WGLE interviews: Jessica Mink

Jessica Mink, at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, works as Astronomical Software Developer, Data Archivist, and Positional Astronomer.

Jessica earned a Bachelors and Masters in Planetary Sciences from MIT, then worked at Cornell developing astronomical sofware. Back in Boston she first worked again at MIT, before moving to the Smithsonian, where she's been since. Among other accomplishments, she co-discovered the rings of Uranus, and wrote the xterm graphics emulator. She has published forty refereed articles, cited over 1500 times.

A member of our community, Jessica kindly gave this interview to WGLE.




WGLE: Thanks for your time. We're very happy that you agreed to the interview. We would like to start with a "trans 101" question. As you know, LGB people are usually clueless when it comes to T issues. What do you think are the main problems that trans* astronomers face?


Jessica Mink: Often, one of the biggest problems for transgender astronomers is the rest of our lives. What we need as much as anything is a little bit of space to deal with our non-work lives, especially if we're dealing with transition. I've been really lucky that most people in my life have been really accepting. I think that the biggest thing we're scared of in our professional life is how other people will treat us. That means that having a workplace policy in place is really good. I was really scared for a long time, and my transition took a long time too. This is the good thing about being old, I guess, that I wasn't rushing into anything and that my life was pretty stable. Most of the other scientists I have been talking to are younger. At a postdoc level, starting a career, they have a harder time transitioning.




WGLE: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and how you transitioned? Was it late in life? What stage of the career was it? Did you fear that it would affect you professionally? Did it affect you professionally in any way?


JM: I transitioned in the end of 2011. I did it late; I was 60. Some of my closest friends have transitioned even later, but this *is* late. I started to realize that I was going to do it when I was in my early 50's, and it took me almost 10 years to really finish. It was an issue for me when I was young. I first sort of felt an ambiguous gender identity when I was around six, and it got more intense as I got older. By the time I was 20, I was in college and not quite gender-stable, but I fell in love, and it was just easier to get married.

I just didn't feel like I would be accepted, and I wanted other things more than my gender for much of my life. I had a successful career in astronomy, and I was successful as a bike and open space advocate, but I always had this problem with myself, this distraction, being mixed genders. As my daughter got older, entering high school, I had more time to think about my life, and I realized that I was ready to live full time as a woman. I worked closely with a number of people, and I was afraid of how they would accept a change in me. Because I had a significant life outside of work and family, I got to find out what it was like to transition before transitioning as an astronomer. I could be a woman in my neighbourhood and my bike community, and that made me sure I was ready to change everywhere. When I transitioned professionally, I was pretty self-assured. Yet, I'm not somebody who tells people that they just have to deal with me; I tried to help people out, and it seemed to work. When I told the person two levels up from me, our associate director, he said, "You're not going to leave, are you?". I told the people with whom I work every day six months before I told everybody else, and HR even before that. So even before going full time I was pretty careful about how I did it.



WGLE: How did it work with collaborators, that you were in contact with, by email, international collaborations.


JM: My favorite transition story happened at the ADASS [Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems] conference in Paris in 2011. I hadn't been sure how I was going, because I was out everywhere but at work. I decided the day I was leaving that I was going to transition professionally in Paris. This conference was the 21st conference, I had actually been on the organizing committee of the 20th, and I have been in most of them since the 1st one. I travelled as a guy, and attended a workshop in the afternoon, but before the evening reception at the Paris Observatory, I switched.

A lot of old timers knew me. I just told my friends as I got in the elevator: "I'm going to the reception; wait for me; I'll come back down". In my room, I put on a bit of makeup, a skirt, a blazer, boots, and a rain coat, and then I headed down! I started trying to explain things to people--it was all startling to them--and they were pretty accepting.

I was working on the 2MASS redshift survey and we were coming up to the final publication, and we were at final comments on the accepted draft. I had just transitioned at work, and I sent the lead author a message from my new account. After he realized that it wasn't a message about my death from my wife, his reaction was simply "OK, so how do you want your name in the final paper? Do you want to change it?". The same thing happened with the AAS. Because I had been running the website for the Division on Dynamical Astronomy for 15 years, I knew the people at the AAS administration, I said that I needed to change my name, and they said "OK". I was on the committe organizing my MIT 40th reunion, and the alumni association representative said "Do you want to change your name?" and he changed it for me. So, name changes went pretty easily. I have written software that is used pretty widely--I get emails from all over the world about it--and the documentation is so extensive that my name isn't changed everywhere. It's not straightforward what name should be on things you did when you were effectively someone else. I haven't gotten a wholesale name change to change the past.



WGLE: So is coming out still an ongoing process?


JM: With the software, yes, it's nice now, I get a lot of messages to "Jessica Mink". Most of my stuff has my name on it, rather than my old name, but I get stuff occasionally, and I just tell people: read this. It's a website I set up to briefly explain my change. I wanted to have a reference I could give instead of explaining it all the time. I worked with my former spouse who is a psychotherapist, to write a description.



WGLE: You transitioned post-tenure, but you were saying that you knew about being trans* since a very early age. Do you think it would have been harder to transition pre-tenure, that maybe in the workplace it would have given room to transphobia? Have you ever experienced peer transphobia, or student transphobia? What prejudices have you been through in academia for being trans*?


JM: In academia I can't think of any. Before I transitioned I was scared, but I didn't experience anything. I didn't know how people would experience me, that was my biggest fear. But, in academia, by the time I transitioned, I had a reputation, and that reputation got me through. It was just a matter of telling people in a straighforward way. The last people I told were the director of the observatory and the food truck guy. The director was mostly worried about how everyone was treating me. The food truck guy has been my biggest supporter. He's great, it's really funny.


Addendum to the answer

Jimmy, the food truck guy at CfA.



WGLE: You mentioned before transitioning that one of the things that limited you is you felt like you couldn't go fully in, in your endeavours. Can you elaborate on that?


JM: It's a feeling of not being fully there. I felt like I was two people, and it has really taken me a long time to integrate myself into being one person. That's been one of the hardest things about transitioning for me. Being transgender, you really are a split person. What people see and how you see yourself are quite different. It's hard, and it takes energy to be what people want you to be, or think you are, so you can get through your daily life, and if you're lucky, there are good things you get from that. It helps you stay that way, but you're still not able to do everything you would like to do.

I'm old now, but I have great examples of people who are working and doing exciting things well into their seventies. It really made a difference putting all this energy back into one place. Another part of my life is I'm a cyclist. People have been really accepting of me in this group, and it has helped me tie a lot of my past to my present. The women astronomers have being really accepting me really well too, at all levels, but especially the postdocs and grad students, have been really supportive. It's been really wonderful. Another thing that happens is that you find out that more people than you might expect know other trans* people, and that makes it easier.



WGLE: That ties to the first question. It wasn't straighforward to find a trans* astronomer willing to be interviewed. Some preferred to be invisible, not draw attention to themselves; others didn't answer back. It seems that there is a division in the trans* community, not only astro, but as a whole, with regard to what is the best course of action to get civil rights, work rights, etc. What is your view on this?


JM: My position is that I don't go around telling people. I know people who do, but they're rare. And there are many other people who want to be stealth, and just want to be treated as a woman. One thing that I have seen happening in the last few years, and that maybe helped me finally transition, is seeing that the world has been changing and is becoming more accepting.

So I have gotten to a point that I don't really care what people think about my gender, I am what I am, gender-wise, and I just try to be me. I don't feel a need to be stealth in every situation. Also, because I have this big web presence, I didn't have the option of being totally stealth. I know people who got fired and others who got into big trouble. They were employed, seemlingly pretty protected, and then they got laid off. Often they will get laid off for claims of other things. Transgender can no longer be used as a reason in many places. Reasons will be made up.

The worst I have heard of has been in engineering, not in science in recent years. Two transpeople I know are going the other way, they're FTM, one of them has been very sucessful, but he's pretty stealth. The other one is a postdoc, and has been worried about getting the next job. I think that astronomy has been pretty good about publications: ADS can link old and new names; if you search me either name you get all of my publications. In some ways we're in a good place.



WGLE: Interesting you mentioned that, we have a question about it. You transitioned male-to-female. I suppose you are familiar with Ben Barres, who transitioned female-to-male. He says he had to deal with comments such as "your research is so much better than your sister's." So, I was wondering, did you feel the opposite, that is, a loss of male privilege? Being a transwoman, how do you deal with male dominance in society in general and the still low participation of women in science?


JM: I had a discussion about this recently with an acquaintance who had a close friend who was transitioning. She had a lot of questions that she didn't feel comfortable asking this friend and wondered if I could answer them. A lot were feminist questions about workforce participation by women and women in science. I observe that the prejudice against women is more hidden but still there. I'm a pretty forceful person, and I think I got more that way after I transitioned. People have a hard time figuring out how to slot me, especially if they know me for a long time. I was recently on Capitol Hill Washington talking about bicycle issues with Congresspeople. When the men tried to speak on women's issues, I broke in if I felt that they were trying to speak for us. None of the other women were really shrinking violets, but I was even less of a shrinking violet than they were. I am often the first person to ask questions in a lot of situations now, and I didn't used to be. I didn't stand up in public very often; I had a hard time with politicians. A lot of these boundaries were crossed. So, I think men have to deal with me, that's how it is.



WGLE: We got a question from a trans* person who is a human rights activist. How do you understand the almost nonexistence of trans* scientists?


JM: I know a few, but I have a feeling that a lot of people are hiding. One of the problems is you really have to submerge your identity to really focus, either submerge it or bring all the way out. It's hard to live two identities and accomplish something. Either option is pretty hard. Way too many trans* people who are at a high level end up getting involved into trans* or LGBT issues professionally rather than doing something else like science. I know of couple of people that are lawyers, and a few engineers, but not many scientists.

Lots of trans* people really shut themselves off from the rest of the world, yet in science, the way to get a job is to accomplish things and network in the community. That is harder when you're not comfortable enough with yourself to really go the extra mile. I thought about a lot of what kept me from going beyond a masters degree. I have a lot of friends who have gone that far and didn't go on to a PhD. For trans* people, being comfortable with your identity is really important. In other words, I don't have a really good answer. It's an extra level of difficulty that we have. I think that should be changing, I really hope it is.



WGLE: Any further advice for young trans* people out there who have not yet externalized his or her gender identity?


JM: I think the big thing is to really think about it a lot and be sure what your gender identity is. But once you're pretty sure, work on ways to move forward. Don't just jump on it instantaneously. Talk to friends, meet the transgender community; that's really important. I think of transition as a reboot. For an older person, meaning anything older than 20s, really, you reboot your life. Yet, I hadn't realized how much having a history helps. I don't have to worry about my work being accepted, because it is. That's not my issue. I have done all sorts of stuff, in software and in astronomy, like discovering the rings around Uranus, or writing the xterm graphics emulator, my software packages are really widely used, and these things helped me move. Not everyone has a past to use, but I have, and it has really helped me continue my life.

So, my big advice to trans* people is to do something besides worrying about your gender, because everything else you do is what going help you get through life. I was surprised. I didn't know how much all that stuff would help. Before transitioning, over 10 years ago, I really thought about changing careers, but along the way, I realized that being an astronomer is as much my identity than anything else is. I don't drop stuff from my past, but I de-gender it. I haven't totally figured out how to talk about who I was in the past, and that's challenging. My latest fun thing is to just tell people "do a 'man xterm'" if they want to find out what my name used to be. So, accept and don't take it too seriously. I'm lucky I got a past that is interesting, and think that my future will be interesting, too.



For a complete transcript, audio and video of the full interview, click here.




ps: Adding to the answer, Jessica says:

I *don't* have tenure. I am a Smithsonian employee with some, though by no means absolute, job protection. I am not a Federal Civil Service employee, so I lack quite a few protections, being on what I would call "hard" soft money, supported by overhead money from a number of grants. As a friend pointed out, transitioning in such a situation required a bit more bravery than if I had a tenured, or even directly Federally-supported, position. Despite my age and position in the astronomical community as a whole, there were definitely risks involved.

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