Presenting my life to students
By nelle douville on June 09, 2011
I grew up fearing oral presentations. When assigned such a task, I sometimes skipped school and accepted a failing grade. The school level mattered not – elementary, middle, or high school, and even college. If required to speak in front of people, I excessively agonised and ached inside.
Faulty gender was the primary reason for my extreme aversion to public speaking. In those days (60s and 70s), few wished or risked a sticky tag of queer; it was the equivalent of a social death penalty. As a result, I contracted and compressed until I presented only a tight, well-guarded shell to others.
That all changed in my mid to late forties, with disastrous initial results. This past 4 June, a queer light-year from 1960, year of my first remembered awareness of gender dysphoria, I spoke to a class of aspiring educators at Plymouth State University. Many of my phobias went with me when I crossed gender lines, and one was the fear of public speaking. This time, there was no need for extensive study prior to the informal presentation; what I shared is what I have lived. Since all of it is true, I am a walking notebook, able to recall the details at will.
Two other women, partners, one of which is also a transwoman, joined me in presenting our stories. (Both of us were there at the request of my therapist, who teaches the class.) Starting at 1 PM and for the better part of two hours, we told our stories, a period of time that afterward seemed like fifteen minutes; in fact, at class end, I noticed the wall clock was symbolically stuck at 1:15.
Going in, I knew what to expect. When speaking to a class where the subject matter is gender (and bravo to education students for tackling the issue in their studies) I expect to find prepared and engaged students. True to my expectations, the students proved rapt, supportive listeners.
Early on, one student in back requested that I speak louder. I have a well-known tendency to speak softly, so I explained that I have voice issues from four plus decades of excessive levels of testosterone, and then amplified my voice. It mattered not; I felt animated and opened the spigot to my flow of memories.
What have I not been through in the last decade? Amongst other things, there was crossing gender lines, divorce, separation, loss of my family as an intact entity, severe depression, loss of my business, and…incarceration. Yes, incarceration.
Imagine that you were in that classroom on 4 June and listened to my story… these are the main elements of what you would have heard.
My dad caught me trying on my older sister’s clothes at age six (1960) and he pronounced me sick on the spot. With one declarative sentence, there went my self-esteem for four decades. Throughout and right until I transitioned, I had a strong tendency to withdraw into what back then was referred to as ‘daydreaming’, in reality it was my way of seeking safe space and refuge. Middle and high school were tough, a lot of it spent withdrawn and by myself.
Even during 24 years of marriage there were periods where I was distant, living in my own world. After two decades of marriage, the suppressed gender issues began tearing me to shreds, and that disintegration damaged my family and clients of my business. On the latter, as the then owner of a one-person business, I stopped running it to focus my attention on remaining sane. Since the business was in financial services (insurance) the result was disastrous.
Have you ever had a dream where you try to run, but your legs are unmoving? You feel a sense of desperation, of trying, but your legs just do not respond. That is what I felt like day after day and month after month, as I looked at piles of work left undone. I could not do it and I could not break through to do it. I was needy, and that need overrode everything else. For me, I found my refuge in life online.
During 2003, I took what was not well-planned effort, but random steps that happened to be the seeds of future recovery, a foundation. They came too late to save me from a hard fall, but they did save my life. In August, I permanently crossed gender lines. In September came divorce, healthier for both of us.
Three-quarters of 2004 was an awful time for me. I worked to overcome severe depression, the evisceration of whatever self-esteem I ever possessed, and found a way to get back on my feet. During that year, there were nights that felt like weeks and weeks like months, an unhealthy elongation of time in a nightmarish existence. By nature, I am an idealist and optimist. These tendencies masked my meltdown, but afterward served as strengths that helped me rebuild my life. In October 2004, a state agency hired me for part time work, and then full time five months later. I thrived in my new employment, and rebuilt my life, my integrity, and self-esteem.
There remained the matter of the business mismanagement. It shut down short a significant amount of money. There were no records, because in the throes of meltdown, I stopped keeping records. I failed to bill or record transactions, I wrote checks wantonly to whoever screamed loudest for money, in the process not bothering to check the accounts, or even use the correct one. Some people got free insurance, a couple did not get it at all, and others had it cancel.
Not good. At the end of 2003, I turned over information that began an investigation that lasted two months shy of five years. I cooperated with investigators, told them that I intended to plead guilty, and kept my new employer informed of the status. In September 2008, the investigators asked me to report to court for an indictment. In January of 2009, I pled guilty. In February, the governor requested my suspension after the story went public. In that news story, the commissioner of the agency publicly defended me, to his peril.
In May, the court sentenced me to 24 months in federal prison.
I am a preoperative transsexual. Under Federal rules, I had to serve the time in a male prison, not a good thing for me. I intended to report as a woman. Had I reported in gender, the Bureau of Prisons would have held me in solitary confinement for the two years. My therapist told me ‘I know who you are, we all do, and you know who you are. Please, please go there as male.’ I reluctantly agreed; it was time to playact one last time in my life.
On 19 June 2009, I self-surrendered. I spent 3 days in solitary confinement, necessitated by a mandatory tuberculosis test. Once that cleared, an officer led me back to admin and processed out. At that point, I had bruises ringing my wrists from cuffs placed on me in the high security area. I walked out front to the lobby where my sister left me three days earlier. An officer casually told me to walk out the door, walk through the parking lot and head right, on up the grassy hill. That freedom felt strange after three days in solitary. Outside, an inmate driver offered me a ride to the prison camp, a facility with no cells, no bars, and no fences. If one was of a mind to do so, you could walk right out to the road at any time.
The camp proved a safe place. I have many stories that I will not go into now, but which you may read of in the future. There are 62 office-like cubicles there serving as rooms. My bunkie was 24 years my junior, serving ten years for growing pot. Right there, luck was on my side. Rich is a stand-up person, and over the ensuing 21 months, we got along wonderfully. He is a caring father who continuously agonised over the conditions in which his daughter lives, and yearns for the day when he can be with her.
After four months, feeling safe, I felt okay talking about my background. Word spread that I was a trannie, and no one ever bothered me for being so. I worked as a tutor, taught a quarterly class on employment, and towards the end, business writing and creative writing classes of my design. We did video presentations of documentaries, but my primary duty was tutoring campers in need of a GED. I am proud of what those students accomplished, and proud that I could assist in some way. Over time, I gained the respect of most of the inmates there.
In my non-work time, and there was lots of that, I read and wrote fiction and letters. People familiar with my handwriting know that I Write Small. With fiction, I brought home nine stories totalling 952 pages, one of which is a 327 page novel, and two of which are roughly 150 page novellas. I work on one of the novellas now, entering, editing.
Federal rules grant 47 days per year for good time. That reduced my sentence by 94 days. In addition, the BOP usually releases inmates to a halfway house. In my case, that meant I would live in my community. Unfortunately, the BOP in its wisdom, informed me that I would have to do so as male, with a male name, and not tell anyone I am a woman. If I did, I would be in violation, and the BOP would order me held at a county jail. If I followed this mandate, I would be required to lie to all around me, including prospective employers. I chose another direction. I asked the sentencing judge for assistance. He amended my sentence adding a recommendation that instead of a halfway house assignment, I go to home confinement. In June of 2010, the BOP guidelines changed, suggesting that minimum-security people go to home confinement, not to halfway houses. Staff at the camp so recommended, and I thought I would be home in January. Ah, but the regional BOP office overruled, saying I had to go to the halfway house. When I received word of this with eight weeks left, I refused. Consequently, I elected to remain in prison an extra 10 weeks in order not to have to lie to anyone.
It is sort of a woman bites dog thing. Who chooses to stay in prison? Me, one more crazy nelle thing. I rebuilt my integrity and life a long time ago. I was not about to lie for anyone, even if the price was longer time in prison. Staff there supported me, and told me so. It was the right choice, but they could do nothing to override regional.
On 15 March, back in the admin lobby, I walked out into the arms of my mother and sister, and came home.
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