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Becoming Yourself

Five Swarthmorean journeys of gender

Anna Peterson ’83 is afraid.

Under a cut-crystal Idaho sky, she—the word hard-won—holds herself tightly, seated on a rock along the Lochsa River.

Her long, blond hair whispers around her face; the mottled stone’s chill bites through her slacks. For luck—like a bride—her girlfriends helped her dress for today, wrapping her in their love along with a cerulean scarf, the better to set off her carefully painted nails.

Upriver, the photographer balances at the water’s edge. He stares into his camera and not yet, she thinks gratefully, at her.

My executioner. She blinks, a gallows-humor gal always, yes, but she is more than that, too: a writer, a movie-crier, a therapist, a father. She is not an adjective, a tragedy, or a question to be answered. She is not “brave.”

“That’s what people like to say, but I’m just being myself. I haven’t changed in my person, I’m just expressing it more authentically,” she says. “I’m a late-transitioning girl. I’m visible. I know that if anyone looks at me carefully, at any given moment, no matter where my presentation is, they can see it. I live with that awareness.

“I move through the world knowing that the mere fact of my existence activates all this primal shit in everyone I encounter. I can trigger looks of disgust in random people I pass on the street. It’s hard to know what to do with that.”

And while she now carries pepper spray in her purse, Peterson believes in the healing power of an honest smile or sisterly tears. She may be afraid, but she faces the camera’s unblinking eye, knowing how far what it sees today in this river, on this rock, will travel.

“It will be weird to disclose my identity in this way to people I haven’t seen in decades,” she admits, “but I believe in the importance and necessity of trans visibility.”

BECOMING PATRICK

“There’s this narrative about transgender people where you always knew you were trans, but that wasn’t true for me,” says Patrick Rock ’09, who radiates an easy, endearing warmth. “As a child, I wore my older brother’s hand-me-downs and played sports. I did not angst over my gender—my mom had been a tomboy, too.”

It was only after his family moved to Israel that he realized his constant chafing against that country’s strict rules of femininity meant something deeper. Upon the family’s return to the States, the 15-year-old came out as a lesbian and, shortly afterward, as transgender.

“I’d cut my hair into a pink mohawk at summer camp and, at the Philly Folk Festival, people kept perceiving me as a boy,” he says. “I kept having these moments of, ‘Wow, that really feels right.’”

Even so, when he applied to Swarthmore, he didn’t out himself in his application. “Thinking back to being told by family friends that telling the truth could’ve kept me out of college is the kind of thing that today drives me to advocate for policies,” says Rock, who came out to Swarthmore administrators after being accepted to the College.

He remembers not only how helpful they were in facilitating his needs, but also the unique pressures he faced as one of the first students to officially enter Swarthmore as trans—something he brings to his work as a professor at Glendale Community College in California.

“Without the values Swarthmore nurtured in me, I don’t think I would have realized what a powerful setting teaching here is for me,” he says. “Trans youth are more likely to be kicked out of the house or high school for who they are, so they’re less likely to have the support or academic preparation to apply to or succeed at a four-year college. Disproportionally, trans folks end up in community colleges, which are doing an incredible service.”

In addition to his teaching, Rock is also the director of education at the Youth and Gender Media Project in Los Angeles, where he leads sensitivity and inclusivity trainings and workshops with teachers and students. And, in a lovely full-circle moment, his high school invited him to a ceremony dedicating a gender-neutral bathroom in his honor.

It’s all enough to make most people’s egos swell, but Rock is much quicker to laugh than to brag, and credits his girlfriend, whom he met on OkCupid, for helping keep his feet on the ground.

“I knew we had potential when we both had user names that included references to social justice and food and our first conversations were about cheese,” he laughs. “We both care a lot about making the world a better place, terrible reality-TV dating shows, and each other.”

BECOMING ALICE

A physics and math honors double major with an infectious laugh, dark-haired Alice Grimm ’08 wanted to attend a Swarthmore Halloween party as Goldilocks, so she reached for the bleach.

“My hair turned a hideous carrot orange, and, because I did it myself, I missed a spot,” she laughs. “Still, there was a moment when this guy thought I was a girl, and it felt good.”

Ever since middle school, when she read a Boston Globe article about children who were trans that asked, “How would you know?” Grimm had lived with and explored the question in a very personal way. From occasionally painting her toenails as a teenager to wearing a dress on Sundays around the house as a grad student at the University of California, Davis, Grimm continued to ask it of herself, even as she weathered major life changes like ending a seven-year romantic relationship or exhausting her doctoral funding.

“At first, I thought if I were transgender, it would be obvious to me, but then I came to realize: The fact that I wasn’t certain—the fact that I was afraid—didn’t mean I wasn’t trans,” she says. “When I eventually saw it as a choice—about who I wanted to be and be grouped with—that I didn’t need to ‘prove’ or ‘justify,’ then it was clear.”

Although counseling helped give her perspective on all these changes, it was difficult for Grimm to even broach the topic of her gender identity in therapy, but once she did, she was able to begin her hormonal as well as social transitions.

“As a college freshman, when I understood myself to be a straight cis man, I didn’t feel uncomfortable trying on or buying a dress,” she remembers. “But 10 years later, I had heard stories about the mistreatment that some women who are trans experience, so I was terrified of being thrown out or yelled at or publicly shamed—even if I knew logically that this was unlikely in a thrift shop in Berkeley.”

After a first try, where she circled the women’s section before bolting, Grimm returned to buy two dresses: one floral, one white-and-navy striped—the only two that (mostly) fit her. She packed them up for her move to Massachusetts, where, pre-transition, she had interviewed for and then accepted a teaching position at Deerfield Academy.

Although she began her tenure at Deerfield presenting as a man, Grimm eventually came out in two special assemblies: one to the entire faculty, and then to the entire student body.

“People were like, ‘You’re so brave,’ and it’s like, no: This is what I need to do to survive,” she says. “It ended up enriching my relationships with everyone.”

Although some days are easier than others—stubborn beard stubble, an unfinished math dissertation, and round-the-clock contact with and work for students can really wear on a girl—the process has been smoother than she’d ever dared hope. In fact, Grimm’s found her calling in the classroom, where her students appreciate her for who she is: a gifted teacher, voracious reader, and heart-on-her-sleeve vegan-cookie-baker with a weakness for Dungeons & Dragons and math.

“I find an amazing, even meditative beauty in the complex mathematics that brings out a nonverbal part of me—it speaks to my love of knowledge,” she says. “Fully engaging in intellectual exploration with my students is the most important part of my day, and it feels great to share the things I find fascinating with them.”

BECOMING KAYLEY

An intensely focused student of mechanical engineering and robotics at Rice University, Kayley Whalen ’07 wanted something more, and made the bold decision to transfer.

“When I saw that the humanities were treated with academic rigor here, I realized how important they were to me,” she says. “I discovered myself through discovering the arts and humanities at Swarthmore.”

Poetry, theater, and women’s studies courses opened her eyes to the possibility of life beyond the gender binary, and she became one of the most outspoken LGBTQ student activists on campus when she spearheaded the 2006 Coming Out Week’s controversially explicit chalkings.

Postgraduation, however, she had to temper her firebrand nature when she went to work as a credit risk analyst at Fannie Mae after a friend told her the company’s health insurance was planning to take the then-radical step of covering gender reassignment surgery.

“But when the housing crisis hit, Fannie Mae used public perception as an excuse not to follow through,” she says. “So I suffered through 3 1/2 dehumanizing years at an inherently racist, predatory company to be able to afford the $20,000-plus out-of-pocket dollars I needed to feel whole and complete in the body that matched my gender identity.”

After suffering a breakdown, Whalen went on disability before being let go. As she recovered and recalibrated, she thought back to how meaningful her work as an activist had been, everything from her undergraduate time interning with the Trans Health Information Project to her more recent work with Occupy Wall Street and Greenpeace, rappelling off buildings to drop banners.

Her activism had even crept into her favorite hobby—the four hard-hitting, hell-yeah-on-wheels years she spent skating with the DC Rollergirls roller derby league under the name Lenore Gore. Afraid that she would be kicked out for being trans without being two years post-op, Whalen was forced to remain in the closet. After a piece she wrote—under the pen name Uzi Sioux—about her roller derby experience made a splash in Kate Bornstein’s Lambda Literary Award-winning Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, Whalen came out to her sport and to the world at large.

Today, she is the digital strategies and social media manager for the National LGBTQ Task Force and runs campaigns, trainings, and events in addition to organizing panels and community briefings at the White House. An amateur painter and student of color theory and design, Whalen aims to be an advocate who listens to and respects all.

“I’m very out as bisexual, transgender, Latinx, and someone with a mental health disability because I feel like I have to stand up for those communities and use the privilege I have of having gone to Swarthmore,” she says. “A lot of the work I do is informed by that anti-oppression lens that I learned there, and I’m really excited to be a leader putting forward the stories of multiple marginalized identities.”

BECOMING DANIEL

When he returned to Swarthmore as a sociology professor last semester, Daniel Laurison ’99 was surprised with how history repeated itself in an unexpected way.

“My undergrad ID picture popped up in Swarthmore’s system, linked to my faculty self,” he says, smiling. “I grew a beard about three years ago, but even with switching gender categories, my nearly 40- and 21-year-old selves really don’t look that different.”

Laurison first came to the College as an out lesbian teen activist and Lang Scholar. For his Lang Opportunity Project, he organized Philadelphia’s inaugural Dyke March, which taught him bruising but invaluable real-world lessons about meeting your heroes, and ran the Women’s Anti-Violence Education (WAVE) nonprofit after graduation, teaching feminist safety and self-defense skills.

Ultimately, however, Laurison felt conflicted about identifying as a woman, which became clearer every time students in his WAVE courses mistook him for a teenage boy.

“I don’t feel like I have a deep, true, essential gendered self, although lots of people feel they do,” he says. “It came down to this: How would I feel best in my body and the world? When I thought about it that way, rather than with all the gender theory at my disposal, my answer was clear.”

His transition came at a surprising price. He and his partner had always taken pride in being part of the queer community, but Laurison’s change—which he originally thought would make him more queer—actually cost them their visual LGBTQ identities. In daily life, they are now frequently read as a straight couple.

“We talk about that a lot: how the resulting privilege saddens us. Still, I never forget that my experience of being trans is not most people’s,” he says. “I’m the most privileged kind of trans person you can possibly be: I’m female-to-male; I’m white; I have financial resources; my family, partner, and work were supportive; and I came out at a time that benefited from previous generations carving a path.”

His experience informs the way he approaches his research, his classroom teaching, and his parenting. And, from the moment his daughters—now 9 and nearly 7—were able to ask, he and his partner have been open and honest about society’s gender roles and their personal journeys.

“There aren’t a lot of kids’ books about ‘my daddy is transgender,’ and at first, my older daughter worried she might accidentally grow up to be a man,” he says. “Now she gets that she has full control over her gender identity and expression.”

As he and his family settle into life in Philadelphia—and adjust to leaving England, where he completed postdoctoral research at the London School of Economics—Laurison couldn’t be happier with how everything has turned out, even if life’s been full of surprises.

“I, for one, never thought I was going to be an academic—I wanted to be in the real world,” he says with a smile. “But to be back here now, with a community of friends and a job writing, thinking, reading, and teaching? I won the lottery.”

BECOMING ANNA

For sheltered, shy Mormon-raised Anna Peterson ’83, Swarthmore was a thrilling, terrifying new beginning, especially after she told her deepest secret to a campus therapist.

“I wasn’t expecting to talk about it, but I just started sobbing and confessed that I had been secretly dressing in female clothing,” she says. “It was the first time I told anybody. Even though I had the feeling she wasn’t quite sure what to do, it was a huge relief to have said it at all.

“And so, before I had the capacity to know who I actually was, before the word ‘transgender’ was available to me, there I was, wearing skirts around campus,” she says. “I don’t think people knew what to make of me. I barely knew what to make of myself.”

Her confusion grew after graduation, when she retreated into the closet, married a woman she met in Provincetown, Mass., and the two moved to Missoula, Mont. The affectionate joke that sparked their connection—“she was the guy and I was the girl”—had more truth in it than Peterson had initially been able to acknowledge.

“I’d be undone by teenage girl movie characters—I can cry just mentioning it—and my wife would tease me,” she says. “It was weirdly open, all of it, and I would say, ‘This is what I feel like,’ and yet, through 20 years of marriage and raising two sons, I wasn’t going all the way to say it actually is me.”

Only after their marriage ended four years ago did Peterson make the decision to not only wear what she wanted, but also to transition. It caused disruption in many of her relationships, but her sons were understanding, and it was their love and acceptance—to know that it was possible to be out, to be her true self, and to still be worthy of love and respect—that changed everything for Peterson.

“Now, for the first time ever, I feel right in the world, in myself. Whenever someone refers to me as ‘ma’am,’ I just light up inside,” she says. “It’s this weird paradox: By embracing my difference that in so many ways sets me apart from other people, I actually feel more a part of humanity.”

An endlessly compassionate therapist, secret musician, and jeweler-precise author of autobiographical essays, Peterson devotes the rest of her time to her sons, to her army of friends, to figuring out what’s next.

Something she’s learned and lived with is how, for anyone who transitions late, your world can narrow itself down to grief: grief for the things you’ve missed, grief for the time you’ve lost, grief for the person you could’ve become sooner, if only …

Today on this rock, she takes a deep breath.

“When I chose my name, I wanted an elegant, dignified old-lady name—Anna Louise Peterson. I was not going to be a Britney,” she says. “With a certain kind of delight, I look ahead to that deepened phase in my transition: Oh, I get to be an older woman. What’s that going to be like? I don’t know. But I want to find out.”

The flash of light catches her by surprise; the photographer is adjusting a silver-foiled reflector. He smiles.

“Are you ready, Anna?”

“Yes,” she says.