Sometimes it’s a meme shared on Facebook. Or an off-hand comment or joke about bathrooms or sports participation. Maybe it’s the conflation of sex and gender , a fundamental misunderstanding of basic science. It’s the proposal of a misguided or uninformed law. Other times, it’s just pure, ugly hate. Whatever form it takes, transphobia permeates our culture and its consequences are often fatal.
A phobia is a fear and very often our fears cause us to reject groups of people or ideas we do not understand. We often lack understanding because we have no familiarity, no point of reference. This is why I’d like our readers to meet my colleague, my friend, Natalee.
Dr. Natalee Hilt is an assistant professor of physics and faculty advisor for LGBTQ+ at Stark State College. She is an advocate for LGBTQ+ issues in Washington, DC and conducts Safe Space workshops for faculty and staff at Stark State College. She is brilliant, kind, thoughtful, and dedicated. She also happens to be a transgender woman.
Natalee agreed to share her experience of coming into womanhood as a transgender emerging adult to give our readers a point of reference for understanding transgender people and issues.
It’s easy to dehumanize, demonize, and belittle other human beings when we don’t know them. It’s easy to “other” when we don’t know individuals as our colleagues, friends, teachers, and family. This othering, these aggressions, both micro and macro, is much more difficult to do when we take a moment to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world from a very different, yet intensely connected perspective of another human.
March is Women’s History Month. March 31st is designated as the International Day of Transgender Visibility. Take a few minutes to read, to listen, to learn about Natalee’s lived experiences. If she’s brave enough to share, perhaps we can all find the courage to speak up for the rights of all transgender people, whether we know them or not.
By: Natalee Hilt, PhD
I have been given many labels in my life: gifted, smart, shy, funny, friend, Eagle Scout, scientist, educator, husband, wife. The label that I have accepted and worn most proudly is woman. To reconcile these last two sentences, let me state that I am transgender. In the first five seconds of my life, a doctor looked between my legs and assigned me male. My parents raised me as a boy, but as I started to enter puberty, I realized that the label “boy” did not feel right.
If I would have been held with the lasso of truth and asked about my gender, the most honest answer I could have given was, “I don’t feel like a boy.” Yet every other label that had been given to me seemed to fit. To a child of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was a mystery.
As a smart kid who excelled in math and science, I viewed my gender mystery, as a problem to solve. “What can I do to make me feel like the label given to me at birth fits?” I buried myself in learning, and embraced trying to be the smartest person in class. I also leaned into gender stereotypes. When I was disappointed by receiving my first ‘C’ on a report card in 3rd grade for handwriting, I leaned into the idea that boys have messy penmanship. It was the lowest grade I would ever have on a report card until high school, when I received an ‘F’ on a midterm report for getting caught playing capture the flag in the chemistry prep room with the guidance aides.
Even in the non-academic subjects, I leaned into gender stereotypes and sought to excel. My middle school band director passed around mouthpieces on the first day of 6th grade band to see what we might have some natural ability to play. When I could make sounds on only the flute and the trumpet, I chose trumpet. I knew the ins and outs of sports rulebooks and strategies. My nemesis, though, was the Presidential Fitness Test. I was highly flexible, with great core strength; however, I could not run fast and only passed the one-mile run/walk time for boys in the 10th grade. I never did a pull-up … on the girl’s scale you passed every year. All was vanity; my problem remained unsolved.
Outside the classroom, I tried out for recreational sports, and was enthusiastically terrible. I hung out with the neighborhood boys, played video games, built computers, and helped my dad work on our cars. I was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts, rising to the rank of Eagle just before my 18th birthday. None of those helped. While I fit the mold of American boy stereotype, I still felt “not a boy”.
At the same time that I was trying to figure out “not a boy”, I ignored any data that might help me reframe the question. I have always loved getting plush animals. Sometimes, when I was alone, I would stuff my favorite teddy bear down my shirt and imagine that I was pregnant.
My parents worked long hours and would often be away into the evening; there was usually an hour or more between when I would get home from school and when my sister would get home. I learned to cook, to do the laundry, to do my own sewing, and took great pride in them all. When I had the house to myself, I would often crossdress. None of this data seemed relevant to me because I did not understand the difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. Boys like girls, and I liked girls.
I’ve always known that I was sexually attracted to women, and boys date girls, right? I went on one date before grad school. I was told to ask the girl out. Asking her out just didn’t feel right. Besides, why can’t that cute girl on the field hockey and soccer teams ask me out? We are in the same classes, and friendly, and I don’t think she’s ever had a boyfriend …
One of the teachers at my high school was fired shortly after having her identity as a lesbian confirmed. That wasn’t the stated reason, but the connection seemed pretty clear, as viewed from my suburban enclave at the edge of the Bible Belt.
I knew that to thrive, I would need to get out.
The guidance I received on colleges boiled down to “smart guys study physics and engineering”, so I applied mainly to engineering colleges and I chose the farthest school to which I was accepted for my undergraduate studies.
There was no greater microcosm of privilege at the end of the last century than a private engineering college in New England. My freshmen year, the college boasted of its highest ever identified female enrollment, 18% of my incoming class. Over 40% of students were involved in Greek life. The Counterstrike module for the game Half-Life 2 had just been released, accelerating the misogyny that had started to overrun the early digital world. (In 1984, 37% of computer science degrees were earned by women. That number is now 18%, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Education statistics.)
The social pressure to conform to the cisgender/heteronormative assumptions of the culture was immense. There was nowhere for me to hide.
My freshman roommate and I were a good match, in that our schedules almost never overlapped. My upperclassman years proved to be more difficult. For my sophomore year, I had drawn a golden ticket in the housing lottery: top 25. Dorms on campus were mine to pick. I shared a triple room in a 5-person on-campus apartment with two other officers in the pep band. Folks were always around, and by spring break, I realized that I was feeling depressed. Junior year, I ended up with a better lottery number, but my friends on campus were all looking to move off campus. I ended up grouping with friends of friends to take a 7-person on campus apartment.
Across the hall from my room was a student dispatcher for campus police, a saxophone player in the concert band, and a cadet of the campus Air Force ROTC. In the room next door were another AFROTC cadet and an electrical engineering major. My roommate stalked one of my good friends. The year was filled with a lot of shouting down the hall over Counterstrike; my depression became suicidal. I wish I could say that I reached out to a therapist, sought help from my doctor, or even just opened up to a friend about how I was feeling. Instead, I turned inward.
I asked myself, “if I never felt like a boy, what would it take to make me feel like a man?” I had regrets over not pursuing a bid to the Naval Academy, and assigned that decision to not being in good enough shape with enough upper-body strength. I started a fitness and nutrition regimen and by spring break I had lost 35 pounds and got to the point where I was swimming half a mile three days a week.
One day while my roommates were out, I grabbed hold of the landing of the open staircase of my apartment and did my first ever pull-up. It was the emptiest moment of my life. In trying to be the most “manly man” I could be, I found no relief, no comfort. I sank back into a depression that carried me well into grad school.
My physical fitness and focus had helped to boost my academic fitness. I was given an opportunity to pursue a PhD in Physics at one of the most prestigious public universities in the country. I bumped into Nobel laureates in the bathroom. I felt like a complete fraud. The most positive thing that I can say about my first year of grad school was that it was the first time I ever truly lived alone. The isolation that I was feeling was amplified in my apartment. It started eating at my brain.
I had convinced myself that the crossdressing that I had recently resumed was a projection of my loneliness and a desire to have a romantic partner. I was stumbling into darker corners of the internet. And just as my despair was nudging me down a pathway to a wholly unhealthy transition, I met my future wife.
She was and still is amazing in every way that I could have imagined. She was an academic powerhouse with a clear vision of what she wanted. She was one of the kindest people I had ever met. Dating her was about as rebellious as some in my extended family could handle, as she was Polish-Catholic with immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents. (My dad’s family fled Europe in the Mennonite exodus in the late 17th century and some in my mom’s family still boast of the family’s role in violating a treaty with the Delaware and Lenape people to form a new county against the stated intent of the colonial governor.) Together, my wife and I made an excellent team. I was in a state of bliss for years into our marriage. But gradually, I came to realize that I had been thinking about my life backwards from the start.
I was probably 15 years old when the thought first popped in to my head that, “You may just be a lesbian.” To my high school self, it was the craziest thought I ever had. That thought came full circle about ten years ago.
The first, and most repeated question, that I received after my wedding was, “When are you having kids?” Children were not a part of either my or my wife’s immediate plans, so I largely deferred. She was not comfortable with the idea and did not feel ready. It was not a point that I would push, the greatest risks were hers to bear and she had final say. But a part of me started to remember that little kid with a teddy bear tucked in their t-shirt.
I was the one in the relationship that received loud and clear the tacit messages that our culture sends to women that place their role in procreation ahead of all other goals. I had internalized the messages of women being compassionate, selfless caregivers. I had stayed in higher education not in the pursuit of physics, but in the desire to share and pass on that knowledge to a new generation of scholars. I was not and could not be a man because of any goal that I had, or plan that someone else made for me. I was not a man because I am a woman.
I started my second transition more methodically. I read everything that I could on gender, gender theory and sexuality. I began painting my toenails and making small, under-the-radar changes. I was finding out about myself, and it felt right. I read narratives from other members of the transgender community and realized that I was neither alone, nor did any two transition journeys look alike.
There was a lot of anxiety along the way, and a fear of possibly losing everything that I had and held dear. But every step I took to find myself and express myself felt right. Every step brought me more at peace within my core, giving me strength to weather the anxious storms.
I came out to myself over the course of 2014. I came out to my wife in October of that year. I am happy to say that we are still happily married. The transition of a partner is a life changing event, and few relationships can survive it. Neither I nor my wife thought we would be navigating the world as a same-gender couple a decade out from our wedding day. At times, it has been a difficult adjustment for both of us, but through the struggle we have continued to learn from and strengthen each other. My wife is a truly amazing woman and I look forward to being with her to share the wonderful things that we both still have to bring into this world.
The House of Representatives passed H.R. 45 The Equality Act, and Senate hearings on the bill are continuing. Take some time to contact your senator and voice your support for this crucial legislation.
For more sources to help you listen, learn, and teach empathy and inclusion, check out our Quick Reference Guide for Learning About Transgender People and Issues.
If you or anyone you know is dealing with depression or suicidal thoughts please know that help is available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/), 1.800.273.TALK (1.800.273.8255), or by texting 4hope to 741741. The Trevor Project maintains a 24/7/365 crisis helpline for LGBTQ+ youth toll free at 1.866.488.7386. The transgender community maintains the Trans Lifeline 877.565.8860 to provide peer support and care.