On Going “Full-Time” – Part 5: Sacrifice
[penultimate in a series exploring events that led up to my transition announcement.]
Two weeks after I had inadvertently “gone full-time”, I found myself in an awkward situation. I was stuck in gender limbo, the great wide territory between male and female. I’m a bit in awe of my nonbinary friends who, like hearty pioneers braving making a home in an unknown desert, intentionally seek out and claim this space. I’m just passing through on my way to a fabled, kinder coastal land.
I still occasionally get carded at bars or while making credit card purchases, and while a casual glance might not notice the ‘M’ gender marker, they’d likely see the full, obviously masculine form of my birth name, and there’s no way to miss that I’m rocking a receding hair line and full beard in the picture.
In one six-hour period (now several weeks ago), I twice flustered innocent young women unwittingly serving as restroom gatekeepers. At a private arts club where I was joining a philanthropist friend, I asked the coat check where the restrooms were. She turned red, started a long “ummmm”, finally sighed, cracked a resigned smile that seemed to say, ‘I’m really sorry, but . . ‘ and replied, “The men’s room is to the right; the ladies’ room on the left.” Earlier that day, at a cafe where the keys were kept behind the counter, I rescued the clerk from her mortified stalling by assuring her than I need the key to women’s room.
And though many people in my life knew I had begun transition, not all did, and no one in my daily life knew me as ‘Jen’ or was even thinking about changing pronouns. Meanwhile, in my online life as Jen, I was avoiding any mentions of my work, which I’m tremendously proud of, in fear of being outed to people I hadn’t talked to yet. It was the life of a split personality, one I was finding increasingly exhausting. Further, some of those closest to me, out of respect or affection, wanted to begin changing pronouns, but I didn’t want to burden them with explaining to others who might be confused as to why they were saying “she” when all knew me as “he”.
So, while upon reflection I thought I had “gone full-time”, I began to suspect that neither a shift in self-perception nor an appropriately gendered appearance to strangers were sufficient. In order to truly arrive, to stake a claim in the land I had snuck into, required more. I needed a conscious act, one that would bring together the private and the public, that would honor both self and other. But what?
The shortened form of my given name is gender neutral, which I thought a terrific advantage at first. No one had to relearn my name! No legal paperwork! Nice and easy.
I was scared. No, not scared . . . terrified. There was an inchoate awe in my dread, something bigger, deeper in this. The thought of changing my name tied my stomach in knots. But why?
Then it hit me.
I had gone as far as I could on my own.
That was it.
Up until this point, I hadn’t asked anything of anyone else. My stubborn, willful individuality had carried me extraordinarily far. but my life was still split. And even if strangers referred to this body with ‘ma’am’, the nexus of linguistic usage that is me, the words and referents comprising most of my existence, was male, was [birth name]. If I wanted to be seen as female, if I wanted one life rather than two, my identity would now have to include the participation of others. To be recognized as Jen, I’d have to ask people to call me Jen.
I vaguely recall hearing it once claimed that “humans are animals that names things”. Or maybe I just made that up. Either way, it’s not without reason that many foundational myths include such bestowing as one of the great and primal acts. My personal definition of humans is that we’re animals that tell stories. And isn’t storytelling really just connecting names to verbs?
The single most pervasive trope in western culture is male self-sacrifice. From Osiris, Socrates, Jesus and Odin to Neo, Harry Potter and electrons, our texts can scarcely conceive of gain without an antecedent giving up. Inasmuch as ritual is the broker of change and an enactment of the negotiation between the profane and sacred, it demands sacrifice. Inasmuch as my personal desire to alter the identity I’ve been given requires ritual, I recognized that I must give something up.
I may have also laid, or in the future may well lay, a part of my flesh upon the alter, a more profound sacrifice for a more profound gain, but that is a private ritual, one that does not require any other but the Other. For now:
My first sacrifice is the name I was given.
My first claim is the name I have chosen.