Friday Philosophy: progress report

I spent the morning and afternoon trapped in my apartment as workers painted the stairwell which leads to the only exit from the building.  The paint fumes were probably consuming my brain cells.  I  sacrificed brain cells in better ways when I was younger.

I had hoped to write about an attempt to save what has come to be called McClellan Forest in West Orange, NJ on the site of land once belonging to Major General George Brinton McClellan, organizer of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War…and former Governor of New Jersey.

Whether anyone has a positive or negative opinion of McClellan is irrelevant.  What is relevant are the 250 year old trees…and the resolve the Archdiocese of Newark has to replace the forest with athletic fields to honor the current headmaster of Seton Hall Prep.

But the files I wanted have not as yet arrived from the woman from the Sierra Club who spoke about the efforts on Tuesday.

So I had to come up with something else for tonight.  Maybe the 8 by 10 glossies and maps will arrive before next Friday.

Then I realized it was October 9…one day after another anniversary of THAT day.  And I realized that Sunday is National Coming Out Day.  Maybe it is time for another progress report.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my coming out.  If you didn’t read that, no problem:  there is a summary in what follows and a review of what followed.  It was written a while back.  In order to open the file, I had to reinstall Corel Word Perfect for Windows 95.  The piece predates that program.

While you take a read, if you are so inclined, I’ll go grab a snack.  I’ll be back when it is over…with some current news which I think can warm the hearts of even the most cynical of us.  Consider this an homage to NCOD.

October 8, 1992

Background:  For the previous 8 months, I had been trying to deal with my transsexualism.  I guess I had been successful in doing so to this point, since I was still alive.  It had been a close call, though, sitting in my living room with a butcher knife in front of me on a hot July night.  But I had forced myself to take a walk.  There wasn’t any rush…the knife would still be there when I got back.

I walked to Food-4-Less and sat on one of the railing of a cart-corral for a few hours, watching people go in and out.  It’s a strange place at 2 or 3 am.  Occasionally my depression would dip to new lows and I would go inside and walk the aisles, just to be around people.  I didn’t see anyone I knew that I could talk with.  I was alone on this…it was the way it had to be.

My former life was over, for all intents and purposes.  There was no way that I could survive that way anymore.  The question was whether or not I could survive in any form.  Long forgotten memories floated in my head, of other times when I had been in a similar place, of other places when I had to make a similar decision.  I had survived those times and places.  Around 4 am, I decided I would try to survive this one, too.

Walking back toward my house, I considered what this choice meant, and it was very scary.  Since my previous self was dead, I had no protection anymore.  I would be naked to the world.  It scared me enough that the decision I made was to quit my job and head for someplace new.  I would be jobless, penniless, and might not be able to cope with my new life in those circumstances, but staying where I was not possible.  At least I couldn’t see it happening that way.

But I was talked out of that course of action later.  I guess I was saved that fate by my codependency.  My wife (at the time) put a huge guilt trip on me.  She was almost through with her undergraduate studies…surely I could wait the semester it would take her to finish.  I didn’t know if I could.  But she promised to be supportive of my strides towards self-determination, so I bought into it.

I went up to school a few days later and talked with the assistant dean of my college, who happened to also be a member of my department.  I was very non-specific about my personal problems, but I told him I didn’t know if I could continue teaching.  He convinced me that I shouldn’t give up my career. So when mid-August rolled around, there I was for the start of classes, not looking much like my old self, having lost 65 pounds and a beard, but still trying to pass myself off as a male.

I couldn’t do it.  I couldn’t live that act anymore.  I felt silly at times even trying.  Sometimes I would get very down and cry all night.  And the support I was supposed to get from my “wife” was not there.  She would be out all night with her boyfriend getting stoned and couldn’t even be available when I needed to talk.  I had told a few people about what was happening, built up a small support group of 20 or so people, but it wasn’t sufficient.  Something had to give.

So I made an appointment with a therapist for September 30.  The nature of our health insurance was such that I knew that the diagnosis of gender dysphoria would be relayed to our personnel department.  The secret would be out.  The shit was about to hit the fan.

When the 30th rolled around, I went to school to teach as usual and taught my morning class like nothing was in the offing.  My mid-day class was different though.  That was my Abstract Algebra I class…math majors and minors and the first class they take in theoretical mathematics.  It opens the doors for them to proceed on past calculus into the upper echelons of mathematics.  Those that can’t pass through have to seek other majors.

The first exam was coming in a couple of weeks.  How could I distract them from that by subjecting them to rumors about me?  I decided that I needed to be a calming influence somehow, so I cancelled the class but invited them to stay to talk about something.  None of them left. I told them about my transsexuality and what that meant as well as what it didn’t mean.  I told them that I didn’t know if I would be there to teach them after that day…I had no idea what the reaction of the university was going to be.  They asked a lot of questions… which I endeavored to answer as honestly as possible.

When the hour ended, I walked to the math office, put a letter (the text of which was shared in that previous diary) to the chairman of my department on his desk.  Then I got in my car and left campus on my way to my first meeting with my therapist.

I heard nothing back from my chairman until Friday afternoon, after everyone had gone home.  About 3 pm, he called me into his office and we discussed the letter and what was going to happen.  My major impression from the meeting was that the reaction of the administration was not good.  They had held a meeting (Chuck, my dean, the president of the university, the school lawyer, and the head of personnel) to discuss the situation.  How nice it might have been if they had invited me along so that we could discuss it together, but that was not to be.

In fact I was told that any communication I wanted with anyone in administration would have to go through Chuck or Helen Russell in personnel.  I was also informed that they wanted me to take sick- leave immediately.  I declined that “offer” as I knew it would mean that I had abandoned my classes in the middle of a semester and that would mean that they would have grounds to terminate my tenure.

The upshot of the meeting was that if I was not going to take sick-leave, then I needed to communicate to my colleagues in some manner what was going to be happening.  I spent the evening deciding on what form such a communication would take.  Perhaps fear entered into the picture, but I opted for a letter again.  I did not have enough confidence in myself to speak to my colleagues as a group and knew if I addressed them one at a time, that before I told #2, #1 would be telling others.

(The text of that letter will be in the comment section, for the sake of shortening the part up here.)

I don’t know what exactly happened over the weekend…after I put the letters in the mailboxes on Saturday.  I learned later that some anonymous person had made copies and placed them on the desks of all the secretaries on campus.  Since we generally only have keys to our own buildings, I can only think that there must been some sort of collusion with people “higher up.”

A copy of the letter was also forwarded to someone at the local newspaper.  I found this out the hard way…I got a phone call on Monday from a reporter at the paper.  She said at first that “rumors” had been passed on to the paper from someone at the First Baptist Church (the largest and most politically powerful church in this community).  Since one of my colleagues is treasurer of that church, I had a pretty good idea where the rumors came from.

I answered a few questions rather defensively and in turn questioned why it was necessary for the reporter to do a story on this.  I was given the impression that a story would be done, with or without my cooperation.  I was rather on the spot and I had to make a rather rapid decision, so I agreed to an interview for Wednesday morning.

In the mean time several of my students (from the class I had discussed my situation with) had come to my office to express their support.  A few of my colleagues dropped by (all women).  A couple of them were somewhat supportive.  One of the supportive women told me, “I can’t say I understand this completely, because I don’t understand it at all, really.  And my first reaction was negative, I have to admit.  Then it occurred to me that I believe that a woman has the right to self-determination of her body when it comes to abortion.  Why shouldn’t you have the right of self-determination of your body?”

Not all of the reaction was positive, of course.  One of my women colleagues (what we call temporary fulltime…she does not have tenure or a tenure track, but teaches fulltime here) came into my office bearing all sorts of christian literature about being gay. She was in tears (I learned later that she was a former Miss Arkansas and married a very eligible lawyer with the intentions of living the idyllic southern married lifestyle, but that her husband had turned out to be gay.)

The departmental secretary told me that she didn’t agree with this at all (as if she was being asked to agree), but that she would attempt to work with me (how nice of her!).  To this day when she answers a telephone call for me when I am not in my office, she refers to me as “he.”

I didn’t want to spring this on the administration as a surprise, so I attempted to warn my chairman, who was out of town, my dean (same), the president (same), and the vice president for academic affairs (same).  Finally I got in touch with the school attorney and informed her what had transpired.  She said she appreciated the warning but had no additional comment.

When Wednesday morning rolled around, I got dressed in my usual androgynous mode and headed to school, trembling a bit about what was going to take place.  It turned out to be not so bad.  The reporter was not a native of the area, which was probably a good thing.  She tried to ask meaningful questions and I answered as honestly as I felt was needed (I did try to keep my sexual orientation out of it…I didn’t really think that every needed to know that).  I did stress that I was not a gay male though…in fact, no kind of male at all.

On the following date, October 8, 1992 (I knew we would get there eventually), the article was run in the newspaper.  I was now out, at least locally, to the whole community of 20,000+ people.

[I would include a copy of the article here if I had one, but my search last night did not reveal it’s whereabouts.  I have mailed copies to friends in the past and will get a copy in the future and post it to the list.  It goes here :)]

I wish that were the end of it.  It wasn’t.  The Associated Press picked up the article and spread it to at least 5 states.  The main newspaper in Arkansas printed a portion of the article.  I got phone calls from people in Missouri, Oklahoma, Louisiana, as well as Arkansas, and several semesters later had a student in a class that told me he read about it in the gay press in Los Angeles.  

I was told that it made the 6pm news on the 8th, as well as drive time radio.  Like it or not, I had become a “celebrity” or sorts.  I have not really had any privacy since.  There has been no question of me going out in public without people knowing who I am.  Some transsexuals worry a lot about “passing”…about being able to be in public without people knowing they once lived as the other gender. Sometimes I wonder what that must be like.

It turned out that 20,000+ was just a drop in the bucket.

It has been an event-filled 17 years since then.  There were steps forward.  There have been steps back.  I didn’t make an effort to keep a ledger as to how many of each.  Mostly I just tried to concentrate on trying to bring about some of that forward momentum.

I got a call Monday asking if I would speak at an event on campus…on Wednesday night.  I declined, largely because of the lack of time for preparation, but also because I had a meeting that afternoon to discuss the possibly of proving that one can go home again (see explanation in the comments) and also that I had a class to teach earlier in the evening.

Debbie and I were just too tired on Wednesday night to even attend.  Truth be told, we also didn’t want to here from anyone who was offended by use of the phrase in the title.  I am quite aware of how such a thought has been reacted to even in the liberal blogs.  But yesterday we received the following email:

Mu Sigma Upsilon, a sorority here on campus, planned a program that would ask students to openly discuss their feelings about issues related to being glbt.  I’ve been to a lot of programs over the last 15 years and heard some things that I wish I could forget.

Three (Gay/Non-Gay) Alliance members were present at the program, Is Gay the New Black?: India Powe, who helped make the program happen, Rashmi Jaipal and me.  It was an evening of amazing surprises and I left feeling more hopeful about the state of the world than I have since the night we elected Obama.

The students were so amazing last night that I almost cried:  35-40 people, gay, straight, black, white and Latin, having a nuanced and interesting conversation.  They were concerned about the stupidity of homophobia and several black students were angry that black people could forget their own suffering and exhibit prejudice toward another group.  At one point, India described BC as a gay friendly campus to general agreement in the room.  I still cannot quite believe it.  The overall tenor of the conversation that lasted two hours was that you are who you are; being glbt is no big deal and people should stop being prejudiced.

When we started the Alliance our hope was that someday we could disband because we weren’t needed anymore. Last night was the first time, I felt that we may be there soon.

I’ve cc’d Paul Bernstein on this message in the hope that, if I have the right address for him, he’ll be glad and proud of his work 12(?) years ago was central to our existence!  Linda Epps and Teri Corso: I know you’ll feel that way!

Succeeding?  Who’d have thunk it?

Just maybe that part of my work is done.

One can dream.

Skewed Vision

Attitude Change

Time passes

too slowly often

or maybe it just

insinuates that

Looking back

so many years ago

and comparing

what was to what is

And sometimes

just occasionally

we might notice

a change in attitude

While our laws

and protections

lag far behind

minds have been altered

I wonder

if I can rest now

–Robyn Elaine Serven

–October 9, 2009


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    • Robyn on October 10, 2009 at 12:02 am

    …of Arkansas and the fear opf diversity there and we moved to New Jersey, it meant giving up my career as a mathematics professor and finding a new line of work.  That turned out to be as a professor of computer programming, which I knew nothing about when I made the move.

    Now I have a chance to return to the subject I love.  It appears Thomas Wolfe was wrong.  Sometimes you can go home again.

    • Robyn on October 10, 2009 at 12:03 am

    …written before I had developed my voice:

    October 3, 1992

    Dear Colleague:

    Most of you have already noticed some major changes in my personality during the past year or so.  I have overheard comments from some sources that have been nothing more than poor guesses at my condition (“He’s gay.”  “He’s crazy.”  “He’s got AIDS.”)  I would like at this time to explain why this has occurred in my life and what will likely occur in the future.

    Nearly everyone knows or knows of someone that was born with a genetic disorder or defect.  It is my personal belief that I was born with one also, although the medical community really has no clue to what causes my disorder.  I suffer from “gender dysphoria”:  roughly speaking, I born with the wrong physical body for my psychological gender.  As a young child I felt very different from boys.  In the late ’50s I entered puberty and realized that the interior feelings I had didn’t coincide with the societal role my body was going to force on me.  My parents, and society at that time, could not or would not accept someone

    with this problem.  For the next 33 years I had to live a lie:  I had to behave as if my interior self was not in any way at odds with my visible gender.  I played sports, I dated, I did boy/man things.  Later I met Becky and did more man things:  I married and had a daughter.  These last 24 years with Becky have been often painful, sometimes joyful, but ultimately frustrating.  Becky is my best friend.  There were times when she was my only friend.  I regret that I could not be honest with her before we married, but that is the nature of denial, even culturally induced denial.

    The older generations of my family have passed on and I no longer feel the burden of trying to please them.  I must now try to please myself in the time I have left.  I wish to be comfortable with myself in my remaining years.  Therefore I plan to undergo hormonal therapy and have gender reassignment surgery to become physically female.

    Some of you will be terribly uncomfortable with this decision.  You may not be able to accommodate it into your world view, religion, or philosophy.  I don’t wish to impose my problems on any of you.  At the same time, I live to teach.  I happen to believe that I’m a damn good teacher.  Teaching is my means of affecting the lives of others.  I don’t want to give up this career.  The chances of obtaining employment elsewhere in a “new” position seem remote while I’m going through this process.  It is a very expensive process (the major surgical procedure costs around $10,000 and it is not usually covered by insurance).

    So I have to work.  Since I have tenure here, I’ll work here unless or until other arrangements are made with the administration.  Since all my friends live in this area, I don’t choose to leave it.

    Please try to understand that gender and sex are not the same thing.  This has nothing to do with homosexuality (although that community has been supportive of me), nothing to do with pornography (although most of the information I can get on the subject has been classified as such), nothing to do with perversion.  I have a medical problem that is going to be corrected.  If any of you want to talk about this, feel free to drop by and see me.

    (signed Robyn Elaine Serven)

    To my female colleagues:  One of the steps in the overall process is that I must live for a year “as a woman.”  If anyone can explain what that means in today’s society, I would be interested in hearing your views.

  1. knocked over.


    WHY was this even a news “story”? WHAT THE FUCK is in the mind of some person who learned of the “story” at work, confidentially Id assume, (I mean, its at work!) and decides its a GOOD IDEA to “leak” it to the local paper?! And then its goes to HOW MANY states?

    Im just … Robyn… stunned. What a horrific assault on you, your most inner personal core self, and these people… ugh….

    God bless you for your courage and fortitude.

    Ill be back.

    • Robyn on October 10, 2009 at 1:27 am

    …in Orange.

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