Stop cringing that was the question that broke the extreme moment of tension in the room that day. Our friend Jeanine started her conversation with the words “There’s something I need you both to know.” Now in my personal experience any time a person starts a conversation with that wording I prepare myself for the worst. The fact that she was shaking, and had an incredibly painstaking look on her face certainly gave that thought process more credibility.
Jeanine had been cutting our hair for three years, she worked in a small styling shop around the corner from our first garage apartment. She was very beautiful! Medium height, grayish blue eyes, and long silky brown hair that hung below her waist. Jeanine had a soft throaty voice, very sultry like, and on the rare occasion when she did laugh it was a an infectious kind of laugh. She was more on the reserved side, very guarded in her demeanor. There was a kind of sadness in her eyes. My husband and I just assumed she was a very private person. Instinctively we knew that she had a complicated story, one she was not willing to share until that particular moment.
We had invited her, and her boyfriend Doug over for dinner that evening. Jeanine came alone because Doug had to work. She was very nervous that evening, we just thought she felt odd because it was our first time of socializing outside of the styling shop. As she stood there wringing her hands looking down at the floor we began to understand that whatever she was about to tell us was going to be extremely difficult for her. Then all at once she blurted out “I was born as James. I legally changed my name to Jeanine when I turned 19, and if this makes you uncomfortable that’s okay it still makes my family uncomfortable. Would you rather I leave?”
It took us a moment to process what she had just blurted out without even taking a breath. I reached for her arm, and asked her to sit next to me on the couch. She sat down slowly, and kept staring down at her feet. My husband offered her a drink. We told her that we did not want her to leave, and that we were just surprised by her news. She went further to say that when she was just our hair stylist she didn’t feel the need to express herself in this way, but since we seemed to be building a friendship she wanted us to know. It was 1986, and although I know there where many other transgender people who were in the process of becoming who they were suppose to be it wasn’t as open a subject as it is today.
She was now looking at our faces searching our expressions to see if they matched the words of acceptance that were coming out of our mouths. Something I’m sure she had become accustomed to doing after sharing her very personal life story. Jeanine told us that she had become accustomed to people’s discomfort with her lifestyle, and had lost many relationships once she shared her story. She thought it would be best if we just asked her questions about her life style and then we could go from there. I remember the pain I felt for her in that moment. Not because she was transgender, but because she was opening her very personal life story almost certain that after a grueling question and answer session she would be rejected. She faced the possibility of subjecting herself to harsh judgement, or even worse fake acceptance!
It was a moment of extreme tension we could physically see her discomfort worsening as we carefully thought about what we would say. That’s when my husband broke the tension with a large boyish grin he asked ” So do you stand up or sit down while you pee?” All at once Jeanine’s face went from a painstakingly discomforted expression to a relieved, smiling one that was immediately followed by most infectious out loud laughter! The three of us laughed until tears rolled down our cheeks. We sat in our little living room eating, and drinking until the wee hours of the morning. We talked about our lives, we asked a lot of questions, and she very openly shared her journey on becoming Jeanine.
The one thing that stands out the most in my mind from that night was when Jeanine said “You know it’s funny how we talk about our journey of becoming another gender because inside I have always been a female, it’s more about everyone else’s journey to catch up to who I’ve always been.” 😉