Being a Trans Person in Academia. Part I: Applying For Grad School While Trans

[This is Part I of a series.  Here is Part 0, Part 2 , Part 3Part 4, and Part 5]

Here I am, I am 25 years old, I am living in San Francisco, working at an office job at the San Francisco Bar Association, and living in an illegal sublet in the Castro.  My job isn’t going anywhere for me, I have limited employment opportunities open to me as a visibly trans/ gender non-conforming person.  How can I tell that I am visibly trans? Because this kind of stuff happens somewhat frequently:



  1. I am waiting at the bus stop at 24th and Mission at 11pm at night by myself and some guy starts asking me what I am, am I a guy or a girl?  He really wants to talk about it, and I just want to safely get on this bus that seems like it will never arrive.
  2. I am at the Atlas Cafe eating my favorite turkey sandwich with fig chutney and some random person comes up to me and asks me if I want to be photographed for their art project about “people who are in-between genders”.
  3. There is no gendered bathroom that I feel safe in.  I am afraid of being clocked if I go in the men’s room.  When I go in the women’s room sometimes it goes OK, other times women threaten to call the police on me for being in the wrong bathroom.  Just for the record I only want to use the facilities and wash my hands as quickly as possible.
  4. Living in the Castro is weird.  Just walking down the street in my neighborhood, sometimes gay men cruise me, other times they call me a dyke, and not in a friendly reclaiming a pejorative term way.

Any time I am in a public I am aware that things could go from fine to extremely bad for me in a second.  I always have my guard up, I am always appraising my situation. I am constantly thinking about how things could turn violent, or that someone is going to question why I am in a particular space.  So just to sum it up, things are not chill for me.

But on the other hand, I have a steady job with health insurance that covers my trans-related health needs.  I have to go to a different floor at work to use the restroom, but at least I have somewhere to go.  I have a bunch of sweet friends, San Francisco is beautiful, and it turns out that my job has another great perk: flex time.  I work an extra 45 minutes every day, and then I get to take every other Friday off.  I use my alternating Fridays to volunteer at the Transgender Law Center where I am helping with the trans ID-change service, and also gathering information on doctors who work with trans patients.  I begin to think that maybe if I can find a way to merge my burgeoning interest in health access and equity with my love of math then I might be on to something.

Eventually, I find epidemiology, decide that’s what I’m going to do, and start looking into programs. Fortunately for me I went to an excellent school for undergrad: Smith College (more on that later).  I got pretty good grades (3.49 GPA), I majored in Math, minored in Computer Science, and I’m good with a standardized test and a personal statement.  I do all of the googling about grad school during my work hours that I can.  Eventually I decide to apply to three epidemiology masters programs: University of California Berkeley,  University of Minnesota, and University of Washington.

I start going into action mode.  Here’s my plan:

  • Study for the GRE all the time.  I make little note cards with words like “abstruse” and “gainsay” on them to practice my vocabulary when I take the Muni to work
  • Sign up for an online class on the Biology of Cancer that I take trough the UC extension school since I never took any biology classes in undergrad
  • I search people on Friendster (lol) who list epidemiology as an interest and cold message them to ask them about their experiences.  Most people are really nice and are happy to answer my questions.

This is all going great, but while Smith is wonderful, it is a women’s college, and I no longer identify as a woman.  Do I apply under the name Miles, or under my given name which is on my transcript?  I haven’t changed any of my identification yet.  I have three letter writers in mind, but I don’t feel like I can come out to one of them who I only knew for a summer.  So despite the fact I am living as a guy 24-7, I only go by the name Miles, and I never want to be called my former name again, I decide that it would be simpler to apply as a woman and using my old name.  I figure that at least my application will be consistent that way, everything will be under my old name and my gender assigned at birth.  I reason that it is better to pretend to still be my former identity than to disclose that I am trans.  It pains me to type this now.

I keep moving along. Since I live so close to Berkeley, I reach out to an Epidemiology professor there and set up a meeting to learn more about the program.  But since I’m not out as trans in my application, I feel like I need to stay consistent in my gender presentation. So I put on my most feminine outfit (which was just slightly tighter jeans) and head over to Berkeley on the BART for the meeting.  In short, it was super uncomfortable for me.  I felt like a total weirdo, and I’m pretty sure I made a terrible impression.

Except for that misadventure with the Berkeley Epi professor, my plan is coming together.  I get good GRE scores, I have a personal statement I am happy with, my letter writers get their letters in on time. The results come in: I get rejected from Berkeley, I get into University of Minnesota with a scholarship, and I get wait-listed at University of Washington. So its off to Minnesota for me!

But I am not ready yet.  Even though I applied under my old name, I have no intention of using that name in grad school or ever again.  So now that I have been admitted to Minnesota, I start working on changing my name and gender marker on my driver’s license and my social security card.  This is super complicated, but since I have been volunteering at the Transgender Law Center, I know exactly what to do.  I file for a court appointed name and gender change.  I take out an advertisement in a local newspaper giving them notice that I am changing my name.  I get my birth certificate, a letter from my doctor saying that I am officially trans, and everything else together.  Then in one day I have my court hearing in the Civic Center where it is me and 3 newlywed women who are taking their spouse’s name, I get 7 notarized copies of my name and gender change documentation from the court, I hustle over to the DMV in the Panhandle and get my license changed, and then go to the social security administration in the Mission to get my social security card changed.  If you don’t do all three in the same day it doesn’t work.  I cross the finish line before 5 pm when the SSA closes and now I am officially MILES OTT.  It is a huge relief.

I email Minnesota to let them know that I will go by Miles and use he/him/his pronouns from now on.  That turns out to be super easy, and next thing you know it is time for me to leave behind San Francisco and start my new grad school life in Minnesota!

Looking back, I wish I had felt I could be myself during the grad school application process.  Fortunately (?)  I would get to apply to grad school 2 more times!





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