WGLE: Thanks for your time. As you know, it was quite hard to find a trans astronomer willing to be interviewed. We're very happy that you agreed to it. As you know, usually LGB people are clueless when it comes to T issues. So I would like to start with a trans 101 question. What do you think are the main problems that trans* astronomers face?
Jessica Mink: Good question. I know two other trans astronomers. One of them I know of, and the other I know pretty well. She's working in a small group in my institution and cleared the way for me because she actually transitioned here. It was a smaller group of people she had to come out to, and she had a harder time with the rest of her life than I had. Often, one of the biggest problems for transgender astronomers, I think, is the rest of our lives. I think getting support for who we are is important, but I think what we need as much as anything is a little bit of space to deal with the rest of our lives as we transition.
It seems that I've been lucky compared to other people that I've run into on the internet especially, but I've done pretty well compared to other people I know in Boston, in that most of the people in my life have been really accepting. First, I have been a pretty social person; maybe not as social as I would have been if I didn't have this identity issue hanging over me, but I've done a lot of stuff outside work and inside work, over a pretty long time, and it has helped me a lot. So, it's tricky for me to judge what somebody who is younger and just coming out is facing. I think the biggest thing we're scared of in our professions is how other people will treat us. It's an uncertainty that we have [that's bigger] than anything else, so having a policy in place seems really good. I just read what the recommendations in physics are, and they seem pretty reasonable, the basic idea of supporting people.
I was really scared for a long time, and then the rest of my life was starting to change. I was married, and I was getting divorced. The divorce was happening because I was going to transition; our agreement was that we were staying married until I transitioned, and we waited until I was almost there. Once the divorce started to happen, the rest of my life changed fast. I started to tell close friends, and they started to get me out doing things, non-trans people, mostly friends, people I knew, that I got really close to over the last couple of years *because* I transitioned. So I took a long time. This is the good thing about being old I guess, that I wasn't rushing into anything, my life was pretty stable, my job is stable, I'm a research staff person, not someone who needs to get grants all the time. So I'm not tied to the some of the same things that other people are. So I've been lucky with that. Most of the other people I have been talking to are scientists are younger, at a postdoc level. So far.
WGLE: We're wondering about that. If you could tell us a bit about yourself and how you transitioned. Was it late in life? We can see that it was on 2011, so what stage of the career it was, did you fear that it would affect you professionally? Did it affect you professionally in any way?
JM: What I was afraid of was how a number of people with whom I worked really closely would react. I work in a place called the Telecope Data Center where we process all the data that comes from the Smithsonian's and Harvard's ground-based telescopes. I work with a lot of people, and I do a bunch of other things around the observatory too, so I know a huge number of people in a very big place. I was really worried about how people would accept a change in me, the people I work with every day, and other people I may only see a few times a year. Having an accepting policy is one thing, but having people accepting you only because of the policy is something else. And so, I wasn't worried about the policy part, but I was really worried how people I work with would think of me. I transitioned here in the observatory in the end of 2011, so I've lived two years of full time, more than two years now. And I transitioned when I was 60, which is pretty late. Some of my closest friends transitioned even later, but this is late. I partly knew that I was going to do it when I was in my early 50's, so it took me almost 10 years to really finish. I'm not really done with everything, but I'm fully transitioned in my life.
It was an issue for me when I was young. I sort of knew it basically, I don't know, probably when I was six, at first, and more intensely as I got older. By the time I was 20, I was in college and I was ready to go back and forth, but I kept falling in love with women, with one woman especially, and it was just easier to get married. We got divorced eventually, without kids or anything, we were both academics by then. I could have transitioned them, but I just didn't feel like I would be accepted, and my thing is that I wanted other things more than my gender for much of my life. I wanted to work on astronomy, I wanted to be a bike advocate, and to get things done. I had a pretty sucessful career doing things in astronomy, not quite the things I originally envisioned but stuff that has been interesting too, and I think part of that was I always had this problem with myself--this is not unusual in trans* people--I sorta held back. Either people overcompensate or they compensate by just not getting too involved in stuff. I was somewhere in the middle, in that I did get involved in activities, but I didn't really feel comfortable, so I could only go to a certain level. I never finished my PhD, but I did write a quite a number of papers, and I got the AAS and the IAU to admit me as a full member because I did enough without a PhD. That's sort of a weird situation, maybe not quite unique but pretty rare. I got to do the science I wanted to do, but without ever really putting myself into it as much, because I always had this distraction, being mixed genders, that's what I really was.
My daughter got older, and in 2003, when she was in high school, I had time to think about my life more, and I realized that I was ready to live full time; that's what I really wanted to do. Until then, I wasn't sure that was what I wanted to do; I went back and forth, visibly switching genders. I have an androgenous build, so I haven't needed any cosmetic surgery. I didn't start hormones for over a year after I went full time, because I had a blood disorder, and my hematologist and my doctor had to agree before I could do it. So I delayed it because I knew there was a chance I could die. So there are all of these things that made it complicated, but in the end not too painful.
Because I had enough of a life outside work, I could find out what it was like to transition for six months before transitioning as an astronomer. I lived full-time as a woman in my neighbourhood in Boston and my bike community, which covers the whole state. That made me sure I was ready to be a woman the rest of the time, so when I transitioned professionally, I was pretty self-assured. I knew what I was going to do; this is who I was. I'm not somebody who tells people, This is who I am; you've got to deal with me." I tried to help people accept me, and that's worked. I told the people I immediately work with six months before I told everybody else, and I told HR even before that, to warn them what was coming. So even before going full time I was pretty careful about how I did it. There are sort of rules about how you transition professionally. I didn't exactly follow them, but I tried to tell people personally. When I told the person two levels up from me, our associate director, he said, "You're not leaving, are you?" I said, "No," and he replied, "Good!"
WGLE: How did it work with collaborators, that you were in contact with, by email, international collaborations
JM: This is funny. I was working on the 2MASS redshift survey. Most of the co-authors had been at the CfA, but were no longer around, so they all knew me before. I sent the lead author an email with comments on the final draft before publication. I had just transitioned at work, and sent the message from my new address. He saw this letter from "Jessica", and worried that it was from my wife saying that something had happened to me until he read further down and saw the link to the web page I had set up on my personal website, outside the observatory, to explain myself briefly.
WGLE: I read that page, by the way.
JM: I wanted to have a reference I could give instead of explaining it all the time. His reaction was simply "ok, so how do you want your name in the final paper? Do you want to change it?". I was like, "yes, sure". The same thing happened with the AAS. Because I ran the website for the Division on Dynamical Astronomy division for years, I knew the people at the AAS administration, I said I wanted to change my name on the membership, and they said, "OK". In my MIT alumni association, I was on the committe organizing our 40th reunion, and the alumni representative working with us said, "Do you want to change your name with us?", and I said, "Okay, you can change it." So, name changes went pretty easily.
I have some software tools that are used pretty widely; I get emails from all over the world about the software, and it's so extensive that my name isn't changed everywhere, I'm not sure how I should do names on software I wrote before I transitioned. I haven't gotten a wholesale name change to change the past.
WGLE: So is it still an ongoing process? That of coming out to people -- the new you, your old name...
Jessica: Yeah with the software, yes, it happened quickly. It's nice now: I get a lot of messages to "Jessica Mink". This last week there was a "Dear Dr Jessica Mink", which made me feel good for a bit before I corrected them in my response. Most of my software and web pages have my new name, but I get mail to the old name occasionally, and I just tell people, "Read this. It explains what's happened", and people do it, and they change. It's pretty nice to have a place that I can point people it. The original statement was partly based on something I put together to tell the head of a non-profit for which I serve on the board over 4 years ago now, way before I was out to very many people. We had a diversity and inclusion workshop, and I decided, since gender identity could come up, that I should tell the president of the organization. I worked with my then-spouse, who is a psychotherapist, to write a description that was totally non-pathological. So if you read what I wrote, there's nothing bad; it comes accross as a normal thing, nothing unusual. Anyway, that's what I refer people to. I transitioned in late November around Thanksgiving in 2011.
My favorite transition story is that the ADASS [Astronomical Data Analysis Software and Systems] conference was in Paris that year. I wasn't sure how I was going to go, because I was out everywhere but at work. I decided in the last day that I would transition in Paris. I have a good friend who travels a lot for business, so the day I left I asked her to help me sort through clothes that they would all fit in one suitcase and go together well. I didn't have new ID for traveling yet, so I traveled as a guy. I showed up in Paris, and went to a workshop in the afternoon after checking in. After the workshop we had a reception at the Paris Observatory. This conference was the 21st conference, I had actually been on the organizing committee of the 20th, and I have been at most of them since the 1st one. Regular attendees knew me. I always had long hair, and inside I was more androgenous than people thought I was. I mean, if they didn't know me they weren't always sure. Anyway, when I got in the elevator to go up to my room with people I knew, I told them that I'd be different when I come back down. In my room, I put on a skirt, blazer, boots, and a rain coat--because it was raining--and returned. There were some people that I only knew on the internet, and other people that I'd known for years, and I started trying to explain things to them. It was sort of funny, because there were some people from my Observatory. One of them was somebody I work with and I had already told him, but there were other people from other divisions that I hadn't told, so it was all sort of startling to them. I didn't do it perfectly, but it was fun in the end, and I had a great time at the reception.
After I had told many people at work face to face, there were still people that I miseed that I probably should have told. It's hard to know in a big place, where I work with a lot of people over time, who should be told. I got a chance to apologize and explain to them, and they have always been good about it. I had not been confident about it, mostly about how I tell people, how people respond. But that's worked for me pretty well.
WGLE: So, you transitioned post-tenure. But you were saying that you knew about being trans* since a very early age, you mentioned age five... six actually. So, do you think it would have been harder to transition pre-tenure, that maybe in the workplace it would have given latitude to transphobia? Have you ever experienced peer transphobia? Have you ever experience student transphobia? Basically, what prejudices have you been through in academia for being trans*?
JM: In academia I can't think of any real problems for me. Before I transitioned I was scared, but I didn't experience anything bad after. I didn't know how people would experience me--that was my biggest fear, just not knowing how people would experience me. I react a lot to how people treat me, and how people think of me. I think, for me, in academia, by the time I transitioned, I had a reputation. I found this worked in non-academic situations too, that I had a reputation, and that reputation got me through. And that was the big thing that I discovered. Once it started to work outside, it was a matter of telling people in a straighforward way. I told my boss, he told his boss, his boss was the associate director. 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 was extraordinaly supportive. He's this great working class guy--this is not one of the fancy food trucks, it's an industrial food truck, oversize and everything--but he's been my biggest supporter. It's really funny.
WGLE: Awesome. Can I ask something that builds up on Wlad's question? You mentioned before transitioning that one of the things that limited you felt like you couldn't go fully in, in your endeavours. That's something that speaks to me as well, as a gay person, because I kinda have internalized this idea that I need to not stand out, even though I am fully out to my coworkers. So, it kinda clashes with the fact that in academia you have to be very assertive, you have to be very sure of your convictions, because otherwise it almost reflects on you as if you're unsure of your scientific productivity and your scientific production. I was wondering if you feel that if was something that limited you, not only professionally, but from a purely scientific point of view, because you didn't want to stand out.
JM It's hard to say. It's not exactly not standing out: it's really just not being fully there. It's a funny situation. Part of it was that I was really a split person. And it has really taken me a long time to integrate myself into being one person. That's one of the hardest things about transitioning, because I spent a long time of my life being two people, and it was really hard to be one. The thing it did was... I haven't figured out how it was affecting me professionally, there are certain things I want to do with my professional life--I'm still sorting out the rest of my life too--but I think I'm getting better ideas about what I want to do. It's funny because I'm old now, but I have great examples around me of people who are working and doing exciting science well into their seventies. I'm figuring out how to use the skills I have to do these kinds of things, but I think it has really made a difference putting all this energy back into one place from being splattered around.
In another part of my life, I'm a cyclist, I bike to work every day, all year, I'm very serious about this. Right now there's this whole woman bicycling thing that's been building up over the past two to three years as I transitioned, and I plunged into it big time. Women bicyclists have been really accepting me into their group, and it has helped me tie a lot of myself together. I haven't heard negative things about my gender, and women at the Observatory, 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 there are people who already know other people who are transgender too, and that usually helps.
WGLE: That ties to the first question; as I mentioned, it was quite hard to find a T astronomer willing to be interviewed. I asked some, one of them told me she preferred to be invisible, not draw attention to herself, be as away from a microphone as fas as she could. Another one didn't answer me back. So it seems that there is a division in the T 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. I was wondering what is your view on this?
JM: My position is that I don't go around telling people upfront. I don't know what people assume. I'm over 6' 1", tall, and sometimes that's an issue, but my female officemate is exactly the same height and brilliant. She's been really sweet to me, too. I'm a middle ground person. I know people who go around telling people upfront--but they're rare--and others who want to be stealth, and just treated as a woman. It's a tricky thing. I feel that one thing that I see is happening is that in the last few years, maybe three or four, and one of the things that maybe helped me transition finally, is that the world has been changing and becoming more accepting.
So I've gotten to a point that I don't care too much what people think; I am what I am, gender-wise, and I just try to be me. I try to be a nice person--that's one of my goals in life--and I that that helps me. I think that's the biggest thing, I don't feel a big need to be stealth in every situation. But I know people who have been fired and others who got into big trouble. One of my friends, a transgender engineer in a big company, was worried after she had problems with co-workers. She talked to the people she worked for, they asked what the problems were, and after she told them, they fixed things as well as they could. In the end she got promoted and even got a raise. She's not stealth quite, and she's taller than me, a little bit. Height is a big thing for being identified as transgender I think. It's tricky. The world I travel in is accepting enough, people seem to treat me pretty much as I want to be. I had an issue in a hospital two years ago, during a time when my ID didn't match me very well. I was treated weirdly by a few people. I didn't think much about it at the time, but later, I realized that some people weren't comfortable dealing with a transgender person. When it's rare you don't notice it right away; you just don't expect it. And I think not expecting it helps. If I don't expect people to treat me funny, they're less likely to, and if I treat them pretty normally, they're more likely to treat me normally, too. So, because I have a web presence and people know me in astronomy and all over Boston, I had to be public; I didn't have the option of being stealth.
WGLE: You mentioned someone got fired for being transgender. Can you give more details?
JM: Transgender people will get laid off for claims of other things. Transgender is not usually used as a reason; other reasons are made up.
WGLE: Was it on STEM, or in another field?
JM: The worst I heard of was in engineering, I never heard of anybody in science in recent years. Well, I don't know that many people who are trans* in science. Two I know are going the other way, they're FTM, one of them is being very sucessful, but he's pretty stealth. The other one was a postdoc, and it made a difference to his future how it all worked.
WGLE: What difference did it make?
JM:He was worried about finding jobs after a postdoc. He wasn't worried about the job he was in, but more about what he would do afterwards. I think that in astronomy we're pretty good about publications, ADS is set for name changes, if you search me under either name you get all my publications, that's true of anybody. In some ways we're in a good place. Universities and the US government are good places to be right now, if you're trans*. Sort of good, at least. Universities are better, because in government it's going to be a while before they pay for medicine and surgery.
WGLE: Is it why you say that you think it's worse when it comes to engineering, because theirs isn't a university job, isn't a government job, it's industry, and in industry there are easier ways to fire people for details, like being trans*?
JM: I know people who were employed, seemlingly pretty protected, and then they got laid off. It's tricky. I think engineering in general is a more macho kind of thing anyway, people [in engineering] are sorta wary of women in first place. It should be changing, but it's not changing as fast as it should be. In astronomy, in general, I'm not worried about anything that wouldn't worry other women my age.
WGLE: That ties to another question we had. You transitioned male-to-female.
WGLE: I suppose you are familiar with Ben Barres, who transitioned female-to-male.
JM: Yes, I've heard him speak at Harvard.
WGLE: 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: That's a good question. I recently had a discussion on Facebook about this, with an astronomer on the West Coast, who had a close friend who was transitioning, had a lot of questions that she didn't feel comfortable asking this friend, and wondered if I could answer them. A lot of them were feminist questions about work force participation by women, women in science, and how should that be, it was a pretty challenging discussion, very interesting. She was young, I observe that the prejudice against women is more hidden but there is still stuff that is 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 to react to me; if they're slotting people into male or female, they don't know how to slot me, especially if they've known me for a long time.
I was lobbying in Washington on a bicycle issue recently, and I was with a group of people, some of whom I'd known for a long time. I co-founded our statewide bike organization 20 years ago, so I had some clout for being a past leader. We were meeting with one of our federal representatives who's a woman, and it was decided that all of the women from the group should meet her, because women's issues are a big thing for her. I wasn't included at first, so I said, "What about me?" And it was agreed that I could come too.
In the meeting, the men tried to speak on women's issues, and I broke in. I had enough standing that I could interrupt the men if they were trying to say something that I felt was not appropriate. It was fun to do actually, because none of the other women were really shrinking violets, but I was even less of a shrinking violet than they were. I have become the first person who asks questions in a lot of situations now, which I didn't use to be. I didn't stand up in public
This works in astronomy too. Not having to deal with my gender issues means that I will be able to focus more, though that has not been as true as I would like it to be, mostly because my life started exploding into all sorts of other things too, but I'm trying to put a lot of time into work too, and lot of energy. It's nice to not have to deal with it anymore, a huge relief. That's the big thing about being transgender, you really are a split person. It's really different what people see and how you see yourself. It's really really 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 your daily life to help you stay that way, but you're still not able to do everything you would like to do.
WGLE: We got a question from a trans* person who is a human rights activist. When I mentioned that I would be interviewing a trans* scientist she asked me to ask you how you understand the almost inexistance of trans* scientists. She asks this question because it's very hard for transgender to find work. She was concerned about that fact, because it's usually really hard for transgender people to find work. To go through interviews, in companies, it happens quite often that the interviewer is transphobic, even though it's veiled, it is there. And finding a job is hard, finding a science job is even harder, so how do you see the almost inexistence of transgender people among scientists.
JM: I have a feeling that a lot of people are sort of hiding. That's a good question, I know a few, in different scientists, one is a biologist, a biochemist, one astronomer, not a Ph.D. astronomer, a similar situation to me. 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 of them is pretty hard. I think that's really it, a lot of it. I
A lot of it is we worry about prejudice, and I'm hoping that as there is less prejudice, more people, even at the student level, will transition. Way too many trans* people who are professional end up getting involved in trans* or LGBT issues, professionally, rather than doing something else. That never seemed like a possibility for me, although now I'm on the board of GLAD, our local LGBT legal organization, but that's new, and that's because I wanted to get involved in the LGBT community and not limit myself to trans* stuff.
Lots of trans* people I know really shut off from the rest of the world, they are focusing on one part of life, but not necessarily doing anything additional, I mean, in science, the way to get a job is to do stuff, and it's harder when you're not comfortable with yourself to really go the extra distance. I'm saying there are reasons other than prejudice why people don't do things. I think there are lots of internal reasons we need to be more aware, we trans*, of why they're not accomplishing things. It's not somebody else telling us, "No," all the time, there's not as much prejudice as there used to be. You can do things if you're different now that you couldn't do if you were different in the past, even as recent as five years ago. There's a lot going on, but I think on the whole, the reason there are not more trans* scientists is because trans* people had a hard time going that way in the past, a lot of people that did become trans* scientists often had problems with themselves, and with the places they worked. One of my friends here is a historian of science, and as I'm really interested in the field, he told me of a historian of science who transitioned in the 60s, and had a lot of problems with the Smithsonian Institution, a really hard time. But that was over 40 years ago, closer to 50. I think people are more accepting of us now than before. I thought about a lot of what kept me from going further, I was even talking with somebody about it last night, or the night before. I have a lot of friends who have just masters degrees, somehow this is my group of friends, though some are really terminal master degrees, like MBAs, which they are actually using in non-traditional way, non-corporate, but we are just not people who went further. And I'm the only trans* one in the bunch. Other people have issues, and don't go on, too. This friend of mine yesterday was talking about other people, like her husband, who has a masters degree but didn't go on to a PhD. It happens to people. But for trans*, being comfortable with your identity is really important. So, 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 changing. But I think one of the problems about being trans*, one of the problems with MTF people is that they might have the wrong internalized ideas of what women can do. It's not easy when you're an adult to change your identity. because you don't get an upbringing in one identity or the other. So it depends on who you know, your family of origin, who your friends are.
I've known a number of strong women astronomers, from grad school on. Friends I went to grad school with have gone to good careers, and that was 40 years ago, so I already had examples around me. Some of them were supportive of my career before we were even friends. So I think there's a potential, especially in astronomy, where compared to other physical sciences, there is a pretty good acceptance of women, that's a good thing for MTF people to have examples to go forward. For FTM people, I hope the same thing.
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 torward it. Don't just jump in. Talk to friends, meet the transgender community. That's really important: meet other people who are transgender. I'm totally willing to talk to people from anywhere, but meeting people face to face makes a big difference. Therapy is really important, too. I have two therapists right now, for sort of different issues. Mostly we work on non-trans* stuff, and that helps me. I spend lot ot time just figuring out my life. There are all sorts of things I didn't get brought up with, and these other things I always had problems with, so I think of transition as a reboot, I have thought of it in a really positive way. For an older person, meaning anything older than 20, really, you reboot your life.
The trick is to change it for the better, to be a better person. If people know that you're trying to be a better person, that's gonna help them accept you. That's the biggest thing I can tell other people, because it surprised me: how much people react to me as a person, and the positive reactions to me a person were not totally gender-free, but they meant that gender was less important. One of the arguments I had with the woman astronomer on the west coast was how important is gender? And this is an issue I have had with a lot of Second Wave feminists, such as my two ex'es and my sisters, and it's a tricky thing to deal with. When you are transgender, you have to deal with how important gender really is. My response is that if you should be able to do anything no matter what gender you are, gender is not something that should keep you from doing anything. When you see somebody, gender is part of how you react to that person, and that doesn't seem likely to change real soon. But it's not all bad that you react to somebody's gender. The trick is to react to it in a positive way, not to pigeonhole them, not to say that they can't do this, they can't do that. Nonetheless, gender is important. Being able to accept that, being able to argue that, in a fairly convincing way is important, not that I have convinced a lot of people, but I have convinced some.
WGLE: That was great, thank you. I just would like to add that I read about your research when I was a child actually, when I was 6. The first book on astronomy I read, it mentioned the rings of Uranus. It only had a drawing, because the Voyager hadn't got there yet, it was a book from 1981. I remember it quite well, the drawing of Uranus with the ring around it, it caught my imagination.
JM: I'm glad! I was thinking about it the other day. 35, 37 years ago I was involved in something like this, it was a big discovery. We were not gonna win a Nobel Prize, but it got Jim Elliot a tenured professorship at MIT, which is not nothing. And my first paper was in Nature, which is cool. Another thing of transitioning and having a past is that what I done has de-gendered my past. You may have noticed how I talk about things, like people in my life in my past, I tend to say spouses, significant others, etc. I don't drop stuff from my past, but I de-gender it. It's been a good way for me to accept things. I haven't totally figured out how to talk about how I was in the past, and that's sorta challenging, like around the time of the discovery of the rings of Uranus. So 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 laugh at it. Well, not laugh at it, but don't take it too seriously. I'm lucky I got a past that is interesting, and my future will be interesting, too.