Transition and overcommitment
It’s the last day of Autumn quarter at the University of Washington and I’m exhausted. It turns out that coming out as a trans at the beginning of a school year is a big thing. And a good thing: the reaction amongst all the people in my life was the exact opposite of what I’d feared for 30 years: rather than rejection, I got a lot of love, a lot of acceptance, and a lot of affirmation. Every single day has been a blessing like never before. I feel light and lucid. It’s amazing how freeing it is to no longer constantly censor my every thought and feeling out of fear. It’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
But there is one thing I regret. And that’s not making time to come out. Despite an incredibly overcommitted Autumn quarter, and how good I’ve always been about planning my time, work-life balance, and managing overcommitment, I naively thought that coming out would a few day affair. I scheduled a whole Monday for emails and social media, then a whole Tuesday for therapy and some pampering of my hair, my brows, and my closet. I figured I’d be back to work Wednesday, ready to prepare for the first day of class on Thursday, and then just slip into my normal work routine. I figured that I’m a productive, resilient person, so a few days would be more than enough to share the news get back to life.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
First, there was a flood of communication. Not for days, not for a week, but for months. Twelve weeks later, I’m still getting emails from people in my community who just heard the news, or who’ve been meaning to write, or who are strangers who just read my blog post. I spent a full week handling just thousands of emails and social media messages, and ended up having to work all weekend just catch up on work. And I failed at that, because Saturday was mostly communication too. Every single email was wonderful and wanted, and I’m so grateful for all of the affirming outreach. It was the volume that was overwhelming.
Another thing I didn’t expect was just how many of those emails would ask for my time. A phone call here, a short coffee, a lunch, a gathering. I must have had a hundred people in the first month ask to meet and talk. I said yes to every single one. Rather than make progress on research, teaching, or service, I made progress on connecting and finding affirmation. Every single meeting was pivotal to me—I felt like I was being seen and welcomed into a world I should have always been part of—but the volume of meetings was exhausting.
Some who reached out weren’t asking to meet, but they were asking to talk. For two months, there were messages from people I didn’t know who wanted to connect and have me listen to their story. There were academics who recently came out that wanted to share what they’d learned. There were academics who were still in the closet, who needed encouragement. There were students in the closet who needed to be reassured by someone with power. And there were strangers, so many strangers, who wanted to network, including parents of trans children trying to find someone to talk to, and sometimes their children. I responded to every message, giving as much as they needed. Every single exchange helped me and helped them. But again, the volume was overwhelming.
When communication calmed, I started my weeks of name change labor. Every day was five more websites and a phone call as I churned through 500 websites with my wife, facing down horrible customer service and poorly designed database schemas. My time for transition shifted from affirming, informative connections with people to fighting heartless, intractable bureaucracies. But after a few weeks, that passed too. Communication slowed to a trickle, name changes were mostly done, and I was back to the normal challenges of work-life balance.
With some exceptions. First, I was weeks behind my work responsibilities. Reviews were late, I had too little time for my Ph.D. students, and long term planning around grant writing and paper writing had all but paused. To catch up, I worked 10 hours a day and a lot of weekends. I spent 3–5 hours a week with doctors, therapists, voice coaches, and in traffic, and so I worked a lot of weekends just to get to 40 hours of work a week. And all of those commitments I’d made months or years before coming out were still there.
To make things even harder on myself, my Autumn was full of travel, which set me back even further:
- A few weeks after coming out, I flew to New Orleans to be on a panel, attending my first conference after coming out. I remember sitting in the back of an Uber listening to the drive complain about all the sickening trans people on Bourbon street, wondering if I was safe.
- The next week I spent four days in Eastern Washington networking with a hundred people on CS education. An old man tried to help me fill the air in my rental car tires and creepily watched me lean over to pump each tire.
- The week after that I traveled to Olympia, Washington, to help shape the state’s definition of computer science. Half the people in the room knew I was trans, the other half didn’t, and I sat wondering all day whether it mattered.
- The next week I flew to Finland for a conference, terrified about how my fragile femme voice might hold up for two days of flying, three days of talking, and a keynote. I found myself not talking partly out of insecurity and partly out of a reflexive response to gender norms of women listening instead of talking.
- Finally, I had what could have been an epically awkward Thanksgiving with my daughter, my ex, my wife, my father, my mother, my brother, his lesbian wife, my ex’s husband, and my ex’s parents. It all turned out fine, largely because of my daughter’s outstanding Kahoot quiz, which broke the tension. The only fail was that my daughter and I accidentally wore the same outfit.
Sprinkled throughout each day were new, emotionally draining experiences. Coming out to a close friend not on social media. Being hit on. Being told I’m delusional by a research colleague on Facebook. Telling my neighbor I have a new name but not explaining why. Crying in an airplane bathroom for being misgendered after passing for two weeks. Crying on a bus for being deadnamed by a student. Crying in front of the mirror for feeling ugly. Feeling pretty for the first time. Being scared at night on the street. Clumsily explaining that I’m not Professor Ko’s sister. Being mansplained about how to handle oppression. Having men repeat what I’d said in a meeting as if I hadn’t just said it. Not wearing a bra and regretting it. Wearing a bra and regretting it.
This quarter has been too much . Too much for even me, and I can handle a lot. Some days, it feels like I’m living an entire adolescence in a year, except rather than people expecting me to go hide in my room and cry as they might any teenage girl, people expect me to show up to work, be an adult, and do my job. But I need to do both.
And yet, as exhausted as I am, I’ve never felt more alive. My life is overflowing with new experiences, new feelings, new ideas, and new clarity. I’ve never really known what it’s like to just be. My thoughts finally feel like my own, my body feels more like my own, and as much as I’m still learning to be a woman in the world, which can mean constantly monitoring the physical and social space around me, I’ve never felt more present. I grieve the life I haven’t had, but embrace the life before me.
Work won’t slow down. I’m teaching two courses in winter (oops), I’m writing two grant proposals (unavoidable), I’m advising eight Ph.D. students (eep), I’m co-chairing two conference programs (yikes), and I’m redesigning undergrad admissions (um). And because I’m out, and a woman, and trans, I’m being asked to represent. I’ll spend three days in New Orleans in April mentoring women in CS graduate programs in need of mentors and advice, because women in CS need it. I’ll advocate for ACM’s new name change policy, so I can get my old publications, and everyone else’s, to represent our legal names. I’ll continue meeting with the countless LGBTQ students who are reassured by having an queer professor fighting for their inclusion. I’ll find a way to fit in all of this extra work because, as overwhelmed as I am by my second adolescence, these things matter.
I draw the line of course at sacrificing time with friends and family. My wonderful wife and I will cuddle with our new elder kitty. I’ll eagerly await and reply to every text I get from my daughter who is away at college. I’ll make time for old and new friends, finding space to enjoy being me with other people. And of course, I’ll cherish my time alone to be silent, to reflect, and to write, sometimes to myself, and sometimes to the world. Thanks for listening, and helping me through this journey!