Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Transitioning as a Junior Astronomer

By Anonymous

Submitted by Jessica Mink

Being Transgender is still not as safe in our world as it should be. While we may be accepted in many ways, being out can still limit our options significantly, so this young grad student prefers anonymity.

There have been some transgender astronomers that have come out publicly in recent years. While their experiences are important to talk about, they generally are senior astronomers who have transitioned well into their careers. Their experiences with transitioning in academia are going to be very different than that of an astronomer who transitions during or before graduate school.

I'll be attending grad school soon, and I'm writing this about my own experience as someone transitioning in an astronomy department and my thoughts about going into grad school and my future in astronomy as a trans person. I'm sure that people who know me might recognize details of this story and realize that I'm the author. Many people in the department I'm in are aware of my transition as I had been there before I transitioned, but it's not something I really intend on telling people about once I head off to grad school. Regardless, I still think the perspective of someone transitioning before getting a PhD is something that people should know about.

The experiences of transgender people are incredibly diverse and many people view their gender transitions a lot differently. I can only speak of my own experiences. For me personally, my transition is fundamentally a medical treatment I need to correct mistakes of my body at birth. There are lots of social aspects about that which cannot be decoupled from the medical part and are also just as equally important. I realized I needed to transition during my senior year of my undergrad. I started my medical transition at the start of my last semester and slowly socially transitioned a few months after starting the medical transition after coming out to friends to let them know what I was doing. About a year into my transition, I completed the legal process for changing both my name and gender. I've been living as a woman full-time for over a year now. While my transition is far for complete, all I have left to complete the transition is finish facial hair removal and get surgeries to make my facial structure feminine as well as other transgender surgery.

I'm quite privileged compared to most trans people. Many trans people do not have access to trans-inclusive insurance and only a handful of states require insurance companies to cover transgender health care. Among those states, some only cover basic hormone treatments and either don't cover surgery or only cover a minimal or incomplete set of transgender surgery. The university that I went to as an undergrad has some doctors and nurses that specialize in trans health who I went to during my last semester to get my first hormone prescriptions. When I started working in the astronomy department full-time, most of the choices of health insurance cover my hormone prescription had have basic options for genital surgery and speech therapy, and I've been able to get all of those covered as needed. Most aspects of my transition so far have been made possible because there have been systems in place to help out people like me. However, there are some very important aspects of my transition such as facial feminizaiton surgery that are really only available for those who can afford for them completely out of pocket, despite being just as medically necessary for treating gender dysphoria as the treatment already covered.

Right now, I've been accepted into grad school, although I have a lot of hesitation because the remaining parts of my transition are incredibly expensive. I entered a relationship with another trans woman recently right before she underwent facial feminization surgery (FFS), and she told me she paid about $47 thousand out of pocket for it, which she saved up from her previous engineering job. This is something that seems pretty much impossible to do in grad school without taking out a massive medical loan with high interest, but could possibly be done by going into industry for a while and then re-applying. While that procedure is often incredibly important for trans women, very few insurance companies actually cover it and according to word through the grapevine, some surgeons are not accepting insurance because the insurance companies aren't actually paying out. From what it seems, the only reliable way to actually get FFS is to either save up for it and pay for it or take out a loan and pay large monthly payments for a long time. This isn't to write off insurance companies. They are great for what they cover, but I have a lot of hesitation going to grad school if I can't get all of the medical treatment that I need, and that made applying a really tough decision.

I haven't yet said anything about social aspects of transitioning. Virtually everyone I know has been accepting about it, and I'm really not worried about that wherever I go in the future. That part of transitioning has not been hard for me. While I don't really have any intention of telling people when I do eventually head off to grad school about me being trans, I'm not that worried about people figuring it out or finding out somehow. Regardless, I'm likely to delay going to grad school because of the financial implications of grad school and my transition. Trans people are a very underrepresented minority in science. As someone who's very junior in their career, I don't have solutions to what would make transitioning financially easier, but it would be great to hear from administrators on what can be done in cases when a trans person's medical needs go beyond what their insurance can provide. While endeavors for social inclusion of transgender people are very important and very much appreciated, I predict that if trans people cannot afford the more expensive aspects of their transitions in academia, they will go to industry jobs before or in place of grad school. From what I've looked into, there are insurance programs in the state of Massachusetts that cover very complete coverage of transgender treatment, including FFS. Many plans in California and a few other states cover most of everything, but unfortunately don't cover FFS. If insurance plans everywhere covered a complete set of treatment, that would be excellent and many trans people in America outside of academia would benefit from that.

I'm really glad that there are resources available for trans people to fully transition, and I'm really appreciative of the privilege I have to be able to transition as I have so far. I wish the expenses of transition wouldn't have to keep me from pursuing academic science as I'd like, but unfortunately there's really not much that I can do about that. Fortunately, it seems like things are getting better for trans people and I'm hopeful for what the future has in store.


Anonymous said...

I am glad to see the Women in Astronomy blog include more trans people's voices!

I sympathize with the author's wanting to complete more medical aspects of transition before going full-tilt with graduate school. I am trans (male-assigned at birth) and have thought a lot about undergoing the facial feminization surgery the author mentioned. Even though the word "passing" is not popular with some parts of the trans community, it can be very important. Trying to pass does not negate the struggle to push for a society in which passing is not important, but we live in an imperfect world, and activists should not look down upon trans people who want to pass. Most of the world sucks really badly when it comes to trans people, especially when it comes to trans-feminine people, and sometimes the suckyness against trans people even comes from LGB people, feminists, and other progressive-identified people, so it is abhorrent to me that anyone would begrudge any trans person the opportunity to pass and subsequently go "stealth".

I also agree with the author's observation of the relative lack of stories of more junior trans people in astronomy. It is very important to hear these stories. I am not quite a junior person (I am post-Ph.D.), but I am not quite a senior person either (i.e., not too far past Ph.D.), so I feel vulnerable when considering whether I'll continue to have a career in astronomy (or out of astronomy) if I transition.

I am heartened to hear, though, that the author of this blog post and a different trans author of a previous Women in Astronomy blog post have reported that their social transitions (especially including where they work as astronomers) have proceeded at least fairly well. That gives me hope.

I do agree that things are better for trans people today than, say, 20, 10, or even 5 years ago. It was only 2013, I think, when gender dysphoria was removed from the DSM manual, so that being transgender at that point was no longer considered a mental illness. The equivalent thing for homosexuality happened in the early 1970's, so, in that aspect, the trans movement could be considered to be 40 years behind the gay & lesbian movement. But with big-name celebrities recently coming out as trans, maybe we're only more like 15-20 years behind the gay & lesbian movement; i.e., it's been almost 20 years since Ellen came out as a lesbian in the mid/late 1990's.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately, this has been issue I have encountered ever since I began transitioning as a grad student. My department has been phenomenal in terms of support, but the severely limited health plan offered by the university has left me with the ultimatum of waiting several more years before pursuing surgery or abandoning any hope of a financial plan.

No matter how much I enjoy the research I'm doing, the temptation to switch over to industry is strong and pretty frequent for this exact reason.

Anne Archibald said...

I'm glad to hear that people have been good, but indeed, health care systems can be a problem. I transitioned while in grad school, and while cost was mostly not a concern (in Canada), I got really terrible medical care. Prescriptions would run out and it would take months to get them renewed, blood tests would be delayed by months, and I ran into - attempted to get help from - a psychiatrist who had a real problem with transgender people. This bad care is not the main reason I chose the path I have, of wearing my gender history on my sleeve and letting the chips fall where they may, but any other choice would have been much more difficult because of it. So I sympathize.