To the reader:
What follows is something I never thought would be public: a sequence of eleven letters I wrote between 2014 and 2015 as an act of self-preservation. One of the unfortunate hallmarks of trans experience is profound social isolation, and these letters were an effort to both affirm and create community, by periodically updating anyone interested in the progress of my transition, and invite communication with them. The first update, written when I began taking hormones, went out via email to about three dozen people. The last one, written just after I’d come out publicly and started living full-time as a woman, went out to over 300 recipients. People started hearing about the letters, asked to be included, and asked if their friends and spouses and children could be included. Many emailed me back to say what struck them, and what they related with. A few confessed their jealousy for the project, and wanted to write monthly updates of their own (which I encouraged; I also recommended a word limit). Once I came out, the letters morphed into “Life in Transition,” a blog at The American Scholar. I thought my readers would catch up with me there, but it wasn’t the same. To this day, people keep asking for my next letter. They miss seeing them in their In-Box, the intimacy of reading them there, and the option of replying privately to me. (In honor of this, I’ve put an email link beneath each update here, should readers wish to comment or correspond with me.)
Looking back, the Diana Updates strikes me as the most artless, yet most original, writing project I’ve ever attempted. And the letters did help preserve me, and keep me in good company. Now than I’m fully out, I offer them publicly, in case they may be of benefit to others.
I wonder if you’d permit me an experiment: a periodic letter to people I love (and for the most part, don’t live near) updating you on my transgender journey. A vital aspect of transitioning is community—”Who’s on your team?” was the first question my doctor asked, and she didn’t mean a medical team. The question scared me because, for whatever reason, I don’t experience much community living in NYC, though I have in other places.
Another part of the inspiration for this is, of all things, YouTube, and the brave and crazy trans people who post video diaries there, in order to feel seen. They vary in range and seriousness, but collectively they’ve been deeply informative and validating, telling me I’m not alone. I’m neither a YouTuber nor a facebooker, nor a blogger (I also haven’t come “out” online, which is far too viral right now), but I am a writer, and a big fan of good old email.
I’m calling this an experiment because I’m wary of the “Christmas letter,” that epistolary broadcast which, all too often, feels fatuous and devoid of real connection. Please tell me if this feels that way. And please also feel free to write back responding to the updates, and I’ll respond personally as well.
I’m going to limit each post to 1000 words—a container to help me focus on the essential (not a bad practice for one going through a gender transition, which has so many moving parts). For those receiving this who’d prefer not to, please tell me. The last thing I would want is to clog your In Box. For those up for the experiment, thank you for being on Team Diana.
* * *
I began taking hormones, in the form of Spironolactone, a testosterone blocker, a week ago Friday. It felt, I said to my therapist three days prior, like the most important thing I’ve ever done. Around the same time, I told a group of sangha friends that I feel like all my life I’ve been blowing little problems out of proportion, in order to avoid facing one very big problem. So now I’m facing it.
By preventing the body from absorbing testosterone, Spironolactone gives the naturally occurring estrogen (that biological males produce) more influence. Also, some of the free floating testosterone caused by the Spiro converts to estrogen. So on hormone blockers alone, my body (including my brain) should start to feel feminizing effects. Once the testosterone levels drop, taking estrogen will be more effective (and safer) at lower dosages.
How do I feel? Pretty good. Mellow. More relaxed, including muscularly. Less edgy. But also haunted: the only thing in my life as powerful as the longing to live as a female, has been the longing for female companionship in a love relationship. While hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is a big step toward fulfillment of the one, I’m scared it will deeply jeopardize the other. (That’s part of why I’ve run from this for so long.) One side effect of HRT is significantly decreased libido and male functioning. But side effects vary between individuals, and the main intended effect is to feel less at odds with myself—“congruence” is a word that’s used, and one I like. This could include feminine responsiveness and physical sensations—not bad things to have in relationships.
Bottom line: I’m rolling the dice here. It’s a three-month experiment to start. After that, some physical effects start to become irreversible. My therapist says it’s rare for someone to start on hormones and not find them immensely enjoyable, or want to stop. That makes it sound like the person I’ll be in three months or so, when it’s time for the next big decision, will be a different, perhaps unrecognizable one, “under the influence” of estrogen. Then again, my history of decision making under the influence of testosterone hasn’t exactly been stellar.
Two weeks ago a casual friend approached me at a party with questions about my nails, which were painted black. (Questions such as: “Why, Doug?”) I was not inspired to come out to him then and there, so I said that I liked how they look, which was true, and left it at that. But he didn’t: “They’re long too!” he said (which surprised me because I’d just trimmed them), and he carefully explained to me that this wasn’t just about nails: it was a whole “lifestyle” I was indicating.
I didn’t mind his curiosity, but what was off-putting was his dogged pursuit of the issue. Just before, he’d been in the other room quizzing my friend Sarah about my nails. “Why don’t you go ask him?” she offered. In no time, he was in my face, conducting this inquiry—as though it were his to conduct. It made me think of how fiercely the border between male and female is guarded, even in this day and age, and you never know when you’ll run into an enforcer. Like the Jim Crow South, where any black person was subject to the “authority” of any white person at any time, the border guards of gender swing into action out of nowhere, “protecting” some public restroom, or school, or bar, or spiritual retreat, often viciously.
In the case of my friend, he clearly felt empowered to carry out his investigation in the middle of a party. (If he suspected me of being gay, or of a different race than what he previously thought, would he have felt this entitled?). And it’s amazing to me, when I do present as trans, the number of people who barely know me, yet brazenly quiz me on what medical procedures I’m planning on. They’re border guards, who see another’s gender as their territory.
FIRST READING AS DIANA
Last week I gave my first poetry reading as Diana. I read—just a few poems from Nameless Boy—as part of the Gowanus Open Studios event, to 20 or so people gathered in the studio of painter Chris Eastland. I wore a jean skirt, short sleeve orange T with funky black print, black tights, and a colorful knotted scarf. Chris sat me in a feathery, high-backed chair and I felt like a queen.
Outside of keeping my pitch above the masculine range while speaking with adequate volume, I didn’t apply much of the feminine vocal technique I’ve been training in at the NYU Speech clinic. The main thing was I felt authentic presenting my poems, and presenting myself. I didn’t make a big deal about the fact I was trans, but at one point I told the audience this is likely the last book I’ll publish as Douglas (perhaps Nameless Boy is a fitting title). I was asked to do an encore, and signed books afterwards.
For the encore, I chose to read “Back Flip,” a poem about a man who has always suspected himself capable of a back flip, but has never tried. I wrote the poem several years ago, but it wasn’t until last Saturday that it fully dawned on me what that metaphor was really about. (Here’s me reading it in a male voice: http://www.ohio.edu/nor/noraudio/goetsch.htm). I suspect all of us are waiting, or trying, to do a back flip of one kind or another, and I wish you well on yours.
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
Greetings from Indiana, where I’m spending Thanksgiving week with an old friend named Sunday on her farm. Yesterday was the first time I flew as a woman. I have always, through my years of cross-dressing, had a fantasy of being a woman in an airport. Perhaps the appeal was due to the extremely public arena, or the adventurous combination of flying with crossing gender lines, or just the sense of getting through airport security as the ultimate trespass.
Nowadays presenting as female doesn’t feel like trespassing, but flying still felt like a big deal. While there was no thrill of getting away with something, it was an experience of deep joy, freedom, and fascination—that something could feel so strange and so right at the same time. I wore a gray Anne Taylor skirt suit that draped beautifully, black pumps, and a black and saffron silk scarf. I thought it would be smart to present as a feminine and serious businesswoman. I had a letter in my bag from my therapist, explaining who I was to the TSA, including the names of legal organizations they could contact for guidance (which functioned as a warning). I didn’t need the letter. Everyone I encountered was courteous and respectful (and called me “Ma’m”). Strolling the moving walkway in the Indianapolis terminal, I thought to myself, “I’m probably the happiest person in this airport.”
Sunday, who has lived five years with inoperable breast cancer, can barely walk now, and needs painkillers to get through the day. Today over coffee I wanted to convey my appreciation for how important and sacred this final part of her life was, while not wanting to dismiss the pain, nausea, and indignities she was suffering. Earlier, in the supermarket, she’d gotten up from the motorized scooter to get some buns several aisles away, staggering so severely I feared she would fall. The interlude was wordless, but if there were dialogue it might (through gritted teeth) go: “I’m going to get up and get those fucking buns and then I will serve my family buns this Thanksgiving thank you m’am.” Now she could have easily asked me to fetch the buns, but she was clearly up for a voyage, one as courageous as any Magellan. What life force!
Sunday is also witness to my journey—perhaps that’s the ultimate gift of a friend—and she tells me how happy and settled I seem, how my touch on her shoulder has a completely feminine energy. Lately I’ve felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of the holiday season: travel and logistical complexities, daunting medical bills, continual questions over how to present (in person and on job applications), painful facial electrolysis with no end in sight. I’m still just part time, and can easily lose inspiration, without which transitioning feels impossible or unlikely. I often have to give up trying to plan, even the next week.
It would be hard to think of paths more divergent than having cancer and being transgender, but Sunday and I have something gigantic in common: neither of us chose our ordeal, nor would we have. Each of us would gladly have opted instead for climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. But you don’t get to choose your mountain. Anyway, we are climbing Kilimanjaro—all of us.
Three weeks ago I got a call from my doctor asking if I could come in and see him. (How often do doctors call patients for an appointment?) The week before, when I began taking testosterone blockers, I also wanted to start on estrogen. Dr. Greene favored a long and slow approach to hormone replacement therapy (HRT), where he could monitor the introduction of each element of the cocktail. My reasoning was: once on hormone blockers, there’s generally a three or four month window prior to irreversible changes (such as sterility), and I wanted to use that window to find out as much as possible about how my body reacts to HRT. Estrogen can cause mood swings, depression, and in some cases, life threatening circulatory problems that force people to stop HRT altogether. I didn’t foresee wanting to reverse course, but I wanted to learn all I could while everything was reversible.
Dr. Greene would not have been comfortable with this approach, and he had reasons, so we agreed to revisit the question after a month on blockers alone. But then he spoke with colleagues in a busy clinic specializing in trans care, and learned they’ve recently been introducing estrogen very early in HRT, with no problems. That’s when he called and asked if I still wanted to try it. How refreshing: a doctor who is open, and willing to look again. I started estrogen on Nov. 13th.
So far my body likes HRT. A lot. My skin all over is softening, body hair re-growth is slower. No mood swings—at least not on this dosage. At times I notice a deep, otherworldly calm, especially in my lower half, like a battle is ending, and my insides feel more and more congruent, on days when I’m Diana, with how I present on the outside. When I tell women friends how the changes feel, some wonder if they should be more appreciative of their own femininity.
I’m thankful for brave friends, a good doctor, and a crazy life I’m learning to step into. I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving, intrepid travel, and more love than you can handle.
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
I’m coming up on an anniversary: last February I came out to myself as trans. It happened during a 12-day solo meditation retreat in a remote cabin at 8000 feet in Colorado. The cabin had a woodstove, a bucket for a bathroom, the luxury of a propane burner, and there was a water faucet a quarter mile downhill. It was, in spiritual parlance, a protected space, especially the loft upstairs, where I would practice many hours a day.
But on Day 1 I felt stuck, unable to engage the Tantric practices—which involved energy and visualization—I’d come there to do. I tried to stay with it, and somewhere in the middle of the stuckness I sensed if I switched to a female body it would go better. So that’s what I did. Now this may sound crazy, but in meditative states conventional logic is known to fall away, and there is no crazy or sane, no separation between an inner self and outside phenomena. The instruction is to let whatever comes up have its life. So I shifted into a female being, and energy poured through me like it never had before.
I closed my morning practice and came downstairs for lunch, engaging in the familiar activities of cooking, eating, napping, and one other thing: freaking out over what the hell went on up there in that loft. Another meditation instruction is “look again”—don’t come to conclusions, just come back and look again. That’s what I did later that afternoon, again that evening, and the next morning. Each time I went upstairs and re-entered practice I was female. Each time I came downstairs to check the fire or do chores or urinate, I was shocked.
What did this mean? At night, unable to sleep, I allowed myself to imagine exactly this: what would it mean to live as a woman? In moments of bravery—and it may sound crazy to call an act of imagination brave—I visualized a life of dressing, presenting, and being received by others as a woman. A phrase welled up from within: You mean I actually get to be me? It was euphoric. It was also unbelievable, and terrifying.
Easily a dozen times a day, every day of my life, I have fantasized about being female. And a dozen times a day I dismissed it, boomeranging back, telling myself, “You’re male. Don’t complain. Deal with it.” I’d come out to every girlfriend I ever had as a cross dresser. They were terrifically accepting, and one said, “It’s just clothes.” But the experience in the cabin had nothing to do with clothes. It felt unprecedented, hauntingly real, and I began to entertain feelings of being female while downstairs.
Then I leaned. At lunch one day, spotting something out the corner of the cabin window, I leaned to get a better look, and as I shifted my weight from one shoulder to the other, I felt suddenly, irrevocably male. What the hell was I thinking? But upstairs in the shrine room, especially mornings, when sunlight stretched across the valley as I visualized the world’s suffering, my heart broke open again, and it was a woman’s heart.
The game of upstairs/downstairs, male/female continues. Here in New York City, on days I spend as Diana, I’ll be crossing a street and suddenly I’m struck by how dignified I feel. Or stepping in heels up onto a curb, I’m overcome at the feminine ease of my movement. But then I get pissed off by the failure of the New York Jets to draft a wide receiver in the first round. What the hell is wrong with them, and how do I square this with my manicured nails, the first thing I look at each morning, never wanting the polish off? But then what about the gorgeous Korean woman I saw in the supermarket, filling me with masculine desire?—or is it masculine?
Picture a seismograph, the needle zigzagging up and down with each volcanic tremor. For what it’s worth, I can say that a year after coming out to myself, the zigzags don’t seem as dramatic. Though some still do, and maybe I’m getting used to the others. “You just happen to be a woman,” a trans friend said, “who likes football.”
TELL IT ON A MOUNTAIN
On an evening walk toward the end of that retreat, I looked up at the mountain, determined to state out loud: “I want to be a woman.” I could barely speak above a whisper. “I want to be a woman,” I said, and the mountain said, “Fine by me.” A tree said, “Okay.” “Like I care?” a chipmunk weighed in.
This all seems to be about vision. No: visions. What visions do we trust? When you’re alone in a cabin for 12 days and something shows up in your stillest moment, is it real, or is it in need of a reality check? Is our everyday reality, as one Tibetan lama suggested, a fantastic rumor? Isn’t depression, my most constant companion these 50 years, the result of being out of sync with reality? Could decades of thinking of myself as male be a grand illusion? Who would believe it? Could I even believe it?
Here’s one final vision. Packing up to leave the cabin, I saw a small girl. She was thin, with bright, deep-set eyes, the orbital bones beginning to show. She was being held hostage. I only glimpsed her, as if through a crack in a padlocked shack or the trunk of a car. She passed me a note on a scrap of paper. The note said, “Don’t forget me.” She’s unsure I’ll come back for her, yet I’m her only hope, and she has no choice but to trust me. But here’s a question: Do I trust her? Nothing in my life has worked out, and here’s this girl I’ve never met, pleading. Do I let go of everything, and base my life on her?
Here’s to the visions that challenge and sustain us.
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
Last month I got a call from my friend Angela, inviting me to come to the Soho apartment of a woman named Trika to look through her clothes and take what I wanted. Angela had been Trika’s personal assistant, then her caretaker while she died from cancer. There were two large closets stuffed with clothes—many of them new, many my size. I’d never met Trika, but Angela said she would have liked me, of all people, to have her clothes, and what I didn’t take would go to thrift stores.
Trika had a hundred blouses, on cascading space-saving hangers, countless pairs of drapey drawstring pants and solid color shell tops. I noticed a broad size range, suggesting fluctuations in weight, and though she was well off, many garments bore catalog labels. I pictured a woman up late watching the shopping channel, and getting on the phone to purchase the tunic the TV saleslady promised would make her feel great—despite the fact that she owned several of them already.
There were also some wonderful things, fun dresses and unique blouses Trika might have worn to the opera and gallery openings, good yoga pants, and—blessing of blessings!—shoes and boots my size. There was a lot to try on, and in doing so, I was putting on a woman’s life. I didn’t fully realize the spell I was under until I arrived home with a huge addition to my wardrobe. I now have enough clothing to live full-time as a woman.
The next week I got another call from Angela, who had two tickets—Trika’s tickets—to see the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Stepping into that fabled lobby, I was walking in Trika’s shoes, then climbed up to sit in Trika’s seat.
I’ve been getting email alerts from the popular online dating site, OKCupid. I have a profile there (that’s how I met Angela) that I switched to “hidden” when I began transitioning. I told my therapist it would be crazy to think of dating at a time like this. But the thought of living without love is even crazier. So recently I revisited OKCupid to check out the presence of trans people on the site, and find out how they were approaching dating. This must have reactivated my profile—a male profile—and so now I’m hearing daily from women in search of men.
The notes were brief and shallow (“I like your profile,” “Are you published?”), until I heard from “Ireland,” who’d put some thought and time into communicating. She’d even read an article I linked to (in response to “The most private thing I’m willing to admit”), a piece called “Rainbow Man” which discusses my femininity and the impact it’s had on my life. (http://issuu.com/wabash_college/docs/wabash_magazine_fall_2013cx_/21 <http://issuu.com/wabash_college/docs/wabash_magazine_fall_2013cx_/21> ). “There seems to be a certain confusion in the writer’s perspective of trying to locate himself,” Ireland wrote. She also said I was adorable, so I wrote back telling her I’d be glad to meet and fill her in on where I am finding myself since writing “Rainbow Man.”
It’s slowly becoming common knowledge that gender identity and sexual orientation are completely independent of one another. I’m as attracted to women as ever, though I have no clue as to how to go about dating. But here’s a woman (41, witty, beautiful in her photos) who says “fuck political correctness” and “categories are moot.”
I’ve since heard from a second OKCupid woman who took the time to read “Rainbow Man.” “Slectiv” wrote to tell me I was “best not for this dating site.” I didn’t answer. I reported “Slectiv” to OKCupid as a bigot and cyber bully, and suggested she be removed from the site. Anything less wouldn’t be love.
Sunday, the friend I spoke of in my Thanksgiving update, the best friend a person can have, died on February 24. Her husband Jerry called to tell me her final moments were at home, and at peace, among family.
Sunday and I met studying jazz dance in the 1980s. She was the first person I came out to as a crossdresser. On a beach in Staten Island, she pointed to my shaved legs and was curious, and I took a chance, admitting my most shameful secret. It didn’t matter to Sunday one bit. I wasn’t surprised by her reaction, though it had a strange effect on my vision. I mean literally: objects around me—beach towels, sea gulls, the pores of Sunday’s cheeks—appeared strangely closer, sharper, more radiant, like a film had been lifted from my eyes. My throat opened up, my voice relaxed and deepened. On that day I felt my life might actually be livable.
We hear the cliché “the power of love,” but it’s way beyond a cliché. Being seen and accepted for who we are affects our biology, and maybe even the laws of physics. 25 years later, when I told Sunday I needed to live as a woman, she immediately switched to calling me Diana, wondered if she had a wig that would be good for me (she’d already lost her hair from chemo), and that was that.
“You can’t love what you don’t understand,” is another phrase we often hear, and maybe you and I can’t. But Sunday could. The truth is she was completely puzzled about my gender issues, and she admitted it. (Her only reference point was a gay friend in Dallas who did drag). I too didn’t understand myself, but unlike Sunday, I thought this disqualified me for love—How can I expect someone else to understand me if I don’t?—and like so many trans people, I’ve lived alone. I still don’t understand myself, but we don’t understand the sea either, and we swim in it.
What’s not to love? Sunday taught me that.
Here’s to her,
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
One trans cliché I never bought into is the “woman trapped in a man’s body.” Like millions of others, I’m benefiting from the physical effects of hormone replacement therapy. But I’ve always valued my body, having trained as an athlete, dancer, tai chi player, yoga and meditation practitioner. As a kid, I never experimented with drugs—out of fear, because I knew my body was all I had. I can understand why a trans person would want to validate their journey by thinking they’re trapped in the wrong body. But there’s a catastrophe of self-hatred wrapped up in such an attitude, something not easily undone, no matter how they change in the mirror.
The reason I’m thinking about this is because I’ve been invited to present at the Trans-Health Conference in Philadelphia this June. The title of my presentation is “Meditation: a Powerful Tool on the Trans Journey,” and I plan to focus on the body. In meditation, we quickly learn that our wisdom and freedom is found in the body and nowhere else, and that the thinking mind—what most people regard as the seat of their identity—is completely incapable of insight.
When I wrote in a previous update about coming out to myself, it was my body that pointed the way (during meditation, when my brain was off-line). But even before that realization, the female yearnings I’ve always had came—as yearnings do—from the body. After nights spent cross-dressed, I’d wake up staring at my hands, longing to keep the nail polish, even as I reasoned how problematic it would be to leave it on. What would my high school students say? What if my family found out? What woman would be attracted to me? etc. My thinking mind felt trapped, while my body knew what it wanted, if only I’d listen.
For a couple years I’ve attended a monthly trans feminine drop-in meeting at the local LGBT center. Some of the most marginalized people in our society show up there: homeless, unemployed, uneducated, drug addicts and alcoholics, prostitutes, so-called “illegal” aliens, teens kicked out of their houses, cross-dressers hiding from their wives and trembling in their heels like new-born colts, shell-shocked seniors who remember a time when they could be arrested for “fraud.” There are also some very accomplished people—teachers, artists, business professionals—but the space is dominated by aggressive, narcissistic, borderline or delusional characters who think the answer to all their problems (many of which don’t involve gender) is transitioning, a view often promoted by the facilitators. At one point, sick of hearing yet another declaration of, “I feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body,” I spoke up and said, “No one’s in the wrong body. We’re trans people trapped in trans bodies.”
More accurately I think, we have been people trapped in families, jobs, communities and a medical system that couldn’t hold us. Though it’s certainly getting better. For one thing, the Trans-Health Conference is expanding every year, and it’s free and open to all. During my presentation, I’d like to help people get below their necks, and introduce them to the body as a place of freedom, sanity, joy and insight—no matter where they are in their transition. If nothing else, our “wrong” bodies could use a break from all the hatred, and our “trapped” minds can always use more clarity and confidence.
My friend Peter was in town the other day. We met for Thai food and attended a film festival at the Museum of Modern Art. These days I love going to such noble places and dressing for the occasion. I wore an elegant green knit dress that had a circular skirt coming to just above the knees, black stockings and heels.
At dinner, Peter and I tried to solve a tricky issue. He’s hired me to teach at a writing conference this August in New Hampshire (pithily titled “Live Free & Write”). He needs to know if I will be teaching as Doug or Diana. He’s okay with either, as long as I show up in the gender indicated on the website and brochure. This seems like a fair request. I taught there last summer, and wasn’t crazy about presenting as male for five days, so I doubt that’s going to work now. Also, my breasts are beginning to show, and in another five months it’s going to affect my choices, especially in summer clothes. The problem is I am nowhere near ready to come out online, which will go viral, and cause me to relinquish control over this aspect of my transition. I told Peter that if need be, I’ll decline the job. He said no, we’ll figure this out.
I left not knowing how I was going to get through this. But I was also feeling great in a green dress and heels, walking home in my city after an evening with a friend. A phrase of Charles Bukowski’s came to me—“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire”—and I said to myself, I’m in the right fire.
I can remember walking home from countless blind dates feeling lost and depressed, and countless other nights coming home numb after shooting pool for hours and hours, not knowing why I was so isolated. I remember the day I thought of ending my life, and figured, if I’m going to die I might as well, for once, put on a dress and go out, which is what—thank God—I did that night. Those were fires too, but I never had the feeling I was in the right fire, that the mission was true, as I feel now. I have no idea how I will handle my work life or find a partner (or what I’ll do about my hair), but it’s part of a continual series of impossible situations I’ve been facing, and figuring out, day by day. Meanwhile I get to be me.
As another friend of mine likes to say, yours in the fire,
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
Many LGBT people look upon San Francisco as a haven, and during a recent weeklong stay in the Bay Area I found out why. I spent the whole time as Diana, presenting myself (or at least trying) with a low key elegance that felt appropriate to the city. Though people there couldn’t care less how I appeared. I was not stared at, pointed to, or otherwise made to feel awkward for a single instant. I could have been Godzilla in a housedress.
I came out to half a dozen people I hadn’t seen in years, and was received on each occasion with astonishing ease. One friend guessed I was trans when I requested we speak on the phone before meeting. Another met me saying, “You look good,” then launched into a report on her recent break-up without missing a beat. I taught a writing class in Berkeley to 9 students who signed up for “Doug,” got Diana, and didn’t say a word about it. (I did get a compliment when I took my hair down after lunch.) I received an admiring email from a cute woman who’d sat across from me and a friend in a café in Sausalito. After I left she approached my friend, who pointed her to my website. Her email:
Dear Doug (though I believe I interacted with the lovely Diana), I wish I could have stayed and eaves-dropped further, as you are fascinating, magnetic, and have a great energy… I'd love to connect with you further if you are so inclined. I will be in NYC the last weekend in May…
In San Francisco, where I may have left my heart, it seems to be a given that there are more than two genders. After a week there, I felt delivered into a new realm of self-acceptance.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The morning of my flight home I received another love note, this one from my city. On the splash page of The New York Times website was “Transgender Today,” an editorial taking it’s cue from the suicide note of 17-year-old Leelah Alcorn earlier this year—“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people… are treated like humans.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/04/opinion/the-quest-for-transgender-equality.html?_r=0 <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/04/opinion/the-quest-for-transgender-equality.html?_r=0> ). I was stunned to see the editorial board of The Times proclaim that being trans in America is “still unreasonably hard,” calling out the disrespect and denial of rights to trans people in every facet of our society. It was the first in a series of editorials on the subject, and it’s linked to a story wall for readers to upload letters and videos presenting themselves in their own words. There were already several gorgeous testimonials that first day.
In a word, WOW. It’s one thing to behold a transgender actor, model or other celebrity Brahman on TV or in a magazine. It’s quite another for our country’s newspaper of record to address the unfairnesses all trans people face. We’re talking about the editorial board of The New York Times, not Bruce Jenner’s two hour publicity stunt with Diane Sawyer. I can only imagine how many of us feel less helpless, and less freakish, now that The Times is squarely on our side. Reading made me feel I’d been facing a bully all these years, when suddenly three big brothers show up—brothers I didn’t even know I had.
I’m wondering about coming out to my brother. We’re not close, though we get along as adults better than we did as kids (when we sent each other to the emergency room with pencils stuck in each other’s back). He likes to talk a lot about himself when we get on the phone every few weeks, and sometimes it doesn’t occur to him to ask about me. He’s a year my senior, married with three adult sons, very overweight, a Born Again Christian, and the CFO of a sex toy company in Los Angeles. You could call him colorful.
You could also call him a bigot. Several months ago, when he mentioned a gay person he works with, I asked if his view of homosexuality had changed since he first became a Born Again. “Well it’s a sin of course,” he said, “but yesterday I drove over the speed limit, so I sin too.” I didn’t say much, but when I hung up I considered never speaking to him again. I also wanted to rip his face off.
Growing up, there was no love in the house. My parents’ abuse and neglect was paralyzing, and my well being as an adult hinged on never going to my family wanting anything. I haven’t told any relatives about my transition, and I haven’t seen my brother in nearly two years. He keeps suggesting we meet somewhere for a golf weekend. I tell him that’s a great idea, but don’t follow up.
There’s a beautiful word in Buddhism called samaya, a combination of bond and commitment. What is my samaya to my brother? I’ve been asking. Must I come out to him, and open myself to his judgment and bigotry? What if I let him learn about me via the internet when I’m Diana full time, and leave him to assimilate the news on his own? “It would be insulting to find out that way,” my therapist said. She’s got a point, but do I break my policy of never going to my family wanting anything? In this case, I’d want respect and compassion. Every time I allow myself to hope, it morphs into hopelessness, then rage. So I’ve decided to wait.
In the meantime, it’s dawning on me how safety has been the central issue of my life, often to the exclusion of happiness. Otherwise I probably would have transitioned a lot sooner.
Wishing you happiness, as ever, in your own transitions,
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
THE MIDDLE OF THE OCEAN
When I started my transition I stopped swimming. I wanted to shed the muscular bulk that came from knocking out several miles a week in the pool at the Y, and relieve myself of having to use a men’s locker room. Since I switched to yoga, and began hormones, my blouse size has gone from a 14 to an 8, my waist has slimmed, hips and butt have filled out, face has softened, body hair has diminished, and breasts are starting to protrude. But my shoulders are still unusually broad for a woman, my biceps retain definition (some women are jealous of these), and my hair remains receded and thinned in the male pattern baldness which began in my twenties (no one is jealous of this).
I’m entering the middle of the ocean, a dangerous place adrift from known genders. “People hate us,” I said to someone recently. “Not everyone, but for many, we are their worst nightmare.” That remarkable New York Times editorial series “Transgender Today” (which is still going) drew scores of ignorant and bigoted comments from readers across America who see trans people as mooching off the insurance pool in order to mutilate their bodies, deluded fetishists lurking in public restrooms, and grandstanding politicos distracting from the country’s real problems. And that’s just the reactions of genteel people who write letters to The New York Times. A woman in a restaurant bathroom said to me, “You don’t belong here.” A woman on a meditation retreat asked in shock, “You don’t have children, do you?” Another thought I could use a lesson in “being female,” then, explaining herself, changed it to “being human.” This is small potatoes compared to what men can do to us.
A young attractive trans woman who transitioned five years ago told me she’s not out to some of her closest friends, none of whom, she was certain, could possibly clock her (discern she’s trans) or intellectually understand her. I thought she may have been underestimating her friends, but attempting “stealth” is not about mental sophistication, and all about fear. This person spoke a mile a minute in a non-descript voice barely above a whisper, and was stiff below the neck with physical tension. My electrologist, another fast talking trans woman, has constructed a worldview where love is a naive myth and evil is everywhere. She locks every door and says aloud, “they’re out to get me.”
The inner danger of being in these waters is that a survival mentality can take over, where love is off the table, as are entire dimensions of life’s joys and subtleties. This is the very place I was resisting all these years living as a rather pugnacious male, desperate for a love relationship that would define my life for me. “Enjoy your transition,” a gender reassignment surgeon said to a group of us, and the room busted out laughing.
The next big step for me is living full time and being fully out. The fall seems to be offering itself, but I’ll let my body decide. Part of me hopes to be further across the ocean and in safer waters when I do this, and part of me hopes that doing this will put me in safer waters. Most of all I want two things I may never have: steady employment in my field and a full head of hair.
On May 12, I got a call from John Zinsser telling me his father had died. Many of you know of William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well among other books, one of the great non-fiction writers, and writing teachers, of our time. Bill was the most positive person I’ve ever met, a steadfast believer in the essential goodness of people and of life itself. Every Thursday for the past three years I brought sandwiches to his apartment and we had lunch. Afterwards I gave him poetry lessons, and we wrote poems together, something he requested of me when he went blind three years ago, closed down his office and retired from prose. He learned a lot about poetry, and very quickly.
But I learned more. One day over lunch I read him a cover letter tailored for a job at a particular college. His one question after I was done: “You haven’t sent that out, have you?” I was devastated. The next morning he called to deliver a five minute sermon (I wasn’t allowed to speak) ordering me to write a letter that actually tells a reader about myself, what kind of person I am, where I’ve gone, risks I’ve taken. “Don’t hold back,” he said, “write it in the third person if you have to, and spare us your ‘teaching philosophy.’” Before hanging up he said something very beautiful: “Do it for me.”
I wrote that letter, and the following Thursday I read it to Bill, who nodded in approval. He said he’d always been puzzled by the difference between the teacher and person he knew me to be, and my timidity when presenting myself to others. “Do not let other people define you,” he said. I can’t think of better advice, for anyone in any situation.
I never told Bill I was trans. I sensed it would have made him, and his household, deeply uncomfortable, and in his 90s, unable to adjust to being blind, he had enough to face. More than anything, I was willing to put away Diana, and remove my nail polish each Thursday, because of the reservoir of love between us. Had I felt a need to come out to him, I would have been willing to wait as long as it took for him to accept me. Unlike my brother, whom I described in my last letter, Bill was family I couldn’t bear to lose. Now I have, and the world feels colder and lonelier without him in it. Echoing his son who spoke at his funeral, I say, Goodbye sweet man.
And goodbye for now to you, sweet people,
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
This happened two months ago: I saw an elderly trans woman I knew on a subway car. I didn’t say hello because she wouldn’t have recognized me (I was in male mode, going to Brooklyn to see my tax guy). Also, there’s an unwritten rule not to call attention to a trans sister in public, lest she be unnecessarily scrutinized, and “outed.”
When Sophia (whose name I’ve changed) attended the drop-in group for the first time months before, I saw a bony, hunch-backed, socially awkward person (perhaps on the Asperger’s spectrum) with close cropped gray hair, wearing a man’s shirt and trousers. Though she asked us to use feminine pronouns, it was hard to imagine her as female, or even trans female. In less than a year she was full time.
Though on that train car, in a polyester dress, sneakers, and a bad wig, it didn’t appear to be much of a transformation. That’s the third reason I didn’t want to say hello, and I’m ashamed to admit it: I cringed to look at her. When she stood by the door as we approached her stop, someone even less comfortable than me, and unbeknownst to Sophia, stood behind her: a young woman, not shy about examining Sophia up and down, engaging in a silent though demonstrative belly laugh. She was huge and moved erratically, and I thought she might crush her.
Instantly I met that woman’s eyes, locked her in my gaze and stared her down. My silent message: Make one move toward her and you’ll be dealing with me. The train pulled to a halt, the doors opened, and Sophia wandered innocently out into Brooklyn. So nothing happened, but a lot happened. For one thing, my shame evaporated in a heartbeat. Here was a person not passable in the least, yet daring to go for broke and live the life she’d longed for, at a level of danger even I couldn’t fathom. If she’s not a hero I don’t know who is. Maybe that’s why I stepped over my shame so quickly: in protecting Sophia I was protecting life itself.
I saw her the next week at the diner. (In lieu of the dysfunctional trans drop-in at the local GLBT center, some of us now meet at the Good Stuff Diner on 14th Street each Wednesday.) When I told her I’d seen her riding the train, Sophia flashed a big smile. I didn’t mention the huge woman lurking behind her.
WHAT I SAW IN PHILADELPHIA
At the Trans Health Conference in Philadelphia, where an estimated 4300 people gathered, the gap between younger and older trans females (I can’t speak for trans males) was oppressively obvious. In general, younger folks are way more relaxed, feel more free to identify as non-binary, and to engage in sex and love relationships. Older trans females tend to be binary (i.e, to identify as female, nothing in between), and it’s not uncommon for them to put sex and romance on hold, temporarily or permanently.
We saw this in the Bruce Jenner/Diane Sawyer interview, where Jenner, transitioning at 65, called himself “asexual for now,” and wouldn’t indulge a female pronoun or reveal, while wearing pants, the name Caitlyn. There’s no question that interview was a publicity stunt, but Jenner was also clinging to the binary for dear life. At 51, I also dread being between genders, which is why weekends, when I must grow my beard for a Sunday electrolysis appointment, are quietly traumatic. And for the first time I am neither with, nor in pursuit of, a partner, so I guess I too am “asexual for now.”
What struck me most in Philadelphia was the magnitude of tension in older male to female (MTF) trans people, arising frequently as hypermasculinity—a need to dominate situations, not only verbally, but also physically, through gestural aggression and territoriality. Several times, I had to back away from older trans women sweeping their arms in my face while they interrupt and “mansplain” things. They’re no fun to relate with, but given a childhood full of shame and bereft of role models, and decades of accumulated trauma in a culture that couldn’t hold them, who wouldn’t be riddled with tension? Younger trans folks have traumas of course, but they don’t seem nearly as frozen or scarred as their elders.
There’s a lot to be said for transitioning at 50: I’m educated, I’ve traveled and published and had careers and power I would not have had had I transitioned in my twenties. But I’m also of my generation, and I hope I can get beneath my own fears and traumas so I can love, as Shakespeare says, without impediment.
FULL TIME UPDATE
How will I go full time? Beats the heck out of me. The only thing I’m sure of is there’s no roadmap, and if someone gives me one I should throw it away. I’m still sensing it might be late summer or fall, maybe because I don’t feel safe between genders, and it’s safer to move than freeze. I felt the same way about starting hormones—paralyzed—and it was right to make that move.
There are documents to change, driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, apartment lease, etc. I’ll certainly need to change the face and address of douglasgoetsch.com, my poetry website. What about Facebook? What happens to Doug elsewhere? And the two biggies: what about employment, and hair?
I’ve begun a list of people I’d want to tell personally before I’m out to “the world”: poetry friends, a few people in my family, a few from high school and college, former teaching colleagues, my banker, my dentist. Who gets a call? Who gets a letter? It’ll be joyful with some, awkward with others, and I’ll lose some people, as there are bound to be casualties.
Which makes me all the more grateful for you who are reading these updates. You are the first wave I’ve come out to, and your love and support have made life more livable. I send my love back,
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
I have, this time, let go of the 1000 word limit I’ve been holding myself to. There’s just a lot happening, as I head toward living full-time as a woman.
INSIDE & OUTSIDE
Among my trans girlfriends there are those who don’t relate well with surface, who find putting together outfits and putting on make-up to be joyless chores, if not ordeals. Some wait months or years for hormonal changes to take effect before presenting publically as female. Not me. In all my years of crossdressing, despite not understanding what it meant, presenting and relating with others as a woman gave me an ease and completeness, and ecstasy, like no other experience. As a child, all communication from the goddess came through symbols: the long hair of girls and women, my 1st grade teacher’s legs in nylons, the patent leather Mary Janes of the cousin who lived with us for a year, radiating from the floor of her closet. These were talismans so powerful, I thought if I touched them I’d explode.
I liken the difference to the craft of acting. Method actors such as Marlon Brando work from inside. They first connect with the internal life of a character, envisioning an entire biography, then manifest that connection through the lines and action of a scene. Classically trained actors, however, get their access from the outside. Lawrence Olivier was said to switch instantly into character as soon as the beard and spirit gum were applied, the hump of Richard III inserted. Judging by the output of Brando and Olivier, both approaches work.
For whatever reason I’m an Olivier, not a Brando. During childhood, if I didn’t see it on the outside, I wasn’t going to find it on the inside. But my only trans “role models,” if you could even call them that, came from paltry slivers of TV: when the castaways on Gilligan’s Island fell under a spell, and suddenly Mary Ann’s voice came out of Gilligan’s mouth; when Grandpa on The Munsters concocted a potion to turn himself into the unspeakably glamorous Marilyn Munster so he could go undercover and size up one of her suitors; when, in an episode of Vegas, a transvestite casino swindler tried to skip town (as soon as the wig came off, Dan Tana punched her in the face); when a slender man on a variety show changed into Judy Garland, lip synching and dancing (on fabulous legs) to “Get Happy.” These portrayals were incredibly primitive approximations of “me,” yet they were all I had, and I seized on them, replaying them in my head ad infinitem. Had I grown up today with Transparent, Orange is the New Black and YouTube, had I attended a school with a gender neutral bathroom and known about kids who were transitioning, I doubtless would have zeroed in on my identity soon enough to take puberty blockers (with or without parental approval) and save my hair.
HAIR & FACE
I’ve emailed photos to a medical team that does hair transplants in Switzerland, and last week received a reply informing me I’m not a good candidate. It was a busy week, so the news didn’t hit me at the time. It still hasn’t, but it will. Hair means so much to women, and even more to women without hair, who have to wear wigs, or head scarves, or shave their heads if they’ve got the moxie. I imagine such women have done a lot of crying, and I’ll have some mourning to do.
I’ve also been in contact with doctors who perform facial feminization surgery (FFS). A remarkable amount can be done to feminize a face through relatively minor procedures, such as shaving down the Adam’s apple, or slightly narrowing the space between the nose and upper lip. Surgeons have also become expert at reshaping noses, chins, and foreheads, making it undetectable that a person was born male. They’ll pick you up at the airport, and provide a place to stay. One team of surgeons in Spain arranges free insurance, and will revise, free of charge, a result you’re not happy with. Their satisfaction rate, by all accounts, is through the roof. Why wouldn’t it be: they’re giving people their lives. I had a Skype consultation the other day with one of the lead surgeons. He was warm, respectful, and very articulate.
My goal is for it to be hard to pass as a male were I to try. At this moment, if a knock came on the door, and I wanted to answer as a female, I’d need to put on a wig, though I wouldn’t have time for any make-up, and since I haven’t yet shaved, I’d probably get “Sir’d.” Because of how I’m made, the outside is a lifeline to the inside, something I’m starting to accept fully and work with. The less it takes, each time a doorbell rings, for me to present as female, the more free I’ll be to relate with whoever is at that door.
Of course, there are also times when my experience of the world is empty of gender—writing poetry, meditating, and oddly enough, moments of deep intimacy with a lover. In Buddhism, these genderless realms are associated with the energy body (sambhogakaya) and the body of space (dharmakaya). But the physically manifest body (nirmanakaya), which has do with everyday experience, is just as sacred, and a gateway to—and an expression of—the others. When a woman I was speaking with at a bar said she hoped I wouldn’t get a nose job, she may have at first been paying me a compliment. But when she kept insisting, like an authority, that I had no need for it, she grew ignorant and disrespectful. Maybe I should have told her that, had I already had FFS, she might have stopped calling me “he” to her friend. As it was, she misgendered me, again and again, insultingly, as she spoke.
8 DAYS AS DOUG
I recently came back from teaching at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, where I’ve taught many times, though not since beginning my transition. I decided in advance not to come out to the conference director, and so I was prepared—though not really—to be “male” the whole time.
The scary part about being Doug for a week was the possibility of settling into an old familiarity, where I’d begin to regard the idea of transitioning as frivolous (i.e., “What was I thinking?!”), and wind up dismissing this whole journey as an aberration, and return to running from who I am. My first few days were haunted by the ease of presenting as male, among colleagues who’d always known me that way, and students who’d signed up for a class with an author named Douglas Goetsch, whose reading featured a book with that name on the cover you could buy and have signed (though I never signed a “Douglas” into this new book).
I was, in fact, initially startled when people in Iowa called me “he” and “sir,” but that faded. If I’d been freaking out—even just a little—then it might have afforded refuge in the thought, when I returned home, of shifting back to Diana, and heading full steam into living as her full time. Instead, not encountering any problems, how far was I drifting out to sea, and how difficult would it be to swim back to this strange new continent of female embodiment? Would I drown trying?
On Friday afternoon, at the end of the last class I taught, I walked down a wide hill sloping toward the Iowa River feeling suddenly like I’d come through okay, and like I’d gently closed a chapter of my life, having taught as a male for the last time. My classes went great, and I’m glad to have taught well as Doug—though by all reports Diana does it better.
PEOPLE ARE OUTING ME
In the middle of my time in Iowa I received an email from Stephen Dunn. Some of you will recognize that name from the Pantheon of contemporary American poets. Stephen is a long-time mentor and friend—though not quite an eye-level friend, due to the admiration, bordering on awe, I’ve always had for him. This, together with the fact that he’s a very masculine person from an older generation, has made the prospect of coming out to him worrisome.
Not any more: Stephen’s email to me began, “Dear Diana (if I may presume)…” He’d heard from “a few different sources” he didn’t name. Whatever was told to him, and however strange it may have seemed, he immediately appreciated the magnitude of my situation, and could only be graceful and supportive. I was overwhelmed with emotion. Instead of writing back, I called him on the phone. There was a lot of joy and laughter, after some initial awkwardness, in that conversation. I wanted Stephen to know that I never intended for him to hear about this from anyone other than me.
The other thing I wanted from the conversation was to find out who the fuck is going around outing me. Stephen mentioned two people by name when I asked (as nonchalantly as I could), and I didn’t press it further. One was a writer I had not come out to, someone who likes to talk a lot, so it’s pretty safe to assume word had spread to many people in our sizeable writing community.
There’s a special place in hell for those who out. In 2013, a trans woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who was not publicly out, became the subject of a story for the popular sports blog, Grantland. She had invented a “scientifically superior” golf putter, and when the reporter Caleb Hannan began investigating her past, her urgent request was: report on the putter, but not the inventor. When she sensed (correctly) that neither Hannan nor his editors had any interest in honoring her request, Vanderbilt killed herself. They would still sensationalize “Dr. V.” in “The Story Behind a Mysterious Inventor…” (http://grantland.com/features/a-mysterious-physicist-golf-club-dr-v/) published with unbelievable gall three months after her death.
As for me, after a year and a half of a protected journey, where it was mine alone to decide when and where to come out, I am now the subject of open gossip. Even if they consider themselves well meaning, my “story” is being recklessly told by individuals with no direct experience of me as Diana, and no knowledge of my family or job situation, let alone mental health status. You could say, Who cares? It’s just talk, and you’re strong. But again, for many trans people, the outside has tremendous impact on the inside—that’s just the way it is. It’s a big part of why I was depressed for 50 years, and why the suicide rate among us is 25 times the rest of the planet. Early on in my transition, I saw that if I came out too soon, to too many, it had the effect of locking me into a concept of myself that was unhelpful and extremely hard to shake. While I’m not exactly a weak person, I have no idea how my psyche will react to being outed.
So that’s the shock I was dealing with, on top of everything else, during that week of being “Doug.” (Though—who knows?—perhaps the episode, along with the bad hair news from Switzerland, carried the beneficial effect of keeping me in touch with myself as Diana.) After speaking with Stephen, I designed and sent a couple of email grenades, intended to stun two particular people into silence. Past that, there wasn’t a damn thing I could do, so I let go of the whole issue. There’s no sense adopting either a victim or Macbeth mentality. Though there’s something to be said for laser-like wrath. From one standpoint, the main problem with Essay Vanderbilt’s suicide was a lack of accuracy: she aimed for the wrong person.
I have, for the first time since I began my transition, been physically intimate with another. It was the most trusting, open, sexually loving experience of my life. Someone wanted a previous update to close on a more positive note, and I’m happy to oblige here. Though this is no small thing. It may be the biggest step a person can take, and it eased some huge concerns for me on this journey. “Man or woman, girl or boy,” wrote Sherwood Anderson, “they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes mature life in the modern world possible.”
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email
Last spring, when I contemplated living full time as a woman, an image arose: I was a paratrooper pressed against the windowless fuselage of a plane en route to a jump site, the rip cord of my pack hooked to a cable above. Ahead was stark light from a gaping hole where, when my turn came, I’d jump into the sky and…
In actuality it felt more like I was seated on a passenger plane and was airborne before I knew it, the nose tipping up with plenty of runway to spare. I am now full time, but I don’t know exactly when it happened. I can tell you that on a Thursday in mid-July I walked to a day spa in a baseball cap, men’s shorts and a T-shirt, I went in the back room, had laser treatment on my upper lip, walked home, and “Doug” hasn’t emerged from my apartment since. Over the past few of weeks I donated, without drama or sentimentality, a dozen bags of male clothing (most of the shirts now way too large) to local thrift shops.
On August 24th I entered the New York County Courthouse on Centre Street (dressed in a silk blouse, black pencil skirt and closed-toe pumps) to receive a court ordered name change. My legal name is now Diana Goetsch. The next day I was given a notarized letter from my doctor, which I’ll need for changing the gender marker on my birth certificate and driver’s license. The first sentence of the letter reads, “In my medical opinion, Ms. Goetsch is a woman.” I won’t lie: that hit me like a ton of bricks. Am I a woman? I am a female person, I say with confidence. I am no doubt a trans woman, I’ll say to those with ears to hear, and for all others I’m all woman—with documents to prove it. (Perhaps I should ask to see their doctor’s letter.)
I came out to my brother and he first thought it was a hoax. I told him that I’ve struggled with being trans since childhood, that I’m in therapy with a specialist in the field, that I’ve been living part time as a woman for a year and a half, that a lifelong depression has lifted. He constructed a series of elaborate questions (none of which I would entertain) to assist me in diagnosing if I was making a mistake. In sum, he exceeded all expectations—I’d give him a solid C-minus.
Before we hung up, he apologized profusely for his initial remark—“Are you going to pull a Bruce Jenner on me?” I told him it was okay, and also that his feelings about this were likely to shift and evolve, and we should stay in conversation. The next day I followed up with an email thanking him for being willing to hear me, and offering to help him (to the extent I could) to mourn Doug and adjust to Diana. His curt reply, which didn’t address me by name, said he was planning to write me in a few days. This brought an immediate reply from me, encouraging him to call or Skype anytime, while urging him: no long letters. A few days later he sent an ignorant, insulting, and interminable email.
When a fundamentalist Christian has spent his life labeling your kind “sinners,” you’re not exactly primed for his analysis of your past, and you don’t enjoy being addressed, over and over, as “my brother,” while your actual name and correct pronouns are bypassed and denied. You may be puzzled that he’s not interested in seeing a picture of you, and you’re less than interested in his plan of flying to New York for the weekend, staying with an old high school buddy you’re not out to, and meeting in a public park “to show my acceptance of my brother” and reminisce about “a handsome, virile, ladies man & a sports player/fanatic – which indeed you always were not only to me, but in plain truth.”
That’s probably enough about this subject.
FRIENDS & COLLEAGUES
A few weeks ago I made a list of 150 friends, students, and colleagues in the poetry world, and composed a coming out letter (something of a rite of passage for LGBT folks) consisting of three short dignified paragraphs ending with:
The timing of this is independent of Caitlyn Jenner or any trend. As some know, this has been a decades-long struggle for me, and I can’t state it strongly enough: nobody wants to be trans. But despite the challenges, embracing my identity has given me a joy I’d never touched, and deeper engagement with the world around me. Enjoyment of one’s gender is a birthright most never need to think about, and someday I won’t have to either.
I’ve been emailing the letter to wider and wider circles of people on that list, in advance of September 15th, which is when my website (complete with pictures) becomes www.dianagoetsch.com, whereupon I “go viral,” which seems to be the main goal of cyberspace.
The response to my coming out letter has been 100% supportive, and amazingly so. A fellow poet I’ve loved for her power and exuberance wrote:
Wow. Needless to say, this rocked me back on my heels--more than once. Then I had to admit that I wasn't all that surprised. I was never quite sure exactly what, but you always seemed to be chasing something that had nothing at all to do with your writing. You were often so restless. I just figured your brain was bigger than everyone else's… That said, I AM THRILLED beyond any earthly reason at this news. I happen to be a big fan of happiness, whenever and however it comes. I regret not being able to give my friend Doug a send-away hug, but I'm primed to hang with Diana whenever you're ready. (I'll stare incredulously for about five minutes, then life shall go on.)
Be safe, and be you. I'm so happy you're rooted in this world.
A conference director who’s employed me for 15 years wrote:
My dear Diana,
I’m so happy to hear from you and to celebrate your homecoming--to yourself, I mean--with you. It takes all the courage a body can muster to be oneself in the world, I know well. You’re an inspiration to me in this particular. I can’t wait to welcome you back here as you are, fully.
A high school student I’d taught in the 1980s wrote:
I just heard through the grapevine about your developments and transitions. Congratulations on understanding your own truth and having the courage to live it.
You were an incredible support to me when I was a teenager and I am so grateful for that. In fact, your pointing me towards Kazin's A Walker in the City when I was in high school was, however counter-intuitively, part of how I wound up on the path to becoming a rabbi. At some point, I'd love to get together and re-connect.
If there is ever any way for me to show you a fraction of the kindness you once showed me, I hope you'll let me know.
Through dozens and dozens of emails, these good people have provided an antidote to my family and others who would judge, undermine, bully, erase or define me. The responses bear three marks: sympathetic joy, total respect, and a desire to connect. I’m learning that anything else is other than love.
Wishing you all a place in the sun, here at summer’s end,
Feel free to comment or correspond personally with via email
We met in Iowa City in July, the last time I would teach as Doug. She stopped here on her way back to Australia and emailed me: “Hey, I don’t know many people in New York—let me know if you feel like a drink!”
I accepted with a caveat: “Full disclosure: I’ll be showing up as Diana (pictured).”
She wrote, “That photo is gorgeous.”
I replied, “Gorgeous? I was going for hot.”
And so began another typical New York romance. (Sorry to bore you.)
She’s back here on a three-month visa. In a couple weeks she’ll go to Canada and then re-enter the U.S., which will give her three more months here. In February we’ll both go to Belgium, where I’ll undergo FFS—facial feminization surgery. “I have an investment in your face,” she said with her lovely Australian elocution, “so I figure I should be there.”
If I were a life coach (whatever that is) I would not encourage someone to attempt the biggest adjustment of their life—like, for example, living full-time in another gender—while simultaneously embarking on a new love relationship. That would be bad life coaching, wouldn’t it? But is there ever a wrong time for love? And did love ever care about our plans?
Eleanor doesn’t care about male or female—which is more than I can say for me. She relates more to energy. “I may change completely,” I told her in July. “In a year’s time I might be unrecognizable.” She knows. She’s a daredevil: open, aware, brave, loving, beautiful.
My decision to have facial feminization surgery isn’t about beauty, so much as freedom. I have a vision of going for a carton milk on a Sunday morning in a headscarf and jeans, without makeup, and not being clocked. To appear female by default, rather than by decorative strategies, would mean that who I am out to—and when and where—becomes my choice, affording me more safety and freedom to go about my life. But appearance, for trans people, also reaches inward: when the manifest body feels congruent with the spirit it heals us.
The single most amazing thing about FFS might involve the “gender” of a person’s gaze. Male and female eyes are fairly identical. What’s different—and considerably so—is the surrounding terrain: the brow and orbital bones (more prominent on men); eyebrows that either float over the sub-orbitals (female) or sit on or below them (male); the slope of the forehead (steeper on women), the angle of nose to forehead (more acute on men). I now know more about the craniofacial skeleton than any Jeopardy! contestant, yet when I see before & after FFS photos where narrow, predatory male eyes have morphed into open, nurturing female eyes, I am stupefied.
In the trans community FFS surgeons have a kind of celebrity status, referred to by last names and nicknames in Reddit threads and chat rooms, known by their prices, aftercare, the trademark “look” some manage to stamp on every client, the light touch of others. The surgeons also know one another—which is not to say there’s much collegiality. Dr. A had no problems showing me photos of a botched surgery performed by Dr. B. The next week I met with Dr. B, who showed me a botched job by Dr. A.
Some are plastic surgeons, limited to working with flesh and surface bone. Others are maxillofacial surgeons, licensed to do Frankenstein-like things. A man from Buenos Aires performs osteotomies—cutting out the frontal sinus bone, re-sculpting it, then repositioning it in the forehead at a deeper recess—on every one of his patients. (“Otherwise, you will never look like a woman.”) “These foreigners will fuck you up,” a plastic surgeon from Chicago told me, then told me I needed a facelift, neck lift, lip augmentation, cheek and chin implants (“Don’t worry, the titanium screws go right through airport detectors”), and gave me a price nearly double any “foreigner.” A team of dashing young doctors from Spain charmed the pants off me while a woman performed “Virtual FFS” across the table on her laptop. After 15 minutes she projected my photoshopped face on the wall, and there I was: Barbie.
Whatever happened to the Hippocratic Oath? Do these doctors behave the way they do—seducing and hard-selling and upselling us—because trans folks project desperation? Are their ethics loose because this is “elective” surgery, or is it because there’s competition among them?
Part of the Hippocratic Oath calls for doctors to admit when they don’t know something. In the end I chose a surgeon who said just this—“I don’t know”—when I asked what forehead procedure he envisioned doing. “For you, we may not have to do much,” he said, “but I can’t be sure until I go in.” I like how he touched my face, I liked his credentials (and that he didn’t need to recite them), and the fact that he comes from, and practices in, a part of the world where my face originated. His fee is fair, and includes a week of recovery at a residence above his clinic. And his before & after photos: superb.
There are trans women who would never do surgery, some who elect not to take hormones, and I of course honor them. Each of us needs to find her way home.
In the U.S. a person’s name isn’t changed by any one document. It takes about five, and involves a lot of running around. It’s good to make lists—of addresses, phone numbers, forms and acceptable methods of payment for each agency. Sequence matters (no passport without driver’s license, no driver’s license without court ordered name change, no court order or Social Security card without a doctor’s letter, etc.). Pocket folders are helpful, as are paper clips.
I now hold—stamped, sealed, notarized—five key documents: doctor’s letter, court order, birth certificate, driver’s license (bad photo), passport (particularly bad photo). They feel like a good poker hand, and I’ve been playing these cards the past month to change my bank account, credit cards, apartment lease, health insurance, phone bill, website hosting, museum memberships, frequent flyer points, etc. Some make it easy, others want me to jump through their own hoops. A cable company tried to charge me $12.95 for my “request” to change my name. (I told them I already made my request before a judge, and paid for it.) New York University, which required me to go out and get their forms notarized and faxed (forcing me to out myself to strangers), decides on a “case by case basis” whether to change the name on a transcript. New York State of Health (Obamacare) made me reapply for everything, which took hours over the phone, then sent notice that I no longer qualify for Medicaid.
But it’s nice getting more and more mail (even bills) addressed to me as Diana, even nicer to select “F” for gender when booking a plane flight.
A year has passed since I started HRT. You don’t notice much day to day, but there are markers, moments when it’s clear you’ve turned a corner. In a Gap store recently, while trying on a white fitted winter vest, I spotted a very feminine person in tight jeans and a black leotard top, also in a white vest. It turned out to be me in the mirror. What began as a little extra around my hips has turned into curves that include the hips, a slender waist, and buttocks that fill out a skirt. Only God can make an ass, I once thought (quoting Yeats, sort of). But in September a pretty woman in an arts colony said, “Diana, I stood behind you in line this morning admiring your ass.” They tell you hormones aren’t miracle drugs. I disagree.
The hair on top of my head has been coming back. Staring in the mirror each morning at new shoots emerging from long-dormant baby fuzz, I hear in my head the narrator of those nature programs I watched as a kid: With the coming of the wet season, lush grass returns to the Serengeti Plains and another cycle of life can begin… A receded, once ghostlike hairline is solidifying, and a few rogue hairs have appeared out in front of it—they stand their ground, waiting for others.
I entertain no Rapunzel dreams, but I’m hoping I can be a candidate for a transplant, and not have to wear wigs for the rest of my life. I probably shouldn’t get my hopes up, but how can I not?
THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR
In August I got an email from Robert Wilson, Editor of The American Scholar asking if I had anything new I could show him. (The last time they published me was when I wrote a piece on baseball history.) I sent him one of these update letters. “Can I see more?” Bob replied the next day. I sent them all, and he wrote back offering me a job writing a weekly blog, for which I’d be paid.
In my debut column, which appears today, I wrote about you—you who have been reading and responding to these updates:
When I began taking hormones, I also started writing “Diana Updates,” monthly letters I emailed to a growing list of readers. Many wrote back reporting how they related to my experiences: women undergoing hormone replacement therapy; a friend on cancer medication afraid of losing her sexuality; gay men waiting for their families to accept them; people transformed by pregnancy, divorce, and spiritual experiences. I heard from therapists with trans clients, parents of trans children, a young wife and mother haunted by a maleness inside her. My publisher Roger Lathbury, after reading about my legal name change, revealed that he used to be Roger Lewis. We are all, I was learning, in transition, people between people, longing to be fully ourselves. The only essential difference with my deal is that it’s glaringly obvious and can’t be hidden from anyone.
A weekly column at a great American magazine could change the course of my career as a writer. But there’s something going on right here, in these private emails, that feels even more important. So I’d like to continue the “Diana Updates”—if you’ll indulge me. And I want to keep hearing about your transitions.
Feel free to comment or correspond with me via email