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I believe there is but one ultimate proof of craftsmanship as a writer, namely, if you can put something into words what others lacked the words for. “Yes…” you think, when a writer succeeds in doing so: “That’s exactly what I felt all along.” A similar sentiment of recognition dawned on me when I read the following quote by Hunter S. Thompson, author of the psychedelic literary tour Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. A kind of high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too strange to live, and too rare to die.

In an instant, that statement took me on a trip through time, back to my teenage years. There, lost in memories, I was sitting behind the school benches yet again, while staring at my Latin and Greek teacher. In those days, he still went by the name of Denis Ossieur.

At the Sint-Gertrude College in Wetteren, Belgium, where he  was a teacher for decades, Ossieur (or ‘Ossy’ as we sometimes liked to call him) was somewhat of an odd character, a true phenomenon. He had served in the military for no less than 25 years – a feat that was still noticable. Whenever he was teaching a class, you could always hear his commanding, thunderous voice echoing through the hallways. Rather than simply walking, he still had a habbit of marching, like in a parade. Moreover, each and every of Ossy’s classes had something of a live performance, full of ranting and outbursts of athletic energy. If you happened to catch a seat for one of his clasees, you would often had the impression of witnessing some kind of natural force, yet unknown to scientists.

A somewhat frightening image, isn’t it? Well, you wouldn’t be the only one to think so. A lot of young pupils were somewhat afraid of Ossieur. So was I.

And yet. Once you actually took part of Ossieur’s classes, it became clear that he had a way of inspiring awe that went much deeper than the flamboyant performances of his thunderous character. First of all, Ossieur undoubtedly was one of the most erudite people I have ever met. Besides having studied Latin and Greek, he was also proficient in world literature. He had learned how to do computer programming, and notably was one of the first civilians to operate a computer. And when his children went to university to become engineers, of course he couln’t stop himself from taking notice of their courses on mathematics. Through his classes, I also got to know all the philosophers that I would eventually go on to study at the university of Ghent myself.

Furthermore, Ossieur was also a highly emotional, even somewhat sentimental person. In just the same fashion as thunder announces the rain, Ossieur would very often tear up after one of his outburst – the reason usually being that he actually felt each and every life lesson that he taught his students to the depths of his own soul. Ossieur didn’t only teach his subjects, he lived them.  At other times still, I have seen him in tears simply because the beauty of his own teaching material still moved him after all those years. I’m willing to bet that no one will ever forget that one particular class in which he closed the curtains and recited The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe, in a growling, threatening voice:

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—
Only this and nothing more.”

I wonder if he knew at the time: I too have often sat in Ossieur’s classes with tears in my eyes. Hundreds of times I have told myself afterwards: “Undoubtedly, Ossieur is one of the most complex, but also one of the most beautiful people I have ever met.”

Just how complex a person Ossieur really was – and just how many internal contradictions he had to wrestle with on a daily basis – would only become apparent years later. Only years later would everyone find out, to their surprise, that the Spartan Ossieur, under his macho-like behavior, had actually always felt like a woman on the inside. Only years later did we find out that his male body had always disgusted him.

Tragically, it would take a life-threatening accident and, moreover, cancer before he had the courage to uncover that inner secret. Only when illness had affected body so badly, at the point when the surgeons had to intervene with all available means in order to save his life, he wasn’t afraid anymore to ask for the complete transition from man to woman. Only when his life was hanging in the balance, Denis had the audacity to finally become Denise.

That decision was not taken lightly, obviously. “To me, it felt like a choice between committing suicide or becoming a woman,” Denise told me about that period in her life. “And lo and behold, now I have actually become pretty lady I’ve always felt.” Hearing her say that was actually heartbreaking – and while I was listening to her expressing her former desperation, for me, it was the umpteenth time that Ossieur actually moved me to tears. However, this was only the second time that she did so as Denise – as a woman.

The first time was when I met Ossieur again, after more than seven years, now as Denise, in the secretariat of the school where I’m currently teaching. Only the week before I had taught a class in which  the central question was: “Should we accept our own body as it is?” It seemed to me like the perfect opportunity to invite Denise over to he classroom, so my pupils would have the chance to meet and converse with someone who had made the brave transition from man to woman.

So it came to pass that Ossieur and I met again, the pupil now being the teacher and a man now being a woman. And when I finally saw the resplendent and glorious Ossieur – which I had always admired more than anyone – in her new form, I actually couldn’t hold back my tears. We embraced each other, and when I looked her in the eyes, there was but one thing I could think.

She was so beautiful.

And also occurred to me that, while Ossieur was meeting my pupils, Ossieur displayed a peace of mind that I had never seen in her before. It was simply unmistakable. It had taken a lot of courage and a painful period of transition, but you could tell that Ossieur was happy, and finally at rest, as a woman. And so, the person I had always looked up to, in my eyes, became even more admirable.

That particular class took place during a period in which, in my country (Belgium) at least, a lot of other well-known people finally had the courage to come out of the closet as being transgender. (One example being the famous journalist news reader Boudewijn van Spilbeeck who made herself know to the world as Bo Van Spilbeeck.)


Bo Van Spilbeeck

Personally, when they did so, I had prepared myself for a storm of indignant reactions and internet trolls. On some days my faith in humanity is just not that high. And as the renowned neuro-endocrinologist Robert Sapolsky recently demonstrated in an article about trangenders and cognitive dissonance, there are all sorts of evolutionary reasons why many people mistakenly regard gender as a necessarily binary fact. Why mistakenly? Because there is a whole range of medical exceptions to the general rule – existent and undeniable nonetheless – that you are either born male or female.

I highly recommend that you read Sapolsky’s article in full. In summary, however, no less than 1% of children have a gender that, for various reasons, can be righly called “ambiguous”. In other words, the chance that you’ll meet someone who is sexually ambiguous is greater than the chance that you meet someone with an IQ above 140.

Then why is it that we can expect so many negative reactions whenever someone tries to move across the gender continuum? One reason, according to Sapolsky, is because we as human beings tend to think in discrete units and categories. And guess what? Not surprisingly, the dichotomy between genders appears to be one of the categories that is rooted most deeply in our psychology. As a consequence, even though we might be tolerant towards transgender people, there is still a need to fight against the spontaneous cognitive impulse to classify someone as being either a man or a woman.

In spite of this, any negative comments to, for example, Bo Van Spilbeeck were, to my surprise, limited to some christian reactionary groups. Fortunately so. And in my class too, all of my pupils were exceptionally welcoming to Denise.

“Times have changed, sir!” one of my students commented. And indeed, they moved from words to deeds. During that particular class, when Denise made a visit to my classroom, she was accompanied by the transgender-boyfriend of a pupil from the very same class. To my knowledge, no one present made any problem out of it. The end result was simply an extraordinary meeting that, I suspect, nobody who was present will soon forget.

For myself, I got even another personal boost out of that meeting. For when I compare the attitude of openness of my pupils with the narrow-mindedness of some of my peers and/or older generations, I derive a sense of hope. “Just give it a few generations time,” I think to myself, “and maybe, just maybe, some of the social problems all those narrow-minded individuals struggle with nowadays will vanish over time. Nobody will remember, nor understand, what the fuzz was about.”

I certainly hope that happens, for Denise, whom I still admire more than anyone.


Denise and I


One comment on “From Denis to Denise: A Tribute To My 65-Year Old Transgender Teacher

  1. Denise Ossieur says:

    A splendid English translation of your former article. You even made me 3 years younger. Now, I am waiting for the French version and the declaration to the entire world of my further rejuvenation of another , say: 5 years…. What a happy place to be fb is: really ! All things are possible in this imaginary world of 0’s and 1’s ! Meantime, I have given the two photo’s which go with your article an obvious place in my home, next to our class-photo dating from June 2010 . These pictures are very real and for me still living in my heart.

    I am becoming a real fan of your sometimes a little gloomy articles. But you are the philosopher and the writer. I am only the teacher with the child’s heart.

    All the best to you!

    With kind regards


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