A Transforming Field

There is no “typical” biologist. Meet two scientists who don’t fit into the usual mold—they changed genders in the middle of their careers. Here’s how they embrace their differences.

Left: © Plush Studios/Bill Reitzel right: © Image Source

For a few months in 2001 and the beginning of 2002, there was a jar on Julia Serano’s lab bench at the University of California, Berkeley full of quarters. Each quarter had belonged to a member of her lab, which focused on Drosophila genetics and developmental biology, and each represented a time when someone mistakenly called her “he,” or “Tom.” It was a reasonable mistake—Serano is transgender, and had just told her labmates that the man they had worked with for years was a woman. “It started out as a joke, but we kept the jar there, and anytime someone used the wrong pronoun or name, they had to...

It’s difficult to estimate how many transgender people there are in the world—no agency collects this data, and many transgender people do not announce it publicly. However, the National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that between 0.25 and 1 percent of the population is transsexual—meaning, they live full time as a gender that’s different than the one on their birth certificate. If this statistic applied to biologists as well, it would include thousands in the United States alone. These scientists, who have lived life as both genders, have a unique perspective on being outside the “norm”.

“Biologists in particular are very understanding of the concept of difference,” says Ben Barres, a transgender neuroscientist at Stanford University. They are used to thinking about problems from different angles and perspectives, he says, and are innately interested in the way life responds to different environments. And many biologists feel like outsiders, either because they work on processes that few people in the general population understand, or because they are outnumbered by their peers in terms of their gender, ethnicity, citizenship or sexual orientation. Here are the perspectives of two individuals who embraced their differences by changing their gender, and became advocates against the inequalities they’ve seen.

© Timothy Archibald

As Barres tells it, the decision to transition from Barbara to Ben in 1997 came to him out of the blue. He was 42, had been at Stanford for 4 years studying glial cells, and had just received tenure, when he read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about a female to male activist. “And it was just like I was reading an article about my life.” He had always felt like he should have been born a man, but never mentioned it to anyone, and had never heard the word “transgender.” “And I just got so excited.”

He made an appointment right away with the Stanford gender clinic, and talked with some trusted colleagues, to determine if he could transition and still have a career. “Everybody was immediately supportive, and just said ‘You should do this, if this is what you need to do to be happy, do it.’”

Next, he wrote an email to his lab and colleagues. “I simply let them know that I was planning on doing this.” It took people a little while to get used to the idea. Some asked questions, but mostly, colleagues didn’t probe too deeply. “Someone said: ‘You’re going to have to do a lot more than that to surprise me,’” Barres recalls. Indeed, he says the transition was relatively painless: He made a few appointments with a counselor, took some hormones, and bought male clothes. “Any experiment would be more work than this,” he says.

“Yes, there’s going to be an occasional person who may not talk to you as much, but the vast, vast proportion of scientists are very supportive of differences.”
—Ben Barres

Of course, there were a few hiccups. After he changed genders, the woman at his regular coffee shop asked if he had a sister who was also a customer. Pleased to be seen so quickly as a man, he simply said, “yes.” After he changed sex, he received an email from someone trying to reach his sister Barbara, who also works on glia. Recently, a former MD/PhD male student confessed that some of his classmates had teased him about being in Barres’s lab. “I just ignore it,” says Barres.

While he chooses to ignore the occasional slight, Barres remains active in promoting fairness across science. Indeed, he has a unique viewpoint on the issues women can face in the field, having worked in science as a female and a male. He’s noticed, for example, that people treat him with more respect since he changed genders. Of course, he cannot know for sure if his transition affected his science, but since then, he’s become chair of his department (neurobiology), he runs a PhD training program, and says he is invited to give seminars every day. His articles have been cited more than 11,000 times, and the bulk of the citations came after he changed sex.

But he hasn’t forgotten what it was like to be a woman in science. In 2006, he wrote a commentary in Nature arguing against former Harvard President Larry Summers’s hypothesis that women are innately less capable in science, and gave a lecture at Harvard about discrimination against women in the field. As for his own experience, he says, “It is hard to give specific examples but I am just very aware of” being treated differently since he changed sex. “I think [discrimination against women] is worse than people even begin to imagine.”

Set an example
Barres makes a point of mentioning during talks that he’s gay, and every time he does, he gets calls or emails from students, and he always makes time for them. “Many gay faculty are still closeted,” he says, which sends an implicit message: “you’d better keep quiet about it.” He attends events for gay or transgender students, reasoning that it’s important for students (and other scientists) to see that it’s possible to be gay and succeed in science. (Did you know that former NIH deputy director Raynard Kington is gay, for instance?)

Reject the “outsider” status
“People are afraid way out of proportion to the reality of things,” says Barres. “Yes, there’s going to be an occasional person who may not talk to you as much, but the vast, vast proportion of scientists are very supportive of differences.” You don’t have to make a big announcement that something about you doesn’t fit with the “norm,” either. “You don’t have to come out with a mega-horn,” says Rochelle Diamond, chair of the National Organization of Gay and Lesbian Scientists and Technical Professionals, and a biologist at the California Institute of Technology. Simply talking about your weekend—if it involved your partner—can be a small coming-out moment. “Be who you are. There’s no other way to live,” says Barres.

Create a Safe Zone
Safe Zones are clearly marked “safe spaces,” often designated by a symbol, where people who are homosexual or transgender can go to talk. Many Safe Zones are the offices of heterosexual faculty and staff, says Diamond, and these “allies” have made a big impact in helping homosexual students and colleagues.

Courtesy of David Huang

Ever since Julia Serano was a little boy named Thomas, she knew she wanted to be a girl. “It was something that had been with me my whole life.”

Finally, in her early 30s, while still Tom and doing a postdoc at UC Berkeley, in the midst of a depression about her gender situation, she finally realized it was just something she had to do. “I knew that I would be much happier if I lived the way I understood myself,” Serano says.

It was terrifying at first. At the time, the school had no policy to protect transgender employees. “It was something, theoretically, I could have been fired for.” But she took a deep breath and brought a letter from her therapist to her principal investigator. “I went to his office, I kind of jokingly said ‘you probably haven’t ever had a meeting like this one before.’” After reading the letter, he agreed. “But immediately he said that he was very supportive right from the start. He said ‘if you have any problems, if anyone gives you any problems, let me know right away.’”

Serano sent an email to her labmates right before a long weekend, explaining that she would now be going by the name of Julia. Over the weekend, some supportive emails trickled in, so when Monday rolled around, “I knew I wasn’t going into a hostile environment.” She then sat people down and answered all their questions at once. And her science chugged along.

She knows she was lucky—another person Serano met who also transitioned at around the same time ended up having to leave his lab after his boss made him feel unwelcome. “I could have had a very different situation had I been in the lab he’d been in.”

Serano knows she was lucky—another person she met who also transitioned at around the same time ended up having to leave his lab after his boss made him feel unwelcome.

Overall, she says her science has only thrived, not been hurt by her transition. She never had problems publishing or finding another job after the postdoc ended (she is now a staff research specialist at another Berkeley lab). “Outside of my little world, I don’t think other people took notice, or really cared,” says Serano. She doesn’t interact with many scientists outside of her small community, so doesn’t have to face anyone who might react badly. Her community, she says, “protects me in a lot of ways from some of the harassment or discrimination I could possibly face if I was in a different setting.”

She’s also become a trans activist, which has included writing a book about her experience called Whipping Girl, and working to make both men and women aware of their gender biases.

Question your instincts
Most of the time, Serano believes people are not conscious of the way they treat men and women differently. (If you are struggling with your computer, how often do you ask a man for help, not a woman?) “Since I’ve transitioned, I’ve had multiple times—one actually happened in a lab setting—where men would talk over me,” she recalls. “I was in the middle of saying something and the man would just talk over me, like I wasn’t even there,” she says, “And that never happened before my transition.” In the lab, she knows the man who talked over her, and “he would have been horrified if he’d know what he was doing. I don’t think it was conscious.” Try to recognize your assumptions, she suggests, and correct them.

Be gentle when possible
Serano’s colleagues were all supportive of her transition, so a jar of quarters to remind them of unconscious insensitivities worked well, she says. “If I were to bust into an angry rant, that wouldn’t help me, either.” When car mechanics or other people talk to her as if she’s not interested in technical details, “I will often reply in a way to make it clear I do understand.” Often that will shift the tone of the conversation, but not always, she says. If gentle reminders to people about their unconscious biases don’t work, use your judgment—anti-discrimination laws exist, so you can appeal to a higher authority. However, “you may have policy on your side, but that doesn’t necessarily make the workplace any better.”

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