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From I Heard Her Call My Name: A Memoir of Transition, which was published this month by Penguin Press.

For months I was preoccupied with the matter of my name. I knew perfectly well that my name was Lucy. Over the decades I had occasionally toyed with alternate names. I liked Louise, Betty, Julie, Colette, Simone, Florence; I thought of just dropping my first name in favor of my middle name, Marie. But Lucy stuck. That had nothing to do with any other Lucys I had met, but went straight back to my appearance as Lucy in a picture-caption typo in a small suburban gazette when I was twelve. The name had taken root in my brain and defeated all comers.

That wasn’t the problem. What concerned me was my byline. I had been chatting on the phone with Jamie, a painter and filmmaker I had known for more than forty years and who had transitioned a few years before me. She told me that her gallery had decided that her work would have to keep being exhibited and sold under the name James, since a mid-career switch would confuse the market. The decision was rescinded a bit later, but before I was aware of that I fretted for months over whether I should do the same. I asked everybody I knew for their opinion. I thought of the strange attributions one sometimes found on detective novels: John Creasey writing as Michael Halliday. In my notebook I even wrote out a speculative opening for my memoir, should I ever write one: This book is by Luc Sante, although it was written by Lucy Sante.

I wasn’t so much worried about the market and its possible confusion as I was worried about the continuity of my writing, by which I really meant the continuity of my self. A one-letter alteration might at worst make people think the byline belonged to a close relative. My family name, which does not have an accent and does not mean “health” (it derives from the Walloon for Alexander), is extremely rare, and all of its bearers (unless they changed to it from some less wieldy Italian or Polish name) can trace their ancestry back to my hometown. As far as I’ve been able to determine, I am the only person in the world to bear either my current or my former name. So no one would remain confused for very long.

My own confusion had more to do with the arbitrary line between public and private selves. I published my first professional piece of writing in The New York Review of Books in 1981, when I was twenty-seven. I had been writing since I was a child, and had published poems and stories in little magazines since my teens, but suddenly being paid for writing was something else again. It was an actual profession, and I had to learn its protocols. My first ten years were an apprenticeship; I published various kinds of literary journalism in magazines and newspapers, and rigorously avoided the word I. The act was something of an impersonation. I was playing a character more worldly and sophisticated than I actually was, so I had to keep my real self tightly buttoned up. (When I first began submitting work—fruitlessly—to Rolling Stone and other magazines when I was fourteen, I made sure to sign the cover letter “Mr. Luc Sante,” so they’d know I was both male and adult.) Naturally I was all but overcome by imposter syndrome. Even when I did start writing about aspects of my life, I was careful to keep the rest curtained off.

In the late Nineties I published The Factory of Facts, a memoir, although I tried to absent myself from the story, or at most to depict myself as a squiggle on an architectural elevation. I wanted to show my whole background, presenting the history of my family, the history of my native town, the history of Belgium, the history of Belgian emigration, and so on—but actually rendering my own face and my own emotions would, I claimed, reduce and standardize the narrative. I thought this demurral was a measure of my seriousness. But of course I was dodging self-depiction because I didn’t want to be seen, and I didn’t want to be seen because I didn’t know who I was. I don’t know how much I let myself be aware that the duality of nationalities and cultures mirrored another duality within, but I’m sure I never surmised that metamorphosis would be something I’d experience more than once.

Right up until my egg cracked I continued to maintain the fiction that my writing self was somehow distinct from the rest of me. It went along with the sense I had in my social life that I was always playing a role, the effort of which left me exhausted at the end of every night out. I mostly failed to connect those two phenomena, however, and of course was unable to see what connected them. Somehow or other I managed to avoid considering the possible long-term side effects of carrying around a secret the size of a house. I pretended to myself that what I was trying to conceal was my inferiority to the character I tried to create, in writing and in life. I was boring, clumsy, nebbishy, unsexy, squirrelly, pedantic, useless, feeble, no fun, eternally on the B- or even C-list of even my best friends. To be sure, this self-portrait was not strictly a by-product of gender dysphoria; my parents’ class anxieties, the immigrant experience, and the residue of a Catholic upbringing contributed as well.

My secret poisoned my entire experience of life. There was never a moment when I didn’t feel the acute shame of being me, even as I denied to myself that my secret had anything to do with it. I might feel proud of things I’d done, might even be able to summon the will to entertain ambitions, and might ascribe such things to an idealized self I sometimes tried to make myself believe in, but eventually I was going to catch sight of myself in a mirror and that would destroy me for an hour or a day or a week. I’ve been in therapy for thirty-eight years, but because I was guarding my secret even in the therapist’s office, no diagnosis ever came close to identifying the cause of my malaise. At some point in the relatively recent past I came upon a citation from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” That was an even more effective scare than the line I remembered from William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” It reminded me of the notion popular in the Sixties and Seventies that major diseases were caused by festering repression.

It occurred to me that maintaining my secret flew in the face of my moral and ethical beliefs. I was actively practicing hypocrisy. At least once or twice I briefly imagined what it would feel like to open up—I framed it for myself as a career move, just to make the pill go down—but then I quickly iced the thought. Gender transition was the one subject that made me physically uncomfortable. I had no problem with female-to-male transitions, and I could maybe read about Christine Jorgensen or Jan Morris or Renée Richards, safely consigned to the past, but when I thought seriously about my M-to-F contemporaries—Chelsea Manning, the Wachowski sisters, the trans woman who had been a year ahead of me at my all-boys high school and now worked as a pediatrician—I would feel something like vertigo. I’d been afraid of heights my whole life, and this feeling was similar to the sensation of helpless free fall that would clench my gut every time I’d so much as think about heights. On one online trans bulletin board twenty years ago I read the story of a Belgian boy whose mother caught him cross-dressing and immediately admonished him to start gender transition proceedings: “You don’t want to be a transvestite when you’re forty!” So they had a big farewell-to-maleness party, and the next day she started hormone replacement therapy. The story filled me with equal parts envy and terror.

What I feared was the one-way trip. I had always known that any exploration of gender I undertook would lack a return ticket, and that is why I had never publicly put on a dress, not even as a joke or a glam rock fashion statement. Terror of unidirectionality underlay my fear of LSD too; I wasn’t so much afraid of the length of trips as of the possibility that they would just keep going and I’d never come back, like the guy in town who swept the parking lot at the diner in exchange for meals and never seemed to look at anything in particular. Unsurprisingly, when I did transition, I had the sensation of having passed through a portal. I was troubled by that image—wasn’t gender a spectrum? Why did I feel as though I had crossed into another dimension? But eventually I realized that the portal was not between genders. It was the eye of the cognitive needle I had to pass through in order to break out of the prison of denial.

So when I balked at changing my name in professional contexts, I was simply reverting to old habits. I was hedging my bets, making sure I had some way of getting home from the party, ensuring that I had deniability and the option of changing my mind. Similarly, I hung on to various items of male clothing when I enacted my auto-da-fé six months after my egg cracked—not because they were sentimental favorites or possessed historical value but because they represented a phantom black door. It wasn’t as if I would ever wear them; I simply needed them for security. For an instant I thought of the man headed for the gallows having his last meal, who saves half his sandwich for later.

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January 2019

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