Friday Philosophy: Outness

I sometimes refer to when I came out/was outed.  Sometimes people ask what I mean by phrasing it that way.  I’ll get to that in the story that follows.

I am out.  I make no secret about being a lesbian.  And I make no secret about being born male.  Some people don’t like that.  Some people think I’m doing a disservice to all sorts of folks by being out.  Some people think I should shut up and go back into the closet, so everyone (except maybe me) might be able to be happy.

Recently I’ve been engaged in several discussions about the proposed exclusion of gender-variant people from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.  A few days ago someone wrote to me:

Are you a woman or not? If so, then the rights you should be fighting for are those of womens’ rights. Which means being legally recognized as a woman and having access to all the rights of women and nothing more.

Seeking special laws to address transsexual women is a self-proclamation that they are ‘different’ from other women, which is a setback and a political dead-end.

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day.  Since it was on a Thursday, I didn’t have much time to participate.  So I assembled this piece, which I posted on our campus email.

Cross-posted at Daily Kos.

At first I was amused by the fact that someone else claimed to know what would make my life experience more authentic than I would.

I responded, but first I have an excerpt from a longer story.  Some people don’t like that I make my points by telling stories.  I’m told it’s too ego-centric.  On the other hand, if I say what I want to say without telling a story, I’m asked how I can possibly speak for the entire transgender community.  I tell my stories.  Interpret them however you will…

I’ve written about my coming out before, in Gender Workshop IX.  But I haven’t done more than allude to what happened next.

October 8, 1992

I heard nothing back from my chairman until Friday afternoon after I left my coming out letter on his desk on Wednesday.  About 3 pm, after everyone else had gone home, he called me into his office and we discussed the letter and what was going to happen.  My major impression from the meeting was that the reaction of the administration was not good.  They had held a meeting (Chuck, my dean, the president of the university, the school lawyer, and the head of personnel) to discuss the situation.  How nice it might have been if they had invited me along so that we could discuss it together, but that was not to be.

In fact I was told that any communication I wanted with anyone in administration would have to go through Chuck or Helen Russell in personnel.  I was also informed that they wanted me to take sick leave immediately.  I declined that “offer” as I knew it would mean that I had abandoned my classes in the middle of a semester and that would mean that they would have grounds to terminate my tenure.

The upshot of the meeting was that if I was not going to take sick leave, then I needed to communicate to my colleagues in some manner what was going to be happening.  I spent the evening deciding on what form such a communication would take.  Perhaps fear entered into the picture, but I opted for a letter again.  I did not have enough confidence in myself to speak to my colleagues as a group and knew if I addressed them one at a time, that before I told #2, #1 would be telling others.

I don’t know what exactly happened over the weekend, after I put the letters in the mailboxes on Saturday.  I learned later that some anonymous person had made copies and placed them on the desks of all the secretaries on campus.  Since we generally only have keys to our own buildings, I can only think that there must been some sort of collusion with people “higher up.”

A copy of the letter was also forwarded to someone at the local newspaper.  I found this out the hard way.  I got a phone call on Monday from a reporter at the paper (the Log Cabin Democrat).  She said at first that “rumors” had been passed on to the paper from someone at the First Baptist Church (the largest and most politically powerful church in this community).  Since one of my colleagues is treasurer of that church, I had a pretty good idea where the rumors came from.

I answered a few questions rather defensively and in turn questioned why it was necessary for the reporter to do a story on this.  I was told that a story would be done, with or without my cooperation.  I was rather on the spot and I had to make a rather rapid decision, so I agreed to an interview for Wednesday morning.  I hoped that at least a little of my side of the story would actually appear for public consumption.

In the meantime several of my students (from the class with which I had discussed my situation) had come to my office to express their support.  A few of my colleagues dropped by (all women).  A couple of them were somewhat supportive.  One of the supportive women told me, “I can’t say I understand this completely, because I don’t understand it at all, really.  And my first reaction was negative, I have to admit.  Then it occurred to me that I believe that a woman has the right to self?determination of her body when it comes to abortion.  Why shouldn’t you have the right of self?determination of your body?”

Not all of the reaction was positive, of course.  One of my women colleagues (what we call temporary full-time…she does not have tenure or a tenure track, but teaches full-time here) came into my office bearing all sorts of christian literature about being gay. She was in tears (I learned later that she was a former Miss Arkansas and married a very eligible lawyer with the intentions of living the idyllic southern married lifestyle, but that her husband had turned out to be gay).

The departmental secretary told me that she didn’t agree with this at all (as if she was being asked to agree), but that she would attempt to work with me (how nice of her!).  To this day when she answers a telephone call for me when I am not in my office, she refers to me as “he.”

I didn’t want to spring this on the administration as a surprise, so I attempted to warn my chairman, who was out of town, my dean (same), the president (same), and the vice president for academic affairs (same).  Finally I got in touch with the school attorney and informed her what had transpired.  She said she appreciated the warning but had no additional comment.

When Wednesday morning rolled around, I got dressed in my usual androgynous mode and headed to school, trembling a bit about what was going to take place.  It turned out to be not so bad.  The reporter was not a native of the area, which was probably a good thing.  She tried to ask meaningful questions and I answered as honestly as I felt was needed.  I did try to keep my sexual orientation out of it.  I didn’t really think that everyone needed to know that.  I did stress that I was not a gay male though…in fact, no kind of man at all.

On the following date, October 8, 1992 (I knew we would get there eventually), the article was run in the newspaper.  I was now out, at least locally, to the whole community of over 20,000 people.

[I would include a copy of the article here if I had one, but my search last night did not reveal it’s whereabouts.  I have mailed copies to friends in the past and will get a copy in the future and post it to the list.  It goes here :-)]

I wish that were the end of it.  It wasn’t.  The Associated Press picked up the article and spread it to at least 6 states.  The main newspaper in Arkansas printed a portion of the article.  I got phone calls from people in Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana, as well as Arkansas, and several semesters later had a student in a class that told me he read about it in the gay press in Los Angeles.

I was told that it made the 6pm news on the 8th, as well as drive-time radio.  Like it or not, I had become a “celebrity” or sorts.  I have not really had any privacy since.  There has been no question of me going out in public without people knowing who I am.  Some transsexuals worry a lot about “passing”…about being able to be in public without people knowing they once lived as the other gender. Sometimes I wonder what that must be like.

–October 8, 1994

I am a woman.  I am transsexual.  And I’m a lesbian.  Those are not incompatible identities.  I work for women’s rights.  I work for rights for gender variant people.  I work for gay rights.  These are also not incompatible.  I am one of the women’s studies faculty on this campus, co-coordinator of the Gay/NonGay Alliance and I write about being differently gendered.  That takes a lot of effort on top as my regular job and having a life, but they aren’t incompatible.  Someone has to teach about people like me.  If not me, who?

This is not a “political dead end.”  I should work for women’s rights and forget about the rights of transwomen?  When transwomen do not have some of the rights women have in this country?  I spent several years trying to arrange it so that transwomen even had a chance to participate in the community of women. 

Would a lesbian be told to work for women’s rights and not gay rights?  I don’t think so.  So this view must be something special for transfolk.  Some think we should by all means have the right to transition, but we better not be damn visible about it.  Or somehow we fail to be human.

How does that make sense?  How can some people tell us, on the one hand, that we haven’t done enough work to deserve to be included in ENDA, but on the other be told to shut up and blend into the woodwork?

So I will stand firm.  I’d love to one day not refer to myself as a transwoman. Someday when I have equal rights, I may do that.


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    • Robyn on October 13, 2007 at 1:09 am

    The following is an excerpt from the July/August, 1996 issue of Ms., the one with Xena on the cover.  Suzanne Pharr wrote an article entitled Taking the High Road.  She also was interviewed.  The first question and its answer is below.

    How do we root out our own racism or homophobia or prejudice against poor people?

    One way is to examine the place in yourself where you have experienced discrimination and imagine someone else there.  If you’ve experienced sexism or had a hard time advancing at work, you might examine that closely and ask yourself, Could this be how a person of color feels in terms of discrimination?  Could this be how a lesbian or gay man feels in terms of discrimination?  We need a politics of empathy: If this is what it feels like to be me, isn’t it possible that this is similar to the experiences of other people?  What also breaks through is hearing other people’s stories.  I cannot tell you how important this is.

    May I tell you a story?  For 15 years the Women’s Project has had a women’s retreat in Arkansas.  This year for the first time a transgendered person came, a post-operative male-to-female lesbian.  On the first day, we sat in a circle and introduced ourselves, and she said she would like to create a workshop on transsexuality.  Only then did everybody realize she was a transsexual.  All hell broke loose the next day.  One lesbian couple came up to several of us who had organized the retreat and said: “How dare you let him stay in a dorm where our daughters are?”  We said: “We stand on 15 years of fighting for sexual freedom.  You have to deal with this…”  Personally, I love femmy men and butch women because they break barriers.  We have got to bust up gender roles.

    Anyway, the next night this transgendered woman got up and told us about her life, what it felt like to be at a university in central Arkansas having no community, no intimacy, her only contact with other transgendered people occurring online.  Eighty to 90 percent of the women in that room listened and changed their minds.  They came up to us and said, “You did the right thing.”  This is an example of the power of story.

    Stories must be built into our political work.  We live in a time where people feel so disconnected and isolated.  We have to speak that.  The Right does that.  They say, “We will give you a home in this church or this program and help you feel together by naming all these things as the enemy.”  They preach the myth of scarcity combined with the mood of mean-spiritedness:  there’s not enough to go around and someone else is taking something from you.  We have to speak to people’s better selves, find ways to make people in our communties feel better.  Let’s foster generosity and inclusion.

    I found my copy of the magazine this morning while I was looking for my divorce decree, which was needed as part of our application for our New Jersey Civil Union license.  We filed for that around 3pm today.

    I understand the comment is long enough for a diary in itself.  But I felt this significantly illuminated the point I was trying to make in the diary.


    • pfiore8 on October 13, 2007 at 1:33 am

    and some of us are straight, or gay, or transgender…

    stand firm…

    because i got it, Robyn. you always were a woman and your transgender experience was totally a gender (not sexual) issue.

    you sexuality is something else.

    makes perfect sense to me.

  1. What you have been through, Robyn.  If only everyone who says “Trans haven’t done the work” could read your story.  I’m glad you’re writing a book on this.

    Civil rights are for everyone.  There can be no exceptions without hurting everyone.  Reading Barney Frank trying so torturously to defend his position only makes this more clear.

    • RiaD on October 13, 2007 at 1:44 am

    I didn’t know most of that, your history…& it only makes me admire you more, such strength of spirit…of Self… & you’re so absolutely correct…stories humanize the history, make it more easily digestable… understandable… to those who are ignorant. 

    • RiaD on October 13, 2007 at 1:48 am

    do these Really Interesting essays on FP? There’s NO Rec button!  Blegh!

    • Alma on October 13, 2007 at 2:53 am

    With all the fearful, hate filled people out there, that may not be possible, but oh how nice it would be for everyone to REALLY have the same rights and equality.  Not the blind equality of sameness, nameless robots, but true equality that people are people, and  happy acceptance of our differences.

    Why does it never come out as good when I type it as when I think it?

    • pico on October 13, 2007 at 7:39 pm

    and a bit of thanks: though there’s probably no direct line between the people you know and the people I know, the very fact that your generation laid so much groundwork is why people of my generation have a (comparatively) easier time of coming out today.  Still not a walk in the park, but nowhere near this difficult.  So thank you.

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