Life in Limboland, Part 1: ‘He’ — or what the hell AM I, really?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

I kinda sorta rejoined the work world last September. The Fresno Bee, the newspaper that brought me out here eight years ago from Connecticut — and the very place that laid me off three years ago — brought me back, as an on-call copy editor.

Things would be different this time, though, as befitting a newspaper and staff that had been decimated over the previous three years — no benefits, and the hours weren’t set in stone. But since the rest of the already-stretched staff was facing furloughs the final quarter of last year, it meant, between that and the regular staffers’ sick days, that I would pretty much get full-time hours.

Okay, not ideal. But after 2 1/2 years without a job, four months after the unemployment ran out, and being fucked with every way to Sunday by the work world — more than 300 resumes sent out, 99.9 percent of them without the decency of even a “Fran, you suck” in return, and the few places that interviewed me treating me terribly — it was a huge sigh of relief to be able to make something resembling a living again.

I could pay the rent, pay off some bills, pay down the credit cards, and pay for some doctor bills should I need to. And, as it turned out, the money came in handy when my car was totaled a month later and I needed another one. And I came back to a lot of open arms and hugs from my ex-and-once-again colleagues. That was great. And I think it said something to the world at large that, in the midst of the newspaper industry’s self-destruction, the paper that laid me off thought enough of me to bring me back. And, for the first time, as a woman.

And, for the first time in a long time, I would feel useful. That’s a powerful thing. The worst aspect of my distended unemployment hell wasn’t the fear of being broke, as stressful as that was — it was the uselessness. The constant messages of worthlessness hammered into me from the world at large, and from God — whatever God is — itself. Try fighting that in the midst of the stress that comes with a gender transition, willya?

It was a good thing, going back to the Bee. It wasn’t going to be forever, but it would get me on my feet. And all would be well — a great springboard to much better things.

Well, seven-and-a-half months later, I find myself rut-stuck — trapped, even — in Limboland. For one, the Bee is in such straits that, even in a quarter of more furloughs, my hours were slashed to, for all intents, nothing two weeks ago. No warning, either — went from three-, four-, five-day weeks to one day scheduled in the coming month. I was called in last night, and it was the first work I had in nearly two weeks. My next scheduled day is two Sundays from now. Nothing after that.

And again, I find myself with no job prospects, not knowing where to turn. Same as a year ago. And the year before that. And the year before that. But that will all be another post, I guess.

But just as badly, I’m going through another nifty little bit of limbo that has me questioning everything all over again.

It all has to do with two little letters, which I hear a lot:

“he.”

Leading to the inevitable follow-up:

“What the hell AM I?”

I won’t go through this again.

*****

Just as I’ve worked my ass off to try to find a way to be employed and useful and solvent and find steady financial ground these past three years, and now find myself backsliding again, I’ve also worked my ass off to be this beautiful, bright, confident woman I knew I was locked inside for much of my life.

And I thought I had succeeded. But apparently, I haven’t. I’ve started the downhill slide on this side of my life, too. I’ve become the fat, ugly, unhappy guy all over again, only with a better fashion sense.

All along the transition, I’ve had these little plateaus of self-doubt — these moments of “Are you sure this is where you’re going?” All through the trip, especially since I started with the hormones two years ago this week, I’ve embraced these little speed bumps as kind of a safety check — this is for keeps, girl, and you damn well better be sure. And I’ve paused, asked myself “Could you ever see yourself as a man again?” and, knowing the answer full well, moved on to the next phase.

But apparently, even now, with a good chunk of time gone by, a lot of people in my life can’t seem to tell a “she” from a “he.” Some of it has been my fault — I ate myself out of shape last fall and, while I’m working hard on it, I still feel pretty disgusting at the moment.

But bit by bit, the Fran I hated so much in my past has crept back into my life.

But is it that obvious? Am I just a fat guy in drag at this point?

Am I really still that much of a man? And I know I still have the plumbing, but am I really still a man, period?

*****

I don’t think you in the everyday, non-trans world understand what sort of an insult it is for any transwoman to hear “he” after all the work we’ve done. Especially since I don’t pass as a male in the everyday world anymore. At least, I don’t think I do. Maybe I’ve been wrong all along. Maybe I’ve deluded myself.

I might not be a raging beauty, but I’m certainly on the attractive side. I clean up really well, doll up even better, and I’ve discovered an innate fashion sense — not to mention built a shoe closet — that usually gets me compliments. I certainly didn’t just slap on some ill-fitting, mismatched, body-inappropriate clothes and slather the warpaint on my face like a novice drag queen-wannabe and say, “Hey! Look at me!” On the contrary — a transgender living everyday in the real world does his or her damndest NOT to draw undue attention to themselves. That’s the whole point — in my case, so I can walk into a store or a restaurant or an airport or wherever and go about my business and no one knows, or cares.

(And case in point, at my usual Target this afternoon: I was being checked out, and the little girl in the cart behind me was wondering why the cashier wasn’t checking her and her father out yet, and Daddy — a beefy, shaved-headed, 6-foot-4ish guy in a Raiders T-shirt — said to her, kindly, “Well, she still hasn’t finished ringing her up. She still has a couple items on the belt.” Referring to me. That was one moment of reassurance today.)

And there are many days — today certainly being one — where I force myself into the shower, force myself to put on some styling clothes and cute shoes, force myself to do my face just right, and when I’m done, I feel like a human being. And sometimes I smile. Superficial, I know, but I force myself to remember why I’ve put myself through all this, and it makes me feel a lot better. Well, good enough to get myself out of the house.

If you only knew how much I hated myself in male form. Self-conscious from an early age.

This was a "he."

Never feeling like one of the guys, really, but rather, some creature stuck in some weird middle ground. And with the chronic depression that I came to understand way too many years later as mainly a hormonal imbalance, I ate myself so grotesquely out of shape that I still want to kick myself. I see pictures of myself as the skinny college dweeb 30 years ago and occasionally waste my energy and think, “If I knew then what I know now, I’d never have put on all this weight.” And I see photos of the fat, balding, ugly, unhappy guy in his 40s and — well, I don’t cringe, but I can’t look for very long.

*****

Put it this way: If a stranger came up to me and called me “he,” or asked “Are you a man?” I’d be in his face. Like flies on sherbet. And raging.

And actually, I was — a couple months ago, on my late-night grocery run to the WinCo in Clovis. Some really tall, long-haired, stoner dude (straight out of Kevin Smith casting central — 30s, long black kinky hair, white goatee, in his pajamas! and a coat) came up to me and asked, in his stoner voice, “Excuse me, I have to ask — are you a man or a woman?”

“Are you a man?” I shot back.

“Yeaaaahhhh …”

“Are you an asshole?”

“Huh?” he said. I was bracing for a confrontation. And obviously, he had a hard time processing …

“Are you an asshole?” I asked again a little more pointedly, the anger almost nostril-flaring at this point.

I gave him the homicidal, long-dagger stare and he started to back away very slowly. Thirty feet away, back among his buddy and their girlfriends, I kept my stare on him before I slowly walked away. I think it was long enough for him to understand, in his permanently stoned, stupid state, that he fucked with the wrong person.

I mean, I was pissed off at myself that I didn’t pass well enough. But his ignorance — I mean, who the fuck was he to ask me such a question? — was just flat-out rude! Anyway, his girlfriend came up to me a minute later and apologized for him, something he didn’t do for himself. Hell, it wasn’t her fault he was a douche — and I guess it said something about her own self-esteem that she was with this idiot in the first place, as she didn’t look like a very happy person in general.

But I’ve encountered assholes like him in the everyday world from time to time. I’ve come to expect it — just an occupational hazard. And it doesn’t happen very often, but I expect it’s gonna happen from time to time. And while I don’t like it at all — and I haven’t been in a physical confrontation with anyone since I was 14, and that was with my brother, so that doesn’t really count — I do keep the boy stored away close by for occasions such as this. And I have no problem bringing him out in the name of fighting ignorance. Though reluctantly.

I don’t like it when I have to boy-up in the name of self-defense. But lately, the anger in general has been a lot closer to the surface. Like today.

*****

Throughout the early stages of the transition process, I was realistic. I told myself, “Well, it’s gonna take a while to get everyone on board.” And I also told myself that, after an

Last time I checked, this was not a "he."

introductory period, only one person would get a free pass on the pronoun thing: the one out of whom I was yanked, screaming and crying, a half-century ago.

It was gonna be hard enough to try to get my parents — elderly, old-school Roman Catholic, living for decades in the small town where I grew up — to now see the firstborn son they’d known for nearly 50 years as their daughter. So I figured Mom gets a free pass. The rest of the world? Not so much. My friends? Yeah, some grace period. Of course. But it’s now been about 3 1/2 years since I started coming out, at least a couple years since I stepped up the process, and almost a year and a half that I’ve been on Facebook. Anyone who knows me knows at this point.

So how long is long enough?

I thought I was done with this shit. Yet, I’ve had plenty of people I know call me “he.” And it still happens. Out at the coffee shop or a bar, with people who really should know better. And sometimes when I’m standing or sitting right next to them … and in a friggin’ dress, to boot! I mean, do you think?

And it’s happened a lot at work as well. And I can’t stress this enough — none of it has been malicious. It’s been purely accidental. But it happens more often than I’m comfortable with. A couple of people have written me apology notes. I told one of them not long ago, “I’m starting to wonder whether I really pass or if I’m doing something wrong or what.” The response: “Just force of habit on my part.” From having worked with Frannie 1.0 for five years.

I get that. But again, when is enough enough? All of the people in my life have seen me or the pictures by now, and my transition was old news at the Bee by the time I returned. How many times do I have to slightly raise my voice and say “Heeeeeee?” because people can’t seem to process, after all this time, that I’m not a “he”?

It’s done a lot to chip away at whatever foundation I’d been building.

*****

Oddly enough, the one person who has truly come around? Mom.

I call the folks every week or two to catch up. And I called her one Saturday in early January.

Back story: My last name is obviously low-hanging fruit for mispronunciation, especially by telemarketers and Californians. And since my teenage years, when I would get the telemarketing calls looking for Mom, I’ve started off many of my phone chats with “Hello, Mrs. Fryed.” And for years, she’s responded with “Hello, Mr. Fryed.”

And this particular Saturday:

“Hello, Mrs. Fryed!”

“Hello, Mr. — I mean Ms. Fryed!”

Little victories.

Two weeks later, we were talking again, and she asked if I wanted to talk to my father.

“Pick up,” she told him. “It’s your son — I mean, your daughter.” And then, to me: “See, I caught myself!” A nice laugh on both sides.

*****

Part of this pronoun problem is my own damn fault, I’m surmising. I really let myself go to hell. I’ve touched on it before, but I didn’t know how badly I had let myself go. Things, like the pronoun problem itself, that I thought I had left behind a couple years ago.

I dropped a ton of weight — at least 50 pounds, maybe close to 60 — when I began the hormone therapy, as the estrodial cleared up 35 years of chronic depression. But I started struggling with the weight and the junk food a year ago at Lent — piling up on the Easter candy and the chips every other day or so — as my unemployment was running out (my last check came the day before Easter) and the job hunt was going terribly. Pure stress.

Thanks to near-daily bicycling through the summer, I pretty much had everything under control when I went back to work. But then I went haywire. And I blame myself, for sure.

Some of the editors at work have candy bowls or dishes that they replenish regularly, and it became a habit to grab some as I walked by, especially as Halloween and Christmas beckoned. Plus, there were the sedentary nature of the job and my failure to eat regularly, or buying crap food at Carl’s Jr. on the way in. By Christmas — even though I didn’t buy a single bag of candy for myself the whole season — I was bulking up pretty badly. Plus, my body was going through reproportioning that happens with female hormones: the boobs were growing, and my weight began to settle into my lower abdomen.

Anyway, I’m guessing that there’s something in us that’s been hardwired since the caveman days: Perhaps, once I became a little more solvent, I started eating everything in sight because I never knew when the money would dry up again and I would go through the financial struggle again.

And then, as I mentioned in an earlier post, right after Christmas, all the bad mojo and bad thoughts I thought I had let go for good came rushing back in a mad shitstorm. Plus, the weather was too raw for cycling, and with the weird winter, the pollen seasons started early and kept up for a couple months. There were days I could barely breathe, let alone get on a bike. (To friends outside of Fresno: I don’t exaggerate when I tell you it’s the worst air in the country — seemingly 13 months of pollen, plus the heat-inversion smog of summer. Respiratory problems run rampant here.)

One more bit of weirdness: I went for my annual cardio stress test and my three-month checkup with my regular doctor about three weeks apart. And when I was weighed, there was a slight discrepancy between the the two scales — about 55 pounds. Scales lie. But one lied less than the other. And the true test was how I fit into everything. My jeans, so loose last summer that I was thinking of adding another hole to my belt, were strangling me. I stopped wearing heels because the weight threw off my balance. My calves, feet and ankles grew too big to zip up my knee-high boots. Everything I wore screamed “maternity wear.” The extra chin came back. I felt just plain ugly.

And while I am making strides — I cut out most of the junk, didn’t buy Easter candy and I’m back on the bike — the clothes still tell me there’s a way to go.

So yeah — employment anxiety, pronoun problems and image problems all at once. Woo hoo.

And part of the body problem related to my lack of funds and health care as well. And I see the results in the mirror each morning and late night.

I still look in the mirror in the morning and see an ugly guy until I start to put my face on. That’s because I can’t afford the cosmetic things that would make me look and feel more like my true self. Electrolysis on my face and neck, so I wouldn’t see or feel stubble anymore. (Or risk ripping my skin apart shaving every day.) Hair restoration. I mean, my day-to-day wigs look real, but for all the real hair that’s grown back and thickened on me, I still have a huge thin spot up top. I’d like to rock my own hair again someday. And while I’m not gonna get a boob job, I do want some body contouring at some point — maybe some liposuction and a tummy tuck. Things I’d be able to afford with a steady job and benefits. Like I used to have.

Anyway, I wonder: If I were slimmer, maybe more attractive or something, would people still call me “he”? Would I be seen as Frannie 2.0 or just a fat guy in a skirt?

*****

It was an innocent Facebook post late this morning that set me off — someone from home, a fan of my New Haven Register writing back when I was kinda somebody, and actually complimenting me on my Levon Helm tribute, but referring casually to me as “he” in his post.

And I guess it was just the right wrong pronoun at the right wrong moment. The image thing, the pronoun thing and the work/money/worth thing, all rolling around, and he hit the right combination to open the tumbler. With all the limbo going on in my life right now, it could have been anyone lighting the match at this point. It was bound to happen eventually.

I put up a boy photo from five years ago as my profile photo and took down almost all the girl photos from my page. If people want “he” — well, there they go. They can have “he.”

I’m frustrated as all hell. I mean, I don’t know what I have to do at this point for this pronoun problem to go away, except to be a raging bitch about it, and I really don’t want to be one. It’s not my nature.

I mean, I shouldn’t be worried at this point about whether people accept me or not — and it bothers me, too, that maybe, to a point, I am worried about whether people, deep down, truly accept me. After all, I do what I do, and what people think of me isn’t really my business. But, acceptance or not, it does come down to a certain degree of respect at this point.

I didn’t know one little letter — one squiggly little “s” — would be worth so much and cause me such frustration. But it is, and it does. It cost me a lot, financially, physically and emotionally — and if you care at all for me, you’ll treat me as if it was worth it.

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2 Responses to “Life in Limboland, Part 1: ‘He’ — or what the hell AM I, really?”

  1. lauren Says:

    Hi Fran, i admire you for putting yourself out there in the real world. It’s tough getting all those facial expressions and body language cues right without having grown up with them. I think that’s what a lot of us miss, not having learned them from an early age. I know my carriage isn’t always what it should be and that can be a tell. Some times my voice gets that sing song sort of rhythm a number of girls and women use today. It’s fun when it happens. I really have to pay attention to my inflection and intonation also. Well, i must say you look very passable and feminine. You do have a good sense of style also. best to you , lauren

  2. Jackie R. Says:

    Hi Fran !
    We have just recently reconnected and I am glad that your wonderful writing has not changed a bit. Your passion and anguish come through clearly and I was profoundly touched by that. Being laid off from work and traveling through a decidedly life changing transformation is not easy to deal with all at the same time. But I can feel that you have accepted the new Fran in yourself, and you must have the patience for others to catch up. Yes, some people will be incredibly rude, but then again, we all have the capacity to ignore them or to react as you did. (Kudos for that….I was laughing out loud with that one ) That’s definately the Fran I know.
    When you get up in the morning , look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are the most incredible woman on earth. That you are talented, energetic, smart and witty. The body is just a casing that holds all of our talents, feelings and energies and emotions. Yes, we have good hair days and bad hair days, weight gains and losses, but it doesn’t change our spirit. We are who we are and no-one can change that or take that away from us. It doesn’t change what is in our hearts.
    So the next time you are angry or feeling down about your circumstances, just remember that things WILL get better, and better things are on the way. I’ve been down the “dismal” road a few times and I can tell you that better things always and I do mean always, came along. Just hold your head high and keep going ! The journey is definately worth it.

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