How I Navigated Transitioning in Academia

An email exchange with one of my blog readers reminded me that this post is long overdue. Hopefully, it can be useful to others navigating transition on the job, especially in an academic context.

I began identifying publicly as trans and requesting that people use male pronouns for me a mere four months before beginning a tenure-track job as an Assistant Professor. I initially began using male pronouns on an experimental basis, to see what it felt like and if I would like it. When I realized that male pronouns did, in fact, accord with my gender identity, I immediately began to worry about my new job. I was facing the same questions and decisions every person coming out as trans faces – namely whether I wanted everyone to call me “he,” or just my close friends; what timeline felt best for letting others know about my pronoun preference; whether or not to start testosterone, and if so, at what dosage – but the imminent start, not only of a new job, but of my academic career, gave those questions a new urgency.

Coming out as trans, in the initial stages, was hard on me, and, in the delicate mental and emotional state I was in, I was seriously concerned that I might not be able to handle the stresses of being a non-passing out trans person on the job as well as a new junior faculty member. I was worried about making waves, worried about having to answer embarrassing and inappropriate questions from my colleagues, worried that they would resent me for taking them outside their comfort zone, worried that they would think I was nuts and unfit to teach, worried that they would feel embarrassed about pronoun errors and that, in order to maintain good workplace relations, I would have to comfort them, worried that I would have to endure pronoun errors without correcting them so as not to appear excessively aggressive for a junior faculty member, worried that, in the meantime, all these pronoun errors would hurt me and destroy my soul, and worried, ultimately, that colleagues’ hidden resentments regarding my transition would destroy my career.

Beginning a first academic job is never easy – one hears of sleepless nights, pressure, stress, and growing pains in the transition from grad student to professor. I feared that combining this with moving to a new city far from my support network and transitioning on the job would be a recipe for madness.

Because of all my fears, I entertained the possibility of going by “she” at my new job and “he” in my social world, at least in the beginning, and leaving open the option of switching to “he” at the workplace once I knew the ropes, had a better sense of my colleagues, and was at a more solid place within my personal transition. However, it soon became clear to me that the discomfort of going by a pronoun I did not identify with in the workplace might not be worth the safety of not making waves. In addition, many different people pointed out to me that it was exceedingly difficult to get people to switch pronouns once they already knew you by a certain pronoun and were accustomed to thinking of you as a certain gender. Finally, one mentor pointed out that the beginning of a career was, in some respects, the ideal time to transition. All the things that seemed scary to me – being away from my support network, dealing with new colleagues and a new setting, negotiating multiple transitions at once – could also be thought of as strengths. I could start anew in a new setting surrounded by new people; I could work to control their impression of me (wearing ties every day, for instance, and only using the men’s restroom); and I could begin my career with the name and gender pronoun that I would use for the rest of my life. She counseled me to bluff a bit, presenting myself as further along in my process than I actually was, so as to emit confidence and deflect questions.

As the long summer wore on, I increasingly felt that I wanted to start testosterone as soon as possible. Part of this was a real decision and part of it was anxiety based – I wanted to be able to pass at least a little better before beginning my new job. Because I was finishing my seventh year of being an impoverished grad student with bad credit (nor had I ever taken out a loan), and because I was on the most minimal health insurance imaginable, it would have been financially impossible for me to begin the process of physically transitioning through proper medical channels before the start of my new job. A friend offered to share his T with me, and I was ready to accept, but another friend forbade me to take it, on the grounds that it was medically and emotionally dangerous to start testosterone without professional supervision. (Now that I’ve seen how I have reacted to T, I believe that, at least with respect to me, he was wrong. I think I could have begun transitioning on a low dose this summer without professional supervision without any negative medical or emotional effects. And I believe I could have gotten a great deal of relief from it as well). Disgruntled, I consented to wait. Luckily, I was moving to a large city with a GLBT health center whose medical transition program operated on the principle of “informed consent” and was supportive of a variety of gender identities and trans narratives. This meant that, once my insurance kicked in, I would most likely be able to begin medically transitioning immediately, without having to go through a certain period of therapy and without having to prove that I was, indeed, a “true transsexual.” The knowledge that I would be able to begin transitioning soon; that I would soon have access to money, health insurance, and trans-affirmative health care, gave me a certain amount of peace and the strength to wait through the summer.

In the end, the entire process proved far easier than I had imagined. Whilst I was leaving a supportive community of folks who had known me a long time, I was entering a setting in which people had no preconceived ideas about me. Since nobody knew me, nobody knew that I had only recently began identifying as trans, and nobody felt entitled to question me about why I was transitioning or whether I was going to start T. It was an immense relief to be free of these questions, from the need to constantly justify myself and to constantly articulate my trans narrative. Instead, I could just present myself unapologetically as “he” and no one would question it. From the very start, being able to inhabit the social world as a trans person with no questions asked boosted my confidence above that summer’s all-time low.

Before the semester began, I spoke personally to the Chair of my department about identifying as transgender and wanting to use male pronouns at work. Initially, I wanted her to inform the rest of the faculty, so as to have the official stamp of approval on the matter. But she thought that it would seem more friendly and forthright if I sent an email myself. I was hesitant at first, because I feared that if I sent the email, colleagues would see it as a matter for public discussion, hitting “reply” and letting me know all of their thoughts on transgenderism. And I didn’t necessarily want the initial announcement to seem friendly. I wanted my trans status to be announced as a decree from above. In the end, though, I decided to send the email myself, first, because it would allow me better control over the language of the announcement and second, in order to deflect the potential impression that I was too ashamed to speak of my transgenderism myself and had to go through an authoritative third party. In the end, I thought that making a forthright, dignified, and concise announcement myself would demonstrate that I did not see being trans as a shameful state of mental imbalance and pathology. I therefore sent the following email to faculty and staff:

Hello, I’m [Name], one of the department’s two new full-time faculty members.  I met many of you during my campus visit and look forward to meeting the rest of you during the upcoming faculty retreat!  I just wanted to let you know before the retreat that I identify as transgender and have begun using the male pronouns “he” and “him”; I would appreciate it if, henceforth, you could refer to me in this fashion.

I also wanted to assure you that I am not concerned about occasional pronoun mistakes.  In my experience, using a certain gender pronoun for someone and, more generally, changing one’s perception of someone’s gender is a simple matter of habit formation.  Referring to me as “he” should quickly become second nature (“[First Name]” is also fine, if you don’t want to use a gender pronoun at all).

I’m eager to start the semester and have no doubt that [Academic Institution] will be a supportive environment for this transition.

Sincerely,
[Name]

In fact, I was concerned about pronoun errors and was not positive that this would be a supportive environment for transitioning, but I wanted both to put colleagues at ease and to appeal to their sense of pride in being GLBT-friendly liberal academics. As you can see, I was careful to avoid the kind of personal disclosure that might make them feel like insiders with the right to ask further questions. I say nothing about my trans narrative, specific identity (other than “transgender”), process of coming out as trans, or plans for physical transition. Nor do I in any way apologize or plead for understanding. As one mentor warned me, both apology and personal disclosure are coded as “feminine” behaviors. In addition to encouraging dialogue (which I did not want to do), they might therefore “girl” me in their eyes.

In the end, I was quite pleased with reactions to my email. Either I received no response at all (none was required), or I received a short email of support without any inappropriate questions. Even more remarkably, except to apologize for pronoun mistakes, none of my colleagues has brought up my transition even in one-on-one discussions. I suppose that the professionalism of the workplace and the separation of public and private in academia are better in place than I had imagined.

I was never excessively concerned with my students (this sometimes surprises people). On the one hand, I expected that, generationally, they would have more exposure to trans people than my colleagues. Since I was teaching at an urban institution with a “hip” reputation, I doubted that I would encounter any seriously conservative students. I also felt that, whatever students’ personal opinions on the matter, I could count on classroom hierarchy to ensure my authority over my identity and their respect for it.

On the first day of a new course, I generally present the course, then give a short presentation of myself (my qualifications, my relation to the subject matter), before asking the students to present themselves. So I simply proceeded as usual, but in the self-presentation, after stating relevant academic information, I simply added, “One thing you should know about me is that I am transgender, and I use the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him,’ so this is how you should refer to me.”

Other than the occasional pronoun slip-up, I have not had any issues with my students. In my French class, moreover, I started signing my emails “Monsieur [Last Name],” and students quickly picked up on calling me “Monsieur” in class (Mr. or sir, depending on the context). In my end of semester written students evaluations, no one referred to me as “she.”

Some of my colleagues still have an extremely difficult time using the right pronoun for me (though they are at least getting better at correcting themselves). Luckily, this has not affected me in the way that I initially feared. First of all, it became clear to me that my colleagues were not bothered by my transgender status and were not being malicious, which took the sting out of any errors. Secondly, I had not anticipated how great it would feel to be openly trans and in a position of relative power in an official institutional setting. For the first two months, I felt high, simply because I could confidently use the men’s restroom every day, wear a tie to work, and be known as a trans man and nobody was going to snicker, fire me, or openly disrespect me. I know these are not high standards, but after fearing that being trans was going to make my life literally impossible, just finding out that this was not true made me feel positively elated. Being able to dictate my own identity at work made me feel both incredibly empowered and incredibly lucky, and this confidence made colleagues’ pronoun errors irrelevant.

I began testosterone, on a low dose, the same week I started teaching. My physical transition has been gradual, though friends, of course, have noticed and commented on the changes. I have no idea whether or not my students were aware that I was physically transitioning before their eyes. I’d expect any moderately aware person to surmise that I was on T, especially once my voice started dropping. However, the fact that several colleagues have repeatedly asked me if I had a cold, with no reaction when I calmly said “no,” makes me wonder if I was wrong about this. We’ll see if people begin to catch on next semester.

Altogether, the workplace transition that seemed so nightmarish to me this summer has ended up being, not only easy and smooth, but actually quite empowering. I don’t think that my colleagues fully accept me as male, and I’m not sure that some of the senior guys are fully on board, but I’m happy enough to be able to be openly trans at work without having to deal with any negative consequences. In the end, being trans at work has been the least of my new job worries. And this is surely a good thing. I can say now that it would have been a terrible mistake to have started my new job as “she” out of fear. The fact that I am physically transitioning will, no doubt, make things even easier in the future, but I honestly believe that it would have also been fine if I had decided to use male pronouns at work without ever going on hormones.

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2 Responses to How I Navigated Transitioning in Academia

  1. mekhi says:

    I just want to say how much I appreciate you sharing this. I’m in a really similar situation – changing jobs while simultaneously coming out as trans and moving to a new city. I’ve been thinking about not disclosing immediately out of fear too, but this post confirmed that by doing that I would be doing a disservice to myself and my colleagues. I’m still scared as HELL, but knowing that someone else has gone through the exact same thing helps so much. Thanks a lot.

  2. Faggot Boi says:

    Your welcome, Mekhi. Best of luck on your multiple simultaneous transitions!

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