"My Story and How It Might Help You"
(Here is the transcript from my keynote speech at Cal Dreamin'—minus hecklers from the right and left and noisy people rushing out to pee ;-) )
Welcome to California Dreaming 2007. I'm Dr. Alice Novic, and as your keynote speaker here today I'm gonna have to offer you something that's a little more fresh than polished, because this is the first time I've ever stood up and spoken in front of over a hundred people like this, and in a dress no less.
Let me begin by saying that having grown up feeling cursed and alone, it's truly amazing to look out on a room like this and see so many people just like me, or people who love someone like me, or people who care for folks like me.
Let's take a moment to show our special appreciation to our partners and the professional people dedicated to us. We're in this boat by design; they're in it by choice. Let's give them all a hand.
With due deference to them, I'd like to begin my talk by quoting an old skit from Saturday Night Live and asking my transgendered sisters and brothers, "Can we talk here?"
One of the great things about getting together with other trans people is that at last we can talk about who we are and what we care about without worrying whether others are going to be shocked or scandalized, personally threatened, or just plain not interested.
Connecting with other t-people helps us feel normal in a world that rarely offers us that respite and is an integral part of my topic here today, Finding A Personal Solution to Being Transgendered. Connecting is one part, and the two other parts are also C-words. They are compassion and creativity.
I hope after I'm done today we'll all speak a little more freely about these things. And to lead by example, I'd like to show you how I've shaped my own transgendered life and share three pivotal passages from my book Alice in Genderland: A Crossdresser Comes of Age
Many people have asked why I did it. Why make so much of my life public? Why invest my most productive years into writing a crossdressing memoir? Good question, I sometimes catch myself thinking, before remembering what moved me. Five years ago, I noticed that though transsexuals had many good memoirs they might turn to for solace and support, we crossdressers had none.
As a practicing psychiatrist with a popular advice column, I was tempted to fill that gap but figured, What do I know about writing a short story, let alone a whole book? Yet, letters kept coming in from my readers, people who were scared and confused, perhaps like some of you here today. These letters reminded me of how I used to feel and emboldened me to acquire the skills I'd need to share my own hard-won experience.
Only as my story took shape, did I fully realize its message. I strove to stand beside every sister or brother who needed me and whisper, "Whatever you've done, whatever you've feared, whatever you've felt that doesn't fit in with the rest of who you're supposed to be, I'm right there with you and it's okay. This fate that we share may be a doozy. But once you learn to accept it, you'll be amazed by what's possible."
When it comes to the importance of connection, compassion, and creativity in my own transgendered life-path, I really must start with creativity. Some of you might feel that life has no answers for you. I felt like that too and never would have imagined the life I lead today.
I don't know how much any of you might already know about me, but when it comes to finding creative solutions to the challenge of being transgendered, some would say I take the cake—and perhaps eat it too. With respect to my lifestyle, please allow me to break a few taboos and admit a thing or two up front.
I refer to myself as a crossdresser because I go out once a week as a woman, not because I'm simply a man in a dress. And though at times I've considered transition, I know I'm not simply a woman trapped in the body of a man either. I see myself as neither man nor woman, but truly and deeply trans, a real imbetweenie, cursed and blessed with a certain kind of intersexed brain. Perhaps, deep down, you are too.
As if that wasn't challenging enough, I ultimately had to admit that part of that whole picture, for me at least, was that I was bisexual and couldn't move forward in marriage or life without making some kind of allowance for it.
I see a few worried faces out there. Ladies, please don't fret. Your crossdressing husband is probably not bisexual. Most of us are not. So with all that being said, let me give you a glimpse of the creative life that I lead.
Last Friday was a Friday like many others, and I was oh so ready for it. I bade my last patient farewell and jockeyed my way through traffic from downtown L.A. to Manhattan Beach and the quirky bungalow my wife had found for us there.
After an impromptu game of Hide and Go Seek, I gave my two kids a kiss, touched base with our nanny, and headed upstairs to the master bathroom.
There, I shed my shirt and tie and shaved my chest and then, with a fresh blade, shaved my face. While still in boxer shorts, I studied my face in the mirror and started to apply makeup.
Soon, I heard my wife get home from work, greet the kids, and pad upstairs. "Hi, Rick-a-dee," she sang, as she popped in and touched me affectionately on the back. She's a natural beauty, with wavy hair, high cheekbones, and a sunny disposition.
"Hey, you," I grinned. "I'd give you a kiss, but ya might get a mouth full of lipstick."
"I'll pass," she replied with a giggle. I had to admit the bright red lips looked pretty silly with my soldier-short hair. "You can kiss me twice tomorrow," she offered.
"It's a deal," I replied. "How was your day?"
"Fine," she said. "We're getting closer to signing that cool new band from Orange County. But I'll tell ya more about it on the way to Hanna's recital in the morning. You look like you're rushing."
"I've got an eight o'clock dinner reservation," I explained simply, considering what my wife had said she would want to know and not want to know about the softer side of my social life.
"Okay," she replied, knowing to steer clear of Where? and With whom? "Have fun. I'll see ya later." She gave me a little kiss on the back of my head and noticed the different shoes I'd laid out under my red velvet dress. "I'd go with the suede pumps. They're a better match." On her way out the door, she looked over her shoulder and teased, "Don't do anything I wouldn't do."
That's always been good enough for me, I thought, as I held back a chuckle and smiled, ever thankful that the love of my life allowed me the space I needed to fully express myself.
As you can see, I'm very fortunate to be living out my own little California dream, especially when I think about how the path that led me here started out feeling like my own worst nightmare.
I was a very regular boy born along with three sisters to a Jewish doctor and homemaker in Cleveland, Ohio. I was not effeminate as a child and enjoyed blocks and records rather than the dolls and tea parties my sisters preferred. And from there it was off to dodgeball and math.
Sure, I tried on my older sister's panties when I was eleven. But I figured, Wouldn't anybody be curious? Besides I was thriving as a soccer player and later as a sailor.
True, I was shocked when I first masturbated at 17 and discovered that I had to imagine I was a woman for a moment in order to get off. But I figured it was just a strange reaction to being alone and soon proved it to myself by all the fun I had with my first girlfriend.
I worked hard in high school and won my way into Harvard and followed that up with medical school, where I fell in love with a breathtaking Japanese-American girl. We got engaged and everything seemed to be going well until I stopped dead in my tracks at the notion of "Speak now or forever hold your peace."
Which brings me to the next scene I'd like to share. It's about compassion, another c-word, and something we all desperately need at one time or another in our transgendered lives—no matter how feisty and independent we may be as a breed.
Some of you may be living through some very hard times now. I was desperate back in 1990. I might not have lived through 1990. I reached out to a med school classmate of mine named Demetra, and I'll never forget some of things she told me.
"I'm surprised to hear you've been hurting so badly," she began, settling in and pushing some unruly dark hair off her face. "I thought you were just a naturally brooding kind of guy."
"Maybe so, but not like this. I've done some terrible things," I explained and nervously confessed that I had experimented with a man, that I was afraid I might have become HIV positive, and that I was horribly ashamed I might have passed it on to Betsy, my fiancée.
Demetra seemed to find my story compelling and allowed me to tell it comfortably, even expand on it. So I dared go further. "The whole reason I bothered experimenting was that I needed to know what it's like to be a woman. I've been turned on by lingerie and troubled by this kind of thing for years."
Her jaw dropped a little, and she looked like she might be about to say something.
"Listen, I know this is really fucked up," I assured her. "And that I made things worse by acting out. And that exposing Betsy to danger like that was very, very wrong." Finally, I stopped to see what she would say. I felt like some kind of pathetic movie-villain, but I was trying to come clean and ready to accept help. Would she rise to her feet aghast and promptly show me the door?
"I feel bad for you," she said softly. "You've got some serious psychological baggage that you tried to work out on your own. Does Betsy know what you've done?" I nodded. "How did she take it?"
"She said it would have been better if I'd told her I'd killed someone."
"No wonder you feel so badly about this."
"I wish that was all there was to it."
"Maybe going through this will make you a better, more sensitive person."
"I'm already nice," I protested. "I'm probably the nicest of the four kids in my family."
"These things aren't fair," she said, clearly feeling my pain. "Sometimes it just sucks what we have to deal with."
Spellbound, I thought, Who is this woman?
She told me there was a richness to me that went beyond anything I was aware of. When I replied I was afraid I'd get AIDS and never get the chance to appreciate any of it, she let me know that she had just finished working at an AIDS clinic and thought I was going to be okay.
"I feel like such a miserable freak," I admitted, unable to rein it in. "I walk by people on the street and think, I'd trade places with him or him or him."
"The only normal people," she replied, "are the ones you don't know very well."
I laughed for the first time in weeks, and when we hugged to say goodbye I held her like she was my last bridge to happiness and sanity.
Maybe some of you feel woefully abnormal? Maybe some of you resent your fate and fear everything that it might mean in your life? If so, I am here with you today, standing tall and proud, to say there is hope—and there's a richness to you that goes beyond anything you may be aware of ;-).
Ultimately I turned out to be HIV negative. And in retrospect, I can see that my fear of AIDS far exceeded the risks I'd taken and served to distract me from the sheer terror I felt over who I was turning out to be.
More out of mutual desperation than anything else, Betsy and I married, then split up two and a half years later, fortunately without having any children in the process. In the meantime, I got a lot of professional help, linked up with my transgender sisters at the Tiffany Club, and soaked up everything I could from the pages of Tapestry magazine.
It's all well and good for me to talk about linking up with my sisters, as if it was some kind of easy thing. But believe me, I know how frightening and discombobulating first contact can be. No doubt many of you can remember that. And perhaps some of you are experiencing it right now.
I came of age before people really went to conventions, and before we all got on the Internet. The first transperson I ever met was a Tiffany Club officer who pulled up alongside me in a dark, empty parking lot in rural New England. I'd be happy to share that story and more at my seminar later this afternoon.
But in the final passage I'd like to present here today over lunch, I'm single, thirty, and living in Chicago. And it brings up the final point I want to emphasize, that is the importance of communicating with those we love.
I suppose we t-people could more or less live however we want to, if we were happy being single. But most of us want someone special in our lives and because of that we have to be especially good communicators.
I had reconnected with an old girlfriend, named Melissa, and she flew in for a visit to see if we still had the same chemistry and might be up for a long-distance relationship.
Though I would tell her this weekend that I was a crossdresser, I wanted to give us a chance to get reacquainted first. We took in the sights of Chicago by day, relaxed over romantic dinners by night, and made love for the first time in seven years.
Because I didn't want to risk spoiling our fun, I didn't come out to her until Sunday evening, when we returned to my little apartment after Chinese food. "I suppose it's time I shared my secret with you," I began.
"Uh oh," she said, as she braced herself against the back of her chair.
"I'm a crossdresser," I said nervously, but proud to be doing it the right way.
She gulped and thought for a moment. "Of all the things I worried about with men. This is something I never even thought of. What exactly does it mean?"
"It means I'm turned on by women's clothes and generally curious about all things feminine."
"Where do you do it?"
"Are you gay?"
"Generally, here in the apartment as a way to relax and get off before bed." "Are you gay?"
"Would you ever go out in public?" "Are you gay?"
"No," I said at the time, "because my whole fantasy is to be a beautiful woman, not be seen as a freak." I cringed as I saw myself at the local supermarket in a dress and lipstick. "Even the few times people helped me dress up, I still looked like a man."
"Are you gay?"
"No, and I know what I'm talking about. I've experimented, and I'm glad I did. Even though I've never been attracted to men, being a woman with a man was an exciting extension of my fantasies. Nevertheless, it didn't come naturally, not like being with a woman."
"Really?" she remarked in amazement. "So anyway, I can't deny that I'm a crossdresser, but I'm a basically heterosexual one."
"O-kay," she said with a little skepticism.
I explained to her that ninety-five percent of crossdressers are heterosexual and that I might want to dress up for a Tri-Ess meeting sometime. "Are you still interested in me?" I asked, leaning forward and feeling vulnerable.
"I don't know. I'll have to think about it," she replied, pulling back. She remained pleasant and somewhat affectionate that night, flew back to L.A. in the morning, and called me a few days later.
We exchanged greetings, while my heart began to beat faster. "How are you," I inquired, "in the wake of that bomb I just dropped?"
"I'm all right," she said. "I talked to my shrink about it. Of course, she didn't tell me what to do, but she was very helpful. I'm gonna have a lot more questions about your crossdressing and we'll have to see how it goes, but I think I'm okay with it."
I sighed long with relief. I wouldn't lose Melissa. I wouldn't have to try my luck with another woman and maybe lose her too. I might not have to spend my life alone.
After that, you might think everything should have been smooth sailing, but my transgenderism evolved. Perhaps your transgenderism has evolved? Maybe it's still evolving?
After a couple of years, I found that dressing up for monthly outings with Melissa was not enough for me and more than enough for her. And we ultimately decided that it would be best for me to separate out my crossdressing from the rest of my rather conventional, but deeply satisfying life with her, as a left-leaning Jewish couple in suburban Los Angeles.
I could have a night a week to pursue my needs as a woman, while she got the chance to catch up with a friend or do something she was interested in. In that way, we've been able to grow as individuals while continuing to be comfortable and content as a couple. Still, it was anything but easy. And later this afternoon, I'd be happy to share just how much of a doozy and devoted partner I've been over the years.
After a year of dating and two of living together, Melissa and I married in 1996 and had the first of our two children in 1998. We seem to have hit on a solution that works for us, and have now been happily married for eleven years. Hopefully you're on your way to finding a solution that works for you too.
I've no doubt broken a taboo or two in telling my story here today and hopefully created some space for all of us here to talk more about compassion, connection, and creativity as we rise to the challenge of being transgendered. Thank you all for being such great listeners and have a wonderful weekend here at California Dreaming!
Alice Novic, M.D.
To learn more about me than you'd ever dare ask, please see my smart, sexy memoir, Alice in Genderland: A Crossdresser Comes of Age