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Faculty Spotlight

On Coming Out as Transgender

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By Professor Ava Ayers

Today I announced to the law school community that I'm transgender. My new name is Ava, and my pronouns are she/her. This may feel like new and uncertain territory for a lot of people—it certainly does for me. Many of us don't know any trans people personally; in fact I didn't know any trans people when I realized I was trans. I wanted to write this piece because there are some pretty common questions that come up, and not everyone feels sure whether it's okay to ask them. 

When I say I'm transgender, what I mean is something like this: at birth, I was identified as a boy, and I've lived in that gender role until now. But it has felt deeply wrong to me. The sense of wrongness is a form of what's called "gender dysphoria." I have a powerful internal sense that I'm female. If you've never experienced gender dysphoria, it will be hard for you to imagine what this is like. But even if cisgender (non-transgender) people can't understand what it's like to experience gender dysphoria, they can still respect it. My gender identity—my sense of my own gender—is as real and as strong as anyone else's.

I'm also deeply grateful for all of the support I've gotten from so many people. My spouse, my two daughters, my parents, and the rest of our families have been wonderful throughout this transition, and I'm grateful beyond words to have all of them in my life. So many trans people lose marriages or close family relationships or friendships when they transition, and I'm so grateful I haven't.

I'm also very lucky and privileged to have a workplace where I feel supported and accepted for who I am. My colleagues on the faculty and staff have been wonderful, and I'm especially grateful to Alicia Ouellette, our dean, for working so hard to make sure the law school does everything it can to support me. Of course, every workplace should be welcoming, but a lot of trans people have good reason to be afraid to come out at work. I'm so glad that work, for me, is a safe place to be who I am.

As for how to talk about this: I want people to know that being trans isn't, for me, a taboo subject. I don't mind talking about it; it's a fact about me, like the fact that I grew up in Guilderland. I especially don't mind talking about it with students, because being a professor is my dream job, which means helping students learn about new things is what I love.

With that said, it's also important for people to understand that being trans doesn't make me an expert on gender-identity issues. There are some areas of law that intersect with gender-identity questions where I happen to have some expertise, and others where I don't know anything at all. Also, very importantly, I can't speak for other trans people. Experiences of gender identity are extremely diverse. So if I tell you about my experiences, you shouldn't assume that other trans people have similar experiences.

Also, the fact that I'm comfortable talking about my gender identity doesn't mean that I'm comfortable answering all questions about it under any possible circumstances. Something I've heard other trans people say that seems very helpful is: if you're not sure whether a question is too personal or too invasive to ask, imagine I was a cisgender person and you were asking a question about the same topic. Would it feel appropriate? For example, unless you would have asked me about medical issues and treatments when you thought I was cisgender, it's best to avoid asking those questions now. 

If you're not sure, it's always okay to ask me what topics I'm comfortable talking about. Again, different trans people are comfortable with different things, and of course my own feelings about this may change. It's never a mistake to ask me whether I'd be comfortable talking about a topic.

A question that comes up sometimes is how to refer to me when talking about things that happened before I changed my name. For example, when I started teaching at the law school in 2016, everyone thought my name was Andrew Ayers. So would it be better to say, "When Andy started teaching" or "When Ava started teaching"?

In general, I would prefer you use "Ava." In my mind, I've always been Ava; it just took a while to let everyone know. (This, I suspect, is another example of something that may be hard for a person who isn't transgender to understand, but it's a powerful reality to me.) 

That said, I don't mind if you need to use the name "Andy" to make clear who you're talking about. For example, if you're describing me to someone who doesn't yet know I've transitioned, you'll probably have to mention my former name to avoid confusion, and that's fine. (Again, different trans people have different experiences: some trans people wouldn't want you to use their former name under any circumstances.)

Some people have been worried about how I'll feel if they make a mistake and use the wrong name or pronouns. It's going to happen! Learning to use a new name means changing a habit, and habits take time to break. I like the advice I've seen other trans people give: if you get someone's name or pronouns wrong, just say you're sorry, correct yourself, and move on. There's no need to make a big deal out of it. 

I'll be patient with you if you'll be patient with me: It's going to take me a while to settle into a way of dressing, talking, and presenting myself that feels right. If I were cisgender, I would have spent the last 40 years working out my personal style, so I have a lot of catching up to do. You're likely to see gradual changes and some awkwardness along the way. 

I'm happy to report that the question people most often ask is how they can support me as I go through this transition. Some people ask whether it's appropriate to say "congratulations," and I usually say that anything supportive is a lovely thing to say, and "congratulations" feels like a nice thing to say to someone on the occasion of their coming out or announcing a transition. And if you hear someone saying transphobic things, whether I'm present or not, it's important to tell them to stop.

But one of the easiest things you can do to support me is just to call me by my real name and the pronouns that reflect my gender identity. It's hard to describe or explain how meaningful it is to hear people use my name and pronouns, so I'll just say the impact is profound. To the people who've already started doing this, and everyone who's been working hard to support me, I'm more grateful than I could ever say.