Fresh this morning from NPR’s Story Corps, the audio version of which will henceforth be archived in the Library of Congress:
This spring, Les and Scott GrantSmith will mark their 25th wedding anniversary. The couple raised two daughters along the way. But 15 years ago, they hit a crisis that nearly shattered their family. Les was keeping a secret, and that became a problem. But they solved it as a family, in a way that kept them together and happy.
In the weeks leading up to that day back in 1997, Les was certain of two things: She was a mother who loved her daughters — and she was also transgender, the term for someone born in a body of the wrong sex.
Les grew depressed and withdrawn, terrified that revealing her need to live her life as a man would mean losing Scott and their daughters, Thea and Amanda.
Weeks passed in which the couple barely spoke. Finally, Scott confronted his wife, just two days before Thanksgiving.
Not long ago, the two of them sat down to recall the conversation that followed.
“I said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” Scott recalls. “And then you said, ‘I can’t tell you. Because if I do, you’ll leave me and take the children and I’ll never see them again.’ And I said, ‘You’d probably better tell me then. Because you can’t … you can’t leave it hanging like that.’ ”
“You can’t leave it like that,” Les agrees. “So, that’s when I told you.”
“First thing I remember is that you, you said that you were in the wrong body, that you should be a man,” Scott says.
“And if it had seemed to me that I was going to lose you, and I was going to lose the kids, I would have said, ‘OK. I’m not transitioning.’ But you told me that we’ll work it out.”
“Early the next week, you were on the computer and you were researching all of the surgeries …”
“Surgeries …” Les says.
“The hormones,” Scott says.
“Hormones,” Les echoes.
“And I just freaked out,” Scott says. “It finally occurred to me to ask the question, should I stay or should I go?”
He sums up his immediate response to that question: “Well, I won’t be better off. Les won’t be better off. And the kids won’t be better off.”
The couple had met in college; they got married in 1987. And with Les’ secret now in the open, they decided to stay together. In 1997, Les began hormone treatments as part of the process of beginning to live life as a man.
“Amanda was 7 at this point, and I explained to her where this was going,” Les says. “And she burst into tears and threw herself onto my lap. And she says, ‘Oh, please, don’t change into a man. If you have to change into anything, couldn’t it be a cat?’ “
Which raises an obvious question: it is one thing to be heterosexual, or to be a woman, or to be homosexual, or to be a man, or to be a rare, natural hermaphrodite, or even to be omnisexual, that is, to pursue sexual satisfaction via all avenues available (whether or not this final station involves the identity component of also being a man-woman-plus I cannot say).
But what are the implications for human beings if they become individually ontologically (beingness) transient, protean, transformative, particularly with respect to relationships, including contractual relationships with other entities, other persons or other entities who may either be relatively fixed in their individual identities, or, even more interestingly, having become protean themselves? What sorts of relationships does transience admit? Or does the concept of relationship, of <–> , dissolve into something else in that situation?
To be sure, the case of Les, above, is certainly one of limited natural scope (and equally limited Story Corpsbook happy ending): most humans are not like that and will never be like that. But the same cultural ethos and bioengineering technologies that enable Les to transform from woman to man would be hard pressed to deny Carl his wish to transform into a human spider monkey, complete with fur and tail, or for that matter to transform himself into a permanently 16-year-old cheerleader. Or to transform from man to woman to man to woman to man. And I, at least, simply do not know, short of the impassably limiting hows of our technologies, why now that we are on this road we would ever say with confidence we would certainly draw the line here and never, ever let it be drawn instead there much farther down the road. If you can explain why, though, please do.
Life itself, of course, is nothing but change – Heraclitus long ago pointed out to us that “no man ever steps in the same river twice” – and on the frontier of this inevitable Dionysian flux we have always been and are still now constantly attempting to erect Apollonian castles of permanence, including, like our early Egyptian ancestors, permanent, eternal afterlives. Moreover, even as those permanent identities we consider ourselves individually to be, we ourselves change over the course of a lifetime far more than we ever foresee.
But what might it mean for human societies to do the opposite, to, rather than, as we always have, feed back negatively against the Dionysian flux of nature with our unfortunately inevitably doomed attempts at permanence, instead now and into the future double down and feed back positively by actively promoting the protean transformation of our own individuating identities, leaving us now with a flux of now actively transient individual identity within the larger flux of natural life itself? (That irritating contemporary phenomenon of the merchant constantly dropping the brand you just learned to like would seem to pale by comparison.)
Most abstractly put: what are the limits, if any – and the consequences, if any – to abandoning natural limits, specifically to abandoning our naturally individuated identities as human beings in favor of somethings more actively fluid?
What sort of meaning could the future term “transdentity” possess?
On the other hand, in a culture where individuality and individual identity might become a complicating limitation to the further evolution of that particular society as a whole, might not the real world realization of the conceptual evolution of individualism and individual identity into protean malleability sketched out above actually provide a positive benefit to such a society instead?
H. M. Stuart