The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives courtesy of the Project for Open Voices. Today’s essay was authored by Charles Martin Meins ’12. POV is currently seeking submissions, so check out this link if you’re interested.
One day back in October 2011, I sat down in the counseling center, knowing and dreading the fact that I was about to burst into tears. I explained this to my counselor, detailing this as a fear response, before I confided that I wasn’t genderqueer as I’d thought – I was transgender.
I sat there, a boy-faced senior with his hands clasped around a Styrofoam cup of tea, shaking in my sweatshirt and carpenter jeans, but I said it all the same. “I’m trans. I’m transgender.” I said this to my tea, to the wall, and only then did I risk looking at my counselor.
“I’m sorry…” she said (or something along those lines). Something full of compassion and concern, but also confusion. “I don’t know what that means.”
“I mean, I’m a guy,” I said. “I mean, I’m biologically female, but I’m a dude. I’m a transgender. I’m F-to-M.”
For someone who had no idea what I was talking about, she recovered well. She began to ask questions and I did what I could to answer them. “I thought I was genderqueer,” I explained. “When you’re not quite male or female, sort of, that’s genderqueer. But last year, I studied abroad. University of Exeter.” I pointed at my sweatshirt, the blue font on the grey proudly proclaiming this fact. “A transman came to talk to us at the LGBTQ table. I didn’t know that could happen. I mean, I knew about men who were actually women, but I didn’t know it could work the other way. But it can, so I’m a guy, and I don’t know what to do.”
I told her about how people would assume I was the boyfriend of my former roommates one day, and then tell me I was “much too pretty” to be a Charley the next day. I mentioned that after being told I looked like a girl when I smiled, I consciously stopped smiling for over a week. I brought up that time over Parents Weekend when a mother came into a library restroom while I was at the sink, ran out of the bathroom, checked the door, and then walked extremely quickly to the stall. I added that I’d stopped using all bathrooms beyond empty or single-stall ones.
More information, we decided, would be the first course of action. More info for the both of us.
That week, I returned to the Internet, scoured it for books and articles, and proceeded to check everything relevant out of the library at once. If it wasn’t there, I ordered it. Going to the checkout counter was terrifying. I was dressed with my most masculine clothing and holding about seven books, all boldly announcing my inordinate interest in transgender and transsexual individuals. I handed over my Kenyon ID upside-down, the only means I had of hiding my birth name and the photo of me with long hair.
The girl behind the counter scanned the books one by one and asked, “Are they helpful?”
“Are they helpful? The books.”
“Um, yes? They’re – they’re interesting.”
“I think it’s really interesting,” she said. “You get to pick a new name and everything, right?”
My heart froze and I said, “Yes.”
“Which one are you?” she asked, all curiosity.
“FTM,” I let out in a rush, and I was smiling. She couldn’t tell. She actually couldn’t tell, and she wasn’t assuming anything. “Female-to-Male. I’m a transman.” It was the first time I ever picked the word out of a swath of trans* terms to describe myself. Transman. That’s me.
“Oh, cool,” she said and handed me my books.
I left in a state of euphoria. I walked tall the entire day.
I wish it had lasted.
Because, really, there’s nothing quite like emailing four people just to determine who can tell you where you can use the restroom. No one in this chain of command actually knew. As it turns out, I was Kenyon’s first transman to ask this question. After days of waiting – on top of weeks of rearranging my schedule to use only intersex bathrooms – I got my meeting. There, I was promptly informed there was no policy, but I was welcome to use whatever bathroom I was most comfortable in. There was almost a sense of surprise present that I hadn’t known this on my own, that I hadn’t simply recognized how accepting and progressive Kenyon was and proceeded from there. Obviously, there would be absolutely no problems, never mind all of my fears.
It’s possible this belief was at least partially grounded in my appearance. At the time, my gender presentation was almost excessively male. Really, it still is. This is fully intentional, always fully intentional. My hair was very short, almost military style, my ever-present jeans remained themselves, and I wore a grey-blue button-down shirt over a Captain America t-shirt. When I asked at the end of the meeting, it was confirmed that I looked like a cis guy, also known as a man who had been assigned male at birth.
I realize that this is the third time in this narrative I’ve referred to the exact outfit I was wearing months ago. You see, any time I know I’m about to have a significant social interaction, I plan my wardrobe ahead of time, changing clothes and doing laundry if necessary. Sometimes, I do this days in advance. Then, during the interaction, I am hyper-aware of every motion, every lift in my unbroken voice, every shift of fabric over my chest, the way I cross my legs, the way I rest my hands, and a multitude of other gender markers. Depending on the interaction, I may be pumped full of adrenaline, ready to defend my identity against confusion. There’s nothing like fear and adrenaline to pound in a memory, I can promise you that.
What am I afraid of? I’m afraid of being treated as someone I am not. I’m afraid someone will tell me that my identity is not valid, that someone will think less of me as a man for having been raised as a girl. I am afraid that I will be misgendered and socially forced into a category where I do not belong and where I cannot live.
Misgendering occurs when an individual assumes they know the gender of another individual and refers to them by the incorrect pronouns or set of nouns. There are many clues we give others to show them what our genders are. One of the biggest can be your name. Names are important. Maybe it’s the English major in me, maybe it’s the incredible change that my life finally, finally underwent when I learned what the word “transgender” meant – but words have so much power. A word that is who you are is the most powerful word of all. A word that isn’t you, but that is forced upon you, is such a hateful thing.
So, when I went to ask about where I was allowed to pee, as a toddler asks its parent, I asked if my name could be changed on the Kenyon email directory.
“It’s just that, every time I send an email, I can sign ‘Charley,’ but that’s not the name that they refer to me as.” It was so often “Dear Birth name,” regardless of how I referred to myself in emails or even face-to-face communication. “Plus, anytime someone types in my email address, the wrong name pops up. Every email sent to all the students of a class I’m in? Tells everyone what my birth name is.”
“We can’t change that, not unless you legally change your name.”
“Are you sure?”
I changed my name.
Come spring semester, I presented my change of name documentation to the Registrar’s Office on the first day back from winter break. I endured roll call for two of my classes, correcting the female name on the list to my actual name, Charles. The second time, crowded into Philo with a hundred other students, my classmate laughed: how funny! That guy just got called a girl! That must be one hell of a mistake with the registrar. God, and he’s a senior, too!
That was on Jan. 16. Following this, I had to track down separate people to change the name of my email account as well as the name the school computers greeted me with when I logged on. It took about two weeks, but then, I thought, that would be that. I had my new Kenyon ID. This time when I checked out a library book, I could finally hand over my card face-side up.
When I went to the Alumni Dinner, there was a name tag properly spelled out and no one looked at me askance in my borrowed suit and father’s tie.
For every moment like that, there’s an instance where my CA wasn’t updated in my name and the sign on my door advertises that a girl lives behind it. There’s an invitation addressed to a girl who I am not. There’s the moment of complete and utter exposure when, sitting down on March 24th to take the comprehensive exam for my major, the proctor asks the room where a girl with my last name is. Ten weeks after presenting my change of name documentation, I had to inform the morning proctor as well as the afternoon proctor that I was not a girl. I had to do this in front of approximately thirty of my peers and I had to do it immediately preceding both halves of the most important exam of my Kenyon career.
And yet, somehow, for every moment where I am thrown into the open against my will, there’s been something amazing. There’s been Professor O’Neill going out of her way to explain the difference between gender and sex as we explored representations of masculinity in medieval literature. There’s been Professor Reinert’s sincere cry of “Congratulations!” when I told him I was officially switching pronouns after Thanksgiving break. There’s been Professor Mankoff’s patient advice and encouragement. I’ll certainly never forget Professor McAdams’ round of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” as she presented me with my coming out cake. There’s been the AVI staff, not blinking an eye as we continue to exchange greetings throughout my transition.
Most of all, there have been my friends. For those of us who hadn’t selected a gender studies class, we’d not had anyone to teach us, and so did not know that we could really use a gender studies class. As I educated myself, I often had to explain things to my friends. Even when confusion abounded, their support was and continues to be unwavering. They defend my pronouns. They correct acquaintances. They loan me belts and ties for formal occasions. And if you asked me what I wear when I hang out with them, I could tell you that I have absolutely no idea.
It’s taken a legal name change, countless emails, and more than a few moments of exposure and fear, but in May of 2012, I am going to graduate from Kenyon College as Charles Martin Meins, the rarest of a rare breed: not just a male English major, but a transmale English major. I am a Kenyon first, and where the administration has fumbled with me, I know they’ll make progress with others. That’s the point of Kenyon, after all: we learn.