Encounters of a New Kind: Meeting Biases on Sexual Identity

By Griffin, Richard | Aging Today, March/April 2005 | Go to article overview

Encounters of a New Kind: Meeting Biases on Sexual Identity


Griffin, Richard, Aging Today


One Man Confronts His Discovery

Turning the pages of a large volume on a bookstore table a few months ago, I suddenly saw a photo of a woman I had known for the previous four years. This photo was one of a series taken of employees at Harvard University, with which I have been long associated. All of the people pictured in the layout had also been interviewed, and an edited version of what they said about themselves and their work appeared with their photos.

When I glanced at my friend Rachel's text, I felt the blood rush to my forehead. I could not believe what I was reading. All of a sudden, my world felt turned upside down. She was telling everyone something important that I had never known: She used to be a man. Yes, she was tall and her voice was rather deep. These personal characteristics might have served as clues for me, but that she had ever been a he had never occurred to me. The disorientation that I suddenly experienced made me, for a time, lose my psychological bearings. How could I have been fooled like this, I wondered?

A LOVING MOTHER

Part of what felt to me like deception came from my knowledge that Rachel is the single mother of a young boy, whom I'd known she had adopted and whom she lovingly mothered as if he were her own son. From time to time, she would share with me details of her son's behavior and problems. Without ever questioning her background as a mother, I assumed her to have been always maternal.

This revelation about my friend marked the first time I had actually known anyone who has changed genders. I had read about Christine Jorgenson and other pioneering people who had made the leap, but never had I actually met a person like them. To me, it seemed almost unbelievable that I had been blind to a matter of such vital import.

Ironically, Rachel argued in the published interview that changing genders was a matter of little importance. For her, becoming a woman involved little that was surprising. Although Rachel admitted having been the object of harassment at earlier workplaces, she felt herself to have carried off the transition rather easily.

For me, however, this transformation amounted to a gigantic event. It went against all my categories, especially those that defined what it is to be a woman and what it is to be a man. My spiritual tradition has always placed great emphasis on the differences between the sexes, starting with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Though I have never been fundamentalist in my thinking, I could not slough off this distinction with abandon.

I resolved then and there to continue treating my friend with respect and affection. Admittedly, I had to go against immediate emotions that inclined me to change my approach to her. I felt almost queasy about contact with someone who now appeared to me in a decidedly different light.

MY ENLARGED WORLD

Fortunately, these negative feelings dissipated by the time I next saw Rachel. My feelings were different now, but not in a way that would harm our friendship. I recognized that although something in my mental world had changed, my behavior had not. In fact, my inner world had been enlarged, quite to my amazement.

Before this experience, I had already encountered changes in my notions of family and community.

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