I've recently come to accept that I'm transgender (MtF, male-to-female). I won't go into the exact details of this as it's personal, but I have a "girl mode" where I identify as a female. I'm also a researcher/lecturer at a respectable university. I'm yet to reveal this side of myself at work, but it's not impossible that my colleagues or students will run into me in girl mode e.g. at the mall.

Question: What are typical experiences of openly transgender academics?

I'd be particularly interesting in examples of successful academics who are openly transgender.

I know there are both legal protections and university policies which prohibit discrimination based on being transgender, but no policy can make people like you.

(Update: As things developed, I gave an answer to my question below.)

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    Raewyn Connell is an incredibly important Australian sociologist who identifies as a transsexual woman. I'm not sure her experiences as an academic could be considered typical, as she was appointed Chair very early in her career and has published many works of national or disciplinary significance. Scholars have concentrated on the fruitful elements of her scholarly biography (genealogy of her concept of structure, for example), rather than studying Connell as a biographic subject. Commented May 28, 2013 at 1:37
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    This is in no way intended as an illustration of any kind of general trend, but I thought it was an interesting (albeit demoralising) article: online.wsj.com/public/article/…
    – dbmag9
    Commented May 28, 2013 at 9:54
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    Deirdre McCloskey's memoir Crossing is available for free this month in e-book format from University of Chicago Press (see press.uchicago.edu/books/freeEbook.html). Commented Jun 4, 2013 at 0:28
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    I am assuming you are asking about the US, or at least "top" academic countries such as the US, Canada, Australia, Central Europe? Could you specify? I have an example from an Eastern European country where a person was unable to get official transcripts re-issued under the new name after a gender-change operation. I think all the info is really relevant, but I assume there would be a big difference between e.g. the US and a country where seeing a dark-skinned man on the street is an exciting and unusual event (really not trying to offend anybody, just speaking from experience).
    – penelope
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 14:04
  • I was in Canada at the time I wrote the question; a lot has changed since then. Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 20:57

5 Answers 5


Jennifer Finney Boylan, Professor of English and Department Chair, Colby College, Maine. Jenny wrote "She's Not There" and other great books. My heroine (happily married to a woman)

Dr. Lynn Conway. Lynn invented both VLSI and superscalar architectures. Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan. My heroine (happily married to a man)

Dr. Deirdre McCluskey, University of Chicago, Professor of Economics. Very famous economist from Milton Friedman's old school.

Want more?? You are in the SAFEST profession to DO the transition!! Read Jenny books and Lynn's website and you'll learn how to do it, step by step.


(Original answer March 2015)

I guess it's time to answer my own question. Not long after posting the original question I began living exclusively as a woman (barring some short family-related interruptions).

I'll list some themes that applied to me that I think would apply generally:

  • Work interruption: As much as I tried to avoid it, transitioning interrupted my work. I spent a lot of time learning how to behave, e.g. to minimize the likelihood of being attacked, to know how to react when people ask intrusive questions, and so on. Medically, you're sent to doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc., who make you jump through all sorts of hoops over a long period of time. The various surgeries trans people get can take you out of action for weeks to months.

  • Comments at university: There were some "hiccups" transitioning at university (smart people can make some really dumb comments). However, they were a drop in the ocean compared to the hate I received from elsewhere.

  • University accounts: IT were totally unprepared for my transition. E.g. my request for a Rebecca Stones email was refused and a subsequent email about the matter was ignored. So my students referred to me by name X but email me under name Y which I found humiliating.

  • Bathrooms: There were a few surprised looks initially when sharing the ladies room with my female students and other female academics. I never heard any complaints about it, and it didn't seem to be a big deal.

  • Applying for jobs: I have noticed no significant difference when applying for academic jobs in my area.

  • Academic record: It takes time to get your academic history records updated, which makes applying for jobs beforehand awkward. During this time, I took up an adjunct position where administration requested a record of my PhD; I refused to supply this but indicated that several professors at the university witnessed me obtaining my PhD. They refused to accept this, which resulted in a prolonged exchange of emails. Eventually, I cited the university's privacy policy, after which they backed off.

  • Prior publications: I had to come to terms with having publications under my dead name. I absolutely hate hearing or seeing that word refer to me. I had to decide whether or not to include those publications on my CV and cite them in my publications (which could out me as transgender). For my CV, I include these publications, but I list only the author surnames (I still feel uncomfortable with the thought that whoever reads my CV will Google these publications). I cite them in my publications, as citing them doesn't directly imply that that name belongs to me. I'm hoping I can bury these publications in new publications over time.

  • Travel: As an academic, I travel a lot. Consequently, I have to keep in mind (a) attitudes towards transgender people when going through immigration (you're not at your most "passable" after a long flight), and (b) local attitudes towards and laws regarding transgender people. E.g. I want to go to a conference in Chile later in the year, so I Googled "transgender Chile" and upon reading things like "had her face disfigured with a blowtorch" was a bit unsettled.

    (Update August 2015)

    I attended the conference in Chile (SIGIR 2015) and I'm pleased that my face was not disfigured by a blowtorch. Here's a photo of the women's support group (I'm in there somewhere):

    women's support group pic

    I'd also like to add:

    • Travelling can also interfere with (a) access to medicine, (b) access to [non-prejudiced] medical help, (c) other procedures, e.g. hair removal, and (d) the ability to buy clothes that fit.

    • Sometimes conference accommodation will be organized by gender (with or without the participants' prior knowledge). This opens the possibility of being humiliated in front of colleagues (e.g. if the accommodation staff have their own opinion on your gender), and the possibility of sharing accommodation with someone who is uncomfortable with you.

  • Reacquainting with colleagues: I have a lot of international contacts, many of whom are still unaware of my transition. From my experience, it's much better to meet in person than email someone an explanation (when all sorts of weird ideas about who I am can arise). This is hard to do when your contacts are spread globally.

  • Transgender students: Transgender students seem to significantly appreciate that someone employed by the university is transgender. Having a transgender member of staff goes against the stereotype that it's just undergraduate activists out to cause trouble who are transgender.

  • Online university resources: From my experience, university LGBT webpages cater almost exclusively to LGB students, with no usable information for transgender people.

(Update August 2015)

  • Male-dominated area: I'm currently in computer science which is kind of a "boy's club". Outside of academia, being in a male-dominated career is sometimes used to discredit transgender women (among other things). This results in a tug towards more female-friendly career paths, both outside of academia (e.g. nursing) and inside of academia (e.g. biology).

  • Female role models: It has become important to me to see and interact with successful female academics, especially those in my area. (I was very encouraged by the healthy female presence at the SIGIR conference.) Interestingly, it seems that I'm meant to be a female role model nowadays.

  • Female co-authors: I'm not sure if this is just a co-incidence, but I've recently found myself with a rapidly growing number of female co-authors.

  • International lifestyle: I'm currently a postdoc in China. While I speak enough Chinese to "get by", and while my colleagues here are friendly, I feel isolated and lonely, and this is exacerbated by the lack of access to a transgender community. (See also this question: Is feeling lonely and uncomfortable in my (foreign) country of study a valid reason to drop out of a PhD?)

  • Unwelcome attention towards my gender: Generally, I don't mind if people know that I'm transgender, as long as (a) this is not the only thing about me they consider and (b) they are not mean to me or my friends and colleagues as a result. Thus far, to my knowledge, unwelcome attention has been negligible at university. However, it's unclear if this trend will continue (after all, we only need a one-in-a-thousand to cause trouble). Things I'm concerned about:

    • Maybe some transgender person somewhere does something evil, making headlines. How would a university react to the resultant anti-transgender backlash?

    • What if a student makes a complaint because of my gender? What if the student is well-prepared, having extensively read online anti-transgender literature? What if the student makes a religious objection?

    • If I become successful and notable, hate material will probably be written directly about me. Here are some examples (and it doesn't take much Googling to provide more examples):

      Boylan, a member of the all-male, all-white, all-heterosexual, all-middle-aged transgender leadership... (ref.)

      "Lynn" Conway, computer geek and head honcho of the raging autogynephiliacs who tried to destroy Michael Bailey. (ref.)

      Deirdre McCloskey isn’t a woman: wishing can’t make it so, not even wishing and flashing scalpels. Neither is Joan Roughgarden. (ref.)

  • Unwelcome attention from men: After meals, I like to go for a walk to get some exercise. Consequently, I have now had three four unwelcome sexual encounters within walking distance from my office, during the day, and with other people around at the time. I also had a male staff member in another faculty ask for "random sex". I'm afraid to tell others about these incidents, fearing they might think I encouraged them (esp. if they attribute it to being transgender). I also simply don't have time to waste sobbing about each one; they're much too frequent.

    (In today's encounter, an elderly gentleman approached me and asked for the time. I found my phone and gave him the time. I also discovered his penis was hanging out of his pants. He indicated towards some nearby bushes and said "gēn wǒ péngyou wáer", which translates to "play with my friend". I walked straight back to the office, nearly in tears. It's thirty minutes after the incident now, and I need to discuss a paper with a student.)

  • Paper cited during talk: Recently, one of my co-authors referenced our joint paper at a conference talk while I was in the audience. I was not impressed that my dead name initials were on display, forcing me to sit there with that on the screen for all to see, and I was quite fearful that someone might ask if there was a connection between the two names. If I had known that was going to happen, I would not have attended the talk.

(Update February 2017)

  • Surgery: I'm not sure if I should say this, but I ended up having "bottom surgery" back at the end of 2015. It was the most physically painful experience of my life, by a long way, and the pain didn't go away until about two and a half months later. So much pain. During this time, my spoons were limited. E.g. I'd go to the office to prove I still work there (I mostly just stared at the walls), and I'd need to spend the next day recovering. I would bleed a lot, and this resulted in some additional accommodation expenses. I would not be able to stand for longer than around 5 minutes without it being too painful (requiring a wheelchair at the airport).

    I managed to go to the 2015 CMS meeting shortly after surgery, where Yuval Filmus (who I knew through math.SE) sat next to me just after surgery, although I don't know if he realized any of this. (And I remember being a bit snippy with David Pike.)

    The painkillers caused hallucinations, e.g. I'd be walking and suddenly "There's no floor! I'm falling!! Oh wait, there is a floor." I became afraid of stairs. This was happening while I was at work, although I tried to conceal it. I also sent out a few "interesting" emails.

    More than a year later, I have no regrets about having surgery. It has resulted in me having a lot more confidence. If someone denies my gender, they are simply being unreasonable (although, nobody ever does). I'm now far less afraid that someone is going to find out about my past.

  • Bodily maintenance (dilation) is both time-consuming and painful, particularly at the start. It's embarrassing but it nevertheless must be done, including while sharing accommodation with other women. I got used to making "chit chat" while doing this. Airport security sometimes inspect your dilators (which need to be in carry-on baggage) which can be embarrassing and worrisome (esp. when travelling through non-transgender-friendly countries).

  • Conversion to Islam: Perhaps contrary to popular expectations, Islam is a relatively transgender-friendly religion. Often the attitude is that someone's gender is innate and decided by God, and being transgender is considered along the lines of a birth defect. Of course, being Muslim results in its own complications (e.g. hijab). I haven't had any problems praying in the female prayer areas (including on-campus ones).

  • A publication about transgenderism: Perhaps this is not a typical experience, but I published a paper about transgender bathrooms usage (here), which was mentioned in the Washington Post.

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    I think I learned more from this answer than any one (or two or...) other answers posted on this site. Thank you so much for taking the time to post it. It was truly enlightening. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 16:14
  • Congrats on your recovery from your major surgery. Two ideas: 1) Re the yucky experience when walking: I know some women who have also had yucky experiences in broad daylight in Mexico; they learned to switch to the other sidewalk, or step into the street to give strangers a wide berth. Would that help? 2) Re Paper cited during talk: could you republish the old articles on your own website or somewhere else, with your new name, and ask co-authors to cite the new version instead? (I don't know the answer.) Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 15:56
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    About the unwanted male attention.....Men can be a pain. I have been having a long duration internal dialogue regarding gender identity, with the whole thing complicated by the fact that I think of things through a almost purely concrete/logical lens due to my Asperger's syndrome. This thread is an eye opener. Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 16:22
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    I reread this post every time this thread resurfaces. It's fascinating and (I hope) it's making me a better ally to my trans/genderqueer friends. Thank you so much for sharing!
    – trikeprof
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 21:21

There are two transgender academics in biology at Stanford University (both of whom transitioned during their tenure there I believe). Ben Barres has written extensively about his experiences (female to male). Joan Roughgarden is another example (MtF).


To add a few more examples, you can have a look at the Wikipedia list of Transgender and transsexual scientists:

There is also a list of LGBT scientists.


In my undergraduate institution there was a transgender logician graduate student. He taught me category theory. As far as I remember none of us had ever any problems with his regular mini-skirt outfit. In my graduate institution there was a graduate student who changed gender and made it known to everybody (faculty and students). Again, there were no issues that I've heard of, the relationship of that person with their supervisor remained very good (as far as I can tell) and the person went on to a very good job later on. Keep in mind that I did my undergraduate and graduate degree in fairly "liberal" places. Overall my experience was that if you let people know, but then move on with you regular life then it doesn't become an issue. Also it is not unlikely that some of your colleagues already "know". I guess there is always an amount of risk involved with full disclosure. Keep in mind that people shouldn't judge you on what you do in your private time. Another factor is if you already have tenure, and if you don't and things go bad if you will try to explain them by your transition?

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    If the logician was actually transgender (as opposed to 'transvestite' - I put the term in quote marks because I don't know if anyone actually refers to themselves in this way, but it refers to dressing as the other gender, as opposed to identifying as a different gender than the one assigned at birth), then you may not be being as accepting as you think by still referring to them as 'he'.
    – Tara B
    Commented Mar 3, 2014 at 10:03
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    the term i've more commonly used for a cisgender cross-dresser is, well, cross-dresser. my understanding is that "transvestite" is quite dated, although I could be mistaken. Another possibility is that the logician is genderqueer, and just dressing outside the gender binary entirely. But, the answer specifically says transgender so yeah, i think it's pretty safe to assume this person is not as accepting as they think they are
    – user371366
    Commented Feb 22, 2018 at 7:51

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