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The Naked Truth

wig offSo, this happened. The running narrative inside my head had the wheels come off this past weekend. More specifically, I ran that train right off the track and still processing a bit as I was taken by complete surprise in more ways than one. The narrative is that of mighty, unbreakable Michelle. Unflappable Michelle. Fearless Michelle. First in the fire, no man left behind. I love this narrative as it gives me confidence, or at least the reasonable illusion thereof, much like a pair of Underoos did as a kid, never mind the absence of Wonder Woman in my drawer.

I had a class assignment due this weekend that involved presenting on four personal artifacts; two each representing symbols of personal privilege and oppression. It seemed easy enough, holding both white male and trans female cards in my hip pocket. I brought in an old necktie and my employee badge to speak to my privilege, one from each side of the fence that divides my life. For oppression I picked a comic book to illustrate my adolescent geekery, from long before it was chic-ery, and an old wig to illustrate the paradigm that ‘women have hair’. I volunteered to go when no one else wanted to, and in this case it meant last.

As the presentations progressed, I was overwhelmed. My classmates, my cohort, are wonderful people with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures, religions, and of course personal experiences. Every single one of them shared right from the heart, and more than once I felt tears well into my eyes. A video of black children being shown dolls, one black and one white, with the children identifying with the black doll, but calling the white one the “good” doll, the pretty one. Stories of switchings in foster homes. The unimaginable pain and loss of an ancestral culture slowly wiped out as the world looks on with disinterest. “I have nowhere that is really home” Persecution, belittling, and shame over faith, hairstyle, and appearance. The lone while male even demonstrated courage in admitting that he had no symbols of oppression. Everyone there lay their pain on the table with frank candor and vulnerability.

I sat there, with my little bag of artifacts and well-rehearsed dialog rife with self-deprecating jokes. My safe space. I’m comfortable with vulnerable, so long as it’s canned and well-aged. I wanted to go for the laughs, but it wouldn’t be real. Worse, it would disrespect my classmates. I couldn’t do that. When my time came at last, I made a rambling speech out of my first three artifacts; Lord knows what I said as my nerves were already twisting. When I got to the fourth, and with my old wig still inside the bag, I reached up and pulled the one off my head instead. Things did not go as planned.

Let me exonerate my class first. They were amazing, and I was looked at, not gawked at, with kind eyes and understanding. I couldn’t imagine a safer public place. What I didn’t plan on was the complete dissolution of Mighty Michelle. She was there with me all morning, all afternoon, but there in the moment of exposure, she fled. In a microsecond I was transported back to years past, before my transition, when every day was an exercised control of terror and revelation. I had thought it all behind me.

I had expected to speak of the weight  of the wig and the power it held. The shame it covered; the mark of Costanza. How it’s like wearing a hat in the summertime. How I have anxiety dreams of accidentally leaving the house without it. How I yell to my spouse to please close the drapes so I can walk through the living room at night once I’d removed it. The discomfort of overnight guests and meticulously planning on how not to be seen. How it itches. Why it’s one of the first reasons I took myself out of the running for any future romantic relationship no matter what happens. How it goes from looking fabulous to a frizzy crinkled mess within weeks of laying down $300 dollars. How I’m not me without it. This inanimate thing, this accessory, this affectation. I may have said some of that. Who knows, I was on autopilot by then. I vaguely recall slowly stepping backwards toward the wall, away from everyone, terrified.

At some point, probably within 20 or 30 seconds, I just stopped speaking and hurried to put it back on. I needed Mighty Michelle back, badly. The class clapped loudly, my professor kindly said I looked pretty without it, and my friend called me “bad-ass brave” on the ride home. In retrospect, I am filled with immense gratitude, but at the time I was somewhere else. What the hell just happened back there? And what was wrong with me? Who do I even think I am?

I considered my transition to be an unveiling to the truth of my existence. I peeled away the accoutrements of my maleness, both externally imposed and inherited and considered myself free from the old cage. Given my reaction to the self-motivated and very temporary shedding of a symbol of my female life, I have to wonder if I simply wandered from one prison to another. At the very least I find genderqueer much more relatable now as the binary has serious drawbacks.

As things go, it’s hard to really look at this as a big deal. I had heard some really heartbreaking things in that room that day. A white privileged male turned white privileged trans female (yes, trans by nature is very hard, but I also kept my job, my marriage, and launched a hundred side efforts, so…) doffs her wig in the presence of lovely supportive nurturing people. It’s about as forgettable an event as they come. I had to unpack this, and if there was anything to be learned, share.

I can understand why my actions triggered me the way they did. My internal narrative is pretty effective. I believe it and live it on a day to day basis. Enough so that at least some of it should be true, just clearly not all of it. I take unwarranted pride in putting myself, my life, and my truth out there without thought or concern about what people think. Well, that is, when I look the way I think I should. Look at the cringe worthy details of my life all you want, so long as you pay no attention to the girl behind the makeup and mono-filament polymer hair. I found my Achilles heel through clumsy stabbing in an exercise of reciprocity. I only wish I had known it was there.

The moral of this story for me is that I navigate through the world with an unrelenting sense of naked self, but that self is no more than a creation I have come to identify with. I can only speak to myself, but suspect many of us do this, and not just the trans folk. Knowing this, regardless of the discomfort and disillusion, is a gift. It is an opportunity to explore how much of Mighty Michelle can be gingerly placed on a Styrofoam head every night, or wiped off with a moist towelette, and how much is anchored deep in the foundation below the surface of my skin. My ‘know thyself’ journey is not yet over and was just on hiatus due to a badly folded map.

For the record, I’m not chucking the wig, or the makeup, or any aspect of my current look just yet. I like it, and like the way it makes me feel. I also like the way facilitates my plugging into society and how I am perceived and treated. It might be a new cage after all, but at least now I understand. If the time comes where I’m ready to put that aside as well, so be it.

As a last thought, it’s probably best for everyone in that room that my wig outweighed my bra as a symbol of oppression.

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“That’s Not Her Real Hair You Know”

I originally dubbed the theme of this year as ‘Embrace the Awkward’. I think I’ve done a pretty good job so far and there has been no shortage of awkwardness to embrace. In fact, some days I’m positively smothered with it. My original hope of course was that the necessity would just fade away from conscious thought, just like that thing I was probably supposed to do but can’t for the life of me remember. If you are reading this while waiting for me to pick you up at the airport, I’m really, really sorry and probably already in bed, so…

Last weekend we took a nearly 200 mile road trip just to get a grilled cheese. I know, but this was supposedly the most awesome grilled cheese there has ever been. Even Guy Fieri said so. On the way there, my 5 year old was getting pretty antsy and was failing to recognize the jeux de vie and eclectic delight of driving for over 3 hours just for a sandwich I often make at home. We decided to pull over and find a playground where he could run off some steam and tire himself to hopefully sleep for the rest of the trip. We found one. A good one too of colorful plastic with those bouncy pads all around it, much unlike the steel frame monstrosities sunk into concrete slabs we delighted in back in the 70’s. We had it to ourselves until a little girl showed up to play.

I got my first compliment of the day when she asked our friend Amy if that was his mom over there, pointing to where my ex and I were sitting. She answered yes, and girl asked, “yeah, but which one?” Seriously, it made my day. Not long after though, when she and my son were sitting on the swings, he casually mentioned, “that’s not her real hair you know.” That’s nice, I finally get a wig that looks like my real hair and I’m blown in by a kindergartener. The little girl was too curious to let this go by and came over to question me about it. My ex thought on her feet and explained that some women lose their hair for a variety of reasons and thoughtfully excluded ‘male pattern baldness’ as one of them. She was satisfied and went back to playing.

Aside from the occasional “Mike” or “he” that is just going to come out of the mouths of people who have known me a long time, the gender shift has gone pretty smoothly with this one exception. Not the disclosure to the little girl, but having a very open and honest 5 year old. When we are out in public, I have pretty much given up any expectation of trying to pass. When I bought him a little wooden model, he told the cashier he was going to put it together with his dad. She asked a question, and he pointed right to me, “this is my dad right here!” He’s been calling me Maddy for months now after we adopted the naming convention thought up by Jenny Boylan’s sons, but somehow whenever we get in public, I’m all of a sudden back to dad.

In case I’m painting a whiney type picture, I need to say that aside from the mental expletive when it happens, this doesn’t bother me. I’m thrilled that he’s trying and that our relationship hasn’t suffered an iota since my change. The truth is that no matter what my gender, I’ll always be his dad and it’s never wrong for him to think that or say it out loud. It might catch me off guard, and it might be terribly awkward at times, but compared to what so many others go through with children, I’ll take this in a heartbeat.

Baldy Sour (or why I wear a wig)

“I look like an old baldy sour!”, my beloved late grandma, Mim, used to say every time she donned her bathing cap for a dip in pool. I didn’t know what that meant, but have since looked it up, and as suspected it’s an old-timey term for a bald head. Who’d have guessed? It’s not a term I’m particularly fond of, good memories or not, because it is far too apt in describing me. That’s right friends; those lustrous locks you see in the postage size pic of me over there to the right did not spring from my scalp. In truth, I am a baldy sour and it kind of sucks.

Growing up I was always told how lucky I was that male pattern baldness was inherited from the mother’s side. Rightfully, I should have been spared my father’s fate and enjoyed the nice thick hairline on the Irish side of the family. I was 25 in basic training when they buzzed the thick mop of unruly hair right down to my bare scalp. In the coming weeks, guys would peer into the mirror at the fuzz quickly growing that allowed them to feel like people again, and not just whatever shitty nickname the drill sergeant screamed at them. I did my share of peering with growing dismay. Yeah, hair was growing back all right, but in a very distinctive horseshoe pattern even the most “I can give a shit” type of guy dreads to see. I tried my best to develop a delusion that this was stress related.

It was not, and got progressively worse as time went on. I looked into Rogaine, but on an Air Force enlisted salary, the stuff was considerably outside of my price range. I took to wearing a baseball cap at every opportunity, although the insanely rigorous regulations regarding dress code in the military forbade this inside. When I got stationed at my first duty post, one of my first actions was to order from a wig catalog, even though I had a roommate and zero opportunity to dress. It was more important to at least have the means, if not the privacy.

Since then I have resigned myself to being a wig girl. When dressing only occasionally, it wasn’t such a big deal. Now that I’m moving rapidly toward full time, I’m once again bothered by it. When I started hormones, many people were quick to point out that HRT can re-grow lost hair. Yeah… if you have a small missing patch or something, but over half my melon is apple smooth. It’s just not going to happen. Here and there I get mad that I can get breast augmentation, remove my beard, get facial surgery, get bottom surgery, but no matter what I do, I’ll never have real hair again; just one part of me that will never quite be ‘natural’ looking.

For a while I stressed about the bad parts. Wigs are hard to care for. They get tangled so easy and when you try to unknot the hair, it tends to come out. Wearing a wig in the summertime is like having a nice warm hat on your head. I’m always afraid of it getting caught in a door or something and yanking it off. It gets caught in my purse strap, the seatbelt, and in my winter coat. People who would never, ever say boo about your real hair feel free to critique it as a fashion accessory. It goes on and on, but I can’t go without. Nothing gets you made at a distance like the George Costanza look.

Once I get it out of my system though, I can see an upside. I can affix it to my scalp for longer wears. I don’t have to buy nearly as much product. I can change my look in seconds, never victim to the arduous process of waiting for a bad cut to grow out. I can buy real human hair, hand tied to a perfect fit lace cap that can be cut, styled, dyed and dried. Finally, cisgender women buy wigs as well, and sometimes for the same reason. Thank god, because otherwise the market just wouldn’t be there to make them! All in all, in terms of problems to have, I think I can live with this one.

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