So much ink has been spilled on the Dr. V suicide that I don’t think my perspective would add much. I’d just like to talk about the time I was terrible to a transgender woman.
Ron* was my mother’s college friend and we would see him a few times every year. We went to Tanglewood with him and his wife every summer. They gave me one of my most generous bar mitzvah gifts. And they came to our house every year for New Years Eve, a family tradition like Passover with my grandparents or Fourth of July with our friends who had a pool.
The next year Ron sent my mom an e-mail asking if he could have dinner with her and my dad to talk about something. He wouldn’t elaborate. Apparently in the car ride over my dad said “maybe he’s getting a sex change” and my mom laughed it off.
Well, the purpose of the dinner was to tell my parents that Ron was unhappy living as a male, and was going to transition to being female. She would be Rhonda from then on. When my mom came home she bolted to the fridge so she could get a bottle of wine, filling her glass to the brim. She didn’t even take off her jacket before she started downing chardonnay. When we asked her what happened she told us.
This was 2001, so all I really knew of transgender people was what I saw on Jerry Springer and Maury. And I was in the midst of puberty so my body was a raging mix of hormones and insecurity. A transgender person was disgusting. To me, Rhonda was a freak that I never wanted to see again. I refused to go to Tanglewood to see her that summer.
Then New Years came around. I couldn’t avoid being at home for New Years, it was what my family did and I wasn’t cool enough to get invited to anyone else’s party. My sisters were there too. And we begged our mom, screamed at her, to tell Rhonda to stay home. I don’t know what my mom told her on the phone that got her to stay in Boston but that was the first time in a decade that she didn’t get to spend New Years with her friends.
Looking back, I can’t believe how terrible I was. Here was a person who was transitioning from male to female in her 50s; life was difficult enough. At the very least she should have been able to rely on her friends during the transition. But her friend, my mother, told her that she couldn’t spend New Years with us because her kids thought she was a freak. I wish I could live life with no regrets, but this was too big not to regret. I’m absolutely embarrassed by how I acted.
Amazingly, Rhonda took the graceful way out. She made a phony excuse about an infection related to one of her surgeries. She bore us no ill will, at least to our faces. As I matured, I realized that I had acted terribly. My mother told me that Rhonda understood that we, as teenagers, had a difficult time understanding what she was going through.
A few years later Rhonda, now divorced from Anne, brought her new girlfriend to lunch with my whole family. It was a thoroughly pleasant experience. I don’t see her that much because I don’t see most of my parents’ friends as much as I used to, but I imagine she’ll be invited to my theoretical future wedding. I hope that she gets me something dope from the registry (or not, I don’t blame her if she’s still a little miffed at me for being a jerk).
My favorite postscript was when Rhonda was talking to my mother at a college reunion. A tipsy classmate came up to Rhonda and said, “Oh my God, you look terrific! Just as good as you did in college.”
Rhonda replied “I’m sorry, but you’re thinking of someone else.”
"No, you were Ron Gallagher. You look fantastic!"
So that’s the lesson here. Be good to transgender people. Something as simple as going to your friend’s New Years party can become a chore. Transitioning is a maelstrom of slights, both major and minor. So if you ever come across one, don’t be a fucking prick like I was.
*Names changed to protect the innocent, of course