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Last semester I returned to college for the first time in 15 years. I had two purposes in coming back after all these years. One, I wanted to take a psychology class to help me understand what the "scientific" community thought of transsexualism and the differences in brain sex. Two, I wanted to "undo" my bad memories of college as a man and replace them with a college experience as a woman.
I did not know how my age might affect my social status, nor was I really sure how to be "one of the girls" in an educational setting. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. College these days is filled with people seeking second careers as the job market shrivels, so I was not alone in my bracket. Besides, I'm rather with it for a 40 year old chick (except I keep using dated phrases like "with it").
Anyway, I felt so much more comfortable this time around than I had before. One girl came over and introduced herself on the first day and we decided to be study partners. She was the first close girlfriend I ever had who did not know my past. We went several places together over the course of the semester: breakfast at IHOP, study sessions, shopping for bras, etc. That's why it was a tough decision to tell her about my past.
About this time in class, we were studying the nature of relationships. We learned that there is a significant difference between the factors that make a good short term relationship and what is needed to create a long term relationship. In the short term, first impressions are VERY important and very hard to overcome. However, in the long run, a relationship can only survive if the parties make "self disclosure" about all the things, good and bad, that surround their lives. If one wants to take a friendship from casual to close, one must disclose.
I fretted over the decision for weeks, knowing that I would not feel honest and could not let the friendship grow without coming clean. Yet, I did not want to jeapordize my relationship with the first woman to accept me as an equal. Close to the end of the semester, honesty won out. I waited until an appropriate moment, then told her as we walked back to my car, as I was taking her home that day. The way I filled her in was by letting her read two of my psychology assignments in which I had referred to my transition.
For the briefest of moments she was taken aback, but after just a few minutes, it was like I had told her something that brought us even closer. She saw none of the old me and simply felt honored that I had chosen to share with her.
Bolstered by this, I decided to take a chance and share with the entire class - partly for honesty, partly for curiosity, partly to get ready for the expected scrutiny of the press I will experience as a result of the story development software I co-designed, and partly to gather some data that might help others in similar situations.
I approached the teacher, who was also my counselor and therefore already new my past. He said I could have a full class period to lecture on transsexualism. On the appointed day, he began with a brief discussion of human sexuality, then said, "We are fortunate to have with us in this class someone who has gone through the transsexual experience." Everyone looked around to see who it was. I got up and noted the surprised faces.
I gave a 40 minute presentation to good effect and received many words of praise for my courage, honesty, and success in transition. I had no negative effects after the class, and was involved in many more conversations, with both men and women that I had been for the previous part of the semester.
This experience alone is useful, but I realized at the time that hard data was even more important. So, before I started my presentation, I asked everyone in class to take out a sheet of paper and anonymously put down their feelings as I went through my lecture. At the end of the class, I collected their comments. I reprint here as a guide to what civilians think of transsexuals when forced to confront the issue in an unexpected moment.
"As a human to another human, I admire your openness. I think your intelligence helps carry across your story without shocking the listener. You carry yourself with such confidence that I feel comfortable asking you questions. As you noticed I used the word human. This is because I see you as a person, like me. Therefore your accomplishments mean more to me than your sexuality and I don't believe you need to "out" yourself unless it makes you feel better".
"I admire you for doing what you did because you really wanted to and you did! I don't think any different about you, but its nice that you're happy. Thank you, Melanie! You should be a guest speaker in many classes. I learned a lot.
"Surprised! NO WAY! I never knew anyone who was a transsexual. I'm glad you didn't relate to little boys because they turn out (most of the ones I knew) to be jerks! Sorry about generalizing! Honestly, it was scary to hear about it at first. But if you're happy, that's great! I want to find out what your name was as a man. You seem so much happier as you talk about the change."
"I never would have guessed it. It's amazing how well you took your whole ordeal. You also seem to know so much about the subject of sexuality. Have you ever thought about teaching in a university?"
"There's a million things going on in my mind, but I'm just completely shocked. I've never met anyone that was a transsexual. I don't know what to say. I never thought that I could accept someone like you, but I do. I give you a lot of credit for doing what you did and what you are doing. Good luck with your life!"
"It's your choice to do what ever you want, but I was always taught to live with what God gave you. After looking at your pictures, I really don't believe everything that you are saying. But I wish you happiness and a long, good life."
"I would never have known that you had gone through transsexual surgery. It is surprising, however, does not change the opinion I have of you from what I have seen. I can't imagine how difficult this must have been for you. I find it very interesting the feelings you had throughout life. As I sit here and look at you I can't believe you were a man. I would imagine it is interesting to see how people treated you as a man vs how you are now treated as a woman. I think it's great that you are happy and feel comfortable sharing your experience with us."
"I found the lecture very interesting. I find that you're very comfortable with your new identity and I think that's great."
And the professor wrote:
"The students are RIVETED. Interested that you fantasized about being female at age 7. Your presentation is very matter-of-fact, so not so scary or sensationalized. "Picking the birth control pills out of the mayonnaise" really legitimizes your actions - that really shows me the depth. You will be interested in 'cognitive style mapping' which is a developing discipline within educational psychology."
My conclusions, based both on what I learned in theory and what I experienced in fact, is that the more you are comfortable with yourself, the more others will be comfortable with you. As for telling vs. not telling, I think honesty will always win out on the average. As for when to tell, first impressions ARE very important. Don't wear a sandwich board advertising your change. But when you have grown to know someone and feel the friendship might have long-term potential, then its time to tell. It may blow the whole thing out of the water, but better at the end of a short term relationship than in the middle of a long term one.
So, gather what you can from this experiment in disclosure, and please send in any experiences you have that can guide others to be more secure in their decisions.
Here are the two psych papers I let me friend read in order to share my past with her:
As a transsexual, I needed to develop a whole new set of reactions and behaviors that were both socially appropriate to my new role and at the same time true to myself. I soon found that the difficult part was not in changing my actions, but changing the way I organized my thoughts from years of "training" as a male. I decided to employ a combination of Classical Conditioning and Cognitive Learning.
Unlike Pavlov, I could not directly stop the conditions stimulus that led to each conditioned mannish thought and wait for extinction, as I was not aware of the stimulus until after the thought occurred. But I could in each instance identify the stimulus and create a second order conditioned response of a new thought that I cognitively attached directly to the first order stimulus by connecting them together in an association. I would hold or repeat the new thought in contingency with the stimulus (essentially rehearsing the association) until I felt it had set into long-term memory.
Eventually, the new conditioned responses had been experienced more than the old in reference to the same stimuli, and slowly began to supplant them. Over a period of time, my mind adopted an entirely new wet of "appropriate" conditioned responses.
but a real surprise came when I read an article one day about the history of elementary school children visiting the old Griffith Park zoo. The article had pictures of several of the classes from my time in school. I began to look and see if I could find myself in one of the pictures, and then I stopped, amazed at myself. I suddenly realized I had been looking for a little girl.
Apparently, in the process of transferring the connection of stimuli from old Conditioned Responses to new Conditioned Responses, I had also diminished old memory cues and created new ones as well. From one pathway at least, I had experienced cue dependent forgetting in my long-term memory, but more startling than that, I had actually created a new cue pathway to the same memory that altered my understanding of reality. In a sense, I had rewritten my past.
As a transsexual, deciding if and when to tell others about my past is an area of much concern. In my first job as a woman, I did not share my background with other employees. I was accepted, but I felt I was lying to them. So at my next job I was upfront with everyone, but they were cold and stilted. However, I could not tell if it was their rejection or my insecurity.
This was one of my major reasons for returning to college after a twenty year absence: to make some new friends as a woman. but just how much could I loosen up and still keep my secret? As I began to relax and be myself, due to the effects behind Skinner's "Cyrano" study, any non-typical behavior was accepted as Opinion Molecules, and did not influence their assessment of my gender. Also, Solomon Asch's study of conformity came into play as the tendency toward conformity in the social atmosphere made it unlikely that anyone would mention anything should they suspect. This was aided by the Fundamental Attribution Error, which led them to assign the causes of any oddness in my demeanor to my disposition, not my situation.
To test this, I intentionally lowered my voice farther each day over a one week period in Psychology. I finally saw some curious glances and backed off to my original level. I had reached a MUCH lower voice than I could have with people who did not know me. The Primacy Effect in conjunction with Conformance and Attribution gave me much greater leeway than I would have in a "cold" crowd. These factors all served to support Familiarity as the second most important factor in short term relationships, and allowed me to loosen up a bit in my demeanor.
But I still felt incomplete in that I could not share my first thirty-six years. I determined to discover how important First Impressions truly are by developing some "test" relationships. I began performing at a local coffee house some weeks ago until they got to know me. Last night I delivered a five minute stand-up comedy routine as the "world's first transsexual comedienne." The reaction was initially one of startled surprise, but then admiration and comraderie. Best of all, I could be myself and still be accepted. Apparently, the Primacy Effect makes it better to give people a chance to know you first. In addition, because I no longer look, sound, or act like a man, the Recency Effect is diminished when I finally do disclose, as the only Cognitive Dissonance is in their knowledge not their observations.
But what about long term relationships with people I want to have as close friends? By far, the most important factor in a long term relationship is Self Disclosure. This leads me to believe that eventually sharing my past will not only free me to express all that I am, but is a prerequisite to any meaningful relationships to come. Certainly there will be an attrition rate of those who cannot deal with it, but those who remain will truly be my friends.
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