Greetings. You have reached one of the webpages of Prof. A.W. Peet. I have directed you here because I wanted to let you know why I look and sound a bit different than I used to. The general idea is to help avoid confusion and alienation amongst valued colleagues. The content is designed to be read when you are not in a flaring hurry, so if you are, please bookmark it and come back later with a cup of your favourite beverage in hand when you have five or ten minutes to spare. Cheers.
If you know me at all, you are already aware that I never really fit the Standard Model of Femininity. Gender conformism is not my thing. As a child I did boyish things as well as girlish things, as a youth I got bullied at school for then-mysterious reasons, and in early adulthood I did not marry or raise kids. It turns out that these and a bunch of other odd facts about me can be explained by one unifying hypothesis. It is a little bit radical, but you certainly have enough imagination to be able to handle it, regardless of your gravitational string theory expertise.
In 2000 I moved to Toronto, Canada for a tenure-track faculty job at the University of Toronto's downtown campus. One of the first things that struck me as welcoming about the city was the presence of a vibrant LGBT community. One day in 2013, I attended the Trans March as part of Pride, to support a trans friend. At the rally before the march, I heard speeches that resonated so deeply I suddenly realized that I may also be transgender. Wait, what?!? As I learned more and more about gender in the days, weeks, and months following, the loudest sound I heard in my head was dominoes falling -- so many puzzling facts about my past suddenly made sense. I had just discovered the Grand Unifying Theory of Me.
So am I a trans man, kind of like the opposite of Janet Mock, Chelsea Manning, or Caitlyn Jenner? No. I am actually a nonbinary transgender person, which means two things. First, about the transgender part. This term means that I transgress gender boundaries assigned by family and society in general. If you never questioned the gender you were assigned at birth, then you are the opposite of transgender: cisgender, or cis for short. (Note: cis has no linguistic connection to sissy.) The cis and trans usages come directly from Latin. You will have seen them used in molecular naming in chemistry, in roughly the same sense, meaning same side and opposite side respectively.
Second, about the nonbinary part. This term means that I am not wholly feminine, nor am I wholly masculine. To recruit a physics analogy: I am a bit like a quantum with both wave-like and particle-like behaviour -- which behaviour you see depends on the type of experiment you perform. I do not fit neatly into the gender binary, or even on a simple linear spectrum between female and male. Instead, I have essential strands of femininity and essential strands of masculinity, woven together into a higher-dimensional gender. You cannot remove either type of thread: the fabric of me would unravel.
One thing that many (but certainly not all) trans people share is gender dysphoria, a sense that aspects of our body do not correspond with our internal sense of gender. In Fall 2015, I finally got access to the medical care I had needed over three decades earlier but could not access. As a result, I am smiling spontaneously a lot more than I used to, and my chronic pain has even improved a bit (yay!). So what is different, outwardly? Three things. The pitch of my voice is deeper. But my accent remains the same, so you should still be able to recognize me. Also, my chest is flatter, and I have a bit of facial hair. Inside, though, I am pretty much exactly the same person, just a lot happier in my own skin. I feel more settled than I have done in ages. I am also less willing to put up with obnoxious gender behaviour from others than I used to be, because I know myself better and because I know more about discrimination from direct experience.
Cis (non-trans) people tend to make some pretty big blunders when they find out someone is trans. The proper rule of thumb for preventing awkwardness is super simple: never ask a trans person something you wouldn't dream of asking a cis person. If you wish to openly respect my nonbinary gender identity, from now on please use my proper pronoun: the singular they (not she). This gender-neutral pronoun is not a neologism: it has been in use for centuries in English, e.g. by Shakespeare. An example phrase:
Let's wait a few more minutes for them -- they just popped into the bathroom. Hope they hurry themself up and get back out here pronto!. If you are ever in doubt about how to decide on singular/plural forms of verbs along with they/them/their/themself, just go with whatever sounds the least clumsy.
For safety reasons, you should never reveal someone's transgender status to a third party. First and foremost, it is not your story to tell. In particular, the existence of this web essay does not constitute permission to the reader to disclose my trans status to anyone else. My gender story is not currency for you to spend! More generally, you might seriously endanger a trans person by outing them. Trans people are routinely denied jobs, housing, and medical care, and are assaulted more often than cis people are. Every year in North America, two digits of trans people are murdered by cis people just for being trans. The vast majority of the victims are trans women, and disproportionately many of them are Black and Indigenous. I have chosen to be out about my trans status as a calculated (small) risk, to show support for younger trans and genderqueer mathematical scientists. I list myself on the lgbtphysicists.org
The average physicist did not undertake much of a social justice education as an undergraduate. We tended to be busy cramming our schedules with physics and math courses, rather than taking courses in the humanities and social sciences. So I would encourage readers not to overestimate their progressiveness on gender issues. One thing that is important is to not mix up gender identity with sexual orientation. In a nutshell: while gender and sexuality are related, they are separate variables, with tremendous variegation. If you would like to educate yourself more about how to support your trans and nonbinary friends and colleagues, please peruse this handy resources page.
Discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression has been illegal in the Canadian province of Ontario since 19.Jun.2012, and across Canada since 19.Jun.2017. Unfortunately, transphobia (antagonism towards trans people) is extremely common and widespread, even in relatively progressive countries. Needing to use a public toilet while trans can be particularly awful. It would be a great help if you could make an effort not to add to my transphobia burden. For example, if you are a cis man and you spot me in the men's bathroom, please do not make a surprised face at me or verbally challenge my right to be there. A lot of buildings do not have gender-neutral bathrooms, and if I am forced to choose between a men's and a women's, I get yelled at less if I use the men's.
The best thing you can do right now as a friend is to just accept me as I am, in as welcoming a way as you can manage -- not to suddenly pull away from me because you know something new about my gender. It is natural that your feelings about me may change as I look and sound a bit different than before, but I urge you to consider the following important ethical points as you reorient yourself within the scope of our friendship.
You may struggle to figure out how to relate to me differently now that you know I am trans and nonbinary. Regardless of what you assumed about my gender in the past, I think we are both sufficiently grown up that we can find a new mutually satisfactory equilibrium now and in the future. If you are a cis woman who valued the sense of shared womanhood you felt we had in the past, am I now a traitor to the sisterhood? No. I have made a very deliberate decision not to repudiate femininity. Yet, I am also enjoying exploring non-toxic masculinity. It is super important to me to not contribute to sexism even though I look and sound more like a man than I used to.
I encourage you not to make assumptions about how sex hormones affect a person's emotional or intellectual life. If you have not lived under both estrogen and androgen dominance, you are unqualified to comment. The only real difference between me now and me before Fall 2015 is that I am living more authentically. I am standing 2cm taller, but that is simply because I am no longer slouching to hide unwanted twin chest aliens; the growth plates on my long bones fused decades ago. Transphobia can be very isolating, and I ask you not to contribute to it by conflating bodily characteristics with the foundations of a professional friendship.
Please also note that if you see a trans person (e.g. me) wearing clothes that you think are
too young for us, bear in mind that we were denied the opportunity to wear those clothes at the age you have in mind. Cut us some slack, and don't try to enforce cis-centric dress codes. For trans people who undertake hormonal transition, it takes about five years for the new regimen to take hold fully. In the interim, it makes no sense to buy a bunch of
nice clothes while our body shape is still changing significantly. Accordingly, I will be ready to accept sartorial elegance tips from men colleagues in about 2020 -- and you will know if I want your advice on clothing by whether or not I ask for it.
I should add one further note for cis men wanting to openly welcome me to the brotherhood. The inclusiveness impulse is much appreciated. However, please note that I will not be suddenly joining in on any form of misogyny (sexism) simply because I have a deeper voice, a flatter chest, and more facial hair. Misogyny is still fundamentally unwelcome in my cosmology, and if you try to encourage me to join in on sexist behaviour then I will refuse, in a way that is likely to embarrass you. Better for everyone if you keep such tendencies to yourself.
Am I going to change my name? No. This is pretty much impossible because it would cut me off from my publication record. I also rather like my first given name because it has lovely definitions in two major linguistic traditions. It is feminine in Latin, meaning
worthy of love; this is the meaning that most Canadians know. It also happens to be a masculine name in Sanskrit, meaning
bright like the harvest moon. But please: do not call me by my old name at work -- it confuses people who did not know me before 2015, and it instantly exposes me to transphobic harassment. Instead, please call me by my initials
A.W.. If it helps you remember, imagine that these initials are like the code name
M in James Bond movies. Using my initials as my first name produces the least drama in general, both on and off campus. Trust me on this -- I know best what I should be called!
OK. So now you know that I am trans and nonbinary, and how to avoid a few common mistakes. What next? How awesome you choose to be about all this is up to you. A few of your colleagues -- of markedly different age groups -- have already set a high standard by being wonderfully inclusive. Some students and postdocs have blown my socks off. On the other hand, a surprising number of colleagues have committed major blunders as well. So, I invite you to go ahead and impress me with your own gender inclusiveness skills. If you do not have any, Google is a great place to start, or you can peruse the information in the link at the bottom of this page.
Here's to being ourselves. Cheers! ☺️
There are many good educational resources about trans and gender nonconforming people available online. Here are a few.