender person, want to hear? Well, you really don't need to call out my courage. I can tell you that no person who's transitioned feels they've done anything courageous. In fact, I'd say that the ones who transitioned in middle age like me feel cowardly for waiting so long. Or at best we feel like we had no choice - is it courage to jump off of a burning, sinking ship that's about to explode?

And you don't really need to reassure me that I'm still a human being, or that I'm still smart, or things like that. I'd like to think that those are true, but making a point to mention them seems to imply that they are remarkable, and somehow true in spite of who I am.

So if you've been thinking of me and wanting me to know that our connection, whatever it was, remains, then just say that. The best messages are the ones that say hey, I've been thinking about you. I know it must have been hard, but I'm glad you're happier. And just know that I'm still here and things haven't changed between us.

And then lets talk about what's been going on with you, how your family is, what you're working on, whatever we used to talk about.

I promise you I'll be happy to hear from you and I'll respond. With joy.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Flourishing through the Dark Patches

Dark Patches

My last post was written some time ago, on the day of my father's death. Since then there have been some bad times. I had to de-transition for his funeral. At least I de-transitioned as much as I was able - people had a hard time recognizing me, and to be honest I think Julie Andrews did a better job of passing as a man in Victor/Victoria. There was much about that experience that was profoundly painful - how I was (or wasn't) received by most of my family, the sheer awfulness of stepping back into a role that had tormented me for so long, the awful finality of saying good-bye and knowing that neither parent would ever know me or accept me for who I really am. 

Unsurprisingly (and yet I was surprised) those feelings have had their echoes since. I have had more than one day filled with dark despair - contemplating a life as a freak, doubting every friend and connection, even hating the world for putting me in this position, then, after so many years of hopelessness, showing me a better life, only to have that better life turn out to be a cruel joke.

I was bitchy and paranoid. Innocent questions became personal attacks, people just going about their business became part of an elaborate conspiracy to exclude me, and just thinking about some people's behavior, particularly at Dad's funeral, caused me to swear bitterly under my breath as tears welled in my eyes.

In short, there were dark patches. And those dark patches were very, very dark indeed. It had been a year since I had started on hormones and had begun the transition process and I was just now facing the outcome. In fact, I now have emotional responses that I never had before, and when they hit me, I didn't have a clue. I'm now convinced that testosterone helped me be detached from emotions over the years (for what it's worth, I gather that the experiences of trans men confirm this). A friend likens the difference in emotional response on testosterone and estrogen to the 8 crayon box vs. that wonderful 64 crayon box, and I think she has a good point. But I'd say that it's also the difference between chalk drawings on a sidewalk and bold markers on white paper - not only are there more possibilities, they're stronger and more vibrant.

In any case, by now the inhibiting effects of testosterone are pretty much gone and after a lifetime of being able to detach from emotions, of relying on that ability to help handle unpleasant situations, I am now much more exposed, vulnerable to emotions than ever before. And I'm still learning how to deal with that. For the child whose favorite Star Trek character was Spock, not Kirk, this is unfamiliar territory indeed. And it's frightening, particularly at first. 

It's frightening not to be able to lock down all those emotions, but it's liberating as well. I know I will never be as unflappable as my male self used to be, but that's okay - I'll also not be as detached and numb.

Those dark spots were very real and I now understand that there will be more of them in times to come. However, they aren't the real point of this post. This post is actually a positive one, as the title implies. The fact is that those dark spots were surrounded by light, light I was sometimes almost reluctant to admit.


A few weeks after my dad's death I got to give a couple of talks at Flourish!, an Open Source Software conference. This was the first time I'd really spoken at a public conference since my transition, and in fact, one of the talks, requested by the organizers, was on my experiences transitioning and my perspectives on the FOSS world as a male and as a female. It was well attended and well received with questions taking us well past the allotted time. People who know me know that I love to speak to an engaged audience and having that experience while speaking on this topic was particularly validating. 

I also navigated all of the hassles of closing on the house, renting a truck, setting up utilities, and so on, all without raising an eyebrow along the way. One of my strengths has always been making deals happen and I still have that. Clearly not bad for someone who was regarding herself as a freak.

About a month after Flourish!, I attended a fundraising luncheon for a women's organization, along with some women from work. It was a great feeling to be attending an event with so many women, and to be a part of it, rather than an outsider. But perhaps the most telling moment was when a woman who didn't work at our company joined our table. She introduced herself as "the odd one at the table". I thought, yet again, "if you only knew." But on the ride back afterwards one of the women I work with recalled the moment and said ruefully, "I think we were all odd ones at that table!" Amen. 

It was a good reminder that everyone has something they consider odd about themselves. We all feel that we don't fit in with the cool kids for some reason, and amazingly being trans is just one reason out of many. In fact, being trans doesn't even necessarily trump anyone else's reasons for feeling awkward, in spite of what I was telling myself during those dark patches.

I also became involved with the creation of an LGBT affinity/resource group within our parent company. When I was getting ready to transition, I desperately longed for such a group, to provide information, advice, and just moral support. Unfortunately, it didn't exist. As I lay awake nights before my transition it was a dream to help form such a group, and give those in the future that support I'd wanted. And now it's happening, and I'm there, a part of of it. 

In the these past two months I've also continued to reconnect with people I'd never expected to connect with again. Former students and colleagues have sent notes and reached out, and there have even been ever so tentative connections with the old school. I told myself that those connections were gone forever and that it was okay. I'd even convinced myself it was just as well, but for all that those reconnections made me feel good. No one likes losing a part of their past, and I've been getting bits of mine back. 

There have even been a few (very few) family members, ones that I'd lost touch with for ages, who've embraced me with love and respect. I knew that when I transitioned I'd very likely lose many, if not all, of my family. Again, I'd thought I'd come to terms with that - if that was the price I had to pay for finally being myself, I was willing to pay it. But again no one really wants to lose that part of their lives and getting each one of them back has been precious. 

The dark patches also helped show me some beautiful ongoing relationships. The night after my father died some friends at PyCon spontaneously appeared and just hung out with me, understanding that the one thing I needed was not to be left alone. The Python and PyCon communities are very special to me, and it was so important to have them around me. Then, the night after the funeral that pained me so much old friends took me in and held me safe in their friendship like a mother cradling a child. To have friends like that in a time of need is a great gift, one that outweighs much evil.

Shortly after transition, I called myself the the luckiest girl in the world. During these past dark patches it was hard to remember that, but in fact the light far outshone the darkness. I am indeed incredibly lucky.

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Deal with the Devil

A Deal with the Devil

Right before I transitioned, I made a deal with the devil. Like most deals with the devil I did it knowingly because I thought it was the best thing to do. Like most deals with the devil, it turned out to be more bitter than I expected. And like most deals with the devil it ultimately involved a loss of hope.

Last September I made a journey back home on a special mission. It was a difficult task, and I had my spouse along for support. It was potentially life changing, the hardest thing I'd ever do. At age 56 I was going to tell my parents that I was transgender... that the third member of what my mother always proudly referred to as "my boys" was really a girl, and always had been, always would be.

I expected this to be hard. My parents were getting so old and frail that I doubted their ability to grasp what I told them. But still, I hoped that they would try... I was their child, right?  I'd always done my best to be a good kid... I knew that if it were my child I'd want to know. I'd try to understand. And ultimately I'd do my best to to support them. My parents had raised me, they had helped me form those values, so they would do the same for me, right?

Unfortunately I never found out. Before I told them, I told my oldest brother. I think I was hoping for an ally, for someone to say that whatever I had to do, I should at least be honest. I was hoping for someone to stand by me, to accept me as I was.

Instead I was offered a deal with the devil. Why upset the old folks? Why force them to face a truth that would make them so unhappy? The unspoken message was that they wouldn't be able to deal with something as terrible and disgusting as the truth of who their child was. And in turn my other brother joined in. Knowing who I was would be an unbearable burden of guilt for my parents, something that would literally kill them.

Am I really such a monster? Apparently I am. And such is the power of family that coming from the older brothers I so looked up to as a child, that judgement immediately transported me back to the child who knew, absolutely, dreadfully knew, that the truth would mean I was no longer loved. Like most deals with the devil, it exploited my deepest fears and doubts about myself.

So I made that deal. I told myself it was for the best, that I was being unselfish, putting the comfort of my aged parents first. That was noble, right? To do otherwise would be unbearably selfish, right? And they were so frail, that if I told them, suppose the shock caused a death? Or what if they died before they accepted it and we came to peace?

And yet... As I thought of their character, the values they instilled in me, I kept thinking they'd want to know. I was their child and they loved me. They were proud of me and wanted me to be happy and whole. How could they not want to see me as I was? I kept hoping and telling myself they'd want to support me, that from the perspective of 90+ years, they'd rather have a real, if somewhat unexpected, child who was happy in her life and own skin than a miserable mockery.

But the deal was done. Less than 2 months after I made that deal my mother was dead. Less than 4 months after that, my father had passed. In less than 6 months the devil had taken his due.

While even one of them was alive there was hope. There was the hope that somehow they'd find out.... that they'd think about it and then let me know that it was okay, that they still loved me. In my wildest fantasies they'd even acknowledge that I was more 'right' now than before. Clearly these scenarios were unlikely, but while they were alive they were possible. At least there was hope.

Once they died, that hope was lost. I suppose it shouldn't matter. I suppose I should continue to tell myself that I chose correctly, that it was a good cause. And yet... it feels wrong. They never had the chance to give me that most important piece of love and support. They never had the chance to be there when I needed them most. Somehow I can't believe they would think that was the right choice.

I was sold that choice, urged to make that deal with the devil by those I trusted. When I was small I looked up to them so, and on some level I suppose that feeling never goes away. And yet, when I needed them, they let me down. They haven't been there for me at all, nor have they even tried to show understanding or acceptance. In short, they behaved exactly as my childhood self had feared... "if anyone ever knows, they won't love you anymore." It's hard to describe the absolute desolation that thought brings a child, even the child that still lives inside the adult.

Those old fears made me complicit in my own damnation. They conspired to steal my hope. Like most deals with the devil. And I had chosen to go along and trade hope away for nothing. Like most deals with the devil.

In memoriam: 

Howard Ceder, July 20, 1921 - March 17, 2013
Eunice Ceder, August 27, 1922 - November 22, 2012

I love you both and I hope you're at peace. 
But I wish I knew that you still  loved me. 
For who I really am.

Friday, February 22, 2013

From Transition to Traveller

I used to wonder

A long time ago, back in the day, I used to wonder. I used to wonder if it would feel weird to live as a woman. I used to wonder if I would even be able to adapt, if it would be too strange, if it was even possible to make that change. Now just four months after transition, I have the answer. 

That answer would surpise my old self, I think, but it also would have reassured him. The answer, of course, is that it doesn't feel weird or strange or unnatural all. It's different, to be sure, and it still takes thinking about sometimes, but it's not strange. In fact, it's like finally being home after so many years away - the reaction that the differences cause is more, "oh, yes, that's the way it should be... I don't have to worry about that anymore."

Trial by Travel

I think a good example, and maybe the most surprising, is travel. Only a month after I transitioned I found myself traveling by air, renting cars, staying in hotels, all things that not so long ago seemed impossible. The TSA does not have the most trans-friendly reputation, and the processes of air travel tend to put one's background and credentials under intense scrutiny. Indeed, I know of people who otherwise live as female who travel as males to avoid that experience. In my case, since my documentation had been changed, that wasn't an option.

So travelling as a woman should have made me feel uncomfortable. Except it didn't. Even when I had to explain my situation to the rental car clerk, it was no problem. (When I told him I'd changed genders, he asked, quite innocently, 'Wow, how long did that take?' and I answered, '9 months or 50 years, depending on how you look at it.')

Across borders

However, domestic travel is a piece of cake compared to international travel. Once you get through the first screening for a domestic flight, you're done. Crossing borders involves multiple passport checks just to get on the plane and then one has to pass through customs and immigration. In each direction. If a change of identity and gender was going to be problem, it should be on international travel.

So when the time came, just 4 months after transition, to fly to Japan on business, I was a little bit nervous. Yes, I was prepared. I had my documentation in order. I had a new passport, with the proper name and gender designation, and I had my surgeon's blessing to fly only two months after surgery. I had my nurse recommended support knee highs. I even had prescription strength anti-diarrhea meds, just in case. (I know, I know, Japan isn't a problem, but it was a recommendation from corporate, so I went along.)

Caught by the TSA

So when I hit my first check point at Chicago I whipped out my shiny new passport. The agent looked at it, looked at me, looked at it again... then he looked up and said, "Naomi? Have you ever traveled with this passport before?" My heart skipped a beat... Oh my god... a problem already?!?! 

I fought to keep my composure and said, "No, I haven't."

He started to grin and said, "Well, you need to sign it!" and handed over his pen.

As I was apologizing and thanking him, he assumed that sort of half-patronizing/half-flirty tone (women will know what I mean) and said, "no problem, ma'am, it just shows I'm doing my job."  Hmmmm. 

At home abroad

And to be honest, that was the last time I really worried about it. I just flashed my newly signed passport when needed, smiled, and carried on. I met Japanese colleagues who had known me as Vern and we picked up as if nothing had happened. I went to dinner (by myself and with others), I shopped, I had business meetings. And it was all fine. In fact, it was better than fine. I felt more relaxed and able to enjoy traveling than I ever had before. Even in Japan, I was home. 

Now, make no mistake, I'm not that confident in my appearance, nor in my voice, nor in my general ability to "pass". I'm not petit, I don't dress very girly, my accessory collection is primitive, I don't wear much makeup, and by the end of a long day, my hair is positively a fright. But none of that is that big a deal. The big deal is that I'm me, even half way around the world. 

I wish I could tell that to my old self. It would be nice to reassure him, to tell him not to worry, that it will be okay. Most of all, to assure him that even while traveling being who you really are is coming home.

 Me, in Kyoto, 4 months post-transition, squinting into the rising sun.

Squinting into the rising sun at Kyoto.

Saturday, January 19, 2013



I know that in these posts I have portrayed my progress as the successful, almost triumphant, struggle to embrace who I really am. That is deliberate - I'm using this story to make sense of my journey and I'm choosing to see myself as a heroine rather than a victim. I also happen to think the world needs more trangender heroines and fewer victims - the world makes us victims all too frequently as it is, and sometimes we trans folk get caught up in that.

However, it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that there are costs to the path I've taken. Many people have stood by me, by far more than I'd dared hope, and I treasure them all. But some have been lost - the friends that have stayed conspicuously silent or quietly unfriended me, the many former students I will never talk to again, and the events where I will no longer be welcome. 

Readers of my posts may also have noticed that I don't mention family much at all, other than a couple of references to my spouse, whose love and support are so central a part of my transition. That's partly to respect and protect their privacy, since they didn't choose to be involved in this. (Of course, neither did I, but I did choose to confront it.)

The other reason I don't mention family is because they, too, are among the "costs". With only one exception, they prefer not to speak of or acknowledge my "difficult situation" (as one put it). It's as if I've been put under a cone of silence - I have no idea which of them has been told, what they think, or anything. When I went in for surgery last month, I got no messages of support from them. I suspect that in general they are hoping if they ignore me and my situation persistently enough it will just go away.

And they're right. Many people like me don't get acceptance and support from family and are devastated. In my case, we've grown apart over the years (my fault probably more than theirs), so while it is a loss, it's one I can bear. I will continue to walk my path, and even to be happy, with or without them. And yes, I will eventually just go away, because I don't care to have contact with people who refuse to accept me as I am. I am okay with that.

I do find it ironic that I've received so much support and even love from friends, coworkers, and even casual acquaintances, only to have family be the ones who can't accept me. But to be honest, I had always expected as much. I've discovered over the past year that I'm pretty good at guessing people's reactions, particularly those I know well. And one reason I waited so long to embark on the path to transition is that I was convinced my family wouldn't accept it. And it turns out I was right. 

Perhaps over time some of those I've lost will come around. If that happens, I'll welcome them, but at the moment it seems unlikely.

Still, this post is most definitely not a plea for sympathy. I'm still the heroine and my story is an overwhelmingly happy one. I am more than okay with the costs - I feel that I've gotten off so much easier than many trans people I know. But I also don't want to pretend that it's possible to win them all. No one wins them all, and I'm no exception.