Reintroducing herself

Zoe Wendler and the joy in 'being seen as who you are'

Technical communication professor Zoe Wendler. Photo courtesy of Zoe Wendler

Zoe Wendler has spent this Spring semester happily teaching as herself. If you had asked her if she felt this way last semester at midterms, she may not have answered the same.

On the Tuesday of finals week last semester, Zoe sent an email to the students in her program titled, “Reintroducing Myself.” It contained a letter that was the first step of a long journey ahead. “My name is Zoe Ann Wendler, and I’m transgender. I’ll be presenting as a woman when I teach from now on,” she wrote.

Zoe, who is a technical communication professor and coordinator for the journalism, technical and professional communication majors, was moved by her students’ response, in the best way.

“Not only did all of them two days – less than two days after I came out, their final projects were due – not only did all of them put my real name as the professor contact name on there, they went to the trouble of hunting down my correct email address, which IT dropped the ball on, and didn’t go active until the night before the project was due,” Zoe said. “Every group, like it was no thing. I was legitimately in tears over it.”

She said the best trans ally “just treats you the way that you are.” One of her “deepest joys” in coming out was the reaction of her friends and family.

“As I was coming out, I was kind of realizing, ‘Holy crap, I have a lot of women friends, how did I not notice this?” she said. “And, well, the most common reaction of everybody I came out with was basically some variation on, and my brother said this verbatim when I came out to him, so I’m just going to quote him on it: ‘You know, that makes perfect sense.’

“But for the women in my life, the most common response has been, ‘Oh my god, welcome to the best gender ever.’ That’s the thing I always wanted to be most… is to be just part of the circle of women. To be just like all the other girls. I mean, it’s such a basic thing, right? I’ve had five friends say, ‘We need to go on a spa day; I can’t believe you’ve never had a spa day before.’”

The day she told her therapist she didn’t think she was cisgender was the first time she had said the words aloud. Her therapist pointed her towards a support group, and when she got home, Zoe said she couldn’t even repeat it to her wife. “It was too new and too tender and too fragile in my heart,” she said. Zoe simply told her wife the support group her therapist had recommended, and her wife understood.

She said her wife immediately stopped treating her like a man and started relating to her like she would any of her friends who are women. “I wasn’t even to the point yet that I had figured out I was a woman. I just knew I wasn’t a boy. I cried for joy,” she said.

“I’ve been with my wife for seventeen years,” she said quietly. “She told me on that day that she didn’t think she’d ever seen really smile before.”

Zoe didn’t realize she was transgender until she was 35, which she said isn’t uncommon. She wondered how she had missed it for so long, as she had been connected with the LGBTQ+ community for a long time and had close transgender friends for well over a decade.

“I had all of the role models in the world. I had all the knowledge in the world, for goodness sakes… Like, how do you miss that?” Zoe said. “And the truth of it is that the trans experience is very, very broad. Each of us has a very, very different path than pretty much any other. There’s a few things that are super common, but my experience is different from the next person’s experience in a really fundamental way.”

The question of ‘How could I have missed this?’ crossed her mind over and over. Part of the answer for Zoe was that she had believed in order to be transgender, she had to have significant physical dysphoria.

“I have physical dysphorias, and they’re nasty,” Zoe explained. “But they’re the sort of things that I could just chalk up to body image issues. And pretty much everybody has body image issues, and despite my connection to my friends, and to the community, and to scholarly research on this subject, I had just had this idea lodged in my head that you had to have significant physical dysphoria to be trans.

“So I thought it was a story, and it was a deeply inspirational story, but it couldn’t possibly be my story. And of course, that wasn’t true.”

She began to think of the things she wished she had known, or things she wanted people to know about her now. The wish to educate her family and friends combined with her background in technical writing and design led to the creation of Zoe’s Trans Tutorials. She posted them to her Facebook, explaining different topics such as transgender vocabulary, gender itself, dysphoria, euphoria and her personal experiences.

“That’s why I talked about a lot of stuff I talked about, because dysphoria is a good example,” Zoe said. “My dysphoria trans tutorials talk a lot about what it felt like for me to be dysphoric, but I didn’t understand how that plugged into or correlated with the experiences of others.”

In her Trans Tutorials, Zoe defines dysphoria as “the dissonance between a person’s sense of self — socially, physically and emotionally, and their larger physical reality. Some trans people feel it to a debilitating intensity, while some feel little or even no dysphoria. They’re the lucky ones…”

Coming from a medical family, she said a phrase immediately started running through her head when she began to come out to herself: you can’t just ask the right question, you have to ask it in the right way.

“That’s kind of how it felt to me, is that I might have been asked the right question over and over and over again, but not quite in the right in the right way,” she explained. “So that was the idea behind it: to try and show that there were a lot of different ways to ask those questions.”

Coming out publicly – while it has been a largely positive and happy experience for Zoe – still presents significant risks. Zoe said a number of her transgender friends and her therapist all asked her, “Are you sure you want to do this?” It was a bell she said she couldn’t un-ring; she felt a nervousness she likened to a deep breath before a dive. Some of her risks related to her employment.

June 13, 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the language in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 applied to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Before that ruling, it was legal in over half the states to fire employees for being gay, bisexual or transgender, according to the New York Times.

“There’s very obvious employment self-protecting reasons why a lot of us have been historically pretty low key, except in situations where we felt absolutely safe,” she said.

Other risks are significantly greater.

The FBI report in November of 2020 revealed that hate crimes based on sexual orientation represent 16.7% of all hate crimes – the third largest category after race and religion. In 2018, gender identity based hate crimes were 2.2% and rose to 2.7% in 2019. According to the Human Rights Campaign, reporting hate crimes to the FBI is not mandatory and “these alarming statistics likely represent only a fraction of such violence.”

The 2020 FBI annual report found that at least 37 transgender and gender non-conforming people were killed in the U.S., and 25 of the victims were Black or Latinx women.

Because of this reality, Zoe said many cisgender people will say transgender people are brave for coming out. However, a lot of people she has talked to don’t feel comfortable with being called brave or courageous.

“The reason is pretty simple: bravery implies a choice,” she said.  “If you are trans and transition is in your future, like it was in mine, I may look and sound very different than I did six months ago. Coming out is almost a prerequisite. It’s the beginning point for the transition for inhabiting the social and physical space that you belong in.

“So it’s not as much a question of choice or bravery as it is necessity, you know? Is it brave to breathe, even when it’s dangerous to do so? Is it brave to eat, even when it’s dangerous to do so? I’m sure [there are] plenty of us who are fine with that. But when I think about it, there’s a reason why I opened with a reintroduction. Because for me, from my perspective, it wasn’t a question of bravery. It was a question of, ‘Hey, there’s been a misunderstanding, and I’d like to clear it up.’”

Zoe’s transition thus far has been one of “blossoming joy,” in her words. Things like her email signature with her full name – Zoe Ann Wendler – or playing the kids version of Dungeons & Dragons with her nieces for the first time have inspired gender euphoria for her. In Zoe’s Trans Tutorials, she defined gender euphoria as “the sense of joy and relief that a trans person feels from bringing their gender identity and presentation more closely into alignment.”

When Zoe had come out to her family, she told the grown-ups first, letting them explain her transition in the best way to their kids. She sat in front of the webcam with her wife and called her four-year-old and six-year-old nieces. Zoe said her four-year-old niece was still getting the hang of using her name, and each time she made a mistake, her older sister was quick to correct her, saying, “No, it’s Auntie Zoe.”

“You have not lived until you’ve had your identity defended by a six year old,” she said laughing. When the game ended and they were saying goodbye, Zoe said her niece turned to her mother and said, “Mommy, Auntie Zoe’s so pretty.”

“I was sobbing for, like, the rest of the day,” she said. “That was so incredibly validating and empowering early on… the thing with little kids is that they tell the truth, even when they’re not supposed to. So if a six-year-old says you’re a girl, she sees you and knows you.”

Zoe said to question gender, one of the first things learned about human existence and identity, can be terrifying. But to anyone questioning their gender, she said they are never alone.

“You have friends in places you’ve never imagined. You have faculty who understand. We’re here to help you. That questioning is inherently healthy. If you’re cis and you question your gender, awesome. You walk out of it with an understanding of the things you love best about being your gender. And if you’re not… Well, then you can do something about it, instead of [continuing] feeling the way you are,” she said. “It can feel like staring down a bottomless pit, like the earth is going to be pulled away from under you and like you’ll tumble uncontrolled and blind through space.

“You are still you. You always were, you are right now and you will be, no matter who you are. And there is such joy, not in just being yourself, but being seen as who you are.”