How my gender journey impacted my career path

I’ve been asked at work to be on a small, diverse team of people from my department who will be welcoming a group of high school students for a field trip to learn about career opportunities in research and science. And as I’ve been thinking about what stories I’m going to tell, it made me realize just how much my gender and transition journey has shaped where my career pathway has led.

First off, how did I get into a career in science? I’ve always been interested in science from a young age. My favorite shows as a kid were Bill Nye the Science Guy and Kratts’ Creatures. I loved learning about animals in particular and my earliest career aspiration was to become a zookeeper; a dream I held on to for many many years.

When I was 7 we moved to a house on what was at that time the border between the suburbs and rural farming country. It was one of the oldest plots of land in the development so it came with 3 acres of 70 year old forest that used to be logging territory. That experience was absolutely magical for me. I spent most of my time as a kid running around and learning intimately how a healthy PNW forest ecosystem looked and felt. So when it came time for college, I decided that instead of studying zoology, I would go into ecology so that I can learn about the whole system instead of just the animals.

My time in college, other than my early marriage and the homophobic institution I was studying at, was incredibly enriching. I loved school (well except the theoretical math part) and I was incredibly lucky to have an amazing team of professors who were deeply passionate about their jobs and field. I got to do lots of cool lab classes and I spent about 7 weeks studying at a field station in the San Juan Islands and a study abroad trip to the Galapagos Islands.

I volunteered at the Zoo during college but by the time I graduated, I had come to realize that I didn’t have the patience to deal with a job that was becoming increasingly competitive, controversial, and underpaid. I wanted to go on to a research position in ecology but this was right after the 2008 recession and jobs were scarce. The only things I could find were “room and board” type positions in remote areas.

With my marriage being the mess that it was, I didn’t feel like I could leave to pursue the career I wanted. And I didn’t have the energy to go on to more schooling because I had so many unresolved relationship issues and identity crisis dilemmas. So I decided to turn to my other skills.

Through college, I had been supporting myself by working as an office assistant at a couple of the school departments and a local nonprofit. So after work study ended, I decided to get a receptionist job. I don’t think it was a mistake that the first job I ended up in in a highly femininized field at a vet clinic where I was the only “man”.

My 20s were a mess. While most of my classmates were off getting Masters, PhDs, and MDs, I felt stuck trying to figure out my life. I spent from age 20 to 26 in a relationship that was slowly and traumatically imploding, trying desperately to make it work. At 26 I finally realized that I was trans, but my partner wouldn’t let me come out to my friends and family so I had to stay in the closet for another few months while I worked up the courage and resources to get out.

Finally at 27, I was free and could start figuring out who I truly was without the baggage of being forced to be someone I wasn’t in so many ways. I started writing this blog when I was 28 and that proved to be really helpful to my transition and I started hormones a month before my 30th birthday. That’s when I feel like my adulthood truly started.

Back to my career though. I had a few different administrative jobs through my 20s that were mostly really good experiences where I was allowed to grow and get promoted internally. Which was great. But I still wasn’t working in science.

In 2015, shortly after I first came out as genderqueer, I joined a research study for an experimental HIV vaccine. I heard about it through an old classmate at Trans Pride Seattle and thought I might as well contribute to science and make a few much needed bucks for participating. I wasn’t sure what to expect in terms of inclusivity but I found myself really impressed by the study team and paperwork. It was really the first time I felt seen and respected in a clinical setting as a trans person. I had such a good experience on the study that when I finished, I decided to see if I could get a job at the company that ran the trials.

I landed a job at Fred Hutch shortly before I started this blog and it was my first professional coming out experience. It went well and even though I wasn’t working on HIV vaccines at first, I loved getting my toes wet in the administrative side of science. Eventually I applied internally and got a job with the HIV Vaccine Trials Network where I still work today.

Today I’m really thankful to be able to contribute in meaningful ways to scientific research, even though I don’t have an advanced degree or specialized technical training. My eventual dream is to find a way to work on more targeted research on the health disparities impacting the transgender and nonbinary community. Now that I’m a project manager, I hope to partner with a research investigator to be a subject matter expert on identifying the many gaps that still exist in the science around trans healthcare.

I know that was a long story but I just want to say that no matter how long it takes you to come out, you can still find success and fulfillment in your career. Sometimes life gets in the way of advanced degrees, but there are lots of ways to contribute to specialized fields like science and many paths to get there.

n-dimensional hypergender

One aspect of myself that I’ve talked about less here is that I’m trained as an ecologist. And one of the coolest concepts that I learned in my ecology degree program was how ecological niches can be visualized as an n-dimensional hypervolume.

Now that’s a lot of sciency jargon there but I’ll break it down for you. In ecology, one of the most important features of an animal is how it matches up to a specific set of environmental conditions and resources it needs to find it’s unique place in the ecosystem that doesn’t completely compete with another species. And the number of factors involved are so numerous that they are theoretically infinite. Which means that you can’t really map out niches on a 2 dimensional or even 3 dimensional drawing. You need a near infinite number of dimensions (n here mathematically representing the number of dimensions) to accurately portray it.

Here’s a visual representation of an n-dimensional hypervolume (source)

The reason I bring it up is because this is how I think of gender. To a cis person, gender might seem like a simple, 2 dimensional concept. For most people who haven’t really thought about it, there are only 2 main categories and if you’re lucky, some basic variation within them. There might be some outliers or people that switch boxes but overall pretty basic.

Well for most of the queer and trans people I know, especially nonbinary folks, gender is a multifaceted abstract concept. Depending on the person you talk to, it can be static, fluid, a void, or something else entirely. But I don’t know a whole lot of nonbinary people who really describe it in a form you could easily represent in a 2 dimensional drawing. Now maybe 3 dimensions is enough but I think that when you look at all the different sets of expectations, behaviors, ways of thinking, ways of being, feelings, attitudes, context in which you are deciding, etc, that you have a hypervolume. Or in this case, a hypergender.

I’m sure that I’m not the first person to conceptualize it this way. Some quick searching shows that Asmaa Guedira wrote a bit about this idea starting in 2016. But I wanted to share my nerdery about how my concepts of ecology and gender have overlapped. Because even though I don’t work in ecology (thanks recession), the concepts I learned there have helped me synthesize knowledge by looking at a bigger picture.

There is so much diversity of gender out there in the world. Just here in Seattle I know people who are agender or gendervoid and don’t feel any strong sense of gender. I know folks who are genderfluid and switch presentation and pronouns depending on the day or mood or context. I know people who solidly feel like they are a third gender halfway between male and female. There are people who are demigender where they partially identify with a particular gender and partially not. And then there are of course hundreds of other concepts from cultures around the world, some of which have been around for thousands of years.

One of the foundational concepts that you learn in ecology is that diversity begets stability. The more species you have in more niches interacting with each other, the more stable, resilient, and resistant to extreme disturbances the ecosystem is going to be. In other words, we need all this diversity because it makes humanity greater as a whole. If you only have one or even two genders, races, cultures, etc at the table, you are missing huge chunks of human experience that are probably relevant to whatever you are discussing or deciding.

I hear a lot of people saying that “we don’t need labels” or that we are trying to create a world without gender. Which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to do. I want to build a world with an infinite number of genders co-existing in an ecosystem of human experience. It can feel at times like having so many labels makes gender irrelevant or meaningless but for many of us, having words that we can put to our experience is so empowering and freeing. Especially in the modern age of the internet, it gives us the ability to find people like us and the language to share what this important part of life feels like.