Transitioning with Grace: Coming Out in Academia

English Professor Grace Lavery talks Pride, social justice, and trans studies.
By Steven Rascón

For Grace Lavery, coming out as a trans woman was nerve-racking at first. A professor in Berkeley’s Department of English, she was afraid of how her colleagues and students would react. As she explains, a certain amount of criticism comes with the territory of being in academia, adding that, “in my profession, there’s always some degree of anxiety.”

But her experience was also nuanced and affirming. When Lavery changed her name at work, the English Department moved “lightning quick” to make the necessary adjustments. She sent an email to her department manager, and by the end of the day, her name had been changed outside her office and on her inbox tray in Wheeler Hall.

“Getting misgendered by my colleagues is not unheard of, but it isn’t especially common. I’ve been surprised at how many faculty have vaguely understood what I was doing.”

Lavery, who was hired as a professor in Victorian literature in 2013, became interested in trans studies after reading the work of 19th century writer George Eliot. She wanted to know why Eliot, who was born Mary Ann Evans, went by a male pseudonym. Many of the explanations Lavery found just didn’t cut it, which led her to do her own scholarly research. What she discovered were “deeper and richer ways of thinking about gendered language and identity claims” than she had expected.

Since coming out in 2018, Lavery has become one of Cal’s experts on the subject of trans studies. She has taught undergraduate courses on literature, psychology, and what she calls “contemporary cultural studies” from a trans feminist perspective. Her intellectual and cultural interests have grown to include psychoanalytic theories like “selfhood of desire and language of the imagination.” Now a tenured professor, she is slated this fall to teach the first graduate-level course in trans studies, “Symposia in Trans Method,” a series of conversations with visiting trans activists, writers, and academics. 

Lavery, who’s been living with her partner in Brooklyn since the beginning of the pandemic, joined California magazine on Zoom during Pride month to discuss the Black Lives Matter movement, teaching at Cal, and her experience coming out. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When Cal moved to remote instruction in mid-March, you moved to Brooklyn with your partner to shelter in place. How has that been?

Grace Lavery: Brooklyn has been a strange place. It’s been exciting to be here during the demonstrations for the Black Lives Matter protests. And then the Black Trans Lives Matter demonstration they had here [in mid-June] and that was really well attended—15,000 people showed up to the rally, which was amazing. 

One of the other things right now about being in queer community and being under lockdown, for me at least, is that I just miss a lot of people. I miss the sort of dynamism of being out there in the world. And so these marches have been just some of the really unusual opportunities that we’ve had to connect with other human beings and to be in the same spaces as other bodies. That has been very valuable as well as, of course, the kind of necessity of demonstrating against police violence. And, you know, it’s been such an extraordinary time. We seem to be in a political place that was unthinkable two months ago. It’s exciting and also terrifying.

How did you feel about Pride this year given everything that’s going on in the world—the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement?

GL: So obviously, you know, Pride events were canceled and that seems to be necessary. But I will say that someone I follow on Twitter, Jazmine Hughes, was at the Black Trans Lives Matter march and tweeted something about that march like “today was Pride.” And that felt true to me. I’ve done a fair amount of Pride work in New York and I’ve been to so many Pride events where projects are so utterly commercial. And it just seems to be an opportunity for marketing for Bank of America, Citibank, Capital One—not anything with any connections to the community. Just like mega corporations, financial factors, “evil incorporated.”

But a lot of people argue that companies showing up to Pride or in the parade with their openly queer workers on floats shows their solidarity.

GL: Yeah, I don’t object to that especially, it’s just that it doesn’t move me. It doesn’t create a feeling of pride in me. Whereas getting together with my community and standing up to defend Black trans people really does. No, I’m not really trying to take the corporate side out. I want cops out of Pride. That seems like a more achievable goal, or a more necessary goal.

How has it been for you living as a trans person during this time?

GL: Well, you’re referring to the Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia [Supreme Court] decision, which I think was huge for trans people, especially, because it established that our lived identities are protected in the workplace. And that’s extraordinary because it’s a protection that doesn’t depend upon privacy in the way that the Lawrence v. Texas decision [a 2003 case that declared laws criminalizing consensual, adult homosexual intercourse to be unconstitutional] depended on privacy in order to defend gay sex.

It doesn’t depend on the kind of inherent dignity of the marriage form as Obergefell depended on the marriage form—or the kind of redemptive qualities of love which may or may not chime with your experiences of love; they don’t always chime with mine—but the fact of work and the fact of the public. And it’s kind of amazing to think that that happened. I don’t think any of us really saw that coming. And it was a huge deal.

You began transitioning in early 2018, while a professor at Berkeley, and in one of your essays you wrote of the experience: “Academia has made a place for my transition, and allowed it to be important, but not definitive of my work. I felt held, but not too close; cheered, but not tokenized.” So I take it you had a positive experience?

GL: You know, it’s funny to hear those words reflected back at me two years later. I think I still stand by that. I’m talking about two particular contexts, which are my department at Berkeley and the field of Victorian studies. And I would say that those two places have both been very good to me. Getting misgendered by my colleagues is not unheard of, but it isn’t especially common. And I’ve been surprised at how many faculty have actually sort of vaguely understood what I was doing.

“My work is the teaching, the research, and the service. And if I can do that while being visibly trans, then that is an advantage to other people.”

You know, transition is an odd thing to do. Not many people choose to do it, really. It takes a lot of work; it’s very confusing. So I was very nervous that my colleagues and my students, who are such powerfully intellectual and rigorous individuals, might have difficulty with some of the things I was saying. I’d be like, “I don’t really know why this is happening” or “this is something I’ve been dealing with my entire life, and now I’m doing it.” I think that when one begins to transition, one asks a lot of other people. And we can pretend that it’s not a big “ask” and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes it’s merely an administrative or bureaucratic question. But sometimes it’s quite a lot, you know, and sometimes we’re saying to people who might know us quite well, “actually, you didn’t know me that well.” But I would say those two environments, my department and my field, have been supportive rather than not. I have found people on Berkeley’s campus who have intuitive and spontaneous understandings of my position.

I have been especially grateful for two of my colleagues: Juana María Rodríguez in Ethnic Studies and Judith Butler in Comparative Literature, both of whom have been just really wonderful friends and colleagues over the last couple of years. And they’re both tremendous scholars, obviously, but they’re also just people who have experience with trans life. And that’s been fabulous.

Have any other faculty or students—whether trans, non-binary, or queer—come to you for any mentorship or vice versa?

GL: You know, it’s funny. There are so many different ways of answering that. In the year or so before I came out, I spent quite a lot of time at the Pacific Center, which is an LGBT collection of support groups on Telegraph Avenue, just opposite the CVS. And they’re fabulous and I love them. They had a trans support group every Friday night, and there were two groups of people that would often show up. One group was sort of older trans women who were just beginning to transition in their 60s, usually, or even older. And the other group was younger trans women in their early 20s, almost all of whom were Cal students.

It was very strange because we were all going on similar journeys, but we were there in very different capacities. So I never got to know any of those people professionally; thank goodness they weren’t in any of my classes or anything. But I was aware that there were trans people around. 

I have had the occasional experience of talking to students about transition. I think like maybe one or two undergrads, maybe two or three grad students over the last few years. It’s not a common experience. I don’t think people necessarily want to talk to their professors about it. 

But I do think that some degree of visibility is probably important. And I taught a trans studies class to undergraduates in the English department for the first time. And my sense is that that’s my labor. You know, my work is the teaching, the research, and the service. And if I can do that while being visibly trans, then that is an advantage to other people.

So you have different people from different age groups and backgrounds who are essentially going on the same journey.

GL: An interesting aspect of trans community is that we all have two ages, which is our number of years on the planet and our number of years since transition. 

And so there are people who are much older than me who have been in transition for a much shorter time than me. And they look to me for a certain kind of guidance on trans issues that I wouldn’t be able to give on any other topic. Likewise, there are people who are much younger than me who have been in transition for much longer than me who often know way more about this stuff than I do. And, you know, I think often about the ways in which younger trans people develop techniques, skills, habits for managing transition, and I just think, “I feel too old for this.” 

For example, if you look on YouTube, there are so many trans women doing vocal feminization techniques like moving your voice box in a particular way and speaking out of a particular part of your throat. And it works! But also, it’s just exhausting. I’m 37 years old; I have a career. That’s just not going to be part of my transition. I’m going to continue to have my weird voice, and I’m going to be okay with that.

From the Fall 2020 issue of California.
Image source: Grace Lavery
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