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?
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?
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.
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*?
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?
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.