acceptance, answered prayer, basketball, Christ, Christian circles, Christian identity, Christian only spaces, Christian women's conference, church, college course auditing, coming out, conference speaker, conservative evangelical Christian, Cornell, epiphany, Esther Hughes, featured speaker, Feminist Gender & Sexuality, Girlfriends, grace, gym class, healing, inclusion, Ithaca, Jennifer Pritzker, John 9, legalism, Love, male mask, Mary Beth Norton, Nicole Johnson, Pharisee, rejection, Relationships, Salvation Army, Transgender, Transgender Studies Program, Transition, University of Victoria (Canada), unwelcome, welcome, Women in Sports, Women only space, Women's Study Programs
Jennifer Pritzker’s recent donation of $2 million to fund the chair of a new Transgender Studies Department at the University of Victoria in British Columbia reminded me of the first time I was in what was assumed to be a woman’s only space. Later, a second time came to mind. Both were before I transitioned to a female identity and presentation. Both were positive experiences.
I cannot say how representative the Cornell Women’s Studies program was or is of such programs in colleges and universities of the United States and Canada. It is the only one I have any familiarity with, and admittedly for a very small slice of its history. What I know about it beyond my one experience is second-hand. I know the program was renamed Feminist, Gender & Sexuality Studies (FGSS) in 2002. I know that the program started in 1969 and was still struggling for academic credibility during the 1971-2 academic year. I know that a new assistant professor that year, Mary Beth Norton, was part of a group of female faculty members meeting regularly to boost that credibility (unbeknownst to me when I took one of her courses in the history department the following year: I earned a B). I know that the program’s struggle for credibility continued throughout the 1970’s.
None of this was known to me as I approached my final semester on campus in January 1974. I don’t even remember how I found out about the course. Regrettably, it doesn’t show up on my official transcript because I audited it. But a couple of days after I registered for my classes that semester, I walked into a classroom to take a course called Women in Sports.
(Auditing was a foolish move on my part. No doubt I would have passed the course. But because I miscalculated my credit hours, some of which didn’t transfer from the College of Engineering to the College of Arts and Sciences within Cornell when I switched majors after sophomore year, I was two credits short in June 1974. I ended up having to take a U.S. History course at the local community college, far below Cornell’s standards but probably accepted by Cornell as a fellow member of the NY State University system, to graduate.)
My hair was long and had natural reddish highlights (since lost to age) to enhance my light brown wavy locks. People, including barbers and hair stylists, used to tell me that my hair was wasted on a boy. Combined with my slight stature and the fact that many of the female students at that time eschewed feminine fashions (especially in the cold of the Ithaca winter), I might have initially been taken for another burgeoning feminist student. But there was one giveaway: my mustache, my prominent badge of internal conflict and hiding.
So there I sat, having arrived early, waiting for class to begin. There were only about half a dozen other students in the class, all listed as female in the Cornell registrar’s office. Some were talking with each other. Occasionally a furtive glance would be sent my way.
Then the professor came in. Since I was auditing the class, I didn’t appear on the class roster that she had. So perhaps that was the only reason why she questioned me, wanting to make sure I was in the right classroom. On the other hand, I have to wonder if she assumed that no men would be caught dead taking such a class.
Having heard her give the name of the course, I assured her that I was in the right classroom and explained that I wanted to audit it. I settled in for the first class, the usual talk about what the course would be about.
This wasn’t Hollywood. There was no dramatic moment where the rest of the class went from resenting me to welcoming me. Acceptance evolved over time as it became clear that I hadn’t attended the class as a joke, a lark or to pick up “chicks”. I listened. I contributed to the class discussions without acting superior to the other students (or to the professor, for that matter).
One day, we reported in suitable clothes to Helen Newman Gym, the women’s primary athletic facility on campus at the time. It was the only sports activity we participated in during the semester. It was basically a basketball drill of the fundamentals. I am fairly certain that the professor had been an athlete at one time. None of the students were, including me. The easiest sport to demonstrate in a small space is basketball. It happens to be my worst sport (a grammar school praise for being the only student in gym class who knew the right technique for a layup and an alleged miraculous shot at a pickup game at Cornell notwithstanding – see my blog post of 9/12/14 “My favorite sights”). At the end of that class, the professor chuckled and announced that we were all terrible.
No, I didn’t eventually become one of the girls. But I did become part of the class. At the last class of the semester before the final, the professor thanked me for my participation and reminded me that I didn’t have to take the final. There was no standing ovation or cheers. But there were smiles from the other students, a nod or two and a friendly word or two of farewell.
I considered taking the final anyway. But as usual, I had procrastinated on a couple of final papers and I decided I couldn’t afford to take the time. I still regret not having taken the final and the course for credit.
At first, I thought that was my only such time as someone presumed male in a women’s only space. But then a second time came to mind.
It happened a few years before I transitioned. A very good friend was putting together a Christian woman’s conference, to be held at the local church where we had met about twelve years earlier. It was another in a series of women’s conferences she had organized over a period of about five years.
As she was planning the conference, she would ask me to help her with technical matters, usually to download videos, music or graphics, or to help with creating the handouts for the attendees: in other words, pretty much anything computer-related.
One day, she surprised and intrigued me with a different kind of request. She wanted me to be one of the featured speakers at her conference which was aimed specifically and exclusively for women.
And so a few weeks later, I am standing at the pulpit of a church where I had been a member for over six years, delivering a talk to a group of Christian women and some guests of these women who were unsaved. The male pastor of the church was there, but only to greet the attendees and then run the sound board. He was primarily the tech person that day.
The topic of my talk was “Our Identity in Christ”. It was very well received. An experienced speaker at Christian women’s conferences (Esther Hughes) said I did a good job.
One woman said she loved it but wanted to hear more, commenting that it seemed to end abruptly. I had an eye on the clock and had run into my allotted time. Lunch was being readied to be served as an intermission in the program. I mingled easily with the women at lunch, some of whom I knew from church, many who I did not. I stayed for the rest of the conference. I wasn’t ready to admit it yet, but this was the milieu in which I felt more comfortable, where I belonged.
Less than thirty months later, my friend was organizing another Christian women’s conference. She asked me to help. I wasn’t doing well that summer. I was unusually short-tempered with my friend once or twice. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was subconsciously fighting a losing battle to hold onto my male mask. But I got the work done for her.
One of my tasks was to download a You Tube video that was recorded at a major Christian women’s conference. It was a skit by the very talented Nicole Johnson. It is titled “Girlfriends”, touting how important it is for women to have female friends. It was my epiphany. It was God’s answer to desperate prayers to deliver me from a deepening crisis that was beginning to occupy more and more of my time and thoughts. It was when I finally was willing to admit that this is the relationship that I truly want with women. It was when I realized that to have this kind of relationship, I had to accept my true gender identity and live it.
I am also accustomed to being in Christian only spaces: ministry meetings and events. Until I came out in November 2012, I never thought that there would be a time when I would be unwelcome in any Christian circles. But now the woman who wanted my talk to be longer called my transition “evil” and “foolish”. Another woman who had sang my praises and asked for my counsel (even once on something taught to her grandson in college about transgender) immediately dropped me as her tax preparer and began to slander me with hateful gossip and lies. And a man who had been my closest friend in a worldwide Christian ministry (not Salvation Army) told me that if I contacted him again while identifying as female, he would consider it harassment.
Let the reader be aware that I am unwelcome in Christian circles that are dominated by those with a legalistic Pharisee mindset. But I am most welcome in a Christian circle, even a conservative evangelical one, where the mindset is on grace and love.
After church today, a woman who travels extensively on behalf of the Salvation Army came up to me. It was her first opportunity to tell me how much she liked my short bio and testimony that appeared in the New York Times last spring. I thanked her and then mentioned how much today’s sermon and Scripture reading had touched my heart. It was the story from John 9 on how Jesus healed a man who had been born blind. Not only did Jesus have no problem changing the way God had made this man, but when the healed man refused to condemn Jesus for healing him on the Sabbath, the Pharisees threw him out of their midst.
But when Jesus heard that he had been thrown out, He actively sought the man that He had healed. And he was welcomed into the body of Jesus’ disciples.
There’s no place like home.
Jesus heard that they had cast him out; and when he had found him, he said unto him, Dost thou believe on the Son of God? He answered and said, Who is he, Lord, that I might believe on him? And Jesus said unto him, Thou hast both seen him, and it is he that talketh with thee. And he said, Lord, I believe. And he worshipped him. – John 9:35-38