Friday Philosophy: Choosing to become an old woman

September 30, 1992:

  • Mariel Hemingway appears nude on the TV show Civil Wars.
  • George Brett gets 4 hits to raise his total to 3000.
  • Hurricane Bonnie dissipated (a private irony).
  • University mathematics professor begins transition in rural Arkansas.

It was a very difficult decision.  And at the same time, it was a very easy one.

I had grown up as a boy.  I had spent a very good deal of my adulthood as a man, for the sake of my family.

But I didn’t want to grow to be an old man.  I chose to grow to be an old woman instead.

I ask you: who should have the right to deny me that?

Actually, it was five days short of seventeen year ago rather than twenty.  And nobody taught the band to play.  And, come to think of it, there was no band.  Just me by myself, trying to learn to survive in the new world that was opening up before me.

Or die trying.

And the music did often have the sound of a dirge.

I sometimes wish I had a better record of those times, beyond the few poems I had written beginning in June of that year.  And the letter.  Ah, yes, the letter.  But before December of 1992, I was not yet connected to the net.  I was devoid of community, people to talk with about what was going on inside of me.  I was more or less alone.

Five days before September 30, 1992, I was quite probably composing the letter.

Around the beginning of that semester, I decided that this staying in the closet thing just wasn’t working.  I felt like I could stand in our living room and stretch out my arms in opposite directions and touch both walls.  As time passed, it seemed that what was truly the case was that I could touch both ends of my world…my universe.

I was not totally without resources.  I had gone to the library and studied whatever I could find about transsexuality…which was remarkably little, considering this was a university library.  And I knew a few people, like Jennifer P, who was first president of the University of Central Arkansas’ Lesbian and Gay Students Association, of which my own daughter, also named Jennifer (it was a popular name that year:  our daughter was named after Jennifer Warren, of Hair fame).  Both Jennifers had been in my Pre-Calculus class a few years earlier.

Knowing that I was going to need a therapist, I asked Jennifer P. if she knew of anyone.  She gave me the number of Ralph Hyman, who suggested that maybe it would be better if I saw Kurt Wilhelm, who was to become my primary therapist.  I was later became the first trans member of Ralph’s gay and lesbian therapy group sessions.  The first available appointment that Kurt had was on Wednesday, September 30.  I took it.  

It was not lost on me that this was my deceased father’s birthday…just like it is not lost on me that this coming September 30 is a Wednesday (which is not exceptionally odd, but I thought I would mention it).

Bill and I

Spring, 1992

So anyway, I had some time to wait.  I don’t remember exactly how much.  But I do remember I was treading a very unstable high wire.  Seventeen people knew I was transsexual.  Other people just thought I had undergone a huge change for some reason…was either going crazy, I had reported to me, had AIDS.  I had lost a lot of weight.    And had shed the beard I had sported since I was discharged from the Army.

Note:  Why would a transsexual woman have worn a beard for 19 years?  Probably because I had been a hippie in the Haight in my younger days.  Possibly because it is easy to hide one’s emotions behind a beard.  And quite likely because shaving one’s face is one of the most quintessentially masculine activities there is in this society.

Me from the same angle

(my office, December, 1992)

So I wrote the letter.  In order to afford being able to see a therapist, I needed to have it covered by my insurance.  In order to get paid by the insurance company, the therapist would have to provide the diagnosis, so the insurance company was going to know…and through them my HR department.  That is, my employer.

Feces, please observe yonder air propulsion unit.

For better or worse, I developed a plan.  I would come out to the students in my Abstract Algebra class and tell them, no matter what happened in the next few days, it was important for their educational careers that they study hard and do well in the first exam of the semester, scheduled for the following Monday.  And I would tell them that even if they never see me again in front of them, I had enjoyed interacting with them and all the years I had been teaching at UCA.  Then I would cancel the rest of the class, go drop off the letter the chair of the department and head for Little Rock.

And that meant having to write The Letter.

I’m sure on the day in question, my nerves were completely shot, that I was a total wreck.  But I tried to keep a smile on my face as much as I could.

Crushed World

Rendering a Person


separating me from

almost everyone

closing in




the life

out of me

I could die

or I could let

the compactification


the new me

the real me

out from within

Was it really a choice?

–Robyn Elaine Serven

–September 25, 2009

Oh.  Yeah.  The Letter.  I once wrote a poem about it.  And I have shared The Letter online before.  I wish I had been able to say things as elegantly then as I have learned how to do now.  But that was then and this is now.

Unfortunately, it seems to make the essay too long if I include it, so it will be shared in the comments.


Skip to comment form

    • Robyn on September 26, 2009 at 12:02 am

    …just as soon as I find the html error(s)…and perhaps a bit of a rewrite to do.

    • Robyn on September 26, 2009 at 12:30 am

    {Note:  As I look back, I notice that I would not use some of the phrasing in this letter if I were to write it today.  It reflects my lack of knowledge about and understanding about what it really means to be transsexual.  Hence it is rather full of cliches.  I didn’t know any better.}

    Dear Chuck:

    I’m writing this as a letter rather than speaking to you in person because it concerns a personal problem which is difficult for me to speak about to most people.  This problem has raised in my mind many peripheral problems, some of which have troubled me at work and caused my recent “attitude adjustment.”  Since resolution of these problems and the original one will concern you in your position of chairman, I will try to explain. Please read the entire letter before you react to it.

    I am sure that some, or perhaps many, of my colleagues have questioned my recent behavior.  I recently heard that Brenda, for instance, asked Peggy, “What’s wrong with (previous name)?”  This question errs on perhaps two points.  The first concerns the word “wrong.”  From my point of view, my life has been “wrong” for the last 33 years and has finally been getting corrected during the last nine months.  It has been unfortunate that this has occurred simultaneously with several different but ultimately related concerns (my concerns with what I perceive to be repression on campus, in Arkansas, and in American society, as well as what I perceive to be an undervaluing of my contributions to the department).

    • Robyn on September 26, 2009 at 1:13 am

    Chuck told me that THEY had had a meeting…THEM consisting of him, my dean, the president of the university, the school attorney, and the head of personnel (it would have included the VP for academic affairs, but he was out of town).  We immediate thought was:  “Why didn’t WE have a meeting?”  Chuck told me he was to be the conduit for any communication between me and THEM.

    He voiced the “concerns” of those at the meeting:

    “How does ‘he’ know?”

    Gee, Chuck.  How do you know who you are?  That seems to be one of the central questions of philosophy for the past couple of millennia.

    “If ‘he’ wears a dress to class, he’s out of here.”  –President

    Oh, how wonderfully enlightened!  Well, Chuck, I don’t currently have any dresses appropriate for the classroom and the weather, but I will let you know when I do.

    I give up on fixing the html for the rest of this dialog.

    He also told me that I was required to write an explanation to distribute to my colleagues.  I put the explanation into their mailboxes on a Saturday.  On Sunday, one of them made copies and distributed it far and wide.  Within a week, there was and never would be again anything close to a closet for me.


  1. … that’s a good word for you.  Maybe it’s the math part, lol — I read somewhere that certain equations and mathematical constructs are considered “elegant.”

    Something about autumn makes me think I’ll be hanging around Muse more often.  It’s been a real poetic season in our neck of the woods.

    • Robyn on September 26, 2009 at 2:02 am

    …in Orange.

    • BruceMcF on September 26, 2009 at 3:49 am

    Soon to be married in secret, because it would be a scandal in Central Africa to be married without the knowledge of the parents and family, so it was not until I had inherited some money and could give my mother in law $1,000 that we made the fact of our marriage known to more than a few close friends.

  2. and to let us in on your life.  

    Now did you REALLY want to be a crone? 😉  

    I say this as the husband of a wiccan mother/crone.  

  3. I`ve said before I don`t understand much of your journey, but you are one of my heroes for being who you know you are.

    I don`t know if you remember my curiosity, but I don`t have it any more, I`m just impressed.

    I love you for who you are.

  4. I forgot to mention that “old woman” will come, but it`s obviously a way`s off, although I know what you mean.

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