At 58, poet Diana Goetsch finally feels right in her own skin

At 58, poet Diana Goetsch finally feels right in her own skin

1:41pm May 25, 2022
Diana Goetsch writes about her later-in-life transition in the memoir, This Body I Wore.
Diana Goetsch writes about her later-in-life transition in the memoir, This Body I Wore.
Tyler Foltz / Farrar, Straus and Groux
  • Diana Goetsch writes about her later-in-life transition in the memoir, This Body I Wore.

    Diana Goetsch writes about her later-in-life transition in the memoir, This Body I Wore.

    Tyler Foltz / Farrar, Straus and Groux

  • This Body I Wore, by Diana Goetsch

    Macmillan

Poet Diana Goetsch says she had been cross-dressing on the weekends for years when she had a flash of clarity on a solo retreat in 2014: She was a trans woman and she needed to live her life accordingly.

"People call you 'brave' ... but, for me, it ... got to be that to continue life as a man was even scarier than to transition," she remembers.

Goetsch, who was 50 at the time, also decided that she'd strive to live to be 100.

"I felt that the universe owed me 50 years as a female living this way," she explains. "That's crazy, but it's this sense that I wanted more life."

Goetsch went on to chronicle her transition in a blog for the American Scholar. Now, in her new memoir, This Body I Wore, she writes about coming of age and into adulthood in an earlier era, when she didn't have the language or knowledge to understand what it meant to be trans.

"There was a whole menu of terms that we used and none of them felt accurate," she says. "We could only see so much or express so much depending on what pocket of trans culture we were in. Even the word 'trans culture,' that would have been ridiculous to even say that. Even 'community' sounded ridiculous."

Although trans representation is greater today than when she was younger, Goetsch says the community is threatened by recent anti-trans legislation in states like Texas and Idaho.

"I, frankly, view it as genocide. I view it as the erasure of a people, which is what it is," she says. "Not only are they criminalizing parents of trans kids, they're turning teachers and the friends of trans kids into government informants. Doctors are being threatened .... They're criminalizing anyone aiding and abetting someone being trans."


Interview highlights

On the trans community in 1980s New York City

You just sort of found some speakeasy, some corner of a bar that was used one night a week ... and you'd get there and ... you'd be relieved just to arrive and be relatively safe. And most of these people identified as straight men who didn't understand why they needed to do this.

But there were other pockets of what we would now call "trans culture" that had a very different experience. These were people who had transitioned already. People who were more woven into gay culture, so-called street queens, other people who are early transitioners who were kind of out. And they had a kind of family that you would see in ballroom culture and things like that, alternative family, and they were forming communities. ....

I wasn't a part of that, because I wasn't ready to see myself as transgender, which is another word we didn't have. ... People who were on my side of the line, cross-dressers, we sometimes envied the transsexual girls for their beauty or the fact that they got to be full time and didn't have to keep two wardrobes. We would just say, "If only that were me." But it wasn't. Or at least we didn't think so.

On finding role models as she transitioned

There were two role models in particular that I just admired, and they were both artists. And it wasn't so much their style or how they were other than how free they were. They were full-throated people who just seemed thoughtful and free in their lives. One was Laura Jane Grace, who fronts the band Against Me!, a punk singer who transitioned just a couple of years before me. And another one was Justin Vivian Bond, the great lounge singer, cabaret singer in San Francisco and New York. And both were just out and so free and I just admired them.

On how her relationship to women's clothes changed over time

Clothes, for me, even growing up as a child, were like the only gateway in my childhood mythology of what would get me to who I wanted to be, even though I didn't even use that language. I just saw female clothes as these talismans, these devices that made girls female. And I needed a mythology of what would make a person female, because deep down I needed something to make me female. And so the clothes, before I transitioned, had this power and then that power transformed when I came out and when I transitioned ... I didn't need to worry as much about feminizing. ...

When you go out cross-dressed in the '80s and '90s in New York City, those clothes ... and how well you did your makeup were a kind of protection. The better you did it, the more you might pass. So it also had that kind of effect. And then just living as a woman and all the other changes that come with it, I'm less dependent on presenting and performing. I don't remember the first time I wore jeans when I was out, but it took a while, because I needed that skirt, that icon for people to look at me and then look away and go about their day.

On thinking of her transition as a "death gift"

One of these Tibetan gurus had said, you don't really find out about yourself until you're cornered. But even more apropos, there was a trans man I heard speaking ... and he said that his transition was a "death gift to himself." ... Even just to go out cross-dressed for the first time, there's just so much fear and resistance. And again, unlike today, back then, your life was going to end pretty soon. "Transsexual" people — which was the language used then — did not tend to live very long and did not tend to participate in the things that normally give life meaning when you think of community or family or career. None of those things were open at that time to transsexual people. So it was like looking at the end of life.

On why she did voice training and what she learned

If you line up a hundred trans women, let's just say, many more will pass visually than will pass vocally. And by passing, I'm just thinking of safety, that you can walk through Grand Central Station and no one's going to out you or what have you. But vocally, it's a whole different story. And I wanted to have at least some amount of training, some amount of modification to be congruent for someone to listen to me and feel like, OK, this goes with what I'm seeing. At NYU, they were training graduate students to be vocal clinicians. ... There are certain vocal characteristics that they look at. Most people only think about pitch: Are you talking high or are you talking low? It can get a lot of trans women into falsetto, which actually doesn't work so well. ...

But there's pitch and then there's something they call prosody, which is the music. They would say what would typically be more feminine is more variation in pitch — high and low and that kind of thing. And then in resonance, where does the voice resonate? In the chest, in the head and the nose, in the forehead, in the mouth, the lips or down deeper in the throat? ... I quickly saw that the very instrument with which a woman produces sound ... it's a completely different instrument. ... And then every syllable, the way the tongue is in the mouth, on every single syllable I found to be different as well. ... Sometimes they had us choose a vocal model, and I looked for some alto out there —Hannah Storm, who's the sportscaster for ESPN, and had a wonderful voice, I thought, to model.

On feeling more "right" in who she is since living as a woman — but also feeling uneasy about the future

Just living life in your name, in your gender, in your appearance ... you just feel right in who you are. But I didn't want to fall into that cliché that a lot of trans memoirs fall into, because I don't believe them. The first thing they say is, "We're really OK." We're not OK. There's a lot of trouble. I feel it, too. There's a lot of work to do and a long way to go. And the other thing they say is, "We're people. We're human." And if you have to make a case for that, you've already lost it. I didn't know how the last page was going to work out. How am I going to end this thing when I still feel a lot of trouble and chaos and a lot of the people I know do? And yet, we're doing what we have to do.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In 2015, my guest wrote this.

DIANA GOETSCH: (Reading) My life broke down two years ago at age 50, though it was broken all along. I seem to be a well-functioning man named Douglas Goetsch, a teacher who taught at Stuyvesant High School and various universities, a poet with award-winning collections, a dedicated meditation practitioner and instructor. Previously, I'd been a concert jazz dancer, a restaurant cook, a varsity athlete. At the same time, I was depressed and had been for decades with no family, no partner, going through life alone. One other thing - I longed daily to be a woman.

GROSS: That's my guest, Diana Goetsch, reading from her blog, Life In Transition, that she kept during her period transitioning to life as a woman. The blog was published on The American Scholar site. Now Goetsch has a new memoir called "This Body I Wore," about what it was like coming of age and into adulthood in an earlier era, when she didn't have the language or knowledge to understand what it meant to be trans. Goetsch also writes about her decision to transition relatively late in life. She taught English at Stuyvesant High School in New York for 14 years, then spent six years running a creative writing program for incarcerated youth in the Bronx. She's received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and was the Grace Paley teaching fellow at The New School in New York. Diana Goetsch, welcome to FRESH AIR.

GOETSCH: Thank you, Terry. I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: Delighted to have you. Since you are a poet and you've taught writing just about your entire adult life, let's start with language. As you try to make sense of your identity and your gender identity and sexual orientation, what was language like for you before we had the words today, like gender non-conforming or queer or transsexual? Like, what words did you have access to that could help you describe who you were? And what were the words that other people used to describe who they thought you were?

GOETSCH: Most of the words we had from today's perspective were fairly laced in shame. Even back then, it felt shameful to refer to ourselves. I mean, as a poet, you know, talking to people I knew who were cross-dressers, who were out, you know, on a Friday or Saturday night, I cringed a little at the language we were using - maybe they didn't, but I did as a poet. I knew that they were, you know, rough approximations. So people said transsexual, but we said TS. And then we said TV, like, you know, transvestite or CD or, you know, we tried to create lingo. Maybe the most embarrassing one was GG for genetic girl. I mean, what was this, junior high? You know, there were whole, you know, menus of terms that we used, and none of them felt accurate. But it also was reflective of a reality. So, you know, we can only see so much or express so much depending on what pocket of, you know, trans culture we were in. Even the word trans culture, you know, that would have been ridiculous to even say that. Even community sounded ridiculous.

GROSS: Why did that sound ridiculous?

GOETSCH: There was no community, you know, in my pocket of trans culture. So, you know, I started to go out cross-dressed in the mid-1980s in New York City. And you just sort of found some speakeasy, some corner of a bar that was used one night a week or, you know, all these different places that we would just pop up. And you'd get there in some, you know, some protected way. You'd be relieved just to arrive and be relatively safe. And most of these people identified as straight men who, you know, didn't understand why they needed to do this. But there were other pockets of what we would now call trans culture that had a very different experience. These were earlier people who had transitioned already, you know, people who were more woven into gay culture, you know, so-called street queens, you know, other people who are early transitioners who were kind of out. And they had a kind of family that you would see in ballroom culture and things like that, you know, alternative family. And they were forming communities.

GROSS: Why weren't you a part of that?

GOETSCH: I wasn't a part of it, partly because I wasn't ready to see myself as transgender, which is another word we didn't have. And at the time, there was a huge separating line between TS and TV, transsexual or transvestite or cross-dresser. And it is - one place in the book where I talk about how people who, you know, were on my side of the line, cross-dressers, we sometimes envy the transsexual girls for their beauty or the fact that they got to be full time and didn't have to keep to wardrobes. And, you know, we would just say, if only that were me - but it wasn't, or at least we didn't think so.

GROSS: So how did the woman you wanted to be when you were first realizing that you really wanted to live life as a woman, how did the woman you wanted to be then compare to the woman who you are now, now that you actually are living as a woman?

GOETSCH: That's a great issue. You know, I wrote a column about this early on. A lot of us, you know, take on role models. And, you know, also a lot of, you know, people, you know, socialized as girls. You know, they take on role models all the time, ordinary, you know, female people. And we, you know, in the beginning, a lot of us just kind of fake it till we make it. And we look around, at least I did, who will I be, you know? And then I stopped. And I said, well, I'll be me. And - but there were two role models in particular that I just admired. And they were both artists. And it wasn't so much their style or how they were other than how free they were. You know, they were full-throated people who just seemed thoughtful and free in their lives. One was Laura Jane Grace, who fronts the band Against Me! - a punk singer who transitioned just a couple of years before me. And another one was Justin Vivian Bond, the great lounge singer, cabaret singer in San Francisco and New York. And both were just out and so free. And I just admired them.

GROSS: Early on, when you would go to like underground bars and you were able to cross-dress, you'd wear things like pantyhose. And, you know, like, your author photo in your new memoir, you're wearing a denim jacket, you know what I mean?

GOETSCH: Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm just curious there about what you saw as female or feminine that you aspired to back then and what you're comfortable in now expressing yourself.

GOETSCH: That's a great - that's another great issue. You know, clothes, you know, for me, even growing up as a child were like the only gateway in my childhood mythology of what would get me to who I wanted to be, even though I didn't even use that language. I just saw female clothes as these talismans, these devices that made girls female. And I needed a mythology of what would make a person female 'cause deep down I needed something to make me a female. And so the clothes, you know, before I transitioned, had this power, and then that power transformed, you know, when I came out and when I transitioned and I lived this way. And, you know, I didn't need to worry as much about feminizing. And the other thing that happened with clothes - you know, when you got cross-dressed in the '80s and '90s in New York City, those clothes were a kind of protection. And how well you did your makeup were a kind of protection. You know, the better you did it, the more you might pass, you know? So it also had that kind of effect - and then, you know, just living as a woman and all the other changes that come with it.

I'm less dependent on, you know, presenting and performing, you know, and I could just - you know, I don't remember the first time I wear jeans when I was out, but it took a while because I needed that skirt, that icon for people to look at me and then look away and go about their day.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, you actually have a very funny line about the early days when you were dressing in women's clothes and going to these underground bars. And you write you wanted to look like a woman who had accidentally...

GOETSCH: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: ...Wandered into the wrong bar. And so it sounded like you were kind of conservatively dressed.

GOETSCH: Yeah. Well, certainly compared to a lot of my fellow cross-dressers, 'cause, you know, everyone had a different style, and so much of it was so over the top. And I was, like, you know, some executive secretary coming from work.

(LAUGHTER)

GOETSCH: But at the same time, we all had this ideal of what's feminine. So, you know, when I was a kid watching Superman, you know, that Superman costume was pretty great. But I was looking at Lois Lane.

(LAUGHTER)

GOETSCH: I thought that was even better.

GROSS: Oh.

GOETSCH: I thought she had the superpower.

GROSS: When she had these, like, business suits with, like, really padded shoulders and...

GOETSCH: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So you transitioned pretty late in life. You were around 50. And we're talking around 2015 and '16. What's unique about transitioning at that age and also about having kind of, you know, lived in this in-between world where you couldn't really be who you were for so much of your life before transitioning to life as a woman?

GOETSCH: Yeah. I mean, in terms of, you know, being a 50 year old - it was actually 2014 where I came out to myself. I was alone on a solo meditation retreat, actually. And the first thing I said to myself is - you know, when I decided to do this - I need to live to 100. I felt that the universe owed me 50 years as a female living this way. That's crazy. But it's the sense that I wanted more life.

And I think, you know, for me coming out, maybe for anyone coming out, you take a path of almost maximum safety. You know, if it's safest to be in the closet, then you need to be there. And at a certain point, it becomes safer to come out, at least for me. You know, people call you brave. I think that's - often they say that to other me. Like, I wouldn't want to be you. You're brave, or you have to be brave. But for me, it was more like - it got to be that to continue life, you know, as a man was even scarier than to transition.

GROSS: Well...

GOETSCH: It had gotten that way.

GROSS: ...It seems from your memoir that every time you made a big change in terms of the transition and in terms of living publicly as a woman, you were nearly on the verge of suicide. I mean, it's like you didn't really have a choice. Like, if you wanted to live, you had to make a change.

GOETSCH: I think so. There's - you know, one of these Tibetan gurus had said, you don't really find out about yourself until you're cornered. But even more apropos, there's a - there was a trans man I heard speaking. It was while I was writing this book. And he said that his transition was a death gift to himself, you know? And I related to that from the very - I had already written the prologue to this where it's really presented as a death gift. Even just to go out cross-dress for the first time - you know, there's just so much fear and resistance.

And, again, unlike today, back then, your life was going to end pretty soon. You know, transsexual people, which was the language used then, did not tend to live very long and did not tend to participate in, you know, the things that normally, you know, give life meaning when you think of community or family or career or - I mean, none of those things were open at the time to transsexual people. So it was like looking at the end of life.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Diana Goetsch, and her new memoir is called "This Body I Wore." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE PATTI SMITH PERFORMANCE OF NIRVANA'S "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Diana Goetsch. Her new memoir "This Body I Wore" is about growing up and living as a boy and a man and then transitioning to living life publicly as a woman at around the age of 50.

What's it like for you now to see, you know, children, you know, basically transitioning to male or to female, you know, at such a young age? Is it something you think you would have wanted to do when you were at that age?

GOETSCH: I think so. It's hard to say, you know, how much of trans visibility that we have today, what the effect of it would have been on me as a child. You know, as a child - you know, I was born in 1963. And there were such rough approximations for who, you know, we could be. And, you know, I go through that at some point in a childhood chapter, you know? You have people like, you know, Milton Berle and Flip Wilson and, you know, and then some more accurate, you know, performers and people who, you know, could really make a transition visually. But most of it was just these suggestions theatrically on television shows. And that wasn't much of a model. And of course, you couldn't record it or play it again or see it in a magazine or what have you. So you know, if you don't see it on the outside, you tend not to see it on the inside. I do think if I had seen it, I probably would have found a better way to speak up or to express it. And then there's, you know, what family are you in? What culture are you in even if you do see it? And so it's complicated. But nowadays, they look for this persistence, these children who just refuse to go along with the program, you know, often from an early age. And they see plenty of trans representation that they can point to. And they can feel confirmed. Although, now, of course, as we all know, there's this war going on over trans children.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Do you have, you know, a position on that?

GOETSCH: Yeah. I think, you know, what's going on in places like Texas and Idaho, you know, I frankly view it as genocide. I view it as the erasure of a people, which is what it is. You know, not only are they, you know, criminalizing, you know, parents of trans kids, they're turning, you know, teachers and the friends of trans kids into government informants. Doctors are, you know, being threatened. But, you know, they're criminalizing anyone, you know, aiding and abetting someone being trans. But they're also eliminating, you know, books and the ability to talk about it in school. And, you know, here are these trans kids. Here are these trans teachers or queer teachers who can't state who they are, just plainly who they are.

GROSS: Yeah. It's like we're living in two different worlds at the same time. In one world, people can be out and trans, have a culture, have a wider world that they can be part of. At the same time, especially in some places, it is really dangerous. And as you're saying, it's becoming criminalized. So it's kind of crazy that the world should be going in two opposite directions at the same time. I suppose that's what happens when there is still, you know, like, transphobia and homophobia and more and more people are coming out as who they are. You know, the other side is going to have a stronger reaction.

GOETSCH: Yeah. I think that was in play - you have the kind of thing happening, you know, during, maybe, the later Obama years, when there was this kind of upheaval, explosion of trans visibility. But now it's gotten to a point where it's right out of the fascist playbook. I mean, they're starting fires everywhere. And with regard to trans people, you know, to call us child molesters and groomers, I mean, that's right out of Nazi Germany. I mean, that's exactly the move that Hitler was making to, you know, ostracize groups and create the most fear possible.

GROSS: Do you feel less safe now?

GOETSCH: Not in New York City. But, you know, as soon as Trump was elected, I was with a trans friend, you know, watching in a Brooklyn bar. We were just getting together to watch that election in 2016. And as soon as they called Florida, I mean, the blood just drained from both of us. We looked at each other. And I knew the country became more narrow for me. I guess narrow was the word, that there were fewer places I could go. And, yeah, it's - there's a danger element for me, but it's far more for, you know, a trans man or woman of color - especially women - and then the kids. It's almost like it's created these levels of privilege within the trans community that's - they've always been there, but they're much more stratified now based on, you know, geography or education or age and family. And, I mean, there's all kinds of various levels of privilege.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, I want to talk more. But first, we have to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Diana Goetsch. Her new memoir is called "This Body I Wore." We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS' "GARY'S THEME (REMASTERED ALBUM VERSION)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with poet and creative writing teacher Diana Goetsch. Her new memoir is called "This Body I Wore." It's about growing up and going through life as a boy, then a man, and then living publicly as a woman starting around the age of 50.

When you were first starting to live some part of your life as a woman, mostly nights where you could go to bars, where you would be accepted in women's clothes, and those bars tended to be underground bars, so very early on, you'd go through the classified ads - this is before the internet - and find places like The Eulenspiegel Society, which is basically an S&M association.

GOETSCH: Yeah.

GROSS: You weren't into S&M, but you felt like you saved your life by going there. What did you find there that was liberating? What did you find there that was alienating?

GOETSCH: Well, I believe it's The Eulenspiegel Society.

GROSS: Eulenspiegel. OK.

GOETSCH: Yeah, it's a strange name. That was the first night I went out dressed, and it wasn't so much what I found there. I mean, what I found, there was a situation where they would take me. You know, there's this line by Robert Frost from "The Death Of The Hired Man" - home is where, when you have nowhere else to go, they have to take you in. And these BDSM places would take us in. In fact, you know, if you were cross-dressed, they'd consider you a woman. They wouldn't charge you money, some of them, whereas they charge the men $20 or $30. So that's real acceptance.

And it was another kind of facsimile situation, though, a rough approximation, because, you know, you functioned in their world as, you know, sissies or whatever fantasy roles they might have. Even though I, you know, I was not about to participate in some psychodrama or, you know, role play sexual situation, I was still, you know, part of the atmosphere. And they wanted me. They accepted me and others like me. So it was just one of the clubs you could go to in a culture that was much less open to us.

GROSS: You wanted to find some literature that could help you explain yourself to yourself, and the magazines that you were able to find about people who were transsexuals, those magazines were in porn shops. What magazines were they, and how did it feel having to go into porn shops to find them?

GOETSCH: Yeah. There was a range of magazines, everything from very, you know, XXX, you know, pornography, you know, depictions of sexual acts and so forth, every kind of fetish you could imagine, you know, with regard to cross-dressing or transsexuality. And then there were these kind of - I call them the ladies home journals of cross-dressing, you know, Tapestry and Transvestia, which, you know, were just was like, you know, Emily Post and Miss Manners and very kind of Victorian almost with the way people dressed and spoke. And this is how you are a lady. And this is how you hold your pinky out when you drink your tea or whatever. And then here I am in a porn shop looking at this. And again, a porn shop was this other place, just like what you were asking with the S&M-type places, the porn shop was another place where, you know, sex and acts of sex are kind of, you know, right in front of your face. I mean, that's why people are going into these stores is to engage in this stuff.

You know, at a previous chapter, I take myself to the New York Public Library to research this in 1985, and there was nothing helpful. And I was reading scientific literature. None of it spoke to me at all. And, in fact, all of that literature looks extremely primitive now. So to go out and just find out about yourself, you know, we have all of New York City, which was called the best city for this, just finding out who you were. Still, you were in these places that were, you know, seedy and filled with shame.

GROSS: There were contradictions in your identity before you started to live publicly as a woman. You were assertive. You were competitive. You were athletic. You walked and talked like a guy. I'm quoting you here.

GOETSCH: I know (laughter).

GROSS: You also took ballet classes and other kinds of dance classes. You were athletic and strong. You were on the soccer team in high school. But people thought of you or you thought of yourself sometimes as a sissy. People assumed you were gay, but you didn't think that was quite the right description. It just sounds so confusing in terms of how other people perceived you and how you perceived yourself.

GOETSCH: Yeah. People will just put you in the most available category they have. And at a time when there was no category for trans, at least not where I was growing up, not in Northport, Long Island, or other places in Long Island, they just made this other assumption. And they were sure about it because what else could you possibly be? It was an act of deduction. I mean, interpersonally, there was no - if there's no language for it or no category for it, you kind of don't exist. And, you know, so I was confused about myself. I never deep down thought I was gay, at least a gay man, because, I mean, there's no evidence for it. There's no desire. I never desired sexually, you know, a male person. And the people who was so sure I was - I must be gay, they could not find me with a boyfriend or with an - there was nothing there.

So, yeah, there's this adjacent category of me being gay that almost runs alongside my whole life, and then this other kind of adjacent world of S&M that I didn't realize was so prevalent until I wrote the memoir, actually. It keeps popping up. I'm in these clubs, in these places. And both of these kind of adjacent, you know, identities or lifestyles, they could just have me, you know, be there. But it wasn't it.

GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest was Diana Goetsch. Her new memoir is called "This Body I Wore." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Diana Goetsch. Her new memoir "This Body I Wore" is about growing up and living as a boy and a man and then transitioning to living life publicly as a woman at around the age of 50.

So when you were in your late 40s and you decided to transition and live publicly as a woman, one of the things you did was voice training. And I'm wondering, what are some of the things that you learned about your voice living as a man compared to your voice living as a woman? I'm always interested in everything related to the voice.

GOETSCH: Yeah. That's a really interesting issue. You know, there - if you line up a hundred trans women, let's just say, many more will pass visually than will pass vocally. And by passing, I'm just thinking of safety - that you can walk through Grand Central Station and no one's going to out you or what have you. But vocally, it's a whole different story. And I wanted to have at least some amount of training, some amount of, you know, modification to be congruent, for someone to listen to me and feel like, OK, this goes with what I'm seeing.

At NYU, there was a graduate department - they were training graduate students to be vocal clinicians. And Darlene Monda was the head of this. And she thought that helping trans people retrain their voices was just a great service to everyone involved. There are certain vocal characteristics that they look at. Most people only think about pitch. You know, are you talking high? Are you talking low, you know? And it can get a lot of trans women into falsetto, which actually doesn't work so well. But there's pitch, and then there's something they call prosody, which is the music. And they would say what would typically be more feminine is more variation in pitch, high and low, and that kind of thing.

Then resonance - you know, where does the voice resonate in the chest, in the head, in the nose, in the forehead, in the mouth, the lips or down deeper in the throat. And then there's a fourth I can't think of right now. And I quickly saw that the very instrument with which a woman produces sound - you know, just an ordinary woman versus a trans woman - it's a completely different instrument - or women versus men. And then every syllable - the way the tongue is in the mouth on every single syllable I found to be different as well - I mean, and any plosive, any, you know, sibilant, any - you know, all of those wonderful, you know, words.

And sometimes they had us choose a vocal model, you know? And I looked for some alto out there. Hannah Storm, who's this sportscaster for ESPN, had a wonderful voice, I thought, to model. You, actually, were someone also who was very worth modeling for me 'cause you're an alto, I believe.

GROSS: Really?

GOETSCH: Oh, yeah. I mean, you have one of the great voices. But it's also a voice that's far more available to me than, say, you know, Michelle Pfeiffer or...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah. Was singing a part of this?

GOETSCH: Yeah, I did. I would do some singing. I would try something in a higher pitch than I could do but would maybe make me stronger in the higher notes. I even joined a church choir as a tenor. I am not a tenor (laughter). And it took me into these realms. And there was an older woman who had maybe done a lot of smoking who was in the tenor section. And she said, oh, good, another woman tenor.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Having lived through what you've lived through, what do you think the line is between gender as a social construct, a behavior that you're kind of socialized into doing, and gender as something that is just kind of a deeper? It's not what you're trained to do. It's just an essence that is there and can't be snuffed out even if the culture wants you to.

GOETSCH: Right. Yeah, I think gender as a social construct is highly problematic issue for a trans man or a trans woman, as opposed to people identifying as non-binary. I cannot speak for them and I won't. But I know that gender is not a social construct because I watched my society try to construct a man out of me for 50 years, and it didn't work. And, you know, there were all the advantages in favor of constructing that man, you know, the hormones and the name and all these data points I mentioned. And what's disappointing to me intellectually, actually, frankly, what's stupid is there is a lack of specificity when we talk about this.

Gender roles are certainly a construct. Let's start there. You know, who does what job and who plays what role and what do they get paid? And that's a construct. But gender identity, that is not constructed. So even when you say, you know, in your introduction about transitioning or a gender transition, I don't think anyone ever transitioned their gender identity. I certainly never did. I - if I did, it was to try to become this man. So what you have to do, you know, to quote the poet Rilke, you must change your life. I can't change my gender identity, so everything else had to change around it - my driver's license, you know, my name change, my wardrobe, you know, et cetera. Everything changed that way, my body, in order to align with my gender identity. So, you know, strangely enough, the very word gender transition, you know, carries with it a big misunderstanding. That's the one thing that doesn't transition.

GROSS: I had told you off mic that I love the title of your memoir, which is called "This Body I Wore." And you told me you really wanted to change the title. So what don't you like about the title, and what do you wish it was?

GOETSCH: What I feared about the title is this trope of born in the wrong body. That can work, especially early on, when more people were coming out. You know, you tell someone who can't understand that you're trapped, you know, you're, you know, a man trapped in a woman's body, a woman trapped in a man's body. And a lot of people say, OK, I can understand that we have a right of, you know, habeas corpus. And yeah, you shouldn't be trapped and that kind of thing.

But, you know, for me, my experience was not that way. It was my body that desired this. You know, from the depths of me, I wanted this. And it was my body that opened up and felt free, you know, presenting as a woman. And it was my thinking mind that had to go kicking and screaming, that was full of fear and terror and protective thoughts and so forth. And, I mean, I once said to this trans feminine spectrum group, the support group I was a part of, you know, when I heard yet again, you know, I'm a man trapped in a woman's body. And I just said, you know, maybe we're trans people trapped in trans bodies.

So those were some of my thoughts behind "This Body I Wore." I was afraid of getting, you know, blowback from, you know, other trans people saying, can we please, you know, be done with this? But then people loved it, especially cisgender people. They love this title. And, you know, my editor, Jenna Johnson, I owe her a debt of gratitude because she patiently waited at the last minute for a week for me to look at other titles even though we had a pretty good title here. I just couldn't find a better one.

GROSS: Do you feel that, now that you are living as a woman, that you are able to find the things out of life that you couldn't find before?

GOETSCH: Yeah, but those things aren't so - I don't know. I don't know how to say it exactly. They are special, but they're so ordinary, you know, just living life in your name, in your gender, in your appearance. A lot of those things, yeah, I can find. And a lot of them happen, you know, at unexpected moments. And you just feel right in who you are. But, you know, I didn't want to fall into that cliche that a lot of trans memoirs fall into because I don't believe them. You know, they say - the first thing they say is, you know, we're really OK. We're not OK. There's a lot of trouble. And, you know, I feel it, too. There's a lot of work to do. There's a long way to go. And the other thing they say is, you know, we're people, we're human. And, you know, if you have to make a case for that, you've already lost it. So, you know, I didn't know how the last page was going to work out. You know, how am I going to end this thing when I still feel a lot of trouble and chaos and a lot of the people I know do? And yet, you know, we're doing what we have to do.

GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Diana Goetsch, and her new memoir is called "This Body I Wore." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Diana Goetsch. Her new memoir, "This Body I Wore," is about growing up and living as a boy and a man and then transitioning to living life publicly as a woman at around the age of 50.

The internet was really helpful to you in terms of finding out information, but also connecting to other people and reading their stories. You know, you didn't have to go to a porn store to find what you wanted to read, which wasn't porn - I mean, if we wanted to read things about trans people.

GOETSCH: Right.

GROSS: So the internet was great in terms of that. People who are trans tend to not want to ever use their dead name, the dead name being the name that you used in the gender that you did not identify with earlier in your life. With the internet and with somebody who was a published poet who gave readings and who, you know, had readings and talks that were already on the internet, like, not only is your dead name on there, but your dead gender - I don't know how to put it exactly - is on there, too. And I'm wondering how you feel about that.

GOETSCH: Yeah. It was, you know, more public than most transitions, although we've seen public transitions that are even more public than mine, of course. You know, how do you relate to this this for the first 50 years? I think it, you know, part of what the memoir does is, as I write in the summary of it, you know, what happens when the before photo lasts that long and you can't just dismiss it? Of course not. Somebody once saw a picture of me. You know, this is our big parlor trick to have a before-after picture. And the person who saw it had taken one of my author's photos. It was a friend of mine who's a good photographer. And she saw a picture of me now. And she wrote this little narrative of me right there on Facebook that, oh, God, you're so less sad now. And I really see this. And before it was like that.

And I just did not like this person telling my story. And I didn't - everything felt wrong about it. And I actually responded. And I said, you know, "that guy," quote-unquote, that guy saved my life. And, you know, of course, now I'm, you know, misgendering myself. But for that post, I said, the person you're talking about saved my life. So you know, you can go ahead and call that person sad or whatever you want. But that's not how I think of that person. And now I forgot the question.

GROSS: Oh, about the internet, about your dead name and your dead gender living on in readings and talks....

GOETSCH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That you gave that are on the internet. And I'll say here that I looked at a couple of those. And there was a poem that you read. Was it called "People" or "Other People"?

GOETSCH: Yeah.

GROSS: That was - you were really funny in that.

GOETSCH: Yeah. I mean, you know, there was joy. And I didn't hate my body. I didn't - you know, there was life, you know, during that time. There was a lot of things I did and enjoyed. So the thing about a dead name, Terry, is it's not the dead name that's the problem itself in itself, it's how it can get used, you know? Misgendering is the spark that lights the fuse to every bad thing that can happen to a trans person, you know? It all starts with the misgendering, what Confucius says calling things - not calling things by their right names is what all evil comes from. And so it can get used as ammunition. But the very fact that you're trans or someone calls themselves a proud trans person, I mean, built into that is you were this, and now you're that. You were living this way, and now you're living that way. You know, I was always a trans female person, always. I mean, I was not a former man. But, you know, if you're trans and not ashamed of it, it does mean you had another name. It's just how that name gets used. But when you're a poet, I think I - you know, I think I wrote a couple of good poems back then.

GROSS: Yes. And you have poetry books published under your dead name. So...

GOETSCH: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Is that OK?

GOETSCH: I mean, the most recent full-length book, "Nameless Boy," I worked with a wonderful man named Roger Lathbury from Orchises Press. And I came out right around the time when he agreed to publish this. And he gave me this call. And you're very thrilled as a poet to get this call. And I hung up. And then the thrill went away. And I said - what name is going on that book? - because Roger didn't know. And nobody knew I was doing this. Very few people knew. And I just wasn't ready for - you know, to come out publicly. So "Nameless Boy" was published, I think, 2015. And it was right around the time, you know, when I finally did come out. And so it was my last book published as Douglas Goetsch. And, I mean, it's more problematic when you dead name a person who's not a public figure. You know, if someone's a public figure, I mean, yeah, you're going to know their name. You're going to know who won, you know, the gold medal in the decathlon.

GROSS: Yeah. And you want to take credit for the work that you did, right?

GOETSCH: Yeah. I mean...

GROSS: You don't want the work to be dead?

GOETSCH: Yeah. Exactly. I mean, I'm not ashamed of anything. I mean, you know, you're sacred at every single step just like, you know, I'm female at every single step. This is my gender identity. It just, you know, looks different at different times because you're trans.

GROSS: Well, Diana, it's really been great to talk with you. I'm really grateful for this interview and grateful to you for being so open in your memoir and in the interview. I appreciate it.

GOETSCH: Oh, thank you so much, Terry. It was delightful to talk to you.

GROSS: Diana Goetsch is the author of the new memoir "This Body I Wore." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be Nina Jankowicz, an expert on disinformation, including Russian disinformation, who has advised the Ukrainian government. Last month, she was tapped to head the Biden administration's new Disinformation Governance Board until she became the target of disinformation and online attacks. She resigned earlier this month. Soon after her appointment, the board's work was suspended. She also has a new book about online harassment of women. I hope you'll join us. Today, as we mourn the victims of the massacre at the elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, we'll close with music played by saxophonist Jimmy Greene from his recording "Beautiful Life," dedicated to his daughter, Ana, who he lost on December 14, 2012. She was one of the children killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. This is "Where Is Love?" from the musical "Oliver!" I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JIMMY GREENE'S "WHERE IS LOVE?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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