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For my longstanding physics friends

Greetings. You have reached one of the webpages of Prof. A.W. Peet. I have directed you here because I wanted to let the more observant among 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 hurry, so if you are, please bookmark it and come back later with a cup of your favourite beverage in hand. Cheers.

[icon of mug with beer/hot chocolate]
[icon of mug with beer/hot chocolate]

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 later in life I never married or raised 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 job at the University of Toronto's downtown campus. I like it so much here that I am going to stay. 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 friend I had met through cycling. At the rally before the march, I heard speeches that resonated so deeply I suddenly realized I may also be transgender. Wait, what?! As I learned more and more about gender, 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 Caitlyn Jenner? Nope. 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, and I always have. If you never questioned the gender your parents assigned you, 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 attempt to perform. I do not fit neatly into the (White) 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 the summer of 2015, I finally got access to the medical care I had needed over three decades earlier. Details are not pertinent; suffice it to say that I am smiling spontaneously a lot more than I used to, and my chronic pain has even improved a bit. So what is different, outwardly? Three things. One, the pitch of my voice is deeper. But my accent remains exactly the same, so you should still recognize me. Two, if you pay close attention to looks, you may notice a little bit of facial hair. Three, my chest is flatter. Inside, I am pretty much 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 other people's bullshit than I used to be, because I know myself better.

Cis 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. (e.g.: What's in your pants? My one-liner answer: Physics!) If you want to openly respect my nonbinary gender identity, please use my proper pronoun from now on: the singular they/their. This pronoun has been in use for centuries in English: it is not a neologism. Here is an example sentence: Hey, let's wait a couple more minutes for A.W. -- they just popped into the loo. If you are ever in doubt about how to decide on singular/plural forms of verbs along with they/their, just adopt 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 you the reader to disclose my trans status to anyone. Second, you might mortally endanger a trans person by outing them. 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.

The average physicist did not undertake much of a social justice education as an undergraduate. Colleagues commonly have a rather elementary grasp of misogyny, and make the rookie mistake of conflating gender identity with sexual orientation. In fact, those two facets of identity are independent variables in human beings. Nor does the average physicist have any idea how much of gender is performative, understand how sexism intersects with racism, or possess much of a structural analysis. So I would encourage you not to overestimate your progressiveness on the topic of gender. Do some homework on this. There are a few links at the bottom of this essay to help you to get started.

Discrimination on the basis of gender identity or gender expression has been illegal in Ontario for a few years, and is now also (as of Tue.20.Jun.2017) illegal across all of Canada as well. Regardless, transphobia is extremely common and widespread, even in relatively progressive countries. Needing to use a public toilet while trans can be awful, especially for trans women in a conservative American state. I am getting better at handling transphobic incidents as I gain more experience. It would be a great help if you could make an effort not to add to my transphobia burden as I negotiate life and the bro culture of physics.

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 two very important ethical points as you reorient yourself within the scope of our friendship.

First, you may struggle to figure out how to relate to me differently now that you know I am nonbinary trans. If you are a cisgender heterosexual man who flirted with me in the past even a little bit, will my gender-bending ruin the fun? It could, if you are closed-minded or if your masculinity is fragile. Either way, we are surely big enough people that we can find a new mutually satisfactory equilibrium. Or if you are a cisgender heterosexual 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.

Second, I urge you to be very careful to not make snap judgements about the influence of hormones on a person's emotional life. If you are cisgender, you do not understand how life differs under androgen dominance versus estrogen dominance, because you do not possess lived experience of both. The only real difference between me now and me three years ago 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. 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.

I should add one important 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 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 dudebro behaviour then I will loudly refuse, in a way that embarrasses you. Better for everyone if you keep those tendencies to yourselves.

Am I going to change my name? Nope. This is pretty much impossible because it would cut me off from my publication record. I also rather like my given name because it has lovely definitions in two major linguistic traditions. Amanda is feminine in Latin, meaning lovable or worthy of love, and it is a masculine name in Sanskrit, meaning bright like the harvest moon. I really like both meanings. You may continue to call me Amanda only if I have invited you to do so. For everyone else, you should call me by my initials A.W., like J.R. on the US TV soap opera Dallas or the code name M in James Bond.

OK. So know you know that I am trans, 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 committed major blunders as well. So, I invite you to go ahead and impress me with your own trans inclusiveness skills. If you do not have any, Google is a great place to start, or you can peruse the list of links at the bottom of this page.

Two final observations -- a couple of funnies, to help lighten the mood. (A) You may or may not know that UofT recruited me partly because they thought I was a woman. Well, I am not going to issue a 50% refund! I was, and still am, of an underrepresented gender. It turns out that they hired a bird roughly a hundred times rarer than they thought: a nonbinary transgender person. (B) A few months ago on twitter, an Indigenous commentator from Turtle Island asked for selfies of more appropriate headwear for fans of a certain Washington DC team that currently sports a racist name. I came up with the silly hat below, cobbled together from what I had on hand. I am showing you the picture because it communicates my true smile, one that has not appeared in photographs for decades. Here's to being ourselves. Cheers.

[me smiling like gangbusters]

Resources

There are many good educational resources about trans and gender nonconforming people available online. Here are a few.