Becoming: What Makes a Woman
There were no grades. They gave our printing presses to the Black Panthers. When I left, I was very confused about what I wanted to do. I went on to study cytotechnology at the University of Chicago, training people to read pap smears. I got recruited by a woman setting up a lab in Paris, so I moved for a year, where I just happened to meet my American partner. Then I came back to the states and studied developmental psychology, where my professor recommended I reach out to a woman who was conducting a big study of women with breast cancer and their psychological adaptation.
That woman became my mentor — the grandmother of psycho-oncology, the behavioral aspects of cancer. By then my partner and I had a daughter and a son. We moved to Washington and I got a job at Georgetown, creating their psycho-oncology program. I was then recruited by the NIH and did that for 18 years. I retired in , and now I work for a small non-profit part-time, and spend time with my daughter.
She had a commanding presence. She was an organizer who loved all sorts of activities. She was vital, engaged. When she retired, she took a correspondence course in hieroglyphics!
That just gives you an idea of the kind of person she was. She was a lifelong teacher. She loved getting people engaged, had a thirst for knowledge. I never felt that way — growing up, I was clueless. I was lost in space! I really had no idea of what direction I would go in. I had two really outstanding science teachers who got me excited about science. I was also very interested in athletics — I practiced gymnastics, volleyball, basketball.
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I also did drama. I was all over the place! My parents were both very smart. We lived with an encyclopedia in our house. If anyone ever had a question, the answer was always: Go look it up. It was so irritating! Like, just tell me! That tactile piece has been important in raising my own kids. My son died last year. He was a lovely, gentle guy. He worked for the homeless. He had a very special ability to reach people. My kids are so beyond me, best thing I ever did. They far exceed me. I feel deeply grateful for our shared humanity — a commitment to making the world a better place.
And my daughter loves having kids, just like me. We all have inadequacies. The question is: As offspring, can you make that difference? I have been the recipient of a lot of unqualified love. But my mother was more withholding. I was a kid! How could she possibly have felt left out? I wish my younger self had more self-confidence. That plagues me — did I raise a child who, like me, grew up with these pockets of low self-esteem? How is that possible? How did I make that mistake again? I was born and raised in the Middle East. From age 12, I knew I wanted to be an architect.
Architecture was so precious where I grew up. The domes, the bazaars… the public spaces were very unusual, organic.
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Most homes were behind garden walls, and going out was a big deal. My mother was a fabulous woman. She grew up in a multitude of cultures — born in India to a Persian family, raised in a British colony.
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She had a little bit of everything in her. Growing up, it was clear to me that she was very special, because she was not like other mothers. But that was also difficult to handle. She speaks English, plays sports, reads books. Women at that time, where I grew up, were not avid readers like she was. But because she could read in other languages, her head was always in a book. There was an interesting dichotomy. I came to the United States to study architecture. It was so drastically different. I grew up in a country that was thousands of years old, so I felt very rooted.
That was very eye-opening for me.
It was a long, difficult program. I barely spoke English.
You create environments for people to live accordingly. It goes beyond physical structure. Just as I was completing my thesis, there was a revolution in my country. This is when I learned that nothing in life is certain. What is certain is that everything will always change. I had an identity crisis and a student visa. I had learned theories, philosophies, how to draw and how to dream about the most amazing structures, but I had never built anything and had no idea how business worked. To make matters worse, the United States was in a very big recession.
So, I took responsibility for my own survival. I moved to San Francisco, where there were more opportunities. I got a position at a firm, doing odd jobs: driving, delivering packages. I began to rethink my whole education. Did I just want to make buildings and money, or create art and push boundaries and break all the laws? I studied architecture because I wanted to make a better world — I had a mission.
In order to make something meaningful, you first have to discover what the meaning is. Nobody will just hand this to you! It was time to get my boots dirty. They gave me a bunk bed in a tent and told me to get started. Nobody would help me. But I learned how to find smaller rocks to use as anchors to slowly move the larger rocks, until they simply rolled away.
At Wellesley, they have pressed administrators and fellow students to excise talk of sisterhood, arguing that that rhetoric, rather than being uplifting, excludes other gender minorities. At many schools, they have also taken leadership positions long filled by women: resident advisers on dorm floors, heads of student groups and members of college government. At Wellesley, one transmasculine student was a dorm president. I felt empowered by that every day.
You come here thinking that every single leadership position will be held by a woman: every member of the student government, every newspaper editor, every head of the Economics Council, every head of the Society of Physics. This is what they advertise to students. A few schools have formulated responses to this dilemma, albeit very different ones. One guest was Laura Bruno, another Wellesley senior. Kaden, a manager of the campus student cafe who knew Laura casually, was upset by her words.
I am a trans man who is part of your graduating class, and you literally ignored my existence in your interview. Although it may seem paradoxical, Jesse Austin said he chose to attend Wellesley because being female never felt right to him. I knew Wellesley would have strong women. They produce a ton of strong women, strong in all sorts of ways. When Jesse arrived on campus in the fall of , his name was Sara. As a child, Sara had always chosen to be male characters in pretend plays, and all her friends were boys.
In middle school, those boys abandoned her because she was a social liability: not feminine enough to flirt with and not masculine enough to really be one of the guys. In high school, at the urging of well-intentioned female classmates, she started wearing her hair down instead of pulled back and began dressing like they did, even though people kept pointing out that she still acted and carried herself like a boy.
She discovered that sexual orientation is independent of gender: Some trans men are attracted to women, some to men, some to both. Sara told friends she was a man. By second semester, he was using male pronouns and calling himself Jesse, the other name his mother had considered for her daughter.
He also joined a tiny campus group for students who knew or suspected they were trans men. It was called Brothers, a counterweight to the otherwise ubiquitous message of sisterhood. That summer, Jesse saw a gender therapist, and early in his sophomore year, he began injecting testosterone into his thigh every two weeks, making him one of the first students to medically transform into a man while at Wellesley.
He became the administrator of Brothers. Though he felt supported, he also felt alone; all the other trans men on campus had graduated, and the other students in Brothers were not even sure they identified as men. Outside Brothers, everything at Wellesley was still sisterhood and female empowerment.
I felt fine there, like I totally belonged. Jesse decided he wanted to have top surgery over winter break, and his parents agreed to pay for it. He returned for spring semester but only briefly, taking a sudden leave of absence to go home and help care for his ill father. When Jesse re-enrolled at Wellesley a year and a half later, in fall , much had changed in Jesse and at school.
Having been on testosterone for two years at that point, Jesse no longer looked like a woman trying to pass as a man. His voice was deep. His facial hair was thick, though he kept it trimmed to a stubble. His shoulders had become broad and muscular, his hips narrow, his arms and chest more defined. Wellesley was different, too. By then, a whole crowd of people identified as trans — enough for two trans groups. Brothers had officially become Siblings and welcomed anyone anywhere on the gender spectrum except those who identified as women.
Meanwhile, Jesse and some transmasculine students continued to meet unofficially as Brothers, though Jesse was the only one on testosterone. Over all, campus life had a stronger trans presence than ever. Student organizations increasingly began meetings by asking everyone to state preferred names and pronouns. And yet even with the increased visibility of trans students on campus, Jesse stood out.
In his own dorm, parents who were visiting their daughters would stop him to ask why he was there. When he tried to explain he was a Wellesley student, people sometimes thought he was lying. I felt like an outsider. My voice was jarring — a male voice, which is so distinct in a classroom of women — so I felt weird saying much in class. Once spring semester ended, Jesse withdrew. They complained among themselves and to the administration that sisterhood had been hijacked.
Still others feared the changes were a step toward coeducation. Despite all that, many were uneasy: As a marginalized group fighting for respect and clout, how could women justify marginalizing others? At the same time, I felt guilty feeling that way. After thinking about it, Beth concluded that she was connected to her classmates not because of gender but because of their shared experiences at Wellesley.
Exactly how Wellesley will resolve the trans question is still unclear. Alex was a former Girl Scout who attended an all-girls high school. But unknown to his mother, he was using Google to search for an explanation for his confusing feelings. By the time Alex applied to Wellesley, he secretly knew he was trans but was nonetheless certain Wellesley was a good fit.
For one thing, going there was a family tradition; for another, it was a place where gender could be reimagined. In his sophomore year at Wellesley, he went public with his transgender status. On hoop-rolling day, Alex — wearing a cap backward on his buzz-cut hair — broke through the finish-line streamer. President H. Kim Bottomly took a selfie with him, each with a wide smile. In the status-seeking s, she was the first to be C.
Now we just say that the winner will be the first to achieve happiness and success, whatever that means to her. That page is not the only place on the site where Wellesley markets itself as a school of only female students. Those sorts of messages, trans students say, make them feel invisible. Some staff and faculty members, however, are acknowledging the trans presence.
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Women-and-gender-studies professors, and a handful of others, typically begin each semester asking students to indicate the names and pronouns they prefer for themselves. Kris Niendorf, director of campus and residential life, recruits trans students who want to be R. Niendorf also initiated informational panels with trans students and alums.
And yet many trans students feel that more needs to be done. They complain that too many professors assume all their students are women. At times, professors find themselves walking a fine line. Cushman said he would abide by whatever pronoun individual students requested for themselves, but he drew the line at changing his emphasis on women. That should be affirmed, especially after being denied for so long.
Being asked to change that is a bit ironic. He was elated to be back to the place that felt most like home. It was the first time in four years that Eli had not been part of orientation — first as a newcomer and then two years as an R. We hung out in the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center, known affectionately as Lulu, and watched the excited first-years flutter by, clutching their orientation schedules and their newly purchased Wellesley wear.