Transitioning In a Great Social Filter

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #104, Winter 2004.

?Have you ever wondered why I have long hair??

?No. Lots of people have long hair.?

?Have you ever wondered why I have my ears pierced??

?No. Lots of guys have their ears pierced. What the hell are you getting at??

?Pete, are you going to tell me you?re gay? Get on with it already; it?s no big deal!? This from a second friend.

?Do you know what gender identity is??

?Yeah. I saw it on Oprah a while back.?

?Well, what is it, then??

?Well, ah, well, it?s how you see yourself, as a male or female?you know, like I identify myself as female and you, well, you identify yourself as male.?

?Well, that?s what I?m dealing with. Gender identity.?
Pete took half an hour to deliver his part of that seemingly brief conversation. He took ten years, two hours, and five orders of California Rolls getting up the nerve. Because he was single and we (his friends) knew he made a fair amount of money, we were sure all those hours spent on the web were in chat rooms for the sole purpose of meeting women. Our heterosexual, culturally stereotypical-
gendered minds were in unison and
correct on one account?Pete had been in chat rooms meeting women. Only they were transgendered and Pete was meeting them for transitioning advice.

My understanding of gender identity was limited to magazine articles and the ever-informative Oprah. Even before learning the terms Gender Identity Disorder and transsexualism, I realized Pete?s struggle had less to do with what he wanted to do to his body and more with what he wanted to do with his life. Decades of taboos, fears, and misinformation left Pete feeling marginalized and desperate. At forty-three, he wanted to break the cycle of frustration and alcoholic episodes and he wanted something to look forward to. As he put it, ?I didn?t care if I lived or died. I was living half a life.?

I was invited to meet ?Jennifer? for the first time at a book-signing event held at a GLBT community center. As I arrived, a pack of dragonflies overtook my butterflies. Kindness and love aside, my conservative Catholic upbringing had not prepared me for this. Would I laugh? Find her silly? Or worse? Somewhere in my mind I still saw ?Pete in a dress.? Guys in drag, drag queens. Ru Paul! But I knew this was different. This was a personal journey, a personal experience about self-realization and courage. Even so, I had giggles.

Walking the long corridor to the auditorium, I thought about the years of friendship my boyfriend Dave and I had shared with Pete. They were co-workers and close friends. All of us rode mountain bikes together, drank plenty of tequila together. Being helicopter pilots, Dave and Pete had plenty to talk about. No matter how much I wanted to believe things wouldn?t change, they already had. The context in which I held my memories had changed?transitioned. Jennifer?s coming out threw us all into a spin because it forced us to confirm and at the same time redefine who we were, what we believed, and what we would accept.
Although on one level I had a profound understanding of Jennifer, I didn?t know the simplest things about her?the things that make friendships comfortable, relaxed, and easy. Did she like tequila? Could she tear up the dirt on a mountain bike? Would she want to borrow my

Continuing down the hall, I wondered how Jennifer would walk. Talk. Would I see Pete in drag? I knew that was the opposite of what she wanted. ?Not to be read? was her goal. As I approached the door, my thoughts began a panic parade. What if I don?t recognize her? I?ll hurt her feelings.

Strawberry-blonde-hair-and-a-green-pantsuit, strawberry-blonde-hair-and-a-green-pantsuit, keep looking for
strawberry blonde hair and a green pantsuit.

A woman, whose pink floral dress tugged at her in an unflattering manner, passed me. She regarded me briefly, then looked away before I could make eye contact. I remembered Jennifer?s experience buying clothes at discount stores before coming out. She would pretend to shop for someone else. ?I wouldn?t try things on,? she explained. ?I would just toss them into the basket , hoping they would fit and look nice. They never did.?

I saw more women, more dated dresses, scuffed shoes, and hastily-applied makeup. An older, matted blonde wig sat just off-center, giving away one woman?s true hair color. Is that her? Oh, God, I hope that?s not her. Is that her? No, Pete?s not that tall. Still, I was looking for ?Pete in a dress.?

A woman leaving the room, equally distracted, nearly bumped into me. ?Excuse me,? I began. Instead of continuing around me, she grabbed my arms. Is this her? Is this Jennifer? Wow, this is her! Mouth open, no words coming out, eyes wide?I absolutely gawked. ?Holy shit!? was the first of many profanities and compliments to spill from my mouth. ?Your hair is gorgeous, your makeup
perfect!? I couldn?t stop. ?Your shoes, your outfit, you look fantastic!? With
perfectly-lined lips framing her smile,
she graciously thanked me. Then it happened. I was so caught up in the moment that all my fears of impropriety escaped. Just after asking, ?What did you do with Pete?s shoulders?? my right hand rose.
I pointed my finger and stuck it straight in her left boob. ?Where?d you get these?? I exclaimed.

The moment didn?t stand still; she
wasn?t insulted and I wasn?t mortified. Humor had overcome our nerves and our anxieties.
During an intermission we found a private spot to chat. As Jennifer talked, her hands moved gently, her voice rose and fell naturally. Her mannerisms defined her so completely differently from Pete that I couldn?t understand how she did it?so I asked her to ?do? Pete. As she got up and strolled around the room, Pete appeared from beneath the green pantsuit, heels, and lipstick. His hips walked straighter, his shoulders stretched out, his arms swung across his body. I called out, ?Now do Jennifer.? Her hips began to sway, her shoulders settled, her hands became delicate, and she smiled. ?Now do Pete.? ?Now do Jenn.? I was like a kid yelling charades. In giggles and high heels, she obliged me, until finally she sat down and with the voice of a submissive child said, ?I don?t want to do Pete any more.?

Forty-three years of doing Pete was enough. Forty-three years of sitting on her hands while talking was enough. Forty-three years of wearing men?s clothing, forty-three years of stretching her shoulders was enough. Now I understood. Gender is a name, a category attached to our concept of what it is to be male or female; it was also at the heart of how Jennifer was forced to live.

?Transitioning is a great social filter,? another transgendered friend explained to me. ?You learn about yourself and your friends.?

For Jennifer and others, the actual act of transitioning is not the scariest part of the experience. In risking the things that in one sense confine you, you also risk what you value most?your friends, your family, your job, your home. That is the scary part.

Gender issues are universal. This experience, though specific in nature, brought the gender stereotypes and labels to a screeching halt in our lives. It pushed
the issues to an extreme and forced us
to reconcile our own self-perceptions
and fears. With honesty, openness, and mascara-thick tears, all of us transitioned. Pete became Jennifer, and we became better acquainted with the possibilities for personal growth.

Linnea Edmeier is a mother, wife, and
fire goddess who fought fire for a living but
now spends her time chasing her children and
husband around on their trampoline.