Being Trans in Academia. Part II: MPH & Minnesota

[This is part of a series.  Here is Part 0,  Part 1Part 3Part 4, and Part 5]

If someone were to tell you that your life in San Francisco was going to be drastically different than your life in Minnesota, that probably wouldn’t come as a shock.  That’s the way it was for me when I moved from San Francisco to Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park neighborhood the summer before starting my Masters in Public Health program at the University of Minnesota. There were a ton of drastic changes.  Here’s the thing I did not expect about moving to Minneapolis from San Francisco: I was about to go from being not recognized as a guy in any consistent way, to 100% of the time being perceived as a dude.  All it took was a 4 hour plane ride to the Midwest.

I guess I ate a lot of edamame at this point in my life?

Even though this is what I had been wanting for years, it felt strange to have such a sudden shift.  I didn’t have to worry about using a public restroom, I could walk down the street without getting hassled, and overall I could let my guard down a bit.  Spoiler alert: I did not let my guard down at all. While all of this sounds (and was) nice, it was extremely confusing.  Suddenly, I could just exist, but I didn’t know how to do that. Also, gendered behavioral expectations are super bizarre, and that was brought into stark relief real quick.

I also didn’t know how to come out as trans now that I was being perceived as a guy.  Before when I came out as trans, I was correcting people who thought I was a woman, and it was an act of affirming my identity.  Coming out as trans meant something different now, and I felt 100% unprepared for figuring out how to approach it.

On top of that, I’m a 26 year old person about to start a masters’s program and everyone thinks I am a teenage boy.  I know this because when I went to the Minnesota State fair I went to one of those “guess your age” booths and the person guessed 17 years old!  I was out of the 3 year margin of error, so my youthful demeanor won me a pig magnet.  It turns out the prizes weren’t that great at that booth.

So just to recap: I suddenly have been granted my wish to have my male identity recognized, but it comes with a side of being perceived to be 17 year old, and a new set of gender expectations, and dudes now say all the sexist things to me that they would have never said before because they think I will just agree with them, and also I have no idea how to disclose my trans identity in this bizarre new Minnesotan situation I am in.  Also I don’t know anyone, and I need to get a job fast.  Cool, that’s all that was going on for me as I was about to start my grad program.

So about that grad program: I am in a cohort of about 30 or so students.  My classes are Pathophysiology, Intro Epidemiology, and Intro Biostatistics.  I am stressed about Pathophysiology, I really love my Epidemiology class and learning about all the different study designs, and I am kind of shocked about how much I like Biostatistics.  I start regularly studying with a few members of my cohort, I get a job working on the CARDIA study which involves me calling people on the phone and trying to get them to participate in the next wave of the study.  I also am making some buddies (both trans and not trans) outside of school who end up being friends that I still cherish to this day.

University of Minnesota has something in the pro column: they provide trans-related health care if you have the student insurance.  So I go once a week to student health services to get my testosterone shot, and it is all 100% covered by my insurance.  That is pretty awesome. The doctors and nurses at health services are all really nice to me, and they seem to have been well trained on how to care for trans patients.  Then, halfway through my first year, I go in to see my doctor after making an appointment the previous day.  The receptionist tells me the appointment is cancelled and that my doctor doesn’t work there any more.  I am a bit shocked, as I had spoken with my doctor the day before.  When I ask what the deal is, the receptionist blurts out that my doctor died.  I am shocked and saddened, I really liked my doctor.  Later that year, in one of the most unprofessional encounters I have had with a health professional (and as a trans person I have had many), I find out from another provider at student health services that my doctor committed suicide, and that her trans identity was a factor.  I mean, it has been 12 years since this happened, and I still don’t know what to say about this and how incredibly inappropriate this was.

Putting all that aside, because I really don’t know what else to do, being out of school for four years had me worried that I would have forgotten how to learn in an academic setting.  But it turns out that I had become the best student I have ever been in my life because: 1.) I know that this is a huge opportunity for me and I don’t want to waste it 2.) Having actually worked for a living means that I have a work ethic that I did not possess as an undergrad, 3.) I am really excited about getting to apply what I am learning.  I also start thinking that maybe I am a bit more interested in Biostatistics than Epidemiology.  I really loved math in college, but I never took stats.  But now that I am taking Biostatistics it seems to be everything I ever wanted:  I get to use math to try to better understand the world, and also might actually get to make a positive impact by addressing public health issues.  Dreamy.  I keep taking more and more Biostatistics courses, and I keep really enjoying them.

By the end of my first year of grad school I have a new job working at the Minnesota Department of Public Health and it is a great place to work.  My job is to assist with influenza surveillance, and I occasionally get to pitch in and help with MRSA surveillance and drive around Minnesota to swab people’s noses.  I also have realized that I want to take my Biostatistics interest to the next level.  I decide that I will finish out my Epi degree, but that being a biostatistician is where it is at for me, so I start getting ready to apply for Biostatistics grad programs.

Even though I am being a full time grad student and working as many hours as the university allows, I am able to make time to pursue other interests.  I take a ceramics class, I join an arts organization called “Gender Blur”, and I keep making friends outside of school who help me keep a bit of perspective.  Socializing in school is a little more fraught for me because in my full two years living in Minnesota, I only ever come out to one of my classmates who is great and really supportive.  But I hold myself back from getting too close with anyone else at school because that would mean coming out to them as trans, and given my history of people giving me shit, I am pretty hesitant to put myself out there.

Eventually it is time to submit my applications to Biostatistics programs.  There is this new website called where you can submit many applications through one portal.  This is cutting edge technology in the mid 2000’s, and I was into it.  My plan was to stay in Minnesota and get a Biostats masters, but since it was so easy to apply to other schools, I also end up applying to a bunch, and on a whim apply to Harvard too thinking I have absolutely no chance of getting in.  This time applications are a lot easier for me because I deal with the fact that not everything is going to match up (for instance my GRE was taken with my old name, but most of my materials are now with my new name) and I directly address my trans identity in my personal statement.  And, as it happens, being out as trans in my applications was not a problem at all.  I got into every school I applied to, including Harvard which about blows my damn mind.  I was shocked to my core.

After getting into Harvard I make a couple promises to myself.  First I resolve that I will go for things that seem impossible.  Getting into Harvard helped me realize that I was limiting my own possibilities, I was setting some pretty strict confines on what I was doing with my life, and I was tired of it!  If other people wanted to box me in, that’s on them, but I was being my own captor and it needed to stop.  Second, I decided that I would no longer hide or blend in to the background in an attempt to be safe.  That had long been my coping strategy and while it had in some sense worked, it also kept me isolated.  There were a lot of awesome people that I had been going to school with for 2 years who I had been keeping at arm’s length so that they wouldn’t find out I was trans, and for what?  I decided that was over.

Despite feeling like I have no business being a student at Harvard, I decide that’s the next step of my grad school journey, and I am going to be all the way out as trans!  I am excited and nervous.  My lovely Minnesota friends throw me a going away party complete with a bouncy castle. Then I head off to Boston to study Biostatistics.

I love bouncy castles.



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