As a kid and teenager, one of Stephanie's friends had a younger brother named Melvin. Stephanie and Melvin were never quite friends, but they were acquaintances and always on good terms. After Stephanie had grown up and moved away, Melvin went through some major changes and became Melinda.
Steph first encountered Melinda in the lobby of a Madison theater. I had remained in my seat while Steph fetched us popcorn, so she was alone when she spotted Melinda in the crowd and recognized her. She was bewildered, she told me later. Here was a man she'd known since childhood, now in drag, and she'd never heard even a whisper about any transgender tendencies.
"Melvin?" she said. "Is that you?"
Her friend's former brother, now sister, scowled and said, "It's Melinda now," and walked away.
Steph spent some serious time rehashing that moment, later that night with me, and repeatedly over the years that followed. She'd said exactly the wrong thing and she knew it, and kicked herself for it. If there had been rumors or an announcement or any kind of foreshadowing, she would've said, "Hi, Melinda." There were so many ways she could've and would've handled that encounter differently, if she'd had even ten seconds of warning. We're liberals, dang it — we're supportive of people doing just about anything in the pursuit of happiness, so long as they don't harm others. Stephanie was on Melinda's side, absolutely.
But you can't morph from a man to a woman and expect folks you've known all your life to accept it without a raised eyebrow, not if they didn't know a change was coming. Next time you see a man you've known for years, if he's dressed as a woman, are you going to just say "Good morning" and keep walking? Or are you going to say something along the lines of, "Melvin? Is that you?"
That's what Stephanie said, and to us this seemed like an understandable faux pas, not an unreasonable or rude reaction. Steph was surprised when she first met Melinda, but she wasn't hostile.
Yet it seemed that Melinda held a grudge. Over the rest of Stephanie's life we often encountered her at events around Madison; she lives here, and it's not a big city. She's a film buff like Stephanie and I, so Melinda might be in the crowd at the Film Festival or at Cinematheque before a screening. We ran into her at a restaurant once. Several times over the years, Stephanie tried to engage Melinda in conversation, but she received only the briefest replies. In half a dozen brief conversations, Melinda never said more than a couple of sentences before excusing herself and hurrying away.
I've changed Melvin/Melinda's name, by the way, because that's what Stephanie would want me to do. There's no need to embarrass anyone, Steph would say, and doing what Stephanie would want me to do is almost a mantra for me these days. I also know Steph wouldn't want me to punch Melinda, so that won't happen. Besides, Melinda is still as big and probably as tough as Melvin ever was, and she could easily kick my ass.
Seriously, though, instead of punching her, I'd rather give Melinda the benefit of the doubt. Steph and I both tried to do exactly that. Maybe Melinda is chronically shy, even more introverted than Stephanie and I … except that she's not. She's outgoing and personable, and when Melinda brushed off Steph, she would often take ten steps and launch into gregarious conversation with someone else in the same room. Perhaps Melinda was put off by Stephanie being in a wheelchair? It happens; people don't know what to say so they freeze up … but Melinda's cold shoulder toward Stephanie began before Steph was having any trouble walking.
To Stephanie, it felt as if something had changed beyond Melinda's gender, and we never understood it. We had no real friends in Madison except our very best friends — each other — but Steph would've liked to have been Melinda's friend. Melinda, though, just wasn't having it. We never knew why, but it hurt Stephanie.
If there's a moral to this story (and I'm not sure there is), I guess it's Be kind whenever possible. That's rather an obvious lesson to learn, but it's taken me six decades of life including two with Steph as an example every day, and still the lesson is barely beginning to sink in.