Justine Nicholas

LONG ISLAND CITY, New York (WOMENSENEWS)–This summer, I wrote and distributed what may be the most important document of my working life:

“Mr. Nicholas Valinotti, an instructor in this department, will be known as Ms. Justine Nicholas as of August 1, 2003.”

Although I composed this brief memo in the presence–and with the support–of the college’s affirmative action officer and my department’s chair, I felt nervous. Nothing in my experience as an adjunct professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, journalist or publicist prepared me to make such a declaration, and nothing I’ve learned in my life could help me to predict its possible consequences.

At that moment, I knew only that my announcement ended a year of knowing I would have to make it, whether at the college or in some other workplace.

Two years before I began working at the college, I’d begun to present myself as female and to look for work in that identity. I’d spent my entire life trying to resolve my conflict over the woman within my male body, and my relationship with my female domestic partner–which broke up during that time–was my last and most desperate effort to live as a heterosexual male.

Former Identity Helps Land the Interview

After a year and a half of job searching, however, I reverted to using a resume and contacts compiled under my old name and male identity because by doing so I could get an interview with one of the chairperson’s deputies. As Justine, I had no work history. The deputy checked my professional references–all men–and recommended me to his boss, who hired me. I started work that September, over one year ago.

Colleges have a mostly-justified reputation for greater tolerance of diversity than other work environments. And the one where I teach is affiliated with a university whose affirmative-action policies go further than our local New York City laws, which include protection for transgenders. Therefore, I knew I couldn’t lose my job simply for reflecting my gender identity. However, I also knew that even with my credentials and the benefit of the doubt I had from the chair and the deputy, I was still new to them and my current colleagues.

So I made great efforts to keep the rest of my life–which I was living as a woman–separate from my job.

Feeling like Ibsen’s Nora

Working as a man, however, became progressively difficult through the year. In December, a student said that when I was teaching Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” I seemed to be teaching about myself.

“How did you know?” I asked her.

She replied, “You looked ready to cry sometimes.”

Guilty as charged! Nora–the pampered heroine of Ibsen’s classic play about a wife who feels trapped in her convention-bound role–and I both had to leave marriages and the lives we knew to find out who we are.

One Friday in February, I forgot to take off my nail polish before leaving my apartment. (Sometimes Duane Reade is a girl’s best friend!) In March, I just caught “Justine Nicholas” on the tip of my tongue as I introduced myself to a staff member. In April, that name popped out of my mouth when I met a vice-president. And on Memorial Day, a friend introduced me as Justine to her friend who, as fate would have it, knew me as her male colleague Nick at the college.

Meet Justine Nicholas

After a year at La Guardia, I felt that the college would be a safe, and possibly welcoming, environment for me to reveal my transgender identity. During final exam week, I went to the human resources office. A secretary–younger than most of my students–gazed quizzically when I told her I was about to change my name. Just then, the director of the office returned from a meeting. Behind closed doors, she assured me that as long as I have a court order, changing the name on my records–or teaching as a woman–“shouldn’t be a problem.” She then suggested I confer with the affirmative action officer, who set up the meeting in which I wrote the announcement of my new identity.

After that encounter, the English department chair led me to the department’s cluster of offices. We stopped in front of the secretaries; they squinted in my direction. I turned toward one and allowed her to look directly in my eyes. Her jaw dropped, then sprang into laughter. I turned toward the other, who reacted in the same way. The department chair glanced at each of them; they stopped laughing. “I want you to meet Ms. Justine Nicholas.”

“Mr. Valinotti, are you in some kind of performance?” wondered the first secretary.

“Honey, the performance just ended. This is real life now.”

The second secretary began a line of questions I’d heard before: “So when did you change . . . When did you realize . . . Are you going to . . . ” It seemed that with each answer, another faculty or staff member found his or her way into our midst.

One professor–a normally restrained Chaucer scholar who’d observed and evaluated me in November–exclaimed, “Listen to her! Now you know what I know: She’s an excellent teacher.”

“And very sweet and considerate,” added the second secretary.

The first secretary turned toward me: “And you look really nice.”

“Well, coming from you, that’s like Shakespeare saying I’m a good writer.”

Everyone sighed. Later, my department chair said I was “most gracious,” especially considering that secretary had laughed at me. “Beware: There’s more where that came from!” the she intoned before making yet another pledge to “help in any way possible.”

On my way out, we shook hands. “Welcome,” she said. I almost asked her, “To what?”

I knew one thing: September was going to be interesting.

Encouragement, Questions, Confusion

I was surprised at the reactions of those who knew me well. While nobody treated me rudely, and many expressed admiration for my “courage” and even my sartorial style, some asked “Is everything all right” in a tone reserved for someone who’s just returned from a medical leave. One, a part-time instructor and full-time bar drummer, half-jokingly asked whether I’d gotten married. Or divorced. “Those’re the only reasons a lady changes her name,” he quipped.

One newly promoted professor with whom I sometimes converse in French and Italian wondered why I gave up my “beautiful” former last name. Another, who did her dissertation on Phyllis Wheatley, a former slave who was one of America’s first poets, asked perhaps the most interesting question of all: “You were white, male and heterosexual. Why did you give up all of that privilege?” Well, one out of three ain’t bad, I deadpanned.

The real answer, of course, is that privilege can make your life easier, but it can’t make you happy. As Nicholas Valinotti I merely skirted the periphery of the “old boy’s club” and still compiled a list of accomplishments and recommendations that commanded respect. But I never felt that any of it was mine because I was presenting myself as someone who, in my heart, I knew I wasn’t. Now, as Justine, I’m starting over, in a sense. And, it seems all eyes are on me.

Including those of students. During a discussion of Carmen Vazquez’ essay “Appearances,” I disclosed my identity to my students. A few jaws dropped, and a few more shoulders shrugged. One tough-looking young man stood up, gazed around the room and declared, “Whoever hates her for that is really stupid.” Before that day, two young women affirmed their preference for their own gender to me; since then, more students–two of my own and several I’d never met before–have asked for and offered advice.

So I may be finding the answer to the question I didn’t ask. After she “introduced” me to the secretaries and colleagues who were present on that July day, my department chair was welcoming me to the department, again. And, perhaps, to the gender in which I’ve begun to live.

Justine Nicholas teaches English at LaGuardia Community College in New York.

For more information:

The Transgender Law and Policy Institute:

The Transgender Health Action Coalition:

Transgender at Work: