What a Difference a Year Makes!

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #102, Summer 2003.

First Event and My Emergence as Sylvia

by Sylvia Jane Wojcik

This above all: to thine own self be true...

- Shakespeare's Hamlet, I, iii

We each arrive at self-awareness in our own way and in our own time. We can?t always pin down why some of us bloom more quickly than others. Guilt, self-denial, fear, misunderstanding, and more play into it, until something happens that gives us the courage to break out and go for it. I guess what?s most important is that we eventually do emerge rather than stay confined in that dark closet. Taking a long time to come out is mere inconvenience compared to the real tragedy of living an entire life without ever having known fulfillment.
The year between First Event 2001 and 2002 defined my emergence as Sylvia. I?d like to tell you briefly about it, to remember and share. Perhaps you?ll recognize some of your own experiences in mine and relive that magic moment when you unconditionally accepted yourself as the person you finally realized you had always been within.

I?m in my early fifties, I had always dressed in secret; I had never been out socially. I thought dressing in private would be sufficient and that I would take my secret to the grave without causing embarrassment or distress to anyone. And for the longest time, with a growing family, home, and career to attend to, this seemed to work. But over the last several years, anxiety, born of frustration, had been building.

Maybe it was the recognition of my mortality brought on by the kids moving out and retirement in sight. Maybe it was simple weariness from going against the flow of natural impulses for so many years. Maybe it was something more. But two years ago this August, I knew I had to do something to come to terms with the situation. With pounding heart, cotton mouth, and trembling voice, I finally confessed my desires to my wife of thirty years.

Learning from Tapestry that First Event, the Tiffany Club?s annual four-day transgender conference, would soon be held in nearby Woburn, Massachusetts, I thought it would be helpful to attend for a single day to test the waters of my feelings. Was crossdressing all I was about, or were my needs deeper and more profound? Would I be shocked and appalled, or would I feel a closeness and affinity to what I observed and experienced? After all, my entire transgender experience had been confined to books and magazines and viewing a few television interviews and an occasional movie. Having never been out, I had not met another person like me. Would my would-be sisters embrace or reject me?especially as I had decided, being so unsure of and not wanting to attract attention to myself, to attend in boy mode?

Several times?driving to the conference and especially in the hotel elevator?I almost turned back. But whenever I would falter, it seemed as if a force greater than my fears and inhibitions impelled me. At a level beyond conscious control, I must have realized I had to see, had to at last learn the truth about myself.

To this day, I don?t know how in the world I ever thought being one of the few in male attire at a
transgender conference would keep me from being noticed. I?m sure I stood out like a sore thumb. Perhaps, when confronted with uncertainty of feelings and fear of the unknown, we tend to hide in the shells we know rather than those we don?t?however uncomfortable they may be. I?m sure I blush whenever I think back in embarrassment on my state of mind and level of apprehension.

I needn?t have worried, so warmly received was I by one and all?who, of course, knew exactly what I was feeling because they had been in my situation at one time or another. The very first person I talked to after registering was none other than the inimitable Christine Hochberg, perhaps our community?s most well-known?however outrageous of costume?ambassadress of goodwill. She must have noticed my discomfort, for she reached out to me in my confusion. I haltingly told her my situation; her heartfelt understanding, spiced with a seemingly neverending supply of funny stories and anecdotes (she seems to know everything about everyone), immediately helped me relax. Though her admittedly ever-exaggerated appearance is seen as reinforcement of the stereotypical image of the crossdresser as fetishist and is therefore criticized by some as denigrating to our community, she has a heart of gold and should be treasured for the benevolence and goodwill she brings to every event she attends.

Especially fortuitous was meeting the Connecticut Outreach Society?s own Andrea and Wendy at one of the morning sessions. I tagged along afterwards for lunch. Wendy was particularly helpful. Her rare ability to take the subject and not herself seriously by way of a wry sense of humor and infectious laugh managed to make a still-nervous girl extremely at ease. It was from Andrea and Wendy that I learned of COS.

Everything went so well?meeting sympathetic and knowledgeable people, attending interesting sessions and workshops, taking in the vendors?that I found it difficult to leave that evening.

I?ve never been one to do anything in haste. Continuing self-doubts saw me wait until July before I finally mustered the courage to visit gender therapist Diane Ellaborn about trying to define what ?flavor? of transgender I was and what to do about it. Why did it take so long? I guess I felt that as long as I didn?t see anyone about my ?problem,? I could deny it was really serious or that I actually had one in the first place. Just innocent crossdressing and maybe a tad more?what?s the harm with that if I keep it to myself? But the call of the Goddess (of Perfect Womanhood, as I fanci-fully like to think of it during my lapses into Platonic reverie), together with an awareness of new possibilities for self-expression brought on by a great First Event experience, made it impossible to deny my feelings.

As the summer wore on, I wanted additional confirmation of my feelings. I remembered Wendy urging me to give COS a try. I e-mailed her, announcing my intention to attend a meeting. She made the arrangements with club officers Audrey and Judith, and I attended the season?s inaugural meeting on September 8th.

I was nervous in the weeks before the meeting. Would I look OK? What would I wear? And most important, how would I feel? I hadn?t much experience being dressed from head to toe, and had only recently bought my first wig. So many uncertainties! But it turned out to be a wonderful experience. Being dressed and out felt completely natural, as if I had been going out all my life, and the women at COS welcomed me with open arms and made me feel right at home, as if I had always been a part of the group.

The positive experience with COS, linked with happy memories of First Event 2001, encouraged me to sign up for First Event 2002. Anticipation of this involved many happy hours shopping to outfit a new girl who had little to wear. By the time of First Event 2002, I had all the basics and was ready to attend the entire event as Sylvia Jane.

Of course, there?s nothing like your first time out?just as with your first kiss, and even more like meeting that special someone in your life?a defining event never to be forgotten. I have so many special memories!

A great way to start the weekend was dinner and warm discussion the first night with some of the COS members and Jim Bridges (of makeover fame) at a Chinese restaurant. Leaving the sanctuary of the conference hotel and going out into the real world was immensely satisfying and empowering. It was delightful to be treated like a lady by the wait staff and I felt my confidence as Sylvia grow. Meeting Jim was wonderful as well. For all his fame, he is absolutely one of the most charmingly down-to-earth people you will ever meet, always willing to listen and help.

The sessions dealing with various transgender issues were as valuable as they were moving. In the session titled ?Coming Out to Family and Children,? I was struck by the poignant discussion between a girl of high school age and her father regarding their experiences over his recent transition to womanhood. There were tears and laughter. I came away feeling I, too, had hope of a positive coming-out experience, as long as it was conducted in an atmosphere of honesty, caring, and love. This was most encouraging as I thought of difficulties my wife, family, and friends were experiencing in coping with my crossdressing and accepting me as Sylvia.

The ever-present vendors, offering a myriad of items and services, from clothing to makeovers to transgender photo IDs, added a sense of county fair bustle and excitement to the already festive atmosphere. I managed to avoid impulse buying (I consider the new wig I bought from Jim Bridges an investment rather than a frill), but did purchase a floral rose-and-gold pin that will always be a reminder of that wonderful time.

I mustn?t fail to mention pictures. Almost everyone has sufficient vanity to love having their picture taken, and crossdressers, who by nature are more concerned with their appearance than most, are never shy before a camera. Even so, I was amazed at the enormous number of pictures being taken everywhere and at all times of the day and evening. Most of the COS contingent got together for a group shot that soon afterwards found its way into our newsletter.

The fashion show came along on Friday night, and the banquet the evening following?both, by the way, featuring great food. It was thrilling to see so many women modeling outfits ranging in suitability from the board room to the bedroom. The Saturday night banquet was notable for a series of wonderful speakers. These included Jennifer Levi, the passionate lawyer defending many a transgender cause, and the comedic Britt Brittaen of the Tiffany Club, who, tongue-in-cheek, revealed the ?secret? trans history of Massachusetts. She was every bit as funny as Jay Leno.

Several awards were presented at the banquet. It was particularly heartwarming to see Merissa Sherrill Lynn, founder of the Tiffany Club and IFGE, honored with a special lifetime achievement award. Few are more deserving. Her acceptance speech was vigorous, yet gracious.

My most spectacular experience was the bar on Saturday night after the banquet. It was reminiscent of the bar scene in ?Star Wars,? if Han Solo and diverse characters from different worlds had, despite their obvious differences in appearance andappetite, all gotten along. We, the transgendered of various flavors, were the most numerous, but there were also a good many lesbians, straights?some local patrons, some not?and even a few tranny chasers and the dominatrix Ava, who was seen at the COS Halloween meeting last year, spicing up the mix. Everyone seemed to be having a great time together?unlikely pairs, threesomes, and even larger groups danced to the throbbing disco music under colorful lights. Others got to know one another over a drink or two or three, and some just sat back and enjoyed the scene.

As a backdrop, several large-screen TVs showed the Patriot?s playoff game in a raging snowstorm in Foxboro Stadium. Everyone, of whatever gender persuasion, seemed unified by the game and cheered as one for the home team. The incongruity of the manly game of football being followed with such interest by the predominantly crossdressed crowd was not lost on many, I suspect.

You wouldn?t expect that something so evidently surreal could seem so normal, but it all somehow worked. In that rarefied atmosphere, it seemed as if the live-and-let-live utopia envisioned in John Lennon?s ?Imagine? had been realized, if only for a few fleeting hours, in the bar at the Woburn Crowne Royal on that special night. Would that there was some way, I thought, to cause that harmonious spirit to take root and flourish everywhere. How much better the world would be!

Somehow, amidst all that was going on, I was able to have quite a serious discussion with a woman named Carol about my hopes and fears about crossdressing and beyond. She was among those I had met at our banquet table earlier in the evening and, I later discovered, was a celebrity of sorts, having had her photo included in Transformations, Mariette Pathy Allen?s wonderful illustrated study of
crossdressers. Carol was sympathetic to the confusions of a new girl and offered good advice, particularly regarding the need to go slowly in acclimating spouses to our crossdressing needs. In the euphoria of self-
discovery, we often go too fast and risk driving away those most close to us.

We ended up being the last two to leave the bar when it closed at the seemingly far-too-early hour of 1:00 AM. Carol and I found our way up to Wendy?s room, where the party continued. About four or five more women eventually wandered in. We kicked off our shoes and had the best time laughing and chit-chatting about this and that. I felt soooo absolutely close to everyone. The contrast between such a safe and accepting female environment and the reserved always-on-your-guard posture of a typical male gathering was palpable. I began to have an inkling of how much I had missed not having had a nurturing girlhood filled with sleepovers, shopping trips to the mall, and the like.

I finally bailed out around 2:00, weary from a long day, but more happy and content than I remember being in a long time.

As I made my way back to my room in stockinged feet, I was struck by how much at peace I finally felt with myself while being able to live as a woman for four days: to dress, sit, gesture, think, and simply be the way I had always dreamed. I particularly remember how ethereal it had felt to lie in bed the night before, after the fashion show, having changed into my new nightie, but still made-up and coiffed, acutely aware of my feeings?no doubt abetted by the almost spiritual atmosphere of scented candle
and flickering light, with Enya hauntingly playing in the background.

Only those who have known what it feels like to be repressed can understand what a liberating experience it is to finally be able to act the way you feel inside. It?s at once exhilarating and calming to finally be one with yourself: body and actions matching your heart and mind. It was then Sylvia truly came to be. Previously, there were doubts; now there was only quiet confidence and the inner joy of knowing who I really was.

So much had happened in so short a time, I realized, as my thoughts
drifted back to last year?s First Event, when an uncertain Sylvia had taken her first steps towards emergence. What a difference a year can make!

Sunday was getaway day. It was sad at breakfast to see so many beautiful women of the night before reverted to ugly duckling male identities in preparation for the trek home and reentry into the real world as husbands and fathers. It?s really hard to let go. I found the ordinarily long ride home a comforting decompression period?a chance to think about all that had happened, to see the events of the weekend in perspective, and to consider what I might have learned.

What did I learn? First and foremost, four days of living en femme helped me realize I was more than a crossdresser?so natural did everything feel. It wasn?t as if I was becoming someone new as much as rediscovering in a deja vu-sort-of-way the person I had always been but hadn?t consciously recognized. Despite having had zero experience living as a girl, four days as Sylvia felt strangely and pleasantly familiar?from the mundane tug of the purse on my shoulder to the emotional freedom to touch an arm or give a hug without a second thought. Yes, Sylvia was really real, an integral part of my core identity and not about the satisfaction of sensational urges stereotypically associated with those of our community appearing on daytime talk shows. I felt as if a heavy yoke had been lifted from my shoulders. To at last know?really know?who and what I was came as a relief after so many, many years of self-doubt.

Future difficulties there will be, but now that I?m no longer at war with myself, I can focus my energies on dealing with them as just another of life?s many problems to be solved.

I also realized how many of us have essentially the same story to tell about the awakening of our other side. We are not as different and unusual as our social isolation makes us think we are. For one thing, it?s amazing how utterly normal crossdressing can seem after being immersed in an accepting environment for even a brief amount of time. It makes one wonder if conventional definitions of ?normal? are far too narrow.

I gained a new appreciation of the importance of tolerating difference in others and not condemning seemingly unusual behavior without fullyunderstanding it. How true the sentiment on a greeting card I often use as a bookmark! It reads, ?Those who hear not the music think the dancer?s mad.?

I was also struck by the enormous outflow of benevolence shown by everyone?and I really do mean everyone?in the community toward those in need of emotional support.

It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is for members of our community to share their most intimate thoughts with perfect strangers. Many people I met for the very first time?and not just Carol?seemed as if they had been lifelong friends. In particular, I was gratified that I was able to befriend a newcomer named Joanne during her first time out?just as I was helped last year by Wendy and Andrea.

Joanne and I met at the Friday morning ?Transgender Road Map? session, which dealt with transgender
continuum identification and strategy issues. I had arrived late. Joanne smiled from afar and graciously gestured for me to take the seat next to her, one of the few remaining in the room. We found ourselves nodding in agreement to many of the issues discussed and sensed we had much in common. We introduced ourselves to one another after the session and went to lunch with Jackie, another friend from COS. We brought one another up-to-date with our respective situations. It was a wonderful feeling to return the love and understanding I had been given by so many. Joanne has since become one of my closest girlfriends. We share the travails and joys on our separate but similar gender journeys. I?m not a religious person, but it?s not hard to understand how easy it is to conclude there must be a higher force out there working to bring like souls in need together.

I also realized the importance of being true to oneself. Our first obligation is to ourselves, despite the discomfort we may bring to others and the risk of loss of friends and loved ones. This can be painful and difficult. A kaleidoscope of memories results in an almost unbearable sense of guilt and personal loss. The look of betrayal and disappointment in the tearful eyes of a wife who invested
all her trust in you, the plaintive, devastated look of a son who always wanted to be just like Dad, are things we can never fully escape?especially in those wee hours of the morning when our psyches are most vulnerable. This, I think, is one reason why it often takes us so long to decide what to do. In the end, we have no choice but to be true to our inner spirit?it?s the only way we can ever find the peace and fulfillment upon which intrinsic human happiness depends.

Just as the year spanning First Event 2001 and 2002 has made a difference in my life, future years may bring additional change. I don?t know where I go from here. Will I remain a crossdresser, live as transgendered, or ultimately feel the need to fully transition? Only time will tell. Whatever decision I make will be the right one, though, because I have been at last honest with myself and I accept the girl I now realize I?ve always been inside. I?m strong enough to do whatever it takes to set her free.

Congratulations to Sylvia on negotiating her way through a mine field. Coming out?whether it is about gender identity and expression or sexual orientatio, or something else entirely - is a frightening and exilarating experience. Sylvia seems to be doing just fine, moving along cautiously though the maze of self-discovery.

Your editor would like to point out that being true to oneself is an internal process; it may or may not lead to external changes. It?s not the same as allowing yourself to crossdress or deciding to transition?it?s about accepting who you are. Once that is accomplished, whatever follows follows. We can make our decisions taking into account our loved ones (to whom we have obligations as important as our obligations to ourselves), our jobs, our position in the community. I?ve known many transsexuals who, out of love for their families, have not transitioned. That doesn?t, to my mind, mean they?re less transsexual than those who do transition, just that they choose not to risk their relationships with others. Similarly, I?ve known many nontranssexual transgendered people who limit their crossdressing activities or body modifications for the same reasons. Our editorial hat is off to those, like Sylvia, who proceed with caution and who balance their own needs with the needs of their families.