Part of the autobiography of a transsexual psychology graduate student.
This is page 10 of 12.            
When I read how others came out I was terrified at the thought of gathering my department, psychologists and soon-to-be psychologists, together and telling everybody I have a mental illness. I shared my fear with friends as I told them about my transsexuality. And it amazed me how consistent their advice was: don't make a big deal about it. That's so different from how everybody else describes coming out! Others talk to administrators and have formal policies made in a very top-down fashion. But now people were advising me to let the information filter up to the administrators. And that was very appealing to me because I usually feel much more comfortable relating to people personally rather than through a bureaucracy.
I continued telling the people who were most close to me: friends and faculty. After most developmental psychology faculty knew. But I couldn't possibly tell everybody who knew me and the semester was nearly ending. I was going to transition over the break so I needed to let everybody know. I thought about sending a message over the department e-mail list. But that would include so many people who never met me. I decided to make a list of everybody I knew, even as acquaintances, and I send them a letter. I sent it during the last week of classes because that would everybody a chance to ask me questions in person but they wouldn't feel as uncomfortable because I wasn't presenting in girl-form yet. Here's the e-mail message:
subject: next semester
I'm sorry for sending such a personal message to you by such an impersonal medium as e-mail. But it's important to me to let you know this before winter break. I wouldn't be able to meet with everyone individually to discuss this before next semester.
I'm a transsexual. It's very difficult to explain what that means in introspective terms. It doesn't match the over-simplified cliches. I can't express this in just a handful of words so I prepared a small web page for those who are interested. The URL is at the bottom of this message.
It's much easier to explain what this means in practical terms; I'm changing the way people perceive me. I'm doing various things so at the beginning of next semester I'll start 'presenting as female'. That includes changing my name from "Mitchell" to "Madeline." I regularly flip the social roles people perceive me in, so I don't feel very awkward about this. Academia is one of the most precious aspects of my life so It's important to me to change my external identity here too.
Though I'm still very apprehensive, I'm most concerned about how I might make others feel awkward. I'm letting everyone know today so you're not too surprised seeing me next semester. I understand completely if you have difficulty switching names or pronouns; I won't be offended. I also understand if you would like to avoid talking with me for a little while.
Transsexualism is very rare (about 1 in 30,000 people) so there couldn't even possibly be a silly question to ask. I'm very open to discussing these issues. Please feel free to ask me anything. We could talk in person or by e-mail. Anyway, I hope everyone has a happy holiday season and a pleasant break.
After sending that message I freaked out and ran away from the psychology building to go on a long walk! :-) And when I checked my e-mail that night I had dozens of responses! Here are just some of them:
I just wanted to let you know that I appreciate your e-mail and how difficult it must have been to send it. Please know that I will do the best I can to follow your lead and respect your preferences. Also, if you want to talk about things, please feel free to speak with me anytime.
Abigail (graduate student)
How are you? I just read your email and your web pages. I can't imagine what you have been through and what you still have to endure. I hope your transition is what you want it to be. Please do not be offended with me as I learn to call you Madeline (as I have known you as Mitchell). See you in Judy's class
Cathy (graduate student)
I don't have much time to write the lengthy message I would really *like* to write, but a quick one will have to do for now. I just want to let you know that I really, truly support your decision. I am not going to pretend to know how difficult this must be for you, and I envy the courage you had to email everybody about it.....but I just want you to know that if you ever want to talk about anything pertaining to this issue, or do just the opposite by not talking about it AT ALL, please don't hesitate to call (###-####); I am only a phone call away. I am guessing this is going to be a rough Spring semester for you, and I just hope you realize that although some people may look down on you for your identity, you have a friend right here who certainly doesn't. I won't pretend to do the whole clinical psychology thing....I just want you to know that you have a friend if you need her.
I can say that it might take some getting used to on my part to call you Madeline instead of Mitchell.....it would be like asking people to start calling me "Sally" all of a sudden. But I'll try to remember!
Please have a safe, healthy, and happy winter break. I hope to see you next semester.
Becky (graduate student)
I just wanted to let you know how much I respect your decision to present yourself as and become Madeline. I admire your courage in telling all of us and hope you find the transition and response from others welcoming. Thank you for being so open about your identity. And I must commend you on the name Madeline...one of my favorites! Have a nice week and I will see you around.
-Rhonda. (graduate student)
I must admit that I really don't know anything about what you are going through. However, I think that you are incredibly brave and I offer you my support and continued friendship.
Take Care and Happy Holidays,
Jennifer (department administrator)
I just want to express my support for what you're doing. I think it is really wonderful that you are doing what you want and have the guts to stand behind it. Right on!
Nina (graduate student)
Wow. I must say that I was a bit surprised to see your email. Not surprised in a bad way, surprised in a surprised way.
It's hard to know what to say except that I support you in your decision 100%. I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult it must have been for you to write that email and I think that it is a testament both to your strength as a person and to the importance of your gender to you as a person.
If you ever need to talk about this with someone, I am here for you. Feel free to email or call (###-####) anytime. I hope that this process of "coming out" to the department goes smoothly (as smoothly as possible) for you. Good luck and let me know if you need anything.
Terri (graduate student)
p.s., i just want to apologize in advance in case i ever call you Mitchell instead of Madeline. if will try to call you by your new name, but after knowing you for a semester as Mitchell this could take some getting used to.
Wow, I'm not really sure what to say except good luck, I hope all of this brings you the peace and happiness you deserve. I checked out your web page, I really respect all that you've gone through and how you've come so far. I'm glad to hear your parents are supportive, that was the first thing I thought about when you told us. I'm apologizing in advance because it will take me a while to get used to calling you Madeline, I don't really think my view of you as a person will change all that much, habits are hard to break so Mitchell will probably slip out a lot. Now I see why you always put your name as just m [last_name], I was beginning to wonder about that but now it makes sense. Anyway, I just want you to know that I support you and if you ever need anything I am here, I know we aren't all that close but I do consider you a friend and I'm here for you. Have a good break, see you when we get back--
meg (an undergraduate in the lab I ran)
Madeline--I just wanted to let you know I looked at your web-site and it is quite wonderful. Very beautifully written.
Of course, I will warn you--now that I know how well you write, I will expect it in your academic writing as well!
Margaret (a professor)
I just wanted to say thanks for what I think is a wonderful and sensitive note. I suspect that there will be some people who have real trouble dealing with all this, and some (like me) who are cool with it in the abstract, but will no doubt find and express awkwardness and insensitivity here and there... for which I apologize ahead of time (and hopefully later when I realize them too). But for now, I just wanted to say thanks for sending the note and taking the time and psychological energy to be sensitive to how *other* people handle something that presumably presents a far more salient set of issues for you.
Thanks again, and have a good break if I don't see you before (though I presume I will).
Thanks Madeline. I appreciate the note. I enjoyed reading your web site, and learned a few things as well. Best of luck with the transition. It is my sincere hope that when you look back at this period someday, you will recall that, to a person, the area responded by being accepting and supportive. Anything less, and I will be disappointed in my colleagues and our students. See you in January.
My transsexuality never became a big issue. And maybe that's because I never made it into one. I'm saying this is the solution for everybody. I'm in a kind of unusual circumstance. My colleagues are all psychologists so they're particularly thoughtful and sensitive people. And I don't feel like anybody is particularly surprised that I transitioned. Like recently I was talking to somebody who knew me before I transitioned. I said, "By the way, you can ask me anything you want if you have any questions." And her response was, "No, it all made sense because of the way you act." Even so, I am so fortunate to be surrounded by such wonderful people. I've been able to stay here as a graduate student, conduct research with adults and children, and teach classes!
This is page 10 of 12.