It has been an emotionally exhausting week. I wrapped up a major conference deadline with my PhD students, I sent my wonderful daughter off to her first year of college at UC San Diego, and then, after years of building up the courage, I came out as a trans woman.
I was terrified up to the night before. But then I remembered: my communities are pretty inclusive. My trans colleagues are treated with respect. I might get some radio silence from a few transphobic folks, but I’d probably also get some people saying really nice, encouraging things too. It couldn’t be that bad, right? It might actually be good.
What I wasn’t prepared for just how much good there would be. I have been so impressed by my PhD students, my school, my university, my academic communities, that I have to share how amazing everyone has been. Part of this is just because I don’t feel like I can contain all this love and affirmation, and I want to say thank you publicly for everyone’s kindness. But it’s also because after years of reading about negative trans experiences online defined by trauma, rejection, or violence, I wanted to share an example of a really positive trans coming out story.
Of course, my coming out experience was never going to be representative. As I noted in my coming out post, I’m about as privileged as a trans person can be. But maybe by sharing just how good it can be, I can give people in the world an image of what coming out could look like for every trans person (for as long as “coming out” needs to be a thing).
It began Monday morning. I’d blocked off my entire Monday and Tuesday in anticipation of being overwhelmed emotionally. I woke up super early, opened up my coming out spreadsheet with the thirty groups I’d planned to write, forty online profiles to update, and three social media platforms on which to post. I started drafting emails, building up my courage. Around 8:30, I started pressing send.
One of the first things that happened wasn’t a reaction to email at all, but my wonderful Ph.D. student Benji Xie coming to my office door and replacing my name placard. I’d come out to my PhD students the Friday before, and he decided to come in early too, without me asking, and help in this small, but meaningful way. It was incredibly touching and symbolic act of support, and gave me the courage to keep sending.
I kept working through my to do list, writing emails, updating profiles with my new name and headshot, and got to my to do item: “Ask UW CSE to update my name and photo.” I had no idea who to ask. I went to the faculty directory to see if there was contact info for a webmaster, but when I went to the page, it was already done. Someone had just fixed it, without me having to ask. Those were my first tears.
When I calmed down, I visited identity.uw.edu, UW’s outstanding centralized name and identity system, and entered my new name. I watched as nearly every system I interact with at UW just magically showed my new name. So magically that when I later visited the Husky ID office on campus to get my new ID, and gave the staff member my employee ID, she congratulated me on my new name, took my picture, and gave me my new ID in 5 minutes.
Soon after changing my name in UW systems, my wonderful faculty HR director, Ai Nguyen, stopped by with flowers. And then two of my faculty colleagues. And then two more. Within a few hours, I’d seen more than half my faculty. The morning was bursting with affirmations from my closest colleagues, those I rarely talk to, and even new faculty, who were still trying to navigate their way around campus. Every single one of these faculty and staff were right in the middle of the busiest week of the year, but they took the time to come to my office, celebrate me coming out, and give me hugs, high fives, and hello Amy’s. I’ve never had so many people in my professional life, in such a short period of time, signal so strongly how much they value and support me. I’m crying just writing about it.
Just before posting on social media, the lab space outside my office started getting a little loud. I peeked out, and several of the PhD students in my lab and others presented a table overflowing with trans pride cupcakes, adorned with my new name. We laughed about the beautiful and not so beautiful handwriting. They even remembered how I don’t really like super sweet things, making a whole batch without frosting. I was simultaneously overwhelmed by their love and support, but also the sheer number of cupcakes!
The last thing on my list was to update Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. In some ways, I was most afraid of sharing on social media, because they can be such terrible places for transphobia and bullying. I was convinced I would lose Facebook friends, LinkedIn contacts, and Twitter followers, and that I’d get a lot of hate from strangers. But I forged ahead and posted. By the end of Wednesday, the numbers were overwhelming, and the exact opposite of what I expected:
- I received more than 600 affirming emails from people around the world.
- Nearly 700,000 people saw my tweet, nearly 7,000 people liked it, and nearly 500 people replied with affirming messages. More than 1,400 new people followed me.
- Nearly 300 people responded to my Facebook post and my updated photo. More than 50 people made friend requests.
- Thousands of people liked my LinkedIn post, dozens replied, and more than 100 people invited me to connect.
Amazingly, every single message on social media was completely affirming (except for one random Twitter troll who rudely asked about what surgeries I’d had).
Halfway through Monday, I started reading all of these messages. And that’s when the real tears began:
- Childhood friends I hadn’t heard from in years wrote me to reconnect, to express their support, to share their commitment to allyship, and to reflect on our shared experiences.
- Colleagues from around the world just fixed things: they updated course syllabi referencing my work, they fixed presentations they were about to give discussing my research, and they pointed out names and pronouns I’d missed on my web page. Emery Berger fixed csrankings.org and tweeted screenshot evidence; others advocated to DBLP on my behalf to update my name.
- Women invited me into women’s spaces, such as Facebook groups for academic moms and women in HCI, finally making me feel included as the woman I’ve always been.
- Thousands of people reached out with short messages saying “Congratulations,” “I see you,” “I support you,” and “Thank you for your vulnerability,” including people I never imagined would be supportive.
- Hundreds of people less literate about trans issues wrote and thanked me for educating them, and for giving them an example of a trans person that didn’t quite fit the stereotypes they usually see in the media.
- Hundreds of out LGBTQ people, including students, colleagues, and complete strangers, reached out to share their stories, offer their support, suggest resources, and welcome me to the community.
- An NBC News reporter reached out to me for a phone interview, to write a story in their Out section. She was kind, very aware of my vulnerable state, and didn’t ask me to go beyond the scope of what I’d already shared.
While all of the above affirmations were incredible, it was particularly striking to receive messages from dozens of closeted LGBTQ people and their allies. I heard from parents of trans children struggling to build their children’s resilience to bullying. I heard from closeted students and faculty on my campus, and on dozens of other campuses, who fearful about coming out, but encouraged by having someone with academic authority come out so publicly. I heard how my story even helped non-LGBTQ people who were stigmatized in other ways to feel seen and validated.
What all of these responses taught me is that vulnerability is powerful and vulnerability is disarming. Being vulnerable opened me up to a lot of love from a lot of people, even strangers. Being vulnerable made others safe to be vulnerable and share their stories with me. And I bet, even though I can’t know, that being vulnerable made a lot of the haters who read my blog post think twice before writing something nasty. Maybe they even learned something. Being vulnerable about my transness might be the thing I feared most in life, but I think that risking profound emotional harm might have been the safest way to protect myself. It surrounded me with affirmation and shielded me from hate.
Of course, all that affirmation and connection did more than just protect me. Over the past four days, I think it erased years of self-loathing. Never before in my life, and possibly never again, will so many people stand up, see me, and support me. The thing I feared most—being me, being out, and being harmed—was actually something that had the greatest power to heal me.
It’s still hard. Being so vulnerable all week, despite all the affirmation, has been exhausting. I’m still scared to go into the women’s restroom. I still ashamed of how I look and how I sound. I think I’m doing fine with clothing, but I’m too clueless to know if I look ridiculous. When people stare at me on campus and on the street, I still imagine them thinking “What is that disgusting creature?” rather than “Look at that fine young lady.” I still wake up to news about about an epidemic of trans murders. And publishers of my recently accepted journal papers tell me that I can’t change my name to “protect the integrity of the review process.”
But now, behind all these horrible thoughts and unjust experiences are a thousand voices: we love you, we accept you, we support you.
Thank you to everyone for your time this week, for your caring and kind words, and for your labor on my behalf. You’ve transformed the moment I feared most in my life into the most beautiful week of my life.