A college friend of mine had loads and loads of facial hair. It wasn’t, however, the kind of prolific facial hair that sprouts forth in all directions, wild and beary. This facial hair belonged to a whole different breed from your average hairy person’s beard-hairs.
When I say that this person had a lot of facial hair, I suppose I don’t actually mean that he had a lot of it out and visible upon his face. The amazing part was the endlessness of his supply of facial hair. The man showed up in my dorm with a different beard almost weekly. His face was the real-life equivalent of those electronic Barbie heads that grow hair at the push of a button.
He was marvelous for many reasons, two of which stick out most prominently in my mind. First, of course, the unbelievable facial hair. Second, he was one of the best allies I remember having during that rough first year of boyhood.
Dan and I became friends through a series of collaborative study sessions during our freshman year. As with most people who work well together, we quickly fell into a comfortable routine.
We would begin by sitting in silence for a long period of time, busily writing papers, making flashcards, emailing friends from home. Inevitably, though, I would pipe up with an idea, fully expecting something I hadn’t thought of before to be equally interesting to Dan.
Dan, broken from his reverie of Very Important and Pressing Issues, would bluster indignantly. My idea was a silly idea. And not only was my idea silly, but my entire basis of understanding of the issue at hand was silly. What, was I smoking all that dead literature between my rapidfire shots of wheatgrass? Or perhaps it was the result of growing up in backwoods cow-tipping, tractor-pulling, mutton-busting Potatotown–that’s what Dan thought of my idea.
Then, anywhere from eight minutes to 48 hours later, he would look up from what he was doing and ask me a thoughtful question about whatever it was, as though we’d only just been having a calm, rational discussion about it.
Three years into my friendship with Dan, I started wearing ties. In hindsight, I was hardly forthcoming when it came to letting my friends know I was trans. My coming out, in the end, consisted of muttering the news to two or three people and then hoping the information would circulate without my help.
It wasn’t my most courageous hour. I remember silently apologizing to everyone who stuttered over my name, my pronouns, where it was ok to touch me.
I apologized so much, I started believing that I really was guilty of something. Believing that made me self-conscious, which made me even more afraid to directly talk about being trans. The more afraid I became, the more I withheld from my friends, which in turn made me feel even guiltier. I picked up momentum, spinning in my own personal emotional roundabout, squirreling away things I was too embarrassed to talk about and hoping all of them would just disappear.
So, some time after I started wearing ties, Dan must’ve figured out on his own that I was trans. I was too stuck to tell him myself.
Eventually—inevitably—a party happened at which half the attendees were calling me Jamie and he, the other half holding tight to my old name and she. Newer friends were getting nervous and slipping toward calling me she. My date was being as conspicuously gay as possible, diligently trying to establish my gender by association. I myself was actively failing to notice the confusion.
In the midst of it all, there sat Dan.
“I keep forgetting to call you ‘he’,” he yelled over the music and chatter.
I hesitated. An apology rose to my lips.
“Can I call you Jim?” he went on, still loudly.
This was going somewhere unexpected.
“Jamie could be a girl’s name or a guy’s name,” he explained. “Could I shorten it to Jim?”
He wasn’t demanding why didn’t you tell me or how come you chose a name less cool than the first one or did you know your Facebook profile still says female. Instead, he’d identified a problem: he wasn’t using the right pronoun for me. He had also identified something he felt would help him fix the problem: nicknaming me Jim. Now he was just asking if it was all right with me.
This was illuminating. Dan understood. Moreover, Dan understood without having me explain it to him.
I had been so convinced that if I told people I was trans, I would have to explain why. I thought I would have to explain why I had once watched She’s the Man every day for a week and still didn’t realize. I assumed I’d have to explain my total lack of butchness.
Dan proved me wrong. I was gloriously, happily, gratefully wrong.
There is only one other time in my memory that I remember feeling so relieved to be incorrect. The other time is much more childish, but the sheer force of unfettered gratitude toward my own fallibility was the same. It happened at my cousin’s house when I was eight: I woke up convinced that I’d peed in my sleeping bag. It took close inspection and verification from my father to prove satisfactorily that in fact I had only dreamt that I’d peed. If ever the terror of having peed on your favorite blanket has been visited upon you, you understand that I do not exaggerate.