Notes on Gender Role Transition

Anne Vitale Ph.D. Editor

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Passing: My Key to Success

By Grace Bock

August 31, 2003

Sometimes it is hard to believe how fast time passes by. Why it seems like only yesterday that I last wrote of my life as a transsexual who was then celebrating her first year living full-time. Yet it has been more than three years since then and there have been a wealth of opportunities for me to spread my wings as the person I was meant to be and take the chance that success would follow. Much to my pleasure things have worked out wonderfully and doors have opened with little struggle. Several key factors are likely responsible for this good fortune, one of which I believe to be the ease at which I "pass" as a woman, freeing me to be myself, comfortably and with confidence.

When I was first able to accept the reality that I am a transsexual in 1997 my life began to change in a myriad of ways. First came the end of my marriage followed by living on my own for the first time in nearly ten years. What I quickly became aware of through this self-awareness, acceptance and change in life circumstances was that I was now charged with the responsibility of living a more productive life. Those who have suffered within the grasp of gender dysphoria can understand what I mean; for some of us it is as though you are living in a fog and until this issue is resolved existence is more likely than achievement. My life had been on pause for many years and now it was time to live and grow.

Now that I was able to think outside the narrow spectrum of gender incongruence, and the struggles I faced within its limitations, I needed to figure out for myself what I would do with my life as the woman I wished and fully intended to be. My first big decision came when I decided to attend college and study a helping profession, I choose social work as the vehicle, I then began a search for a university at which to earn an undergraduate degree. True to my entire transition experience this plan seemed to fall into place and I was soon on my way to a new town and a wealth of new experiences.

Attending college was to be the beginning of an incredible period of intellectual development beginning in the late spring of 1999. One conversation I recall most from that period of time was one in which my brother asked if I had planned to attend school as female? I must confess that I was somewhat surprised by his inquiry. Yes, it was a good question, however, this was the first time that I realized that other then planning to transition I had never chosen start dates or specific tasks to accomplish. It just seemed to me that whenever a new aspect of living female became comfortable to me I would try it on. If it felt right I would ease it into my routine and then precede one step further; never selecting or charting a specific temporal framework for the next alteration of addition. I never set a single "date specific" goal. More so, I never decided when I would attempt, or begin to pass. With this concept in transition I never failed at a new task or slid backward, it just seemed that it would all click in time and some how it has. My brothers' question made me uncomfortable only in that I had to be aware of a certain accomplishment by a particular date: I needed to pass by the coming fall. Although I was nervous about having to reach the goal of full-time but I was pleasantly surprised at my success.

Arriving in a new neighborhood to be nearer campus I had no idea how people would receive me. Sure, I had some indication that passing would be possible in that I was perceived as a woman on more than one occasion while shopping with my wife while still living as male. Even with this unintended success I was a bit concerned about a legitimate attempt to pass. After several interactions with neighbors and people on campus, however, my fears were laid to rest. What made me even more confident was a story I heard several months after I had moved that was shared by a friend over dinner one night. It turned out to be one of the funniest stories I had heard in quite some time, still is, and one that helped reinforce the face that I had been passing for quite some time. Here is what my friend told me:

"It happened a couple of months before you moved. You were out with your dog and I guess you were wearing a tee shirt and a pair of shorts. You and Tori (my yellow Labrador x golden retriever at the time) must have been headed over to the Globe Theatre (a local coffee shop) to get a treat for her and a cup of java for yourself. As you were about to cross the street Danny (a local tavern owner) poked his head out the door about a hundred feet behind you to get some fresh air. He got more then he bargained for. He looked down the block and said to himself, Wow, who’s the chick with the nice legs and the dog?" He ran back inside for a second opinion and came out with a co-worker for a better look. Well much to his dismay, it turns out that you were identified as that hot chick. Realizing he had just been turned on by a transsexual he quickly ran back into the bar to down a couple of shots and was heard to say "and I had a woody, too!""

From what I am told he has never lived that erection down; figuratively I suppose? But that story provided me with a boost to my confidence in that if I could pass at that point in time, amongst people who knew me, then perhaps I had a chance in new territory.

My experiences on campus weren't as comical, however, through my interactions with students, faculty and staff I was sure that I was passing without question. In fact, I feel that if you can pass within the twenty-something crowd then perhaps you can pass anywhere. They can be a tough, image conscious crowd. In part as a result of my apparent seamless integration as a student my undergraduate experience went smoothly and I developed some well needed confidence. What resulted was a further development of my overall level of confidence and soon began to speak on campus in areas such as sexuality, crisis intervention and domestic violence. Through such public speaking experiences, most of which took place in classroom settings, my success in passing was even further validated. This positive reinforcement is largely responsible for the development of my present career aspirations in areas of teaching and clinical practice.

Since completing my undergraduate degree I have moved on to a larger city to pursue graduate coursework at a fairly prestigious university. This is the first experience since going full-time where I find myself in an environment in which no one knows of my past. Whereas there is some comfort in being known to everyone around me as female, there is also a disquieting sense that no one here truly knows the real me. This perhaps explains why I find myself once again writing as a method of connecting to my past while still reveling in my present success. Yet. I believe that it has been two of my most recent experiences in passing that I find to be the most satisfying to date.

One rite of passage for transsexuals is obtaining identification congruent with our chosen gender. Typically this only happens once genital surgery has been performed and documentation is presented to state and/or local agencies. Yet, what I have found is that passing may be the key, at least it was for me in achieving this end. I arrived at the DMV with all the suggested paperwork; my boys' birth certificate, change of name petition and I was ready for the funny looks I would get when the clerk realized the truth underneath my rather feminine appearance. However, sometime soon after I sat down to begin the usually arduous process, it became clear that the engaging and conversational young woman I was interacting with had not a clue. I soon had a feeling that things would go my way. Clues to success came when she didn't ask to see any of my supporting documents, nor did she question, or perhaps even notice, the "M" sex designation on my out of state ID. By the time we made it to the photo shoot, and I do mean "we", I was even more confident that this was be my lucky day. I couldn't wait to get out the door and take a peak to see if my expectations would be realized. Sure enough, the "she" who was once a "he" now really is a "she". But as wonderful as this experience was I am most pleased with one that I had about a week later.

Much like starting a new job, coming to a new university presents many similar adjustments. Regardless of gender issues, learning your way around and meeting new people are only two of the dynamics involved in acclimating to such a fresh environment. What I was looking for as I settled into this professional program was a mentor to help guide my development as an educator and clinician. Who my guide could be was already known in that only one faculty member offered the qualification I was hoping to find. What I needed to do was make myself and my interests known and hope for the best. In our first meeting we discussed our individual areas of interest and how we each developed a passion for this area of study. Our conversation was so comfortable that I was sure I had found the person I was looking for.

It is clear to me that to establish a good relationship with anyone, including a mentor, at some point it is necessary for he/she to know of my gender status. I believe this to be the case in that if I am to continue writing of my experiences as a trans-woman while also working in clinical and/or educational settings, my anecdotal experiences would have considerable value. For guidance to be rendered in the most useful fashion a full disclosure would need to be offered. Since our meeting was going so well I decided to take the leap of faith and disclose. To my surprise the response was both heart warming and ironic. You must know that this is someone who has received training by one of the big names in sexuality and has counseled trans people in clinical practice and has considerable classroom experiences as well. For brevity I will paraphrase the response. "You are? Wow, I’m trained in this area and I should have known and I had no idea." How cool is that? We agreed to work together and I am now research topics with the plan of developing a presentation which I hope to deliver at a national conference next spring.

Such positive passing experiences have been integral in my development as an emotionally well-adjusted transsexual woman. I can only imagine how challenging it would be leaving the house each morning if passing were not a given. Also contributing to such a healthy development was having a nurturing and positive childhood which has continued in my adult relationship with my family. It is my hope that for others struggling to achieve such a stealth existence find methods of support in an effort to reach their individual goals. This can be done through support groups or trusted female friends who you can use as guides or teachers. In my case, I used neither.

Lastly, I would like to make it clear that in all of my writings I have used a pseudonym to permit myself a certain level of anonymity. When mentioning others I typically alter their identities. Whereas I am proud of myself as a human being, and of my resilience as a trans-woman, I am well aware that in the circles I travel I may not be accepted as warmly as I have within the trans community and among those I love. It is uncertain that I will ever let down my guard completely and attempt to live beyond the stealth I have so enjoyed; however, my work within both the academic and mainstream communities is, in part, focused on reducing the prejudice which befalls many of those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It is my hope that one day we will all be able to live as freely and openly as we chose.

Each of us must conduct a very careful appraisal of our lives prior to deciding to "go public" about our sexuality or gender status. In my experiences to date I believe that living openly as a bisexual woman is safe in most settings, however, a trans status still does not feel safe. I do not have the ability or desire to separate myself from my own transsexuality for it is part of who I am. I suppose that ignoring who I used to be would be analogous to spending life in the witness protection program. Passing (living seamless as a bisexual female), however, has brought me wide spread acceptance, considerable peace of mind and is one of the key elements to my present happiness and success.

Email: Grace Bock