He’s Not There (Part II)

He’s Not There (Part 2 of 2)

(In part one I wrote of the need to grieve the passing of Paul. After a brief interruption to respond to the Bruce Jenner interview, today I bring you part 2.  I will write about additional changes that affect all of my family and friends.)

As much as I might protest that Paul is still very much here, the truth is I have changed. One friend said, “I was always comforted by your gentle and reassuring masculine presence, and now that masculine presence is gone.” He is right. In many ways I have brought myself with myself, but in many others I am a new person.

I will not suggest I am a more authentic person, because I am not sure there is any such thing as authenticity. We are constantly creating ourselves. What we call authenticity is an attempt to create ourselves with as few artificial encumbrances as possible, stripping off the layers until you find a core self, breathing, evolving, growing.

With every shedding of every layer a new self emerges. I have a different physical body, a different physiological and neurological functioning. I have a new social reality. As someone who for the most part “passes” as a woman, I am treated as women are treated. (And in American society the difference is massive.) I am happier, calmer, more peaceful, less hurried, more settled. I am a different person.

Another complication of my transition is the realization everyone close to me feels the need to reframe the past. I wish they did not have to do so. I am still Paul, right? As a matter of fact I am not. The reframing is necessary. Was I ever Paul? Looking at family photos is painful for everyone. Burying Paul and beginning a new relationship with Paula seems easier than reframing an entire lifetime of experiences with the person you thought was a male. I did not understand how very difficult this would be for everyone.  My family and close friends have been wonderful, but it has not been easy for them.

I am sometimes asked, “Wouldn’t it be better if you had never married?” It is a fair question. First, though I knew at a young age something was wrong, I grew up in an environment in which discussing it, and certainly accepting it, were not options. I was without the knowledge, vocabulary or clarity to understand the gravity of my situation. Second, it was apparent to me I was attracted to females, so I thought, “If I try hard enough, I can become normal.” For decades I worked hard to convince myself I could “resolve” this and it would not have to be so disruptive.

Would anything have made it better? You bet! If gender identity and sexual identity could be freely discussed in a family and embraced without judgment, those of us who are trans or gay would never think of getting married with the hope it would make us “normal.” Thankfully that conversation is now happening in many places, but as Leelah Alcorn’s tragic story tells us, the church is not one of them. When your very identity is denied by your parents and defined as sinful by every authority figure in your life, it is a gross understatement to say it is not a conducive environment in which to come to terms with who you are!

But back to the question at hand. If I had known where this was all leading would I still have married? Some seem to think I am that callous. Those who know me best know that is ludicrous. But I discovered a long time ago I have no control over the projection of others. I have enough trouble dealing with my real issues to worry about those projected onto me. In the immortal words of Elsa from Let It Go, “The past is in the past.” The difficult truth is when I got married I had no idea where this was leading.

I am sorry everyone has to reframe their understanding of who I am. I wish they did not have to do so. But – I am. And everyone has a choice to either accept Paula or move on. It is clear most have opted to move on – parents, in-laws, long time friends, co-workers. It is painful, but not unexpected. I come from a world in which exclusion is easier than inclusion.

For all those willing to struggle through this change with me, I am deeply grateful. Every time someone decides to maintain a friendship, my joy is deep, my heart is full, and the love of Christ makes its way up through the cracks and fissures in the bedrock harshness of things.

And so it goes.

Bruce Jenner and Me

I usually get between 150 and 400 page views on my blog on a normal day. Yesterday I got 700. I’m thinking it was the Bruce Jenner interview.

Because I was on an airplane flying home to Colorado when the show aired, I did not get a chance to watch it until last night. I admire Jenner for his bravery and patience as he has dealt with the media. I deeply appreciated Diane Sawyer and the show put together by the producers at ABC. The clips and the people they interviewed were perfect. The tone of the show was compassionate and informative.

I did struggle to feel much compassion for Jenner during the actual interview. Maybe all those years in front of a camera have made him jaded. The New York Times article about the interview also noted an incongruity between the subject matter and his demeanor. Nevertheless, I did resonate with almost everything Jenner said about his experience as a trans person. At one time or another I have spoken almost every single word he said about being trans. There are far more similarities in our stories than dissimilarities. He said he felt he had been living a lie. I never felt that way. I was just struggling to be a male. That is hardly living a lie. That was probably the only major area in which our stories were significantly different.

I wanted to shout “yes” to a few comments. I hate when the media calls a trans person, “a woman trapped in a man’s body.” I have never felt that way. It is inaccurate, trite, and dismissive. Nobody is trapped anywhere. I am just trans, that’s all. I also loved when Bruce said simply but clearly, “My brain is more female than male.” Yep, exactly.

I do hope Time Magazine is right and we have passed the transgender tipping point. As Jenner said at the end, “Pease keep an open mind. We are pretty normal people.” Jennifer Boylan suggested if you are among the eight percent of the population who do know someone who is transgender, you develop compassion pretty quickly. Certainly if you remove the Evangelical population from my personal experience, I would be in agreement. Almost everyone else in my life has been absolutely great.  (And the few Evangelicals who have been supportive have been wonderfully so, sometimes at a cost with their coworkers and peers.)

Like Bruce Jenner, I too feel in many ways I have lived a charmed life. He said he imagined God “threw this in at the end” when he was creating Bruce, realizing he needed something with which to struggle. While I do not think God had much to do with me being trans, I do believe God is very interested in how I deal with it. I know I have not been perfect, but I am living honestly, openly, and with as much integrity as I can muster. And when that is the case, you sleep well at night, very well.

It is good to be me.


He’s Not There

He’s Not There (Part 1 of 2)

There are a number of good books on transitioning from male to female, including notable titles by Deirdre McCloskey, Jennifer Boylan, and Joy Ladin. Boylan’s book, She’s Not There is probably the best-known memoir of the genre. I do not have much to add to the discussion about pre-transition issues, but I would like to write about the trauma surrounding the post transition period. My working title would be, He’s Not There.

Early in the transition process I exasperatedly told scores, “I am the same person I have always been! Can’t you understand that? I am the same person!” However, I have learned it is not helpful to use that language. The vast majority of people do not see the same person. They see someone radically different. To most, Paul is not there.

Though I look out of the same eyes from which I have always viewed the world, the world sees with different eyes and those eyes do not see a man. Cathy does not see Paul. My children do not see Paul. My friends do not see Paul. They all see Paula. I was offended a year ago when a close friend said, “It’s a shame you can’t just have a memorial service for Paul and disappear into a new life.” I am beginning to understand the first half of his equation might not have been a bad idea.

People are mourning the absence of Paul. Even those sympathetic to my transition, maybe especially those sympathetic to my transition, are struggling to let Paul go. They loved and respected the person they knew. I had not shared my gender dysphoria with more than a handful, and for good reason. Just the information that one deals with gender dysphoria is enough to cause friends to scatter and work contracts to end. But it wasn’t just that I had not shared the struggle. The issue was exacerbated by the fact my looks and demeanor gave no clue I was trans. I hid it very well. For all of those reasons and many more, my transition was shocking.

I am no longer concerned about those convinced my actions were sinful, selfish, or self-indulgent. We are on such different wavelengths attempts to communicate are futile. However I am concerned about those who have been supportive of my transition. The euphemism we use for death, passing, is actually pretty descriptive of the experience most have had. Paul is gone. A friend and family member has died.

But of course, I am still here. Part of me is offended when people suggest Paul has died. I feel like Not Dead Fred from Spamalot. “I’m not dead yet. I can dance and I can sing!” I have all the knowledge Paul had, and more. But as I hear the same refrain, time and again, I cannot deny the feelings of many very good people. Paul is gone.

They are struggling because they were comfortable with Paul, even if I was alienated from myself. And the person before them bears no resemblance to the one they knew so well. I have learned that from the number of times circumstances have forced me to reveal myself unannounced to someone who previously knew Paul. Just last week Norma at the airline gate said, “Just show me your driver’s license and I can give you a new boarding pass.” “But you know me Norma.” “No, I don’t.” “Norma, I’m Paul Williams.” “No, you’re not.” “Yes, I am.” “No you’re not.” Then I show Norma my driver’s license and she says, “Oh my God!” It happens every week.

The truth is Paul is gone, and not only does everyone else have to accept it, I must accept it. My transition has disrupted life for a lot of people, and the tentacles reach far beyond my family. Maybe it would have been better if there had been a memorial service.

The most painful part of transition is how incredibly difficult it is for those I love. What I have to keep in mind is that the people closest to me saw my pain and feared for my life. And yes, it is difficult dealing with my transition. But they understand the other option was not having me at all. When one of my children was talking with a friend whose father had died, she spoke about the losses related to my transition. Her friend said, “With all due respect, I would welcome my father back in any form.” My daughter said that was a turning point.

This is all so difficult. Sometimes I think it is a wonder any of us are still standing. But one of the blessings of life is that we exist in time and space. Time is a great ally. And with the passing of time, friends and family can bring closure to the life we once lived, and move into a new era with a new reality.

The Obituary Page

His name was Robert McG. Thomas Jr.  The New York Times article said Mr. Thomas died at his summer home in Delaware just a few days into the new Millennium. His wife said the cause was cancer. Mr. Thomas wrote obituaries for the New York Times. He had done stints as a police reporter, rewrite man, society news reporter and sports writer before settling into his calling writing obituaries. The New York Times said he “developed a knack for illuminating lives that might otherwise have been overlooked or underreported.”

I often went first to the obituary page when I got my copy of the New York Times. I enjoyed thoughtfully reading about the lives of people of whom I had previously known absolutely nothing. I was not alone. In 1995 the New York Times proposed Thomas for a Pulitzer Prize saying, “Every week readers write to say they were moved to tears or laughter by an obituary of someone they hadn’t known until that morning’s paper.” Kirkus Reviews said, “Readers can be excused if they search out Thomas’s work before they bother with the front-page lead.” They said his obituaries, “celebrated the unsung, the queer, the unpretentious, the low-rent.”

Mr. Thomas saw himself as the sympathetic stranger at the wake listening to the friends and survivors of the deceased, waiting for that memorable tale that just happened to define a life. One of his admirers, a literary essayist, said he got “beyond the facts and the rigid formula of the obit to touch on – of all things to find in The New York Times – a deeper truth.”

The article described Mr. Thomas as a “tall man with wavy hair who spoke in a voice soft with traces of his native Tennessee.” Outgoing and gregarious, the week before his death he officiated at the annual New Year’s Eve party he had been hosting for 32 years.

Over the past year I have sometimes been tossed about and out of balance. It was not an enjoyable year. Many people do not mind fame, but no one wants notoriety. I got a little of both. The truth is I did not want to be any group’s pariah nor did I want to be another group’s cause. I just wanted to live my life in hope that I might make a little bit of a difference on this tired planet.

There is something to be said for a person who knows how to enjoy a good party and take to the page to celebrate lives that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Robert McG. Thomas Jr. hosted the party and brought those lives to light, shimmering and dancing on of all places, the obituary page.  If I am paying attention, there are many fellow travelers whose stories can inform my own, as I seek to navigate these shoals with thoughtful grace and an eye for the beauty found in the ordinary.

Quite the Conundrum

We took our granddaughter to see Disney’s new live action film, Cinderella.  Based on the positive reviews from venerable institutions like the New York Times and The New Yorker, I had high expectations.  I was not disappointed.

The film is beautiful in the way a Monet painting is beautiful, lifelike yet dreamlike.  Cinderella’s dress for the ball was gorgeous. Cathy and I couldn’t decide on the color so we called it “otherworldly blue.”  Lily James (Cinderella) looked stunning.  Then there was the wedding gown.  Oh my!

I cried during the movie – more than a little.  My granddaughter kept looking up at me, apparently questioning my sanity.  She was more taken by the new animated Frozen short that preceded the feature.  It didn’t do much for me.  After you’ve heard Idina Menzel curse like a sailor (and quite well) in her Broadway show, IF/THEN, it’s kinda hard to hear her as Elsa.

After my granddaughter stared at me with great concern for about the tenth time, I pulled my act together and held back the tears.  We went out for gourmet cupcakes (red velvet) and then Cathy and I drove home.  The very next evening I decided to see the movie a second time.  I needed to be alone, to feel my feelings and listen to the message in my tears.

I know why I cried.  When I watched the Disney animated feature as a child I was confused.  I did not know who I was.  Was I Cinderella?  Yes, I was.  Was I the Prince?  Yes, I was.  The confusion was terrifying.  Yes, that is the correct adjective, terrifying.  I just knew I was Cinderella.  Yet everyone told me I had to be the Prince.  Worse yet, some little part of the Prince resonated within.  Mostly Cinderella, marginally the Prince. It was quite the conundrum.  It might have been the first time I realized no one, oh no, not anyone, not a parent, not a teacher, not a single person on earth would be able to tell me who I was.  I was on my own.

I eventually came to realize my terrifying childhood response was so very appropriate.  I was both Cinderella and the Prince.  I was neither Cinderella nor the Prince.  I occupied the liminal space between the two.  But do not grieve for me, for I do know I am one of the heroes.  Because I chose to come out of the shadows and accept my invitation to the ball,  I am.  I showed up in my “otherworldly blue” dress.  Why the dress and not the Prince’s cream royal jacket and gold-striped pants?  Because I know I am far closer to the girl with the glass slipper than I am to the charming young prince.  I am mostly a girl, a woman, a female created in God’s image.

I have yet to encounter anyone from my old life who has met me and questioned who or what I am.  I am Paula.  They all know it, see it, don’t question it.  It is just who I am, confusing but certain.  The same seems to be true in my new world, the one in which Paul is the hidden one, not Paula.  Today a female worker at Walgreen’s asked how tall I was.  I told her I was through the roof.  She asked if my husband was tall, or my children.  I just said no and left it at that.  That is my life, treated as a woman and comfortable in this softer skin.

The granddaughter we took to see Cinderella is quite the six-year-old, bright, articulate, observant.  Last year she settled on the name she would call me.  Unlike her twin cousins who christened me GramPaula, she decided my name was Paula Blossom.  I love and cherish both names.  I will never bear children or go to the ball, much as I would like to have done so.  There is no fairy tale for me.  But there is a blossoming that makes all the pain and loss bearable.  I am Paula Blossom, not quite Cinderella, but close, very close.

If this touches you, wonderful.  If it makes you want to throw up, it might be best if you quit reading my blog.  If it leaves you confused, join the crowd and hang in there with me.  This is quite the ride.