IS BIOLOGY DESTINY? A Harvard student crosses the boundaries of gender and sex by living as a man in a woman's body

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Alex Myers sits down to breakfast inside Harvard's Memorial Hall. Amid the marble busts of graduates and historic stained glass, Myers fits right in. Dressed in a loose-fitting running outfit and wearing a baseball cap backward, he is every inch the Harvard stereotype: a lacrosse-playing Exeter preppie whose daddy went here.

Except for one thing, which may be a very big thing or a very insignificant thing depending on how you think about things.

Under the running outfit, or the conservative blue suit, or the hockey goalie's equipment, he -- strictly biologically speaking -- is a she. Without hormone treatment or a sex change operation, Myers is living as an articulate, intelligent, funny, straight young man with a bright future in science. "I am ..." Myers says, munching on an English muffin, "not your traditional freak."

"It's 100 percent wrong for me to be referred to as a woman," he continues. "And it feels 60 percent wrong to be called a man. I wish there was a pronoun that easily described me."

There is a word, though. Myers, 19, considers himself "transgendered." And here at Harvard, Myers has sparked a campus-wide argument that reflects a larger debate in American society, and in the medical community, about the boundaries of gender and sex, and whether biology is destiny.

The term "transgendered" originally referred to people like Myers, who live as a gender different from their biological sex but don't alter their bodies. But in recent years, the term has become a catch-all word for surgically altered transsexuals, hermaphrodites, even effeminate men and masculine women. Critics, including many psychiatrists, suggest that such people may be mentally ill. But Myers says he is a living, breathing, (not to mention mature and well-grounded) example of the notion that gender and sex don't naturally go together, that gender is a construct.

"Man and woman -- those are societal molds," says Myers. "I think it's a big trap. I believe gender and sex are two different things. They are not complimentary forces. ... And I'm hardly the first person to feel this way."

L True. But at Harvard he is a novelty, in more ways than one.

A stressful time

Consider that freshman year here is an enormously stressful time when many undergraduates -- some homesick, others intimidated by their surroundings -- have been known to gain or lose significant amounts of weight. In this hothouse of frayed nerves and terrific insecurities, most students are wary of putting even their most minor frailties out for public consumption.

Then, there's Myers.

Last spring, as a freshman, he came out, in his uniquely disarming way, to the entire campus. He gave a lengthy interview to the student newspaper, the Crimson. He successfully lobbied the student government, known as the Undergraduate Council, to add protections for transgendered undergraduates to its constitution. And he ignored a fair number of hard stares, as well as a few nasty words, with the stubbornness of someone who used the stairs instead of the elevator to his fourth-floor room in Greenough Hall.

He is the only campus figure in memory here, who can legitimately claim to have stretched the noggins of Harvard's professors and students, who take particular pride in their open-mindedness. Before Myers, few had heard the word transgender, and fewer knew anyone who was open about the identity. Before Myers, the Bisexual Gay Lesbian Student Alliance, or BGLSA, expanded the horizons of others. When Myers showed up to the first meeting last fall, he expanded theirs -- with a T: It's the BGLTSA now.

"The issues Alex raised have created one of the most interesting debates I've seen at Harvard," says Lamelle Rawlins, president of the Undergraduate Council. "I'm incredibly impressed with Alex. He's so inspiring, so brave, and so articulate."

Last spring, as the Undergraduate Council changed its constitution at Myers' urging, Rawlins joined Myers in asking Harvard to do the same. They want this 361-year-old university to amend its legal policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of "gender identity." Such a change is serious business, and the proposal has received a serious reception.

Of course, this is Myers, and so his campaign has included no protests. No sit-ins. Just some quiet meetings with the deans. He is more insider than outsider, a closet but not closeted activist whose appeal is that "I'm just like them."

"The way I look," he says about his conservative attire, "sometimes I walk into meetings on transgender stuff, and people think I'm there to protest [against] them."

The Alice years

While most of Harvard sleeps, Alex Myers is up at 6: 30 a.m. every day, ready to run. Five miles later, he has barely broken a sweat.

Myers has always been athletic. He grew up in Paris, Maine (pop. 4,492), where the center of town was the YMCA. His parents, both native New Englanders, owned a house down a short road from an egg farm. Doug Myers, Harvard Class of 1968, is a lawyer, and Sue-Ellen Myers works with disabled children. They named their second child for a great aunt who was strong enough to lift her own car in the air and eccentric enough to make her cats do tricks for their meals.

Alice Myers was Alex Myers' given name. A tomboy, Alice "dreamed of playing goalie for the U.S. Olympic hockey team." Her hair was so short and spiky that a sixth-grade teacher told Alice's parents, "Your son is doing well in my class."

At the beginning of ninth grade, Alice was sent to a prestigious boarding school: Phillips Academy in Exeter, N.H., where she reached a series of important conclusions about her own identity. At first, Alice came out as a lesbian and was active in the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. "But I knew that wasn't what I was," Myers says now. "At that time, though I knew it was the only community that let women be masculine. I figured that might be the best I could do."

During the summer after her junior year, Alice went to Harvard Summer School and participated in discussion groups for lesbian women. She also met people who had "transitioned" from one gender to the other "and suddenly it seemed natural in my head to live this way." Before returning to Exeter, Alice sat down with her parents in the kitchen and told them she was transgendered. They were supportive, but wary. "They expressed some concern about my fitting in, and not estranging myself," Myers says now. An older brother was warmer, and took Myers along to look at women together. "He told me, 'It's good to have you as a brother.'"

When senior year at Exeter began, Alice had become a man named Alex, who wore a coat and tie to class.

"It confused my teachers," says Myers. "They couldn't control the class at times. One took me aside and said, 'I don't know

how I'm supposed to refer to you.'" When Myers applied to Harvard, the college's interviewer abruptly ended the interview when he noticed the name Alice on a form and Alex, in coat and tie, explained his change of gender. A week later, Harvard called Myers and asked him to interview again because the alumnus was unable to give a fair opinion.

bTC Myers legally changed his name when he turned 18 during the summer of 1996. (The judge advised that Myers not apply to The Citadel). He spent his freshman year in a single room, where he shared a bathroom with five male students. On the wall to his room, near pictures of Elvis Presley and professional hockey goalie Andy Moog, Myers kept a photograph of his girlfriend, a striking redhead who attends Brown University in Rhode Island.

Being open

He managed to keep his biological sex a secret for his first two months at Harvard, but the presence of so many fellow Exeter graduates made anonymity impossible. "For the first few weeks, people were treating me as a nerdy, sort of conservative white guy," says Myers. He came out to other dorm residents in November by inviting them to a panel on transgenderism. About half of them attended.

"There hasn't been anything openly hostile, and Alex has made friends because he's Alex," says Christa van der Eb, who lived in the same dorm last year. "But some of the guys here don't know what to make of him... On the whole, he's raised consciousness, and he's the most mature, diligent person I've ever met."

Myers is wary of becoming a prisoner of his transgender label. He plays in the band, dabbles with wrestling and still harbors hockey dreams. He bypassed Harvard's popular liberal arts majors in favor of the hard science of geology. He is an officer of the BGLTSA, though friends say that was something of an accident. At a noisy meeting, Myers raised his hand when he thought he heard a speaker ask if anyone in attendance was "transgender." In fact, Myers had unwittingly signed up to be the group's treasurer.

His campus-wide coming out last spring was masterfully low-key. In his speech to the Undergraduate Council, he joked about "playing for both teams." He argued that while he is the only openly transgendered student at Harvard, others may follow. By explicitly prohibiting discrimination, Harvard can show it is "trans-friendly," he says.

At the same time the Undergraduate Council voted to change its constitution and back Myers' appeals to the Harvard administration, the Cambridge city council voted unanimously to include protections for "gender expression" in the city's Human Rights Ordinance.

"Alex and I resonated on a very deep level," says Nancy Nangeroni, 43, an engineer and male-to-female transgendered person who says Myers helped with the city bill. "We don't believe in beating people up, or using militant gestures to win rights."

Conservative students were exasperated. "I feel someone has to speak out to the fact that there are only boys and girls in the world," said Christopher M. Griffith, who graduated in June. "Harvard cannot go against the rule of God or the rule of this country."

Griffith and others pointed to the American Psychiatric Association, which lists "gender identity disorder" as an illness. The association's diagnosis seems to describe Myers in some ways ("evidence of a strong and persistent cross-gender identification"), but not in others ("low esteem" and "school aversion or dropping out of school."). Dr. Lawrence Hartmann, a Harvard professor who is past president of the psychiatric association, cautions: "Not every sexual oddness is a disorder. I think we should learn from people who are different, rather than assigning quick pathology to their condition."

Even when conservative students question his mental health, Myers seems nonplused. He defended one of his sharpest critics, Stephen Mitby, when Mitby received an anonymous hate letter last spring. "He has claimed responsibility for his own comments, which I respect," Myers told the Crimson.

Asked about Myers, Mitby says: "It's a mental illness. And to recognize gender identities apart from sex not only denies biological reality, but overturns the findings of medical science in the name of political correctness." But Mitby adds: "Alex is articulate, intelligent and confident. I respect his courage."

Advocating change

Among most students, Myers seems to have succeeded in making his a righteous cause. The Crimson weighed in with an editorial, urging Harvard to change its discrimination policy to protect the transgendered. (It already extends that protection to gays and lesbians.) The administration is the final challenge.

Myers, along with the student body president ("We get along because I'm so straight and conservative," Myers says) and other student leaders, have met twice with Harry Lewis, the college dean. Winning him over is the first step in changing the policy, but it won't be easy. With a fund-raising campaign that requires Harvard to raise $1 million per day, the university may not want to enter the culture wars. "If Alex is lucky," says one senior administrator, "we'll change the policy fast -- in about four years."

Lewis, for his part, says he is reading up on transgenderism. "Harvard does not tolerate discrimination based on anything unrelated to a student's abilities and interests in taking advantage of the educational and other opportunities Harvard has to offer," he says. But as for the specifics of gender identity, he has more questions than answers.

This year, as a sophomore, Myers says he will try to "further inform" the student body about transgenderism, in hopes that even his fellow students will put pressure on the dean.

"Changing people's minds is like hauling a heavy cart up a hill. It's slow, so we won't be doing the confrontational ACT-UP tactic of chaining yourself to the desk," Myers says. "I'll just keep wearing my blue blazer and tan pants, like everyone else."

Pub Date: 9/24/97

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
70°