Category Archives: psychology

Atlanta Open Orthographic Meet, 2017.

This past Saturday, February 18, 2017, my partner, her mother, and I arrived at Manuel’s Tavern for the annual Atlanta Orthographic Meet (spelling bee) at just before six.

I compete in this competition every year; I’ve been a runner-up, but I haven’t yet won. Here’s my post about last year’s meet.

This was our first visit to Manuel’s since its renovation last year, so I was eager to see the new place.

It isn’t all that much different.

Our friend Ed Hall beat us there, and had already reserved a four-top for us. We ordered supper; I got the veggie burger, which is now a house-made patty that was terrible. The old menu’s black bean burger was much better.

But we weren’t there for the food. After getting the usual preliminaries out of the way, the Committee launched into Round One just after 7 p.m. As usual, Round One consisted of common words that can be tricky to spell, plus topical words, one of which this year was right up front. I’d guess there were 200 people competing in the first round this year.

The Atlanta Orthographic Meet isn’t like the Scripps-Howard spelling bees, where contestants spell words aloud and are eliminated with their first miss. For this, the Committee sounds out the words, which we then attempt to spell on paper. Advancement is based on the total number of words spelled correctly.

Where I’ve misspelled words, I preserved my wrong spelling with a strikethrough and put the correct spelling next to it.


Round One
  1. emolument
  2. oxygen
  3. epistolary
  4. anomaly
  5. cisgender
  6. vertiginous
  7. circuitry
  8. lichen
  9. eponymous
  10. cosplay
  11. obelisk
  12. prosecco
  13. algae
  14. cravat
  15. disrhythmia dysrhythmia
  16. elision
  17. plummet
  18. delectable
  19. apochryphal apocryphal
  20. latke

Early in the day on Saturday I predicted that “emolument” would be the topical word this year. For the 2009 meet, one of the first-round words was “stimulus.”

I wrote “dysrhythmia” correctly before second-guessing myself. “Apocryphal” I simply missed; it looked more right to me with the additional “h.” Still, eighteen correct was good enough to advance to Round Two with fifteen other competitors, including Ed.


Round Two
  1. minodiere minaudiere
  2. adipocyte
  3. transhumence transhumance
  4. occuba aucuba
  5. melisma
  6. hansom
  7. loblolly
  8. macaron
  9. bowline
  10. chissop hyssop
  11. cadastral
  12. lamasery
  13. oakum
  14. twall toile
  15. baobab

When “adipocyte” was defined as “fat cell,” I knew how to spell it, since I already knew “adipose” is fat and “-cyte” is any type of cell.

“Transhumance” I’d spelled correctly, then second-guessed myself into the wrong spelling again. Which is okay, because I spelled “cadastral” correctly through pure good luck.

In this round some people, including Ed, let the Committee psych them out: when “loblolly” was read, it was defined very specifically as referring to a type of gruel, not the pine tree. I went ahead and spelled it just like the pine tree anyway and got it right. Ed deliberately spelled it differently, on cue from the Committee, and missed it.

With a total of 28 correct over the first two rounds, I made it to Round Three. So did Ed, whose score was running a word or two ahead of mine now.


Round Three
  1. beccarel becquerel
  2. retticella reticella
  3. phalanstery
  4. psoteriology soteriology
  5. rheophilous
  6. bluchers
  7. schnecke
  8. entrepogh entrepôt
  9. wryton rhyton
  10. toromachy tauromachy

I got lucky again; every word I spelled correctly in Round Three was a guess. I now had 32 correctly spelled words out of the 45 so far presented, which was just enough to take me into Round 4—but only barely; I had the lowest score of the five who advanced to the final round. It was now very unlikely I could win.


Round Four
  1. temesis tmesis
  2. guimé guillemet
  3. alii aalii
  4. felsynmere felsenmeer
  5. tip typp

Okay, I didn’t get any right in this round. I know the word “tmesis,” but I forgot there’s no letter between the “t” and the “m.”

And I maintain, as a former resident of Hawaii, that if the reader had pronounced “aalii” correctly (the Hawaiian language has no diphthongs), I’d have spelled it correctly.

This round should have ended the contest (Ed was in third place; congratulations, Ed!). But the two women who outscored him had the same score, so we went now into “sudden death” overtime. I was out of the running now, but I spelled along just for funsies.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round One
  1. geraint gerent

Both contestants misspelled this word (as did I, as you can see). A second round was required.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Two
  1. furbelow

I thought this word’s spelling was straightforward, but the two competitors missed it. They had to try again.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Three
  1. skua

I’m familiar with this word. The last two combatants apparently weren’t. Onward.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Four
  1. claimant clamant

What I spelled is a different word. “Clamant” is related to “clamor.” Still no winner.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Five
  1. cerack serac

Apparently no one at Manuel’s Tavern at the time knew how to spell this word. Another round.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Six
  1. chuff chough

I’d have been well chuffed, as the Brits say, if I’d spelled “chough” correctly. No doubt the two final spellers felt similarly.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Seven
  1. acai

Meaning the berry that’s all the rage in health food circles these days. The problem with this word was that everyone spelled it correctly, so there still was no winner.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Eight
  1. chiapeen chopine

Yes, obviously I was just throwing letters down at random. It’s just as well I was out of competition by this point. The battle continued for the last two spellers.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Nine
  1. combings

The way I spelled it above was the spelling the Committee wanted. However, as I recall, the two remaining women each spelled it a different other way, and all three are correct. Still no winner.


Sudden Death Spell-Off Round Ten
  1. capgnocchio catenaccio

This round didn’t yield a winner either, and “catenaccio” was the last of the words the Committee had prepared for this year. So, for the first time in the Atlanta Orthographic Meet’s forty-plus year history, a tie game was declared. Both women were declared First Place winners, and both will receive engraved beer steins at next year’s competition.

A good time was had by all. And next year, I’ll win!


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Making Faces.

MakingFacesfavA few months ago I talked about body shapes, and the gendered differences between them that lead us to conclude “That’s a man,” or “That’s a woman,” when we see someone for the first time. “Sexual dimorphism” is the technical term for these differences.

This time I’m going to talk about sexual dimorphism in faces, and what it means for transgender people. There’s more to talk about here, because the differences are less obvious until you get in close. Bodies are unsubtle in their shapes; faces are all subtlety.

I’m an expert at reading faces. We all are, unless we suffer from prosopagnosia (face blindness). Almost all of us have a powerful ability to distinguish one face from another. It’s probably humanity’s most amazing talent. Look at these two faces:

BenAffleckHenryCavill

It’s obvious these are two different faces. Most of you will recognize the individuals in these photos as movie stars Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck—or at least, since Affleck’s more famous, you’ll recognize that they’re Ben Affleck and someone else. The two co-starred in the same super-hero movie blockbuster this year.

There’s very little difference in looks between the two men. Both are Caucasian and have short dark hair. In these shots, both have a little stubble. Neither has a distinguishing scar or mole. They even both have clefts in their chins, although you can’t see Cavill’s very well in these shots. If you walked up to both men with a pair of calipers and a ruler, the dissimilarities you’d be able to document, before they pushed you away and called the police, would be measured in just millimeters, at most.

And yet, even when their characters weren’t in their iconic costumes, I’m certain no moviegoers had any trouble telling one from the other. It’s how we’re wired. Our brains devote significant processing power to the task of telling one face from another. Those tiny distinctions in shape and features add up to an enormous gulf in recognition.

You can test yourself on this ability. Go to imdb.com and look up the cast of a movie you’re familiar with. Even if you cover up the actors’ names on your screen, you’ll be able to identify most of them just going by the tiny thumbnail images of their faces. It’s really an astonishing ability. Those thumbnails are only a handful of pixels wide, and yet we can both tell the actors apart and usually identify them by name. It’s really an astonishing ability we have, when you think about it.

Martian_face_viking_cropped

Not a face on Mars.

We aren’t only good at spotting one face from another; we see faces everywhere we look, even when there’s no face to see: in coconuts, in light sockets, and in a colon next to an open or close parenthesis symbol. This phenomenon is called pareidolia, and it’s why some idiots think extraterrestrials have been building monuments on Mars.

In addition to identifying individuals, this super-power lets us tell other things about people, too. Age, for example. We can look at side-by-side photos of a person at 20 and the same person at 30 and 40 and usually tell which version is which, even if the person has aged pretty well and we can’t point to any specific differences among the faces. The same goes for spotting familial relationships, and sometimes even a person’s ethnicity.

And it’s especially true for determining the gender of a face. When we see a face for the first time, dozens or hundreds of small indicators flood into our brains through our optic nerves, and they add up into a conclusion that’s usually “male” or “female.” Our brains are resistant to concluding “a little of both,” or “possibly neither,” and despite our best intentions, will try to reject any data that conflict with that initial conclusion.

This is a source of consternation for transgender people, and for well-meaning allies. Most transgender people work hard to make our faces match our gender identity; to look “cisnormative,” for reasons of safety as much as for vanity. But it’s often very difficult, even with surgery. Here are some of the major ways male and female faces look different that most people never realize, or even think about:

A man’s eyebrows are usually lower, closer to his eyes.

In profile, the septum of a woman’s nose usually describes a right or obtuse angle with her upper lip; a man’s septum more often points downward in an acute angle.

Men’s faces are wider, and their heads are larger in proportion to their bodies than women’s.

A woman has a lower forehead, and her hairline is more like the top of an oval. Meanwhile, a man’s hairline (if it hasn’t begun receding) is shaped vaguely like a capital “M.”

Men’s upper lips are flatter; a woman’s lip is likelier to have a “bee-stung” appearance.

Women have more vertical foreheads, while men’s foreheads slightly slope back.

The most obvious difference, the one that most bedevils trans women, is the beard shadow. It’s the single most powerful indicator of gender, and it’s almost always visible—no matter how light in color are the whiskers and no matter how recently and close one has shaved. And when people see a beard shadow, their brains tell them they’re seeing a man. No other indicator of gender is so powerful.

It sort of works the other way for transgender men who haven’t developed facial hair, but it’s usually more understated and therefore unconscious. People don’t realize they’re not seeing a beard shadow, specifically, but it does seem to them there’s something feminine about the face that they can’t put their finger on.

It’s why I was willing to spend thousands of dollars and endure dozens of hours of painful electrolysis having mine removed; it’s why I never even considered presenting as female full time until it was completely gone. Nothing gets a transwoman “clocked” like a beard shadow, and when a transwoman is clocked, her life is in danger.

Think about this post the next time you look in a mirror. What is the face you wear saying about you?


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Cisnormativity.

In my last post, I talked about Caitlyn Jenner’s recent unfortunate statements about transgender people, in which she suggested we have a responsibility to look “authentic” and to “play a role”—in a word, to be cisnormative—in order to put cisgender people at ease. She was rightly condemned for these remarks by many opinion leaders across the Internet, because nobody has a responsibility to put others at ease by the way they look. People look the way they look, as I wrote in that post; nobody has the right to prescribe another’s appearance, and no one’s gender identity is beholden to what someone else thinks it should be.

That said, it’s also true, speaking very, very generally, that transgender people strive to look cisnormative, and furthermore, that most of us don’t look as cisnormative as we would like to. That’s simply a fact of life for most people with gender dysphoria. The reasons we feel this way probably would (and probably have) filled books on sociology and psychology, but simply put, transgender people were born and raised in a predominately cisgender society, so we’re freighted with the same biases and assumptions toward the gender binary as cisgender people. We flipped the script, but we still play by it. Maybe we shouldn’t want to, but that doesn’t make it not the case.

Which raises a fair question: what is cisnormativity? That is, when we see a new person and mentally assign them a gender, what are we seeing (or failing to see) that informs that assignment? Most cisgender people never think much about this—why would they? I know I didn’t, until 2005, when I embarked ardently on my transition. Pretty much every gender nonconforming person has given this a lot of thought. Today, and later in a follow-up post, we’ll take a closer look at the matter. It’s kind of a doozy.

Obligatory male/female sign.

Obligatory male/female sign.

In the 1970s, NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe. It surveyed parts of the outer solar system (mainly Jupiter and its moons), then charged on out of the solar system into interstellar space. It carries an illustrated metal plaque containing information about our planet, in case the spacecraft is ever found by extraterrestrials (friendly extraterrestrials, we hope, although if they turn out to be enslaving monsters, don’t blame me; I voted for Kodos).

The plaque includes a line drawing of a nude man and woman standing side by side. The man holds his right hand up in a wave, as if to say, “Hello from Earth! If you’ve been receiving our TV signals, please don’t get any ideas from that ‘To Serve Man‘ episode of The Twilight Zone!”

These drawings are meant to be archetypes of adult humans. As such, they present a handy example of what we mean when we talk about cisnormativity. So let’s use them for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine you’re outdoors on a wide, flat plain. You see the man and woman from the plaque far in the distance. They’re silhouetted against the horizon, walking toward you. As soon as they become more distinct than hazy blobs far away, you begin to notice how their bodies differ. The closer they get to you, the more gender-distinguishing features you’ll spot.

First, you’ll see that the woman is slightly shorter than the man, and she has longer hair. The man is broad-shouldered compared to his waist; his torso is roughly an inverted trapezoid. The woman’s torso has more of an hourglass shape. Her waist is much smaller than her hips and shoulders.

From just these cues you’d probably already have a guess that one figure was a man and the other a woman. But you wouldn’t be positive; every characteristic you’ve seen so far can vary widely from person to person. As the couple draws closer to you, finer distinctions begin to emerge.

"Hello from Earth!"

“Hello from Earth!”

The way they walk is different. The woman has a lower center of gravity than the man, and since she’s also shorter overall, her legs are also shorter, which gives her a shorter stride, which makes her walk look different.

Another factor: while this archetypal pair is naked and therefore barefoot, as I’ve said, most people wear shoes, and women wear high heels more often than men. This also visibly affects a person’s walk; you can usually tell if someone’s wearing high heels, even if you can’t see their feet.

So as this couple continues toward you, their movements give you information about their gender identities. After a while they’re much closer than the horizon, and you get a better look at their bodies and how they differ.

The man, due to the muscle-building effect of testosterone, has greater muscle development than the woman. Women can also exercise, lift weights and get toned, of course, but generally they don’t get the bulked-up muscles testosterone makes available to men.

Men also have more body hair than women. The Pioneer 10 archetypes are hairless, for some reason, but this is true generally. There’s usually hair on a man’s chest, and maybe on his belly as well. It may be sparse, but it may also be quite thick (as anyone who’s seen Robin Williams in the movie The Fisher King can attest). There’s also hair on his arms and legs, usually sparser than that on his chest. The thickest hair below his neck is at his armpits and pubes.

2pxPioneerplaquehumansWomen have body hair too, but not as much. There’s usually none or very little on her torso, and it’s wispy and sparse on her arms. There would be wispy hair on her legs, too, but in the West women usually shave their legs. The same goes for women’s armpits. Only the pubes will have thick hair, and the recent vogue for Brazilian waxes means that may not be true either.

Speaking of the pubes, the couple is probably close enough now for you to see their secondary sexual characteristics. The woman has a vagina, although that’s not so apparent for Pioneer 10 woman, and on her chest are two nippled breasts. The man has nipples, but no breasts, and between his legs, like the constellation Orion, he clearly has a dong.

Okay, they’re only a few yards from you now. They’re so close you can see the man has an Adam’s apple, but the woman doesn’t. Finally, you have a good look at their faces.

I could devote an entire post talking about the faces. And I will! Stay tuned.


Links to excerpts from my ongoing autobiography project are gathered together on this page.

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Jenner Again.

Caitlyn Jenner, the most famous transgender person ever (so far), has put her foot in her mouth again. In a recent interview with TIME magazine, she said:

I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role. So what I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease. If you’re out there and, to be honest with you, if you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.

Outrage came from all corners, including the transgender community itself. Jenner gets a taste of her pedicure with practically every sentence in that quote. If you haven’t done much thinking or reading about these matters, it may not be obvious why these words were so inflammatory. I’ll take each misstep in turn and unpack them for you.

“I think it’s much easier for a trans woman or a trans man who authentically kind of looks and plays the role.”

Jenner meant by this that life is easier for a trans woman or trans man if his or her looks conform to what the general public assumes cisgender women or men “should” look like. What she described as “authentic” is more often called having a “cisnormative” appearance.

authentic_stamp

Ceci n’est pas une pipe.

There’s no such thing as “authentic” when it comes to a person’s gender expression. People look the way they look, and there’s nothing wrong with that, cisnormative or not. A woman with broad shoulders and narrow hips (and there are cisgender women shaped like this) is no less “authentically” a woman than a petite woman with an hourglass figure (and there are transgender women shaped like this), and to imply otherwise is to indulge in the reductive biological-sex-equals-gender essentialism that’s at the heart of transphobia, especially phobia against trans women: i.e., “you don’t look like a woman to me, so you’re really a man.”

But the biggest howler in that sentence is the three words, “plays the role.” Jenner seems here to conflate transgender people with drag artists. Trans people are not “playing a role.” Our gender is not a costume that we peel off when we arrive at home after a long day of applying for jobs, arguing with an ex-spouse over visitation rights with our children, or giving testimony in the trial of punks who assaulted us. Transgender women are women, down to their bones and 24/7. Transgender men, to paraphrase West Side Story, are men all the way. Caitlyn Jenner knows this, or at least should know it, after a full reality-show season of being lectured on such matters by Jenny Boylan and other luminaries.

“[W]hat I call my presentation. I try to take that seriously. I think it puts people at ease.”
“[I]f you look like a man in a dress, it makes people uncomfortable.”

I assume by these statements Jenner means that she strives to present herself to be as cisnormative (feminine) as she can manage. There’s nothing wrong with this; many transgender women present themselves in a hyper-feminine way, either by nature, or as a celebration of the identity they’ve finally learned to embrace, or—maybe more often—as a survival tactic, because transgender women who look cisnormative are less likely to be victims of physical assault. As Jenner said, it puts people at ease.

But it’s not the job of transgender people to put anyone at ease. It’s a free country, as the saying goes, and if the way we look makes people uncomfortable, that’s their lookout, not ours. To say otherwise is nasty and ignorant, the same as telling women not to dress in a manner provocative to rapists, or asking someone with a chronic disease to cover up her medication port, or suggesting a Sikh leave his turban at home because he might be mistaken for a Muslim and shot. Who we are is only our own business, and if haters are gonna hate, they’re welcome to suck it.Caitlyn_Jenner

Naturally, Jenner quickly walked back these remarks and apologized after the predictable backlash. Good on her for that; she has always been contrite after her podiatric oral intrusions. I don’t fault her for saying such foolish things; she’s new into her transition, and that’s a time of learning for all trans people.

The problem is that, newly transitioned or not, she’s looked to by the media as a leader, icon, and spokesperson for all transgender Americans. Her pre-transition fame makes that inevitable. She’s the person people will turn to for keynote speeches, diversity awards, and sound bites, and when she says something ignorant or dumb, the general public will assume she speaks for all transgender people.

This is something of a pattern with transgender people who get a little bit of notoriety early in their transition. Back in the middle of the Aughts, Susan Stanton made similar “man in a dress” remarks in an interview.

Susan Stanton was the city manager of Largo, Florida. She was quietly and privately transitioning when she was unwillingly outed and then fired by Largo’s city council, in an outrageous (and never punished) act of transphobia. This thrust her prematurely into the public eye, and reporters sought her out for interviews and quotes before she’d had time to work out for herself what it means to be transgender, or how to talk about such matters with sensitivity and grace.

Susan Stanton.

Susan Stanton.

When Lambda Legal accepted me as a client and we launched our lawsuit, Glenn v. Brumby, one of the organization’s conditions was that my interactions with the public had to go through their media relations department. This frustrated me at the time, because Lambda Legal was very careful about choosing which interviews and public events would be good for me or for the case. I wanted to talk to everyone about the unfairness and pervasiveness of the kind of discrimination I had suffered, but I wasn’t allowed to.

That parsimony is probably part of why the important legal precedent we set is still little-known today, but on the flip side, Lambda Legal definitely saved me from committing howlers like Stanton and Jenner’s. During those four years, I listened more than I spoke; I wasn’t thrust unprepared into a leadership or spokesperson position.

By dint of her pre-transition fame, Jenner didn’t have the option of a quiet, out-of-the-spotlight transition, even if she had wanted one (and, with the second season of her reality series greenlit, she doesn’t seem to want one). Like her or not, gaffe-prone or not, she is American media’s reigning go-to transperson, and will remain so until and unless someone even more famous transitions.

Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this.

As I’ve written before, Caitlyn Jenner’s transition has been enormously important for the transgender community, and has accelerated the cause of civil rights and public acceptance, probably by years. That shouldn’t be denied. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t highly problematic at the same time. Her position of wealth and privilege, her political myopia, and her naiveté add up to the certainty that she’s going to continue to screw up like this, and give cisgender America an impression of our lives that is at best inaccurate and at worst dangerous.

Which puts the rest of us on alert. We need to stand ready with our metaphorical mops and buckets, ready to leap into action and correct the record the next time a Cleanup on Aisle Caitlyn is needed.


Links to excerpts from my ongoing autobiography project are gathered together on this page.

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Autobiography: Hallowe’en 2006: Epilogue.

(Read the first two parts of this excerpt here and here.)

To say I was dismayed would be like saying Louis XVI owned a supply of wig powder. I’d been working at the Capitol for over a year, and it had never crossed my mind that any of my bosses might have a problem with my transition. It was a government workplace, I reasoned, and I had always believed governments in the United States didn’t discriminate against their employees in that way. That belief had been a big part of the reason why I left the corporate world, with its unpredictable caprices, for the Office of Legislative Counsel. It’s the trade I thought I was making, in exchange for the much higher salary I’d been making in the IT industry.

In hindsight, I know that sounds naïve. I didn’t predict how conservative and xenophobic Sewell Brumby could be, or that the lack of written and agreed-to office procedures meant he could be an autocrat with great leeway to run his fiefdom however he saw fit.

But hold the phone: Sewell and I were living in different realities. On that day I was a transitioning gender-dysphoric person expressing her true self on the job for the first time. But as far as Sewell Brumby could see—as far as anyone had told him—I was simply one of his male employees who had costumed as a woman as a lark for Hallowe’en.

He was definitely, if unfortunately, within his bounds to send me home for that reason if he didn’t like it. But maybe, I later reasoned, he would have had a different reaction if he had fully understood the situation.

I clung to that possibility for most of the next year.

In the fullness of time, after Sewell fired me and I initiated my lawsuit, I didn’t think the “Hallowe’en 2006 Incident” counted for much. Since he hadn’t known I was transgender at the time, and didn’t fire me then, I thought his sending me home for wearing a costume he didn’t like wasn’t relevant to my case. I almost didn’t even mention it when my Lambda Legal attorneys interviewed me during their fact-finding phase.

The incident was, in fact, of critical importance to the case.

It made all the difference that other people also came to the office in costume that day. Sewell may have seen Barbara in her witch costume, but he definitely saw Eugie in her phouka drag—and he did not send either of them home or tell either of them to remove their costumes. This showed that it was not the wearing of a costume itself that he objected to, but the specific nature of my costume. As Sewell put it three years later when my Lambda Legal attorneys deposed him:

“When I looked at Mr. Morrison, I did not see what to me was a Halloween costume. I saw what to me appeared to be a man who had cross-dressed with some degree of apparent practice and expertise in doing so.”

I saw what to me appeared to be a man who had cross-dressed with some degree of apparent practice and expertise in doing so.

Sewell Brumby was unable to explain why my “apparent practice and expertise” was a problem, so my attorneys explained it to the courts on his behalf, and over his protests: he was creeped out and disgusted by gender nonconforming behavior.

Throughout the lawsuit, Brumby and his attorneys had maintained that he had no problem with gender nonconformity; that it was my transition itself, and the disruption to his workplace that he believed it would cause, that forced him to fire me. But the Hallowe’en affair, which happened before he even knew I was transgender, indisputably put the lie to that claim, and both of the federal courts that ruled on our case got this.

Anyway, on that day he told me to go home, so I went home, shocked and a little heartbroken. And fearful. Sewell hadn’t said, “Go home, change your clothes, and return to work.” All he’d said was, “Go home.” I wasn’t sure if I had just been fired or not.

I decided to act as if I hadn’t been fired. This meant I should return to work, even though it was the last thing I wanted to do. Although there were still some doughnuts left. When I got home I changed back into boy mode and then drove back to the Capitol, arriving around noon. I considered going to Sewell’s office and confronting him, but I’ve never been good at confrontations. I avoid them when I can.

Besides, he’d obviously been seethingly angry when he sent me home. I didn’t want to poke a hornet’s nest; I thought it wise to avoid him until he’d cooled down a little. I went directly back to the editors’ office instead, using the mezzanine stairs. Odds were low that I would encounter Sewell again before the end of the day.

I didn’t see him again that day. A few coworkers asked me why I’d changed out of “costume”; I told them candidly it was because Sewell had told me to. They all looked disappointed; especially the ones who’d heard what I was wearing but hadn’t had a chance to see it yet.

They were puzzled, too. They didn’t understand Sewell’s reaction any better than I did. This reinforced the opinion I’ve always held, and which turned out to be true: Sewell Brumby was the only person working in that office who would ever have a problem working with a transgender person.


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Autobiography: Hallowe’en 2006, Part 1.

In October of 2006 I was happily ensconced in my job as a legislative editor at the Georgia State Capitol and about a year and a half into my transition. I worked in a faux-wood-paneled, L-shaped room with three other editors: Larry, Eugie (who had been hired over the summer), and another woman. Our office was next door to the office of the senior editor, Beth Yinger.

I was still presenting as male, of course, but my transgender-and-transitioning status was essentially an open secret to my peers. Larry and Eugie had both been my friends for years, since well before any of us worked at the Capitol (Larry began there first, then recommended I apply when there was an opening, and then I got Eugie to apply when there was another opening). I hadn’t officially talked with the other editor about what was going on, but the room wasn’t that large, and I did talk about transition-related stuff with Eugie, within earshot of the that woman, and often at times when one or another of the legal secretaries were passing through. My therapist, Erin, called this deliberate recklessness “systematic desensitization.” I called it “unfurling my freak flag.”

My therapist, Erin, called this deliberate recklessness ‘systematic desensitization.’ I called it ‘unfurling my freak flag.’

Beth, as the senior editor, was our immediate supervisor. Since she sat in a different office from us, I figured I should have a semi-official conversation with her to explain what was going on with me. Naturally, I wanted to fully transition in this workplace someday, and the channel I’d go through would begin with Beth.

I didn’t make up a pseudonym for Beth, because that would have been pointless. Her name’s all over the various briefs and filings that constituted Glenn v. Brumby. Depositions of the parties to the suit all include mention of her, and she was deposed herself. She’s bound up inextricably in the narrative; pretending to preserve her anonymity or indemnify myself by giving her a fake name would be like ignoring an elephant in a room. Or some more flattering metaphor.

But there’s not much to say about her here, anyway. My work relationship with her was pretty straightforward. She was originally from West Virginia, had been at the Capitol as a legislative editor for almost thirty years, and had been senior editor for more than a decade. She’s the person who interviewed and hired me, and over the past year she’d given me mostly complimentary feedback about my work. She was generally easygoing, an avid reader like the rest of us, never got visibly angry, and often wore Crocs to the office.

She was also our sole intercessor with Sewell Brumby. All directives from or feedback to Mr. Brumby went through Beth. We never spoke to him directly unless we edited one of his bills, and then he rarely offered more than a curt “thank you” when we returned it to him. He never entered our office, which was separated from his by a flight of stairs and a long hallway. I don’t think I was formally introduced to him even when I started the job. If he needed something communicated to the editors, he communicated it to Beth.

I decided to have my conversation with Beth on October 11th, which is “National Coming-Out Day” (I’m often motivated by arbitrary symbolism; don’t judge). Also, this was during the nine months of the year when our office wasn’t very busy, so she’d have time for a téte-a-téte without being distracted by work.

I got up from my desk and walked out into the hall. Beth usually left her door open, so I stood in the doorway and lightly rapped on the jamb with my knuckles, just to get her to look up.

Source: sdsmt.collegiatelink.net/organization/lgbtservices

Source: sdsmt.collegiatelink.net/organization/lgbtservices

“Got a minute?” I asked. “I need to talk with you about something.”

“Sure,” she said. “Shut the door.” I closed the door behind me and sat down in the chair in front of her desk.

If I’d hesitated, I would have lost my nerve. I knew this was a ripping off the Band-Aid situation. So I just blurted it out. “I’m transgender,” I told her. I’ve been taking female hormones and doing other related things for some time now, and eventually I’m going to start coming to work as a woman.”

She nodded slowly, not looking very surprised. “All right,” she said. “I think I noticed something was going on.”

“I hope that’s okay,” I said. In hindsight I’m a little angry that our society was in such a place at the time that I felt the need to say something like this. Imagine an employee asking her boss if it was “okay” that she had psoriasis, or diabetes.

“Of course it’s okay,” she said. “I don’t think there will be any problem with that around here. After all, it’s a medical condition, right? I don’t know why anybody would have a problem with that.”

I didn’t hide my sigh of relief. I’d had no reason to doubt she’d be supportive; she was socially progressive, and also kind. But gender stuff is at the edge of the envelope, even now; you can’t always predict how people will react when you come out to them. Not everyone is as broad-minded as they believe themselves to be.

Beth took the news fully in stride, assuring me this was no big deal to her. Not for the first time or the last, I was dealing with someone who went out of her way to assert her hipness bona fides by demonstrating how accepting and well-informed she was about this sort of phenomenon. “I used to live in Midtown,” she said, with a knowing nod.

What "Midtown Atlanta" means to most people. Source: Georgia Voice

What “Midtown Atlanta” means to most people.
Source: Georgia Voice

We talked for another ten minutes or so. We mostly talked about administrative stuff: my legal name change and adjusting various work-related documents.

I told her my rough timetable, which was to begin what’s clinically known as the “real life experience” the following spring, sometime after the General Assembly’s annual legislative session. She was relieved I didn’t intend to do this during the legislative session. I never would have done that; the session was a grueling three- or four-month interval of long, stressful days; transitioning during that season would have been harder on me than on anyone else.

And one more thing. Beth and I both recognized that my coming-out to the rest of our department would be more complicated than coming out to her, and I couldn’t do it one at a time. With Hallowe’en coming soon, I suggested it would be a good opportunity for us to gauge our coworkers’ reactions to the idea of a transgender person working among them. I would come in to the office en femme that day, when many others among us would also be in costume.

She liked this idea, and gave it her blessing. As I got up to leave, she reassured me again that everything was going to be all right.

“Nobody’s going to care, and it’s none of their damn business even if they do.”

At the time I had no reason to doubt her.

Next: a reason to doubt her.


Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.

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Autobiography: In Therapy, Part II.

That first session wasn’t actually the commencement of our “talk therapy;” I spent the whole first hour with Ms. Smith (still not her real name) filling out forms and discussing treatment goals and taking care of other such administrative matters. It wasn’t until the second session on the 26th, also a Wednesday, that we got down to business.

I drove down to her office after work, as before. I was excited. I’d been taking steps toward transitioning for several months, as I mentioned last time; these steps had consisted mainly of superficial things like learning about makeup and women’s clothes, although I was also enduring my excruciating first sessions of permanent hair removal via electrolysis.

That’s as much as I felt I could do on my own, but I was impatient. I wanted to receive an official, medical diagnosis, in accordance with the Standards of Care (SOC), so I could begin taking official, medical hormones. Ms. Smith could do this for me, just as she had done, she’d reassured me during our first session, for many other patients.

In her office for that second session, I eased down into the chair opposite her desk and shifted my weight around, finding the most comfortable pose. This was a historic occasion; I wanted to be as completely at ease as possible when I began sharing these thoughts I’d never spoken aloud before.

Ms. Smith sat at her desk chair and picked up a notepad and pen. I nodded in recognition informed by 142 reruns of The Bob Newhart Show. Yes, psychotherapists use notepads and pens. This seemed legit.

Source: blog.transgenderzone.com

Source: blog.transgenderzone.com

She wrote something at the top of her pad, probably my name and the date, then drew a horizontal line straight across. Then she spoke.

“So tell me,” she said, “When was the first time you remember feeling a sexual attraction to another man?”

If I were a filmmaker, and indulged in clichés, here’s where I’d add the sound effect of a needle being dragged across a vinyl record. My jaw fell open.

“Uh …” I said. My eloquence failed me. I was astounded. If I’d made a list of twenty questions I thought were likely to be the first thing my gender therapist asked me, this would not have been one of them. The question practically dripped with ignorance.

If I’d made a list of twenty questions I thought were likely to be the first thing my gender therapist asked me, this would not have been one of them. The question practically dripped with ignorance.

Nothing else she could have said would have filled me with more dismay. I’d embarked on this relationship confident I was putting my fate in the hands of an experienced professional, and with her very first question I realized she didn’t know shit about gender dysphoria or transgender people.

“I, uh …” I continued. Seriously? I thought. She’s really asking me this question?

Maybe some of my cisgender readers don’t understand what the problem was. Probably not many of you, if you’ve been reading this blog for long, but I’ll explain. “Gender dysphoria” describes an individual whose gender does not match the sex he or she was assigned at birth. “Sexual orientation” refers to whether a person is gay or straight or something else. Put simply and universally, “gender identity” is who you want to be, while sexual orientation is who you want to be with.

So a person assigned male at birth, but who is transgender, may be attracted to men, like heterosexual women, or may be attracted to other women, like lesbians. I don’t know the percentages, but they’re not important. What’s important is that sexual orientation and gender identity don’t track with each other; one doesn’t predict the other. That’s a Transgender 101 fact.

Ms. Smith’s question revealed not only that she was unaware of this, but moreover, she took it for granted that, as a person raised male who was seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, I must naturally be sexually oriented toward men. And that this “fact” was somehow so basic to my nature and so necessary to a diagnosis of my condition that it was the very first thing she asked me about.

“Never,” I finally answered. “I’ve never felt sexual attraction toward men. Why would you ask that? That doesn’t have anything to do with my gender identity.”

Now it was her turn to look shocked. “Uh …” she said.

Inside my head, I was spiraling into dismay. Since the epiphany I’d experienced the previous summer, transitioning was all I could think about. I was impatient to begin the medically sanctioned component of my transition. I wanted it done yesterday. But the SOC was both gatekeeper and keymaster—without an official diagnosis, there would be no Dana (or Vandy Beth), only Zuul. It was almost February now; if I left this “professional” and sought out another therapist, it could delay me another month or more getting the help I needed.

Gratuitous Ghostbusters references are always in order. Source: tashasthinkings.blogspot.com

Gratuitous Ghostbusters references are always in order.
Source: tashasthinkings.blogspot.com

“I thought you said you’d treated this kind of condition before.”

She nodded vigorously. Her tone of voice was defensive. “I have, yes! And, I—you mean to say you’ve never been attracted to another man?”

Oh, brother, I thought. This is going to be a bumpy ride.

I decided to keep seeing her rather than start the process over again, but we didn’t have the therapeutic relationship I had expected. I spent most of our sessions explaining the transgender experience to her instead of the other way around. In addition to the gender identity/sexual orientation blind spot, she admitted she’d never even heard of the SOC. I ended up printing out a .pdf of the latest version I’d found online and giving her a copy.

Of course I was irritated. I understand the need for “gatekeepers;” a gender transition wreaks great changes in a person’s life, and while it’s uncommon for a person to misdiagnose him- or herself, it does happen. It’s valuable to have an infrastructure in place like the SOC.

But that’s just it: the procedure is badly flawed, if therapists who don’t really know what they’re doing, like Ms. Smith obviously didn’t, can advertise that she has expertise in these matters. It can ruin lives.

Still, I got what I needed from her. About a month and a half after our first session, after four or five sessions total, she wrote what’s called a “referral letter.” This was a letter addressed to my primary care physician, printed on her letterhead stationery, confirming my self-diagnosis of “gender identity disorder” (which, again, is what it was called at the time).

We finished that session, and I was done with her. I would resume psychotherapy some time in the future, but never again with Ms. Smith. I would only see her one more time, and that wasn’t for psychological reasons.

Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.


If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution, either at:

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Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


Autobiography: In Therapy, Part 1.

In my last post, I shared a correspondence from an acquaintance who wanted guidance answering the question, “Am I transgender?” You can read my reply at the link provided.

My acquaintance followed up with a question about next steps:

When looking for someone to talk to about these matters, should I seek out an analyst who specializes in transgender issues, or is a therapist with a more general practice focusing on all sex issues sufficient?

Of course, as before, I paraphrased the question’s actual wording to help preserve my correspondent’s anonymity. But you guessed that, since nobody uses the word “analyst” outside of Woody Allen movies. And inside Woody Allen movies, analysts charge too much.

This is a difficult question to answer. No one’s sure ahead of time what one’s needs are in the psychological treatment realm; that’s part of the point of seeking treatment in the first place. It’s hard to know if the therapist you choose is going to be able to meet those needs. And your choice of therapist is going to be limited by what you can afford and who’s available under your health insurance umbrella.

So as a way of dodging the question entirely, I’ll just share my own experiences with mental health professionals as they relate to my gender identity journey. Maybe that can itself be instructive.

I’ve written before about my aborted “first transition” during my Navy years on Oahu. My second, successful transition began in late 2004, when I realized transitioning was the only way I’d have any hope of a happy and fulfilling life in the long run. I began looking into how to begin transitioning, and my research showed me that gender identity treatment in the United States (and in most of the world) was mediated by the Harry Benjamin Standards of Care (and it still is today, but now it’s more generally known as the WPATH Standards of Care. Any medical or surgical steps toward asserting my true gender, if I wanted to do it the legal and aboveboard way (as opposed to seeking out black-market hormones or silicone injections), would have to be in accordance with the Standards of Care (SOC).

That meant I had to find a psychologist or other mental health therapist and receive an official, medically-approved diagnosis of Gender Identity Disorder, or GID (as it was called by the DSM-IV at the time; now it’s “Gender Dysphoria”). I liked to imagine therapists had this phrase written on a rubber stamp with wide-serif capital letters, and when they accepted my self-diagnosis, it would be stamped on my chart in red ink.GID

I decided to wait until early 2005, when the new year’s health plan kicked in, before seeking treatment. During the open enrollment period in the fall of 2004, I made sure I selected options that would offer me the most coverage for the kind of treatment I thought I’d need.

In January 2005 I began to browse listings of in-network providers from my desk at work, seeing who had the specialty I sought. There was nothing illicit about this, generally speaking, but given the nature of my inquiry, internalized transphobia, and the general state of transgender acceptance at the time, I twisted my body into an unnatural, awkward position to hide my monitor from view of any passing coworkers. You know, because that wouldn’t raise any suspicions itself.

I found two or three counselors whose practice descriptions claimed they had experience with gender matters. None were close to my workplace, but one was way south of town, easy to get to from my house. She didn’t have a doctorate, but there were several letters after her name, which was Ms. Smith (note: her name was not Ms. Smith). I called her up and asked if she could help me. I spoke just above a whisper, my hand cupped over the receiver.

Two-thirds of her responses were, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that? I can barely hear you.” But she sounded confident she knew what she was doing and could help me. I made an appointment for late in the afternoon on the twelfth of January; a Wednesday. I would leave work early so I could just go home afterward.

I arrived early on the day; I’d left work way early in case the traffic was bad, but it hadn’t been. The walls of Ms. Smith’s (empty, except for me) waiting room were covered in inspirational posters, like that cat that’s been clinging to a bar since the early 1970s. On her coffee table, amid the months-old issues of Newsweek and People, were various brochures and pamphlets related to beating substance abuse. I realized that addiction counseling must be the main part of her practice. This didn’t ring any alarm bells; many therapists, I knew, have special interests. It doesn’t mean they can only treat one kind of patient, or that they’re ignorant of a variety of diagnoses. There aren’t many transgender people, so GID probably isn’t the main focus of most therapists. 

There aren’t many transgender people, so GID probably isn’t the main focus of most therapists.

After I’d been in the waiting room for twenty minutes or so, the door to Ms. Smith’s office opened. One woman walked out and headed for the exit, glancing at me only furtively; another woman, middle-aged, kind-faced, wearing a khaki skirt suit, stood in the doorway.

“Are you Glenn?” she asked. I nodded. “Come on in here, then.” She grandly waved me toward the office. She turned and headed back to her desk ahead of me; I followed.

There was no couch, because this was a real therapist’s office, not a New Yorker cartoon. Instead there was a comfortable chair positioned to face her desk chair when the latter swiveled away from the extremely cluttered desk. On the floor, next to the desk, was a white-noise generator, which Ms Smith turned on as she sat. Its purpose was to keep any Nosy Parkers in her waiting room from listening in on her sessions. Of course it wasn’t necessary now; I was her last appointment of the day.

As I sat down I noticed on the wall opposite my chair was a crumpled-up, empty pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, in a frame and captioned with the date of Ms. Smith’s last cigarette.

Aha! I thought. Like the Hair Club for Men president, she’s not just an addiction counselor; she’s a former addict herself!

This made a certain sense; many people with problems draw hope from knowing the person helping them has overcome the same sort of problem. Idly, I wondered what would be hanging in a frame on the wall if Ms. Smith had triumphed over being assigned the wrong sex at birth.

To be continued.


Links to other excerpts in this series are gathered together on this page.

If you’d like to support my writing efforts, please consider making a monetary contribution, either at:

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or PayPal:


 

Thank you!

 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.