Thursday, August 21, 2008

Mike and me

Several years ago, my friend Mike told me that he was transgendered.

At the time, I recall, it made little impression on me. He's a good friend of mine, and I knew he was a good person, and that was what mattered. I didn't know much about gender dysphoria, only the old cliche erroneously attached to homosexuals, about "being a woman in a man's body." We had some lengthy discussions pertaining about gender and identity, and life moved on. He was determined to remain a man for the sake of their three children, and that appeared to be that.

Of course, where identity is concerned, that is never that. When a person is required to be something other than what they are, the strain of the pretense builds over time and takes its toll in one area or another. Depression and withdrawal ensued, demanding their pound of flesh from his marriage and every other relationship he had.

And so, some months ago, Mike decided it was time to begin transitioning. He started taking antiandrogens, a prescription drug that suppresses male hormones, and something broke that had survived fifteen years of a sometimes tumultuous marriage. Earlier this year, Mike and his wife, Lynn, formally separated. He moved into an apartment of his own, started taking female hormones, and began going out increasingly as Shelly.

It's been rough. While she has found several transgendered friends in the city where she lives, Shelly has had to face the bigotry of people who see her as a predator or a pervert. Her own parents recently cut her out of the will without even having the courage or the decency to tell him in person that they were doing so. Her father had the indecency to heap abuse on her when she decloseted herself to them about four months ago, calling her a despicable parent who was abandoning her kids, when the truth is that she's probably more involved now -- still as a father -- than when she lived in the house with them. The sickening irony here is that her father has been emotionally distant, verbally abusive, adulterous and a drunk most of Shelly's life -- and yet he has the audacity to lecture Shelly on how she's a bad parent.

And, despicably, a minister told Shelly's mom that they were right to disown her, that it was what God would want them to do. I don't get that. I really don't. Where does Jesus advocate or model any such moralistic stance with anyone? The gospels present Jesus as someone who stands by people, no matter what. Prostitutes, adulterers, thieves and lepers with hideous open sores all felt comfortable and welcome in his presence.

And so, even as people ask me how I can do it, I'm standing by Shelly, because she's been my friend for years. I can't imagine not sticking by her. I've been genuinely upset by some of the stuff that other people have done in reaction to this decision to transition, but all the same ... I feel rather left adrift at sea by this whole thing.

It's odd in some ways that it's rattled me this much. I've had other friends, both men and women, tell me that they're gay, and it didn't even make me blink. In some cases, we've become better friends afterward. I've known Mike [Shelly] is transgendered for years, and yet this turn of events has left me unsteady, uncertain and, in a sense, staggering. I intend to stand by her, because we've known each other for so long and have always been close, but it's a challenge all the same. As much as I'm supportive of her, I just don't "get" it, probably because I've never felt that I was anything but a guy. It's a mystery to me how she can feel that she's actually a woman in a man's body and that these exterior changes are changing anything.

Yet there's no denying that she's happier, and more alive than I've seen her for years. I'm glad she's got friends, and I'm glad she's found a support network, and I'm glad that I can continue to be a friend for her. I'm glad she's willing to take the risk on me that I won't be a royal bastard and dump her too, to escape having to deal with my own confusion over her gender identity.

In the end, after all, my confusion is my problem and not hers, and given that she's paying such a heavy price for her own situation, it would be unfair and unreasonable to demand that she pay mine as well.

I just wish there were a chart for these waters I find myself sailing with her. I wish the sun were out, and that these uncertain clouds weren't darkening the sky. I wish I knew where we were going, and I hope the ship is seaworthy enough to get us there.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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