Who was it that first said, “Coming out is a lifelong experience”?
Whoever it was, couldn’t have been more perceptive. As long as being LGBQ or T—or, for that matter, feminist, leftist, socialist, biracial, atheist, Muslim, Jewish, or any number of other “suspect alternatives”—carries with it a measure of intrigue, titillation or stigma, coming out will be a necessary process. As long as a majority of the population operates on the erroneous assumption that human beings and behaviour fall into two-and-only-two categories, “normal” or “deviant,” people outside the mainstream will be compelled to dispel their fellows’ mistaken notions that they fall into the “normal” category.
And unless you’re a mega-celebrity, no matter how many times you do it—nor how publicly—there’s always a next time. A new friend, a fresh group of co-workers, or friends of friends and family. It’s a never-ending process.
I’ve come out at various times in my life as lesbian, bi, FtM, Jewish, and a mom. The hardest time, I think, was when I transitioned at Bayer Biotech in Berkeley, CA, in 1994. Several thousand fellow employees watched my physical transformation as I started testosterone and began a very public process of changing from working as a woman—a “strange, mannish type of woman who favoured masculine attire,”—to working as just one of the guys.
Then there was what felt like a huge step of deciding to appear in Loren Cameron’s groundbreaking book, “Body Alchemy,” two years later. Taking part in Loren’s project is one of the things I’m most proud of in my whole life. His images speak without words: decades from now, when LGBT rhetoric may have been faded into obscurity, people will still be able to look at Loren’s photos and know that not everyone at the turn of the second millennium ascribed to the notion of “two and only two genders.”
I also agreed to an interview with the San Diego Gay & Lesbian Times in the late 90’s, that featured my photo on the cover. Then there was my brief-lived column in 2005 here in Dublin for the Village magazine, which I wrote from the perspective of an FtM, Bush-loathing, peacenik American expat with Irish citizenship thanks to my cultchie grandparents.
There were less public disclosures, too. Many of them. The one that stands out is the time I stammered and stuttered for what felt like minutes, trying to find the right words to tell my to-be-future-girlfriend about being trans, only to have her interrupt and say, “Oh, I think I know what you’re trying to say, and I already know!” I fell in love with her on the spot.
Each disclosure has been accompanied by a tightness in my gut and an emotional breathlessness that’s composed of fear, excitement, defensiveness, and relief. Fear that someone I’ve come to rely on—or even care about—will start to treat me differently, specifically, as “less than.” Excitement, at the prospect of the unknown, like a swimmer poised at the edge of a diving board above dark, unknown waters. And defensiveness, a bracing of myself for the worst possible outcome: rejection, discomfort, or even anger, and hostility.
The fact that relief is also a part of coming out may surprise some people. Those who have never hidden an essential aspect of themselves from others might not understand the insidious and terrible cost of being closeted. The benefit is obvious: I don’t have to deal with the open antagonism or discomfort of transphobic or homophobic co-workers. The costs, though, are not so visible. The way being closeted eats away at my self-confidence, as I wonder what people would think if they really knew. The way it erects a wall between me and others, undermining the possibility for friendships. I can’t let my guard down and just be myself. I have to watch everything I say every single minute. When the CEO here found out I had a daughter, he and another male co-worker pestered me the whole night long at a Xmas party, for details, under the direct gaze of about 10 colleagues. How old was she? How old was I? Was I married to her mother? You don’t want to say, why not?. Are you ashamed? No? You seem ashamed. Why are you ashamed?
They would not let it go, their questions becoming increasingly intrusive and aggressive the drunker they became. A part of me wishes I’d just come out and said, “I am her mother!” But I wasn’t ready to deal with the potential aftermath.
I always have to watch how much I drink at company gatherings—never a bad idea, I know, but absolutely essential when you’re closeted, a lightweight who gets buzzed on half a beer, and in the company of Irish drinkers, whose staggering capacity for drink surpasses that of any and every other nationality I’ve ever known.
My overall point is, the costs of coming out are generally well understood by even those with no personal experience, whereas the costs of being closeted are often not acknowledged, even by people who are living a closeted existence.
Anyway, I mentioned yesterday that I’d given my first quote as a spokesperson for TENI (Transgender Equality Network Ireland) to Ireland’s largest daily newspaper. I was both excited and worried, as my workplace subscribes to the paper and I figured I was essentially coming out to everyone here. Oh, and probably to all my Irish relatives, too, who with the exception of one tiny vowel, share my surname.
Well, I needn’t have worried: the paper didn’t actually quote me or use my name. They simply stated, “The Transgender Equality Network of Ireland welcomes the change.” Fair enough, that was the beginning of what I said, they just dropped the rest.
So, I’ve received a temporary reprieve. Temporary, because I believe it’s only a matter of time before a widely-read newspaper does quote me by name, or I appear on radio or TV on behalf of TENI. Transsexuality is becoming a high profile issue here.