When I left my home in Fearrington Village to attend my nephew’s Duke Physician Assistant graduation ceremony not long ago, the woods were whirring with the sound of Brood XIX of the 13-year cicadas, an entomological phenomenon indigenous to our area.
They made a surrealistic and inorganic sound; like a spaceship hovering in the woods — a whirring, sometimes rising to a roaring, whirring din. Earlier during my morning run, I’d crunched many dead that had fallen out of the trees onto the road.
Recalling that exactly 20 years before, I’d also graduated from physician assistant school; I wore the same dark suit and shoes to my nephew’s graduation that I’d worn to my own graduation ceremony decades earlier.
One of my nephew’s classmates gave the keynote address. In it, she casually referred to her partner as “she.” I wondered: does she have any idea at all, of how lucky she is, at this point in her life, to be able to make such a public pronouncement?
I am a man—who over three decades ago, underwent gender reassignment. If the gift of my transsexuality had been known at the time, I would have never, ever been accepted into any medical or physician assistant training program. Not any. Ever. Period.
At my physician assistant school graduation ceremony two decades ago, when the celebratory whoops and cheers of my classmates rang forth, I could not share in their elation. Standing existentially alone, I bowed my head in dread. My graduation ceremony only heightened the pitch of my anxiety to a higher frequency.
Having grown up in a children’s home, I provided for all my education, with no financial help from my parents, or from the children’s home in which I’d grown up, or from the agency which had placed me there. At that time I had worried: what if after all my efforts at obtaining my education, I would be “outed,” and therefore not be able to get a job, support myself and pay off my school loan debt? My strategy had been to “hide and survive,” and it worked; but it was at the expense of many layers and levels of self-erasure.
The achievement of my bachelor’s degree in 1974 was thrilling to me. As a throwaway kid born female who’d grown up in a children’s home, I was not expected to achieve a degree or anything else. But somehow I completed my undergraduate degree in four calendar years without mentoring or financial support from any of those people who should have helped me.
Most devastating to me, early in my gender transition, was that I could not get my undergraduate alma mater to recognize my new name. Specifically, I could not get them to send transcripts of my bachelor’s degree bearing my new legal name. Therefore, I could not prove my degree to any employer, without also revealing the fact of my gender transition. Similarly, I could not apply to graduate school, because I could not substantiate my undergraduate degree.
On top of this, I was still paying off my school loan debt — for a degree that I was afraid I might never be able to claim I’d earned! It took every ounce of character to keep making those monthly payments. And as a consequence of my being underemployed, it took me 15 years to pay it off. But I paid every dime of that loan debt, which of course I had to do before I could apply for any more financial aid to attend graduate school. Try living graciously with that!
Today I will no longer hide my light. Today I hold my head high; and I will look you in the eye and tell you of my wasted years, gifts, talents and experiences. I tell you how living in deep stealth regarding my transsexuality and my childhood “ward-of-the-state” status was a slow, sucking death of my soul. Living a lifetime of fear and shame in stealth, robbed me of my childhood and young adulthood, and crippled my self-confidence.
In wearing the same clothes to my nephew’s graduation ceremony that I had to my own; I’d tried to vicariously feel some of that self-congratulatory exuberance I wasn’t able to experience two decades earlier.
After the day’s festivities and family fellowship at my nephew’s Duke graduation ceremony, I returned to my home late at night. And out from my back porch I faced the forest. As I searched out the sentinel trees, they stood eerily still, staring down at me. And as it is always so after dark, the cicadas had ceased their frenetic calling and were resonantly silent. The spaceship must have certainly landed.
But should I tell you? That silvery dome of a spaceship I saw the trees guarding that dark night — it was really just the full moon.
This is Blaine Paxton Hall’s first My View column. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org