A three stick figures joyfully dancing on three grey face coverings
A year of no masking. (Yes, that is a pun). Credit: Amy J. Ko

The gender transition that wasn’t

It’s international trans day of visibility today. In one way, the day is about refusing to hide, helping the world accept that trans people do exist, and that we’re human like everyone else. In another way, it’s a day about celebrating trans joy, in contrast to the more mournful trans day of remembrance, in which we remember all of trans people murdered. Of course, this year of pandemic has been a hard year to have joy: for me, it’s been full of crisis, burnout, residual trauma, depression, grief, fear, and anger. And it’s been a year of conservative assault on trans rights, banning youth from sports, banning trans health care, and more. And so in the spirit of trans joy, I’m going to imagine the pandemic-free year I could have had, and use that as a chart for the year I want to have when the world reopens. Perhaps by sharing this little bit of trans/pandemic fantasy, you might get a sense for how trans people aren’t that different from cis people, but also how we aren’t quite the same.

I can’t believe it’s already been a year! Last March 2020 was the end of one of the most emotionally exhausting and personally meaningful times of my life. I had just finished 6 months of living as a woman—out, and working on being proud. I’d taught my first class as myself, I’d transitioned in front of my closest colleagues and collaborators as myself, I’d gone on my first networking trip as myself, attended my first conference as myself, and I’d come out to my parents and family as myself. I’d spent a hundred hours changing my name on a thousand websites and a dozen pieces of paper, claiming my chosen name as mine. I’d finished dozens of hours of vocal training at 7 am each morning before work. And I’d had the most grueling Winter quarter of my academic year, teaching two courses, back to back, every Tuesday and Thursday, with a short 50 minute lunch break in between. I cried buckets of tears and was completely exhausted by the end of March. The only thing that kept me going was the promise of Spring break and six glorious months free of teaching to focus on self-care and overcome self-loathing.

That last week of March 2020 was amazing. I took the week off, the week before my wife was starting her new job as a primary care nurse. We saw her family in San Jose, and I introduced myself for the first time as Amy. We reconnected with friends, this time as Amy and DeAnn. We took a beautiful day trip to the ocean to enjoy the sand and the breeze and a picnic. And we went on an beautiful hike with some close friends in Yosemite. It was my first time to the park, and the first time I was really free to dress comfortably—years prior I had to bind my chest to hide my transition from the people around me. My friends teased me a bit for my unruly cleavage, but instead of embarrassed, I felt proud and affirmed: this is my chest, deal with it world!

When we returned in April, I had a transformative Spring quarter. My lab was at full capacity and moving at full speed. My students were right in the middle of so much groundbreaking work, and I had plenty of time to read and write. I got through my backlog of books and papers, I submitted several grants to sustain my lab’s work. We reached our Spring paper deadlines, and then as I usually do each April and May, I attended Spring conferences. This year was particularly special: CHI 2020 was in Hawaii, and so not only did I get to reconnect with my entire HCI community as myself, I also got to brave the beach in a swimsuit. (Something I’m glad I did once, but quite possibly never want to do again.) Shortly after, I ventured to South Korea to chair the Software Engineering Education and Training track, and bounced around Seoul with my friends and colleagues for a week, eating amazing food, wondering at marvels of South Korean culture and infrastructure, and adjusting in to the strange new gender role of being a woman in computer science. The slow unwinding of Spring ended in the most peaceful time of year, graduation, when I reconnect with my iSchool colleagues, say goodbye and good luck to the many students I’ve taught, and say hello to a summer of sunshine, learning, deep collaboration.

Seattle summers are always wonderful, but this one was endlessly affirming. It was the first time I got to be in public wearing my favorite clothing, dresses and sandals, free from layers. I held lab meetings outside on the grass, I adventured with my students to the edges of Seattle to eat, mentor, and inspire. The undergraduates I invited into the lab for the summer brought a wondrous sense of play, bringing levity to every serious subject we were studying. And every evening, my wife and I would reconnect with friends we’d missed in our busyness, sampling the latest restaurants, laughing at trivia nights, as we like to do. And every weekend was an adventure, to unexplored mountain peaks, the culinary treasures of Washington’s small towns, and our favorite adult playground, Portland, where we would see my family, eat far too much, and revel in weirdness. And while all of these things are the regular joys of summer, they were all the more joyful, because I got to do them as me.

At the end of summer, I went to Germany, to do one of my favorite academic things: a workshop at Dagstuhl. These are deep, intimate dives into an unexplored topic with 30–40 peers for a week. They are often pivotal for a research community: something about spending day and night in an 19th century German castle talking about ideas over breakfast, lunch, dinner, evening wine, cheese, and beer, and everything in between is uniquely valuable at advancing research. This summer’s topic was Theories of Programming: we brought together researchers in programming languages, software engineering, CS education, and human-computer interaction. I left with so many new colleagues and ideas, but also a new confidence: my communities accept me for who I am, so much that they’ll stay up to 2 am playing board games while we talk about science.

Summer was also a time of building new community. I had been so isolated when I was in the closet. After coming out in Fall 2019, I met lots of people in my professional network who were trans. But personal life was almost completely cis and straight. I used volunteering to connect with my local community, starting work with trans youth, finding ways to help at the Ingersoll Gender Center, and for the first time in my life, making friends as myself, instead of some misgendered facsimile of me. Not only was it the first time I really had trans friends, but it was the first time I felt like I had friends at all. After all, can you truly be friends with someone if you’re not yourself? My wife and my new friends threw a birthday party for me and made a glorious dessert: a Frankie and Jo’s vegan ice cream cake.

I ended the summer with a short visit to San Diego, to help my daughter move back into student housing for her sophomore year of college. She’d spent all summer doing research in public schools, and was alive with possibility. I had a wondrous weekend in restaurants and beaches, hearing about her summer and her dreams for the coming year, rich with promise of student organizations, new friendships, and frolicking on SoCal.

As I approached Autumn, I felt restored. Summer research projects came together quickly; we had a burst submissions to SIGCSE, CHI, and various journals, and then I dove in to Autumn quarter. I had my first faculty retreat as me, overdosed a bit on all of the affirmation and love I received from my colleagues. For the first time, I felt like I didn’t need to hide myself from my colleagues, like I was actually welcome. It was disorienting, but freeing. After nearly a year of being out, and living a whole yearly cycle of my professional life, I finally felt confident that I could do it again, but this time, with a little less fear and anxiety. There was finally space to find the parts of me that were always there, discard the parts I made to protect myself, and grow the parts I’d never been able.

As Autumn 2020 drew to a close and the holidays drew near, I looked back on my past year. Thanksgiving and Christmas was family the previous year was so awkward. I hated my short hair, my husky voice, my unconfident wardrobes. But this year, I didn’t feel like a trans baby anymore. I was just an overconfident, stumbling trans toddler, but sure about what I wanted: a peaceful time to reconnect with family without the novelty of my big announcement lingering. I nestled into to familiar family traditions, but this time cozy with myself and my family.

That peace persisted. This past Winter 2021 was nothing like Winter 2020. I wasn’t exhausted from name changes, from fashion anxiety, from vocal training, from fear for my safety. I wasn’t teaching two courses. I didn’t spend all night and weekend managing the logistics of medication and doctors and self-advocacy. March 2021 arrived, and rather than being glad for a break, I was recharged and ready for a Spring of living.

That was the year I wish I’d had. Instead, because of the pandemic, the last year of transition was mostly the opposite, full of burnout, exhaustion, depression, and isolation. But from a gender transition perspective, it wasn’t all bad. Being trapped in my little den, on camera all day, has given me a long onramp to living true to myself. It took away many of the complexities and risks of being in the physical world as a woman. It let me find comfort in my body, forcing me to care for and attend to it by exercising and eating healthy. It helped me see myself—literally, on camera—more than I ever did before, which taught me to see the woman I’ve always been. And it showed me, for the first time in my life, what it felt like to want to be around people, not because I’m lonely, but because being me is just too much joy to contain.

Happy international trans day of visibility to my trans siblings, and to all the cis people reading this, thank you for your thoughtful allyship. I hope we can all create a world in which trans people are respected and valued. With social conservatives trying to deny us rights to health care, commerce, restrooms, jobs, housing (and yes, sports), that’s not the world we have now. We need your help to make it. For resources on how you can help, check out the Be an Ally page from the Human Rights Campaign.

Professor of programming + learning + design + justice at the University of Washington Information School. Trans; she/her. #BlackLivesMatter.

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