Prof. MIQQI Goes to Work

by Miqqi A. Gilbert

The initial installment of this column appeared in Transgender Tapestry #098, Summer 2002 and continued with this column in Transgender Tapestry #099, Fall 2002.


Back in my office, I watched the clock as time approached for my lecture. The course, Gender and Sexuality, is in a lecture hall that seats about 130, but there are only about 90 in the class. I timed my arrival for a few minutes after the start, so I wouldn?t be standing around waiting for the class to begin. I entered, butterflies fluttering away, walked to my table, put down my books and purse, and faced the class. A round of applause started, begun by a wonderful gang of students from the TBLGay club, who had come to offer support and make sure I was all right. These are young people who have come out at a tender age. Most have suffered as they discovered their own non-mainstream identities early in life, so they know how important support is.
As the applause died down, the class realized that the transgendered person who was coming in was me. There was some buzzing and, of course, staring. I decided they needed some time to take in the bizarre sight of their Professor completely en femme, so I lectured on the readings for about ten minutes before asking for questions. The readings were all popular press pieces published in 1995: The New Yorker piece on Neil Cargile, the Esquire article on TG MTFs, and a piece on Dierdre McCloskey from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

When I did ask for questions, I first saw only one hand. A female student said, ?Can I ask a personal question?? I said, ?Let?s make a deal. You can all ask me anything you want, and if I don?t want to answer it, I?ll tell you.? For the next two hours, I answered every question; many were good, interesting questions.

One early comment was from an amazed young woman who said I looked exactly like all her woman professors. My loose, dark cotton jersey clothes were recognizable to her as a standard outfit of a female academic. This led to a discussion of the importance of clothing as a statement, and how women in academe need to dress conservatively? dark clothes and no skin showing?in order to be taken seriously. I also had compliments on my legs, a discussion about how my body movements, voice, and gestures were different (but not exaggerated,) inquiries about fear, the transgender culture, and even the financial costs of being transgendered.

In all, it was a rich and rewarding pedagogical experience. Many students came up to me at break with private questions. One woman said, ?If I look as good as you at 51, I?ll be a happy woman.? That felt nice.

Not once did I feel criticized, rejected, or threatened. The following morning, I met with a reporter from the school paper, who was writing up the story to accompany the photos taken during break. Maybe I?ll be a centerfold girl!

Today, I went back to work en homme, all in drab. But it was not really over. First, there was a phone call from a student who explained that she was a Psych major and my session had decided her to specialize in transgender issues. Great, I said, we sure need trained counselors. Next were gifts from two women graduate students in the Philosophy Department, one of flowers and one of candy, both with cards congratulating me on my courage. Then there was a telephone message from a student who had missed the lecture, but had heard from friends how amazing it was. She wanted me to know she thought I was great. Finally, there was an e-mail from Tina, a transsexual undergrad, who said, ?You, in one day, have made me feel more comfortable with myself than I have ever been.?

As you can imagine, I feel pretty good about the whole experience, and I?m still taking it all in. My thanks go to all my wonderful accepting colleagues and students, and all my supportive and cheering friends and family. As the York motto says, Tentanda Via, The Way Must be Tried.


January 1999

Since that first public appearance, there have been others. In 1997 I also went to my Gender and Sexuality class dressed, and have made other appearances in various places. The cost to me has been minimal. I have one colleague, a woman, who is clearly uncomfortable with the issue?I expect for philosophical reasons?and avoids me when I?m dressed (though recently, there are signs even she may be thawing). There may be other colleagues who harbor similar feelings, but if so, they have kept their sentiments well-concealed. To all appearances, I am well-accepted on those occasions when, instead of Prof. Michael, Prof. Miqqi turns up.

On the other hand, I?ve been able to speak out more freely for the rights and concerns of transgender students, staff and faculty. When York University announced a pilot Positive Space program that would indicate areas where TBLG folk would be well-received, I was able to offer my services and advice. In truth, I wanted to make sure the concerns of transgendered students, staff and faculty were included in the conception and training. The committee has been very active and extremely sensitive to and supportive of transgender concerns. Once I realized committee members had freely talked about transgender folk but had not encountered the reality. I fixed that by attending a meeting dressed. I was well-received, even though I notice that, as often happens, the women were more complimentary about my outfit and appearance than is normal. Their compliments are frequently in the tone of voice one uses for a young girl when telling her how lovely she looks. But, hey, if all I have to suffer is a bit of condescension, at least it?s positive.

Since then, my celebrity has grown. The Chronicle of Higher Education featured me, among others, in an article on transgendered faculty in universities. That piece was picked up and reproduced by the Toronto Globe and Mail, Canada?s national newspaper and our answer to the New York Times. If I had thought I was out before, I was really out now. That piece resulted in phone calls from various TV stations?that?s television, not transvestite?and I have since then been on four or five different shows, in a campus throwaway magazine and in Salon magazine on the web. Even my dentist has seen me on TV, as he informed me when I had a mouth full of cotton and his fingers.

Has there been some weirdness? A bit. There may be some colleagues in the university who pass me by and don?t say hello, but in a university, that often happens: We?re inveterate woolgatherers, so it?s impossible to know if someone is snubbing me or working out a theorem. But I imagine some people are being polite and aren?t comfortable. In the areas I can judge accurately?my home department, receiving grants, promotion, and generally being treated with respect?I can report that I?ve been fortunate. My coming out has not harmed me in any real way, but has provided me with opportunities to defend and explain and demonstrate the feelings and needs of my community. I?m fortunate to live in an open city, hold a job in an affirming university, and above all, have friends who are accepting and loving.

While all this has been most excellent, I still have nagging fears and doubts. I don?t, to be completely honest, feel totally free. My own inclination would be to crossdress more often, but I don?t. And if I did dress more often, I would be inclined to genderbend as opposed to aim at passing. Frankly, I hate makeup. I?m an old hippie and a feminist academic, and believe that while it might be all right for special occasions, on a daily basis makeup is simply a pain. Left to my own devices, I would wear skirts and blouses, without makeup or prostheses?but I don?t really have the courage to do that. I feel safer when I?m closer to passing, closer to not being noticed. And the hardest part is that I could likely get away with it. No one would dare censure me?finally, a personal benefit from political correctness!

Doing what I really want would have great costs, especially where my partner is concerned. It would also mean focusing my entire life on my transgender activism, as opposed to sometimes waving the flag, and other times not. I like to think I?ve been and am a help to other crossdressers, especially those who are closeted. When I appear on television or in a newspaper article, there?s something they can show their partners, their friends, their co-workers: ?Hey, here?s a university professor who does it!?

That?s no small part of why I went public, and I?m glad I did it. But now there?s also a frequent awareness that the person I?m dealing with likely knows about my gender activities, and I can never be sure about their opinions.

As a crossdresser (and not a transsexual) I walk a different sort of line than my transgendered siblings. Since I don?t want to live my entire life in my alternate gender, I have no absolute need to come out. I could confine my activities to private arenas?in-home dressing, club events, organized dinners. But what most crossdressers really want is to be able to appear the way they choose when they choose. I?ve acquired more of that freedom than most. But the strictures are still there. Though my wife is supportive of my public activities and believes in their importance, she doesn?t want to be with me when I dress. When our friends invite us for dinner or to go out to a film, no one says, ?Oh, hey, feel free to crossdress if you want.? On the contrary, if I were, I would be obliged to give out warnings and seek permissions.

Crossdressers often apologize for themselves, even within the transgender community. In many arenas it?s not cool to be a crossdresser. If you?re transsexual, then you?re committed, you know who you are and what you have to do. There?s no question of coming out or not?it has to happen eventually if you are to survive. But the crossdresser is often seen as a dilettante, as a wanker, someone who simply likes to get off by playing with women?s clothes. No small part of my coming out has been driven by the desire to see crossdressing taken seriously as a transgender undertaking.

That?s no small feat. At the last conference I spoke at I gave a talk entitled, ?A Sometime Woman: The Limits of Social Construction.? I wasn?t put in a session with other scholars discussing Butler and Garber and Chodorow and Foucault. No. I shared a session with someone giving a talk about petticoating as erotic literature, and someone else discussing crossdressing in the theater. There I was: an out crossdressing professor, marginalized by my own community.

My coming out experience at work has certainly been at one extreme?the positive one?and for that I?m eternally grateful. But that doesn?t mean I feel free to do what I want when I want. Of course, like most restrictions, the limitations are ones I set because, in gauging the costs, the arithmetic doesn?t work. I?ve found a balance, and on good days, even some peace?but I still hope that what we?re doing, what I?m doing, will eventually lead to the disintegration of the bipolar gender system to such an extent that who you want to be when you want to be is all that really matters.

Miqqi Alicia Gilbert is a Professor of Philosophy at York University. She can be reached at