The language department in which I have worked for just over eight years welcomed a new male member of staff about nine months ago.
Bright and interesting, "Jeremy" takes great pride in his appearance. He compliments me on my fashion sense and attention to detail, always asking questions about where, for example, I bought a particular skirt. I have always been happy to discuss my designer purchases with him.
Recently, he asked if I would be in at a specific time the following day. Having several tutorial commitments with students, I said that I would. Thus, the next day, I was at my desk when there came a knock at the door. A woman entered, slightly outlandishly dressed, blonde, with a little too much make-up.
I asked her what she wanted and was shocked by the reply: "It's me ... Jeremy." I was dumbfounded. He seemed a little embarrassed that I was so taken aback.
Jeremy explained to me that he had been a transvestite since childhood and that it empowered him in ways he could never feel as a man. Saying that he wanted to be my friend, he suggested that we might go out together, perhaps to a club (I don't go to clubs) or for a meal (I don't eat out much). He said that he had "cleared" the dress code with our academic lead.
I worry that he's going to get terrible ridicule from staff and students. I also feel uncomfortable with how I was "prepared" for this surprise. I accept there are all shades of gender representation, and I understand that people can feel restricted by polarities in gender codes, but I feel uneasy with the way this was sprung on me in the expectation that I would approve.
This is a surprising tale (although I have verified it). But is it such a bizarre situation? Contrary to the prevailing public view, academia can be a very conservative environment. There is a great deal of hypocrisy around some issues, especially sexuality, gender representation and other things that challenge the straitjacket of conformity.
Jeremy certainly could have been more sensitive in revealing his transvestism, and I agree that he is likely to face terrible comments and unpleasant gossip. However, this man's sexuality, desire, enthusiasm - whatever you like to call it - should be acknowledged, and his decision to be open about it should be recognised as courageous and admirable.
Critical thinking is needed here along with reflection. Are you about to lose a possible friend because of unexpected prejudice? Or have you been surprised to learn that you are more conventional than you believed yourself to be?
You should read some of the literature on transvestism and explore your emotional responses to it. Even if you remain uneasy with transvestism, you still have to deal with Jeremy as a colleague. He has opened himself up to disparagement by those with closed minds and also perhaps to social and professional isolation: he may be in need of some support.
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