With Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day approaching soon on January 19th, it is only fitting to turn our attention to one of the most vital civil rights issues of this generation: transgender rights.
This fall, J. Grace Alden CdeP 1987 returned to Thacher and spoke to a packed Room 14 about rejecting her male-gender assignment and coming to identify as a woman. Ms. Sawyer-Mulligan gave the introduction, paralleling students’ lives today to Ms. Alden’s own life while she was at Thacher. Ms. Alden spoke for a couple minutes, then opened up the floor for questions for the rest of the time before study hall. A wide range of questions were asked, ranging from curiosities of the details of her personal story to questions of the general transgender experience.
Ava Penner described Ms. Alden’s talk as an incredible opportunity. “It taught me a lot about the transgender community.”
Ms. Sawyer-Mulligan echoed Penner’s sentiments. “I was grateful she was able to come. It’s about time students heard a story of someone from our own community who was able to identify themselves in a non-traditional way.”
Ms. Alden came to the school with her daughter who was taking a tour of Thacher’s campus. I joined her at Ms. Merlini’s house the day following her talk to interview her about her transition into her identity as a woman.
First, would you talk about your time at Thacher.
I was CdeP 1987, so I was here from 1983 through 1987. I was a horse person all the way through. I rode in the gymkhana and did horse packing. The Horse Program was tremendous for me. I didn’t ride much growing up, but the Horse Program really provided me an opportunity to thrive and to learn to do something I had never done before.
What about during college and after?
After Thacher, I went to Dartmouth College. Dartmouth was a much more open environment than Thacher and so I had more opportunity to fail, and I exercised that opportunity to an extent. I did have to learn more self-discipline, but ultimately I graduated. The main thing that Dartmouth did was introduce me to my wife. I got married to her before I graduated from Dartmouth, and we’ve been married ever since.
Would you talk about your transition from rejecting the gender assignment given at birth into claiming your identity as a woman?
A lot of people would characterize it as a transition from man to woman, but it really wasn’t. So, I knew on some level growing up and when I was in high school that something wasn’t right, but I was able to get by okay, and so I didn’t have to examine it closer. But when I went through that rough patch at Dartmouth where I didn’t do as well, I had to boot-strap myself up and learn how to do things. Because I didn’t have a place that I fit, like Thacher, I had to find myself better, and through that process, I started to figure out that something was up with gender.
But, back at that time there was no internet. So, I did what any scholastically inclined person does, and I went into the Dartmouth School Medical library and I got into the stacks and looked up ‘transsexuality’. The state of knowledge in 1990 was pretty abysmal. What I saw was pretty scary and presented a pretty bleak future. Trans people weren’t accepted in any way back then, even to the extent they are now, which is still pretty problematic. So, I put the lid on and did my best to act like a man. And I was pretty good at it.
I managed to become a police officer and a tactical officer. One of my superiors, who is a Vietnam veteran and a longtime police officer, once told me after I had transitioned that he had always thought of me as a ‘manly man’. I did martial arts, I run barefoot, and I’m on the tactical team, and I did all of these stereotypically male things, but when he said that I looked at him and I said, “I have never once in my entire life thought of myself as a manly man,” it seemed to set him back.
What I’m getting at is that I made it work and I made it work effectively and well, as far as everyone around me could tell, and it worked for everyone—but me. And eventually I couldn’t keep doing it. So, I had a fateful night where I was moved by an unconscious impulse to pop into Google a search. Holy cow, I had options, things had changed. I started exploring my identity, figuring out what fit and what didn’t. I remember feeling a sensation of actual freedom to move, and try, and I pretty quickly figured out who I was going to have to be to express myself and to be myself and I also pretty quickly figured out that I was going to have to do and be that very carefully or I was going to get steamrolled.
I had what some of my trans friends called ‘the most glacial transition they had ever seen’. It probably took me about eight years to get everything in place, get everything researched, wait for law to catch up, wait for people to be able to come up to speed, and I was very, very careful about it, because law enforcement is a very close community, and if I had come out to one person I would have come out to everybody in pretty short order.
So, ultimately, I had that emergency packet that I talked about in the talk [Grace had a binder full of all of the information she had gathered about transexuality and about herself in case of the event of her secret being revealed before she was ready], and I never had to pull the trigger on it as an emergency packet, but it held the core of the information binder that I handed to my chief. I did it away from the police department so that he could process without looking at our co-workers and having them see the reaction and wondering what was up. We came up with a plan and it took about six months to implement.
In December of 2012, over the course of two hours, we announced to the staff at the PD, my wife announced to the grade school where my daughter was going to school, I announced to my part-time PD, and my wife announced to the high school. We did this all in such a short time so that to anybody who started hearing rumors, it wouldn’t matter. People would be able to say, “Oh, yeah, old news. I heard that fifteen minutes ago.”
One of our concerns was repercussions for the kids, but none of that happened. The schools were great, which probably wouldn’t have happened six years prior. Things have changed tremendously. At the PD, things were a little more difficult, but for the most part, people got over it. We got through our awkwardness. I’m still working as a police officer.
Since you used the internet to help yourself, how do you feel it has changed the process of transition for transgender people today?
It’s a hugely different world. Hugely different. Of the people in my generation, most of us thought we were the only one, which, from the current perspective, seems pretty silly when the numbers put transgender people at 1 in 250 or 1 in 500. We thought we were the only ones and therefore the problem must be with us, so the downstream effect of people being able to look it up online find out that they’re not alone, that there are people like them and that it doesn’t indicate that they’re broken, it just indicates that they’re different. The effects are tremendous.
The whole process of discovery happens earlier; it happens when people have more options, when they aren’t locked into things in their lives. We used to say 50 by 30, which was a statement that 50% of us were dead by the age of 30, for suicide or homicide, and that’s rapidly becoming untrue, and it’s going to continue to be less and less true as we go forward.
The other way I would say that the internet and Google have changed things, you know, ultimately, I hope there will be no more poison out there for trans people than there is for anybody. But right now, this is still a pretty hostile world when you’re trans. If you’re going to come out and talk to people, you can get some blowback that can be really damaging. You know, if you’re not in a stable position, that can push you into those feelings of self-destruction.
But, you can turn the internet off. So, you can participate online and then when it starts to feel overwhelming, you can shut the clamshell and walk away, and do whatever you need to do, and then come back.
For me, that was critical, because it enabled me to take the poison in layered doses, get angry, get sick, talk it out, talk to friends, go back to it, and get used to it, and acclimate myself to it, so that when I flip open the paper there’s some ignorant idiot saying something about all trans people, or conflating trans people, or saying we’re all pedophiles, or why it is that I shouldn’t be permitted to go to the bathroom, I no longer find that as shredding as I used to, because I have callouses now.
The internet allows you to safely bite off enough information that you can work on and chew it, instead of essentially getting thrown off the side of the ship and then learning to swim.
What were your hopes in coming back to Thacher?
Well, I came back because my daughter is applying. That was the main purpose of the trip.
I had actually held off on sending the letter explaining my transition to the school for a long time because sharing the news wasn’t urgent and Thacher, as Joy Sawyer-Mulligan said [in the talk], is so precious to me.
I was sure the response would be rejection, and I didn’t want to experience that, so I held off, but when I sent the letter, I got a response that was so welcoming and supporting and loving that I had really high hopes coming back here, and you guys blew me out of the water.
What’s something that you feel is commonly misunderstood or dismissed about transgender people?
I think one of the most important things is that transgender people are who they say they are. There’s a conception, that especially the older generation has, that trans people are one gender and then become another. So, for instance, for trans women, we are men, and then become women, and so the question is often phrased “When did you decide you wanted to be a woman?”
You can see how this frames their understanding of a certain way, because it says a) that there was a decision ,and I assure you that there’s not a decision; and b) the implication is that before, I wasn’t a woman, and that now, maybe by courtesy, I am.
You don’t have a soul, you are a soul, you have a body. So, what will have the best effect is if people can come to understand that the gender of identification is the real gender.
There’s some science that’s now coming to support it. They’re doing autopsy studies on the brains of people who identify cross-gender and they’re finding that there’s certain structures in the brain that are more like the target of identification than the target of the gender they’ve been assigned. So the science is starting to accumulate and to support what trans people have asserted all along: which is, we are the gender we tell you we are, body notwithstanding.
And when people understand that we are the gender we tell you from the start and that that’s the reality, then by that transition, all we’re removing is the screen so that you can see it.
*Editor’s Note: The phrase”You don’t have a soul, you are a soul, you have a body” was improperly quoted to C.S. Lewis. It was revised on January 27th, 2015.