MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XVI No. 3
December / January 2004
Financing MIT
Vest to the Faculty
Our New Look
The Search for a New President
Assigning a Final Grade When Some of the Work Has Not Been Completed
Identifying My Father
A Child's Chore
The Laboratory for Nuclear Science
Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology
LBGT Issues
Trans at the Institute
Making the Most of E-Mail: Popular Services, Recent Changes
OCW as Knight Errant
Individuals Appointed to the Faculty
1985 to Present
Printable Version

Trans at the Institute

John Southard

Just a few years ago I "came out" as a classic, lifelong cross dresser. I'll spare you the details of how that came to be, but I'm on a mission, and I want your attention. I suspect that I now have it.

Because I myself could have used some such mentoring when I was an MIT undergrad long ago, I signed on for being an e-mail mentor to transgendered students and staff, thinking that this would be one of my final contributions to the Institute. But I was sadly disappointed: no one ever responded.

I started to participate in the LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgendered) Issues Group, an informal group, not graced with the official Institute title of "Committee," hoping to make contact with some of the many transgender people I am sure are out there in the MIT community.

Involvement in the LBGT Issues Group has been a rewarding experience, but still I have learned of the existence of (let alone gotten to know) only a scant handful of trans people at MIT.

For those of you who are not familiar with the trans world, there are widely considered to be three categories: (1) transsexuals : persons who believe their gender to be different from their biological sex, usually from birth; they may or may not ever make the transition; (2) cross dressers, more commonly termed transvestites in other parts of the world, who derive comfort and satisfaction being in a mode of dress and behavior associated with the opposite sex while being otherwise unremarkably "normal"; and (3) drag queens : men, usually gay, who perform before audiences as women, often breathtakingly decked out. The boundaries, if there are any, are fuzzy and complicated. I am risking oversimplification here.

Where are they? Little is known, for what I suppose are obvious reasons, but figures ranging from one percent to five percent of the general population are widely cited. In terms of the MIT student body, that means perhaps hundreds. In terms of the MIT faculty, that means perhaps tens. Most are probably in the closet, or in denial. And many of them, especially students, are at risk. My experience is that suicide is constantly in the back of the minds of transsexuals. Public consciousness of transgenders lags far behind that of gays and lesbians, who have made great strides in recent years (with far still to go). Transgenders, by their very nature, tend to be unto themselves. There continues to be progress, however: The LBGT Issues Group has convinced MIT, in the past year, to include "gender identity" in its anti-discrimination statement.

I resolved to write this piece with the hope that I can galvanize faculty who are transgendered (you are out there, I am sure) to enter into a kind of mutually supportive community, even if "outness" is not a possibility. Maybe that is an unrealistic hope, but if I could reach just a few of us, it would be worth the effort. Lunches for LBGT faculty, organized by Rick Gresh ( have been a big step forward; there will be two more later this academic year. But aside from that: for you trans people out there, if the shoe fits, I would be pleased to hear from you.

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