I met Stachio in the fall of '85, when I was his hall convenor. Wow, right there in that first sentence there's so much to explain. I'll start with the simple stuff; at my college, the dorms had a system of peer counselors. Each hall would have a hall convenor or a resident counselor who had received training in active-listening techniques and was charged with being the first point of contact between students (in particular first years) and the Student Development Office. Our purpose was to be safe people for students to talk to about any problems they might be having: annoying roommates, homesickness, the pressures of school, anything. We'd listen, help if we could, or direct them to more qualified people if that was warranted. We also kept an eye out for red flags of any kind. Student Development stressed we were not RAs like other schools had; we were not expected to be police officers, writing people up for rule infractions. We were encouraged to do all we could to create a sense of community, but mostly we were just supposed to be available to listen if anyone needed to talk.
So, that was my job, along with my roommate Peter. Before the first years arrived, we were asked to write them letters, introducing ourselves and explaining our role. When I got the list of names, I noticed something odd. One room had only one name, Sharon Kimery. Singles were a coveted commodity at my school, as they no doubt are at most schools. Generally only seniors got them. Juniors might get one if they had a really great number in the housing lottery. Sophomores never got one. And a first year student? An incoming first year? Absolutely unprecedented.
But to be honest I didn't think too much about it. I figured a student had changed her mind at the last minute, and Sharon would get a roommate eventually, like all the other first years. When we gathered to prepare for New Student Week however, I learned a bit more from an unofficial (but convincing) source. Sharon was a woman who wanted to be a man. At his boarding school he had had a lot of conflicts as long as he was forced to have female roommates, but the minute he was given a single, he calmed down. So, Student Development and housing had decided to maintain this approach.
Which brings us to the second thing in that first sentence that needs some explaining. I consciously chose to use the male pronoun in writing about Stachio. Doing so is, shall we say, a bit revisionist. I did NOT think of Stachio as a man when I met him. In telling this story, I debated which was better; respect his self-identity--as I would now--or admit my own ignorance at the time, when I saw him as a troubled and confused woman? To honor his memory, I decided to go with the former path. I'll be addressing my own ignorance plenty.
I can't remember when I learned that he preferred to be called Stachio, but I thought it an intriguing choice. I wondered if choosing something unfamiliar to most Midwesterners (Stachio was from Michigan) was a way of taking a boy's name, but not being too obvious about it. Whatever the motivation, we all called him Stachio. I don't think anyone ever called him Sharon, at least not in my hearing. Another student (also a woman, but not, as far as I know, transgender) went by the name Voltaire: this was, after all, college. We'll call you whatever you want us to call you. What the hell.
Stachio had gone on a Wilderness program the college offered before the start of each school year, so he came into school having already made some friends. He was sturdily built, squat and strong-looking, with a low-affect voice and a no-nonsense attitude. He seemed a bit stand-offish at first, but not lacking in humor. As a fellow Midwesterner, I recognized the template of manhood Stachio was working with.
Student Development had still given me no reason to think there was anything noteworthy going on here. But whatever my intentions or motivations, I decided to try to draw him out. The easiest way to do this, of course, was to ask him to split a Dominoe's Pizza with me.
It didn't really take much to get him talking about himself, though he never, then or at any other point, addressed any gender issues with me. But he told me about his vision of a good life. Stachio thought a life of pure reason and logic was the way to go. He didn't see the point of emotions and friendships. Star Trek's Mr. Spock was his ideal. He didn't believe he'd be completely without human contact, however. He said in high school he had been friends with a guy who shared his non-emotion approach to life. They could hang out, or not, without fanfare or explanation. The connection was clearly important to him, but there wasn't any fussiness around it. Stachio hated fussiness. He was particularly disdainful of women as a group, mainly because of their messy emotionalism (that was as near as he got to telling me he was NOT female). He was sure that there was another friend like that out there for him, waiting to be found. The way he talked about this future friend was almost mystical. He knew they would simply recognize one another when they met for the first time. (He told me a few weeks later that he had met the mystical Mr Spock friend--a guy working in admissions--but a few weeks after that he lamented that he must have been wrong; there had been no corresponding reaction from the other guy, no recognition of their special bond.)
I should explain who I was at this point. I was still very much in the closet. I had never used the word 'gay' to describe myself to another person. A life free of messy human emotions and contacts such as Stachio described was, in fact, rather close to the vision I'd had in my head for the past six years. Unlike him, however, I was just beginning to question it. I had been willing, in high school, to act friendly with people, allow them to think of me as their friend, but I always felt my enormous secret stood in the way of us ever truly being close, and it always would. My last year in high school and first year of college, however, I began forming bonds that shook up my plan. I wanted to be close to these people, and if that required exposing my deep dark secret, well, we might want to give it some thought. I was, in short, considering joining the human race. Hearing Stachio describe an even more extreme version of my hermit plan was illuminating, and frankly, horrifying.
Stachio and I never had any more heart-to-hearts, assuming that's even a fair description of this conversation. The static in my own head continued to grow, until I finally did come out to four of my closest friends near the end of that term. I came out to my family over the Christmas break, told a handful of other close friends at the beginning of second term, then began living as if it was common knowledge. Actually I had sort of banked on it being juicy fodder for the school rumor-mill, but apparently that never happened. Whatever. In any case, coming out was a quiet, modest, and singularly-lacking-in-drama event for me. Being out would continue to have its complications--hell, it does still--but coming out, that went pretty smoothly.
So, with this experience under my belt, I looked at Stachio with some well-meaning but misguided ideas. For one thing, my process of self-acceptance had involved examining my own gender non-conformity. Any guy who has ever been identified as a sissy, regardless of his sexual orientation, has probably wondered about his manliness. Hell, probably every guy at some point has had some serious worries about his manliness. It's a remarkably fragile thing, when you think about it. You can lose it by crossing your legs the wrong way, by letting your voice go too high, by carrying your books the wrong way, looking at your fingernails the wrong way, etc. I'm not going to get into a discussion of the distinction between sex and gender, but suffice it to say, I had come to recognize that while I didn't conform to my society's construction of masculinity, I was, in fact, a man, and comfortable saying so, no matter how many bracelets I might wear. (That was my big statement of androgyny back then: lots of bangles. Ooh, daring! Also real jingly.)
One of the biggest reasons I finally came out was simply because I was finally meeting some openly gay and lesbian folks, many of whom were quite cool. (There were, of course, no out kids in my high school, and one kid who was almost certainly gay also happened to be a bit of a sociopath. That was a wee bit of a deterrent.) In particular there was a thriving lesbian scene, with many women tipping pretty far on the dyke scale, who seemed happy and comfortable in their skins. To my casual observation, they looked and sounded a lot like Stachio. So while I never said as much to him, in my head I kept thinking "Oh honey, just be a dyke!"
I was glad to see though that he seemed to be collecting friends, including some women. Clearly he had begun to reexamine his disdain. I was especially pleased when I saw him hanging out with a woman I suspected was lesbian (she confirmed my suspicion a few years later). Stachio even helped me mediate a conflict between the two guys living in the room next to him. Not only did this require he get involved in messy emotions, he told me he was friends with them both and didn't see why they couldn't get along. There was no self-consciousness about using the word 'friend', no awareness that it might appear to contradict his policy as previously reported. That made me happy too, though of course I didn't draw any attention to it.
As the year progressed, Stachio's friendships appeared to grow in number and depth, though again, we never discussed them. I have no idea what his thoughts were. Was he beginning to reconsider the Mr. Spock path? Did he see these friendships as real and valuable? And how did this affect his view of himself? Oh, I'd almost forgotten another aspect of Staccio's self-creation. He let it be known that he was the bastard child of a British noble and an Australian peasant. The noble family, disdaining his plebian breeding and bastardy, had initially denied him, but had recently made contact because he was their sole heir. Stachio came back from Christmas break with a picture of the castle and estate; his Australian accent, faint but noticeable before, had gotten a booster shot. So this story, mostly hinted at but widely disseminated, became, I think, another way to keep people both intrigued and at arm's length. I don't know how many of us bought it (seriously? British nobility?), but it probably added another layer of protection between us and his gender issues.
I knew Stachio was in therapy with a psychologist I also suspected (again, correctly) was lesbian. I can only hope that she was more enlightened than I was, and wasn't trying to convince Staccio "just to be a dyke." But I doubt I was the only well-meaning person in his life who thought that. And who knows how much he picked up on and internalized that message? To the best of my knowledge he was never bullied or called names at Earlham. But who knows better than I how powerful an internalized message can be?
That summer Stachio, like many students, stayed in town to work on campus. I have no idea what that Summer was like for him. I was caught up in my own summer jobs, and was getting ready to spend a semester in Ireland. Besides, he and I weren't close. I wasn't someone he confided in, assuming he confided in anyone. So I don't know what led him to buy a gun and shoot himself fatally in the head. I don't know if anything could have been done to prevent him from making that choice. How far back would we have to go?
There was a suicide note, but the only thing I can remember learning was that it included an apology for lying about his ancestry. He was not, of course, British nobility. He was adopted and had lived all his life in Michigan. He said something about lies being dreams of what could be.
Stachio's picture was included in the next yearbook, as an 'in memorium.' He was identified as Sharon (Staccio) Kimery. It was still a few more years before I learned enough to be saddened by that, to see it as misguided, however innocently. I don't know, presumably never will, exactly how Stachio saw himself. Did he consider himself a man, end of story? Did he feel some step needed to be taken before his true self could emerge? Had he and his therapist been working towards that? Or had they been trying to make him accept himself as a woman? That's what I assumed at the time. What other answer was there? It was two more years before I met a transgendered adult, by coincidence also female-to-male. I wish Stachio had gotten to meet Jason.