Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Seth (@flatbrim_boy) is a Ph.D. candidate, teacher and activist at a large public research university, where he teaches courses on feminist theory, American sexuality, gender studies and women’s studies. His dissertation focuses on issues of psychiatry, queer reading methodologies and biopolitic in American literature post-World War II.
Dear [Birth Name]:
You don’t really know me, or least you probably do not remember me. I was a student in one of your classes a few semesters ago. The class that focused on gendered violence in the world. You taught me that rape was about power, about the concept of unseen violence and how queer people are more likely to be attacked simply because of who they are as they move about their daily lives. You showed me how unfair the world is for anyone living a gendered existence — which is, let’s face it, everyone. But you told me that if we worked together to make our anger productive like Audre Lorde wrote in one of our assigned readings, we can make a difference and take back some of the injustice and replace it with love.
More important, however, I remember sitting at the back of the class and watching you. I remember watching the way that your colorful bow ties choked a small but determined neck. I sometimes caught your tired eyes focus on a random light fixture across the room during a discussion of Boys Don’t Cry in only the way a commitment to misery could bring. During class, we all openly discussed our experiences of oppression, love and gender in a nouveaux consciousness-raising model. But now in hindsight, I sensed that you had something to share, something was slowly popping open the sutures that had once carefully curated an existence of stability, yet the surgeon had punched out. You were alone on the battlefield and bleeding in front of us, unable to call for help, instead, smiling, applauding us for yet again doing the reading.
I remember the day that you brought in several of your trans men colleagues and friends to explain to the class what the experience of social and medical transition was like for them. You stared at the floor at various points, as if melting into the ugly industrial carpet like a snowball left in the sun in Provincetown. Everyone laughed at your more animated guests as you sat there, blank, simply directing comments and rhetorical traffic. I wondered if you thought your life was over before it even started.
Birth Name, I know what you told your therapist: that you do not want to lose the experience of being a woman and teaching gender studies to women students. You feel like a mentor to them in a hateful world built around the patriarchy. You have experienced some of the worst parts of being a woman in our culture: sexual assault, abusive relationships and men who insist they are smarter and better by virtue of their gender. You have also experienced the incredible highs of womanhood: discovering feminism, sisterhood and empowerment. You do not want to lose those feelings or abandon them to join the team of the oppressor.
I know that you want to teach from the heart and recreate all those consciousness-raising sessions you read about, dreamed about and had been told about by your women professors and mentors since your own training began. You do not want to lose the consciousness raising you’ve been able to recreate in your own classes of all women students, in which you’ve been able to foster safe spaces. You remember what it was like seeing the few men students in your own undergrad women’s studies classes, that initial clenching up on the first day and a feeling of sadness that some sacred pact had been violated. You know that this thinking is not accurate or right, but in moments of nostalgia or after egregious experiences of sexism, you return to your best memories with your female adviser or in your exclusively female classes or with your feminist women friends, and all the sadness seems to melt away. You don’t quite know why that is, but know you know better. You want this for your own students, and now being a male teacher, you will not achieve this.
I know the type of classical women’s studies training you had and wrestle with every day. You long to get up in front of your students and feel a connection with them as women who share similar gendered experiences in the world. But every day that connection is fading, fizzling and moving away. You reach for it as one reaches for seaweed in a chaotic ocean, but it remains out of grasp, always glistening, slipping through your wrinkled fingertips as you struggle for air. They have been telling you that the “personal is political” for so long that you are beginning to wonder if you are allowed to actually have a private, personal life when you work in a subject like this one — a subject that affects everything in your immediate surroundings, for better or worse.
Now I am going to give you the identity of the queer specter in this correspondence: it is I, your transitioning self, writing to you from beyond the initial shock and trauma of transition, social and medical. Some facts: you picked the name Seth, started testosterone, adopted your new name professionally, and while it has not been the easiest in the classroom, you have been doing well. You did not have to give up the topic of your work, the courses you teach or other things about your professional identity. Your adviser, department and employers have supported your transition. They make you feel tremendously lucky even on the hardest days when students aggressively misgender you in class or are openly transphobic. (You survive.)
Your deep connection to feminism actually will give you the strength to transition. But your respect and admiration for feminist knowledge production does not need to anchor you into your specific body or ground you into a certain pedagogical model — a mistake you made in the past. Gender, bodies and modes of thinking are fluid — they are oceans that burst with waves onto eager shores of ever-changing sand. When your students are taught by you, they will be taught by someone qualified in the subject matter, regardless of your gender.
However, as a trans man who teaches courses on feminism, gender and women, there is a noticeable difference in how you approach the material. It is no longer from a set of shared experiences as women — even though many of your students still think you are one because the hormone therapy has not worked super quickly for you, but more from the perspective as a gendered human who lives in the world with other gendered humans. You still talk about women’s issues, but you no longer privilege them (unless the class is about women), and the students respond well to the greater variety of topics. They love critiquing masculinity, and you love learning how to teach it. To you, gender is becoming beams of light reflected on a hot summer sidewalk, right before the explosion of a fire hydrant, so hot and undeniable it almost feels good to go to the edge of the sun before becoming baptized in the waters of a new gendered consciousness. Transitioning has made teaching joyful learning all over again, even if certain parts of your pedagogy had to be mourned, most notably having to catch yourself every time you went to say “we” when talking about women. That is the hardest.
This is your life. This is your body. Your heart. Before transition, I sat next to you in those seminars that you took with world-famous faculty members. Always a sensitive soul, it made sense that, in some classes, you would be shy. But this was different — this was active suffering. Your gender was aching, and you refused to listen. You felt speaking was too difficult. You would only pump yourself full of other things to dull the ache, when you instead needed something complex and yet so simple: the truth. You now live in clarity where there was opacity.
Please, do not be afraid. I will be here when you are ready to meet me. And so will your students. No rush.