Personal Integration

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #097, Spring 2002.

by Carl Tripp

This is the text of a speech given at Southern Comfort Convention 2001?Ed.

In the summer of 1993, I was on a quest for balance. I had just finished reading Leslie Feinberg?s Stone Butch Blues, a novel about a male-identified transgender person in the 50s and 60s. Although it was a novel, Stone Butch Blues was based on Leslie?s life. I respected and admired Leslie?s struggle and eventual acceptance of herself as an individual who embodied both genders. From my perspective, Leslie was someone who could live at peace right in the middle of the gender continuum. I elevated this unique individual to hero status. I thought perhaps I could do the same thing, integrating maleness into my identity while remaining female. It?s interesting to note that although I aspired to this middle ground, as I look back I was slowly but surely creeping closer to the male end of the gender continuum, leaving my femaleness behind. In the name of balance, I minimized my femaleness as much as possible. My struggle with personal integration was already beginning.
In the fall of 1994, I had a chance encounter with two members of the Atlanta Gender Explorations support group at, of all places, a Leslie Feinberg book reading. They told me about the group. I didn?t attend meetings right away; I was determined to find that middle ground, even as I discussed the possibility of transition with the woman I was dating. I wore men?s clothing exclusively and cut my hair short as I attempted to push the boundaries of male gender expression in a female body.

As the year wore on, I realized the balancing act wasn?t working and I began to explore transition options more seriously. It was at this time that I met Dallas Denny, who at the time was the brains behind AEGIS [and is now the loverly and ever-talented editor of this magazine!?Ed]. She talked about the history of transgendered people. I listened as she spoke of how in the past people who transitioned had to truncate their lives. So much had to be changed or recreated in order to make a successful gender transition. But she also talked about how a more integrated model was being accepted by the doctors and therapists who dealt with our community. It seemed the community was at a crossroads: either model of transition was acceptable at that point, with people making choices that depended both on preference and the providers that were guiding them. I remember feeling sad for those who had given up so much of themselves to reach their goals?but I was also relieved there was a model that would allow me to transition with my life basically intact.

I remember being focused on what it meant to be a man, and what kind of man I would become. I said I wouldn?t transition until I could figure that out. I studied men, mostly by watching and listening, picking and choosing the traits I thought were admirable and discarding what I believed distasteful. I had a clear vision of incorporating these characteristics into who I already was.

I became consumed, as were many transgendered people around me, by the details of masculinity and maleness. I bothered my trans-sisters and brothers for information about men?how they walked, talked, interacted, thought. What had started as a search for the characteristics of a gentleman had become an obsession to embody the perfect male.

I now believed I had to re-create myself in order to pass successfully and take my place in the world of men. My desire was to move as close to male on the gender continuum as possible, given the limitations of surgery. My obsession was fueled by supportive comments from friends, who told me I was being ?just like a man.? Integration was out; a new me was in.

Internally, I was full of conflict. I didn?t really want to erase who I already was in the name of becoming, but I desperately wanted to pass and be seen as a man. The strongest conundrum I faced was with my daughter. As I began transition, I assured her I was not going to change on the inside, only on the outside. But in private moments alone, I found the concept of motherhood and manhood so incongruous that I opted out of motherhood except in name only. I acted more like an uncle or family friend. Many people around me didn?t know I had a daughter, and were shocked when they heard I did.

In the summer of 1997, I made two new friends. One was an FTM and the other his partner. One evening I was discussing a particularly distressing situation I found myself trying to resolve. I remember asking them, ?How would a man handle this situation? What would he do?? My friend Alex looked at me and said, ?How you choose to handle it is exactly how a man would handle it.?

Not only was my friend affirming my maleness, but his words were reminiscent of the place from which I had started my journey. Unfortunately, I was unable to assimilate them and put them to good use. Such was my obsession at the time.

Two events in late 1998 gave me reason to step back and reevaluate the journey I was making. The first was meeting a heterosexual woman who became my girlfriend for a time. Kate had little knowledge of transgendered people and our community, but she was interested in me and willing to take a chance. She often told me one of the things that attracted her to me was the blend of maleness and femaleness I exhibited.

Believe me, that was not what I wanted to hear. I wanted her to tell me that I was just like the other guys she had been with and that I had the whole package down just right.

Kate?s ability to see my femaleness in my masculine presentation was of course not a criticism, but a complement. In her eyes, this was the full package. Although she had some issues with my body and difficulty adjusting to being with a different kind of man, she continually affirmed that retaining these traits was a good thing. After all, they were a part of who I was becoming. I pondered this a great deal. Again, it brought me to the place from which I had started.

The second event was chest reconstruction surgery. I had been large-breasted, and even tight binding didn?t hide the bulk. It was sometimes difficult to pass because of my breasts. I felt I had to overaccentuate as many male traits as possible to compensate for a body shape that was most definitely not male. But after surgery, the issue of passing became moot. I no longer feared being clocked. Because I could pass successfully, I began to reassess my need to exhibit extreme male characteristics. The question I now began to ask myself was ?What does it mean to me to be a man in this body?? A simple restating of the original question, to be sure, but it give me a fresh perspective on integrating who I had been with who I was in the present.

As a means of learning about men, I had been reading books written by men involved in the men?s movement, but it wasn?t until I read an anthology of essays that the big picture of personal integration began to become clear to for me. I was drawn to passages written by non-trans men who were searching for ways to integrate their feminine side as a means of becoming whole, complete. I began to understand how integrating gender characteristics was not limited to transgendered people, but is a human condition, one many people are struggling with. I discovered that my original vision of integration was valid and necessary if I was to live a whole and healthy life.

Last year my 14-year-old daughter came home from Germany. I had not seen her for two years. I had a chance to spend time with her, and I was hit, as powerful as a thunderbolt, with an understanding of my role. It finally became clear that what my daughter needed from me?she needed me to fulfill the promise I had made to her when I began transition: to be her mother, to teach her the things a mother should, and do things with her that mothers do. This was, for me, a huge discovery, and one I want to affirm today with all of you. Today I stand with pride before you as both a mother and a man.

My journey has shown me that finding peace as an integrated self is a vital and ongoing process. Almost daily, I find myself measuring my concept of maleness against other men and the impossible stereotypes of masculinity our culture supports. I often get defensive when my friends tease me about being a mother hen, a Martha Stewart, or, as my roommate says, the woman of the house?but I know I cannot live a healthy life at the extreme end of the continuum, denying parts of myself as a means of achieving manhood. It?s my firm belief that personal integration is relevant to all of us in the community, regardless of the scope of the journey we undertake.

I?d like to conclude by asking three questions. I hope each of you will take a few moments to ponder these questions and their meaning in your life.

1. Can those of you who identify as crossdressers find ways to integrate aspects of your alternate gender into your daily life?

2. Can those of you who are on a journey of physical transition consider that going to one extreme end of the gender spectrum can be as oppressive and unhealthy as denying and repressing your desire to become the other gender?

3. Can we as a community be more supportive of those who are looking for a place of comfort in the middle of the continuum?

Thank you.