Autumn Kent is a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I am lucky enough to call her a friend. Last fall, I was one of the people who was surprised when she came out as a trans woman. I don’t know many trans people, or at least I don’t know that I know them, and I’m grateful that she and my other trans friends have helped me become more conscious of issues affecting trans people and challenged me to be a better ally to trans people.
As our culture becomes more aware (and hopefully accepting, though we have far to go) of the manifold different gender identities and experiences people have, it becomes more likely that mathematicians and scientists will have (openly) trans students, colleagues, and friends. Kent graciously agreed to answer some questions about her experiences being a trans woman in math and how mathematicians can be good colleagues and teachers to the trans people they work with.
If you would like more information on being issues that affect trans people or being an ally, Kent recommends GLAAD's transgender FAQ, media reference guide, and tips for allies of transgender people; the National Center for Transgender Equality; and the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, an extensive survey about the demographics and experiences of trans people in the U.S.
Evelyn Lamb: I generally start interviews by asking about my subjects' origin story as a mathematician. So how did you get interested in math? Maybe you can also give a short summary of your career so we understand where you are and how you got there.
Autumn Kent: I’m perhaps unusual among mathematicians in that I have not always been singularly interested in mathematics. I always enjoyed Mathematics, but also enjoyed the other sciences. I enjoyed chemistry in particular as my high school chemistry teacher let us skirt the edges of safety pretty often. I think I really got really excited about Mathematics after reading Abbott’s Flatland in high school and maybe Colin Adams’ Knot Book.
It may surprise those that don’t know me well that I’ve always leaned perhaps more toward the humanities than the sciences. I went to college planning to be a high school English teacher, but ended up double majoring in Math and Literature at the University of North Carolina at Asheville and decided to focus on Mathematics as it seemed more rational as a career. I miss the mountains.
I took a year off after college, taught a semester at a community college, and toured with a band I was in.
After that I went to the University of Texas at Austin where I got my PhD under Cameron Gordon. Graduate school was great intellectually but pretty difficult personally, both my parents dying in the middle of my tenure there. Mathematically I drifted away from Cameron quite a bit, my work becoming more geometric and analytic than Cameron. I think he has a somewhat of a reputation of being a brute force type of mathematician but I think that is incorrect. I have always found his thought process so elegant and effortless. And then he just has no fear. And so he can tread where no one else dares. He taught me to be fearless.
After graduate school I did a postdoc at Brown for four years before coming to Wisconsin in 2010. I miss the pizza.
I'm also interested in your origin story as a trans woman. What was the coming out process like for you?
This is more difficult.
I won’t go into too much detail, but it is important for me to say that I do not fit the common narrative that cis people typically hear about trans people. It is also important to say that my narrative below is also not universal.
I did not know that I was a girl when I was a child. I did not know for certain in any conscious way until the second half of my thirties. Looking back it is clear, but so much keeps you from seeing it.
Expected gender norms are rigidly enforced from a very early age. As a child, your course is constantly corrected as you deviate from expected norms. If you are a trans girl and a tomboy, like I was, then it is more difficult to see that these course corrections are harming you and you begin to do the course correcting yourself. As you get older, you start creating proxies for femininity that cannot be expressed, like violating social norms that aren’t gendered, or having long hair in a manner acceptable of boys, or wearing pink, or choosing social cliques that allow for a touch of gender variance in expression, or wearing something feminine to aggravate people to be punk, stuff like that. At certain points all of this proxy building will be overwhelming and you will decide to fortify yourself against your gender and grow a beard, or a mustache, and try to be aggressive and masculine. I did all of these things.
Our culture enforces expected gender norms so severely, devalues femininity so strongly, that even when I finally admitted to myself that I was trans, it took another couple years to admit to myself that I was a woman, and I privately identified as genderqueer in that period. It is so disadvantageous that you fight it until you embrace it or commit suicide.
In a way it is like being slowly buried by pebbles your entire life until you reach the moment when you will suffocate and be crushed unless you claw your way out.
Coming out was very hard.
(It should be noted here that in general non-binary identities are not merely antechambers to binary ones. In my case I needed this intermediate identification to help me approach reality, but this is not representative of non-binary identities.)
How have your colleagues and students reacted to your coming out?
Many people were shocked, I’d say, but I am lucky in that most everyone I interact with frequently has been very supportive. My broader community in hyperbolic geometry, topology, and Teichmueller theory has been very supportive and I am lucky to be in a field with so many lovely people.
We have an amazing group of women in the department here at Wisconsin, and they have embraced me completely and without hesitation from day one. I’m proud to be part of such a wonderful group, and I would be pretty unhappy if there were many fewer women around.
The students have been pretty good for the most part, though transitioning in front of hundreds of students takes lots of deep breaths. I am glad though that hundreds of students are now interacting with a trans woman on a regular basis, and hopefully this simple exposure helps erode bias and transphobia.
How does being trans intersect with your job? Has it changed the way you relate to students? Have you been able to get the healthcare you need? Have you experienced discrimination from colleagues or administration?
First I’ll say some things about advantages and privilege. A common attack on trans women is to claim that we have carried and benefited from male privilege, and that our experience as women is incomplete or fabricated. There is a distinction here to be made between advantages afforded me when I read as male and male privilege. The thing is that the advantages a man is afforded by way of his gender come at no cost to him. This is privilege. The advantages I have been afforded by being read as male came at the great cost of being closeted. There are similar discussions here regarding different types of “passing” in various classes of marginalized people.
That said, these advantages are now eroding as I transition. Being hyper-aware of this erosion, I am more guarded in many aspects of my job. I am more careful in how I write emails and letters, how I talk to students, how I respond to requests from colleagues.
I have not yet experienced overt hostility or discrimination from my colleagues in my department, but private disapproval or hostility is not always as invisible as people think, and it’s not hard to pick up on. Mathematicians are very social, and there is plenty of overt transphobia, misogyny, homophobia, and racism plainly visible in the things academics say on social media. There is a dangerous amount of tolerance of intolerable people in academia based on the principle that we are all dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge and beauty and that a person’s academic work makes them a person worthy of mutual respect. This principle is wrong.
Bers famously quoted Plutarch in defense of his admiration for Teichmueller’s work: "It does not of necessity follow that, if the work delights you with its grace, the one who wrought it is worthy of your esteem.” This is of course true, but Teichmueller was still a piece of sh*t and if he were alive today I would not be his friend on Facebook. [Note: Oswald Teichmueller (1913-1943) was a German mathematician and literally a card-carrying Nazi. As a student, he organized a boycott of Edmund Landau, a Jewish math professor at the University of Göttingen. He was killed fighting for the Third Reich in World War II.] I would not invite him to an academic conference. The pursuit of knowledge and beauty is admirable, but it should not be undertaken at the expense of the bodies and souls of marginalized people. If my work would result in violence I would abandon it.
Access to the health care that I need is restricted in Wisconsin by bigoted policy. Until this past year, the Wisconsin state health care plans explicitly excluded coverage of transgender related care. An Obama administration Health and Human Resources regulation interpreted Title IX and part of the Affordable Care Act to mean that health care providers could not discriminate on the basis of gender identity. In response to this, the state removed this exclusion in a meeting in the summer of 2016, to be effective on January 1, 2017.
On December 30th, 2016, in anticipation of this regulation disappearing under the Trump administration, or at the least not being enforced, the Group Insurance Board (GIB) of the State of Wisconsin Employee Trust Funds (ETF) held an emergency meeting to discuss reinstating the exclusion of transgender care. And they did, subject to four contingencies. The most significant requirement was that the Obama era regulation above be vacated in court. This happened the next day thanks to Judge O’Connor’s decision in Texas. The rest of the contingencies were quickly met and the exclusion was reinstated effective February 1, 2017. So we had a month of coverage of transgender related care.
This puts gender affirming surgery out of reach financially for me and others, and though I can afford my hormone replacement therapy, it’s not as easy for others, and at any rate we shouldn’t have to pay for medically necessary care. People at the meeting in December were talking about medical necessity of this care as if this is a question. This care is absolutely necessary. If I were forced to stop hormone replacement therapy I would commit suicide.
Let me be very clear. Transgender related health care has been shown to be revenue neutral, and it seemed clear at the GIB meeting that they know that cost is not really an issue. The only reason to deny this care is bigotry.
A related question is the logistics of academic publishing while trans. You've published under a different name, so how do you deal with that? Is there a procedure for changing your name on MathSciNet/arxiv/citations?
Yes this is frustrating. Having come out in the middle of my career, I have lots of papers published under my dead name. There isn’t really much that can be done about this.
As far as the arXiv is concerned, I can do a replacement for all my papers, but I haven’t done it yet. One frustration most people wouldn’t consider here is that my username, which the arXiv tells me they can’t change, references my dead name, and so I have that ugly reminder whenever I log in. This is a global frustration in my life, as I now have lots of usernames like this that are difficult or impossible to change.
When my first paper with my “living name,” to coin a phrase, appears, I’ll let MathSciNet know who I am for their system.
When referring to any of my papers, old or new, scholars should cite them naming Autumn Kent as author, regardless of the name on the paper. I expect there to be resistance to this from journals and copy editors who can adhere rigidly to absurd norms (E.g. a journal once refused to allow a formal dedication of a paper to my dead parents, and had me put the dedication in a footnote).
How can mathematicians/scientists/teachers support their students and colleagues who are trans, besides the obvious like referring to them by the right name and gender and not obsessing over their junk? Are there things we do wrong unintentionally that we could fix? Are there especially good ways to reach out?
Sometimes we need a shoulder, or an ear. Or just some normalcy.
The thing I think most people don’t see is the constant underlying dread, anxiety, stress, and anguish that a lot of us are carrying around. A lot of the time I am walking to and from my daily tasks, my inner voice hoarse from screaming. After the election I would be out and hear people making small talk about the sunshine and I’d want to tear out my hair. When I am doing bureaucratic tasks at work, I am carrying all of my anguish. When I am teaching and getting a laugh from my class I am carrying my anguish. When I am writing that email. When I am in the elevator or at the water fountain. When you ask how it’s going I am frozen. I am saturated with grief.
Listen to us. All marginalized people. Amplify our voices and spread our stories.
Being trans is hard. Our culture treats us like we are less than human. It is hard. And I'm trans but I am also a middle class white woman. Go listen to women of color. Listen to all they endure. And then go listen to trans women of color. Think about the intersection of these marginalized classes.
If someone misgenders a trans person, correct them casually and politely. I am misgendered a lot and correcting people can be taxing. Help is appreciated.
If you see discrimination call it out. Go to these health care meetings for us. Go to these town halls for us. Demand equitable treatment. Tell your universities to treat us right. To let us use the bathroom and to give us the care we need. Tell the grade schools in your town to respect trans kids and to believe them when they say who they are. Go to school board meetings and shout. Stand with us. Stand for us. Make a ruckus. Shout!
What is a question I should have asked you but didn't? (And because mathematicians can be relentlessly literal: what is the answer?)
Q. What is something good about being trans?
A. Being trans is beautiful.