I found myself sleeping poorly on Monday night. I tossed and turned for hours and when I stumbled into sleep I returned to the same dream I could not escape. My name was Pete and I was coming out, not as a homosexual, but as a transgender. I was going to become Petrina.
This would be a strange dream for me to have, since I am quite comfortable being a male. I have from time to time acknowledged my feminine side, but it has never manifested itself as an obsession or even a mild concern. I don’t read Vogue. I don’t secretly (or overtly) dress up in my wife’s clothes. I don’t dress in a subtle or not so subtle feminine manner. The only reason I was dreaming I was Pete becoming Petrina is because earlier that day the real life Pete (not his real name) in my life told me confidentially he was divorcing his wife, moving into an apartment, and was planning to spend the rest of his life as a woman. He would soon announce himself as a she, and she would be Petrina. In fact, he already had his name legally changed.
I do what I often do when confronted with one of these minor shocks in life. I breathed in sharply. I found myself blinking rapidly. I also found myself a little slack jawed. It was one of those few times in life I was truly at a loss for adequate words. It was hard to know what to say. I could not give empathy because it was outside my experience. I could not offer a handshake or a hug, in part because I see Pete only a couple of times a year and the news came via instant message with details in a private email. “Congratulations,” seemed a bit weak, as he was in the process of renting an apartment and divorcing a wife of more than thirty years, a woman who was presumably completely blameless in this matter. “I’m sorry,” seemed weak too because Pete had been struggling with being a woman in a man’s body all his life but like so many in the transgender community had kept it deep under wraps. Yet there was potential great good about moving to a healthy space where he could openly be a she.
In retrospect, there were signs that if I were paying more attention to them might have triggered the thought that Pete might really be Petrina. There is his long and clean hair that went halfway the waist. There is the soft voice, the gentle nature and the nearly flawless complexion for someone in their sixties. No wonder I liked him because I am gentle by nature and about as far away as you can get from the masculine, beer-drinking NASCAR-watching male stereotype.
Then there were the months he spent off the job for reasons that were not explained but were at least partially spent in a hospital. I thought he had been battling some terrible disease, like cancer, that he wanted to keep private. It sounds like he spent his whole life suppressing his feelings and confiding them in no one, knowing that doing so would only breach unbelievable pain for others, a problem a woman seems better able to understand. The conflict apparently came to a boil after many decades where the choice became quite simple: he would either become a she or he would end his life. After so much time he simply had to be publicly the she he was on the inside.
That’s why I was sleeping poorly. Because I really liked Pete, it was easy to imagine myself inhabiting his world, now that I knew he harbored this private pain for so many decades. As my brain wrestled trying to live inside his body, I could feel nothing but an overwhelming and relentlessly painful disconnect of the soul and spirit. How could anyone endure this pain for even a day, let alone decades? And yet even with the burden of such pain, where did he find the strength come out? He doubtless has many friends and a social and familial circle that extends into the hundreds. He is asking all of them to make a big leap of the psyche, and see him as a her, not to estrange themselves from her and knowing that probably most of them will anyhow. The vast majority of us simply cannot look much beyond our sexual orientation. It frames so much of our lives and the assumptions we make interacting with someone. How can we not resent in some way a man who falsely presented himself as a man? How can we not feel some level of visceral distrust?
What Pete has done has changed everything in his life. It is like a neutron bomb exploding, leaving everything living dead but structures still standing. At the price of estranging himself from almost everyone who he has known and loved, what he receives is only the ability to openly be the gender he is on the inside, not the sex he is on the outside. To reconcile the difference in the months and years ahead there will be hormone treatment, lots of psychotherapy and sex change surgery. Peter will be Petrina, but will Petrina find the acceptance of herself in society that she also craves? Or will society mostly look, if not run, the other way?
Petrina will be the third openly transgender person I have come across in the workplace. My first experience back in the 1987 left me completely flummoxed and tongue-tied. I feel ashamed now of how badly I reacted back then. I did my best to avoid her, although she apparently never underwent the surgery. The second occurred in the early 2000s when John became Georgina. I did not handle that change very well either. In part this was because Georgina looked ridiculous as a woman, perhaps because she was six foot two inches tall and retained the shape and stock of a male. I thought of Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H. In her case though I simply could not make the mental transition. In my eyes, John became John in a dress, not Georgina. The Georgina rendition seemed false. Again, I dealt with Georgina probably like lots of us ordinary people do, by minimizing my contact with her simply because I could not process the feelings and felt intensely awkward about the whole transition.
With Petrina, my relationship is far closer than it was with Georgina. Because it was, I think, some part of me could empathize. I could feel some of the pain that she felt. It both overwhelmed me and made me feel deeply sad. This time though I could process it better. I could feel for the person. And I knew that this time, at last, I could handle it without shirking Petrina and without smirking. At last I could reach out in sympathy and friendship. And I vowed that at least this time I would not be one of those who when she came down the hall ran in the other direction. In fact, I have vowed to treat Petrina no less well than I treated Pete, and to reach out to her in kindness and compassion, as one human heart who has known his share of turmoil to another.
I ended our IM conversation with, “I am so glad you told me about this, Petrina.”