Sunday, November 23, 1997


At Ever-Tolerant Harvard, One Student's Cause Engenders Lots of Questions, but Little Controversy

By Paula Span
Washington Post Staff Writer

CAMBRIDGE, Mass._The plan is to meet at noon, near the pillars at Harkness Commons, after his applied mathematics class. Look for a guy with short dark hair, he says, and wire-rim glasses. And here he comes now, ambling across the Harvard campus, wearing the standard undergraduate uniform -- black jeans, denim shirt, work boots, thin silver ring through the inner curve of one ear.

"Hi, I'm Alex," he says. Firm handshake.

Would anyone know? Probably not.

Alex Myers, Class of '00, speaks in an unexceptional tenor. He is 19 years old. About 5 feet 6, he doesn't stand out from myriad other college men. Yet at another time, or in another place, he might well have ignited a serious scandal.

As a freshman last year, Myers moved into a coed dormitory called Greenough Hall, assigned to a single room on the all-male fourth floor. A bit of a nerd who piled on science and math courses, he objected when a neighbor blared rave music at night, but otherwise kept pretty much to himself. The other guys knew he came from a tiny Maine town via a prestigious prep school, Phillips Exeter Academy; they said hello in passing.

Anonymity was fine, for a while. But by the second month on campus, former Exeter classmates had started to gossip. And Myers himself felt uneasy about concealing an essential fact. "It makes me feel as though I'm ashamed of who I am," he reasoned. And he wasn't.

So he told his dorm mates the truth: For his first 17 years, he'd been Alice Myers, a tomboy who kept her hair short and loathed dresses but was, nonetheless, a girl. Just before her senior year at Exeter, however, Alice figured it out: Despite her female body, she felt like a man, a state known as being "transgendered."

So Alice legally changed her name; Myers's driver's license and Harvard ID now read Alex. But despite having jettisoned his Alice identity, he hadn't opted for hormone treatments or surgery, hadn't even seen a doctor. So technically -- biologically -- the guy in Room 407 still belonged to the female side of the species.

Perhaps the most arresting part of this story is what happened next, which was . . . practically nothing. Mild surprise followed by a collective so-what. Confronted with what might have seemed a masquerade, a falsehood, possibly a psychiatric disorder -- "to most people, transgenderism isn't something you expect to meet, it's something you see on `Oprah,' " notes Mike Hellerstein, one of Myers's dorm mates -- the men of Greenough Hall mostly shrugged. There was more fourth-floor bickering about loud music than about sharing bathrooms with a man who got menstrual cramps.

"There really wasn't any reason for a problem," says T. Timothy Wang, who roomed down the hall. "He didn't make a big production out of it. He was just like anyone else."

Well, no. But Myers and Harvard have proved a fortunate match: The student who insists on living in the gender that feels right even if it conflicts with physiology -- but insists he doesn't want to shock people -- has settled onto a campus and into a town (a k a the People's Republic of Cambridge) where shock can be downright difficult to produce.

Take the hate mail. It totaled exactly one letter, propped outside a student's door -- no, not Alex Myers's door. It was sent to a student government representative who had opposed Myers's proposal to protect the the transgendered from discrimination; it denounced him as a "jackbooted Nazi thug."

What Myers gets, publicly at least, is accolades. "He's seen as an inspiration," says Lamelle Rawlins, Harvard's student body president.

For a decade, the buzzword at universities and in the workplace has been diversity. Harvard's response to the case of Alex Myers shows its willingness to keep stretching the definition of diverse -- and if it formally amends its nondiscrimination code, as Myers is urging, other colleges may follow this bellwether institution.

Outside the rarefied, tolerant air of the academy, others might see something truly odd about all this. Is gender a decision? Can a person ignore chromosomes and private parts and declare him/herself to be other than what biology dictates? Is there no meaningful difference between someone who surgically transforms himself and someone who bases his manhood on feelings, nothing more than feelings?

`A Typographical Error'

As the new school year began, Myers took up residence at the Dudley Co-op, a gabled Victorian house on the edge of the campus where students cook communal meals in exchange for reduced room and board. With its slightly ratty furniture, wooden wire-spool table and postered walls, it's a throwback to every Cambridge student pad of 30 years ago. A detritus of books, bike helmets and backpacks has settled over just about every surface. Myers, in the kitchen rooting around for lunch, comes up with whole grain bread and natural peanut butter from a huge plastic tub.

In some ways, he's an heir to that earlier, more political era. His cramped single room upstairs (decorated with portraits of k.d. lang, the much less androgynous V.I. Lenin and Myers's personal deity, Elvis Presley) doesn't have a "Question Authority" bumper sticker on the door -- but it might as well. In other ways, of course, he makes the sexual revolution look quaint.

Articulate and poised, he seems intent on demonstrating how healthy he is, how levelheaded, how sane. Whatever emotional turmoil he encountered on his way to deciding that "he" is the proper pronoun for Alex Myers, it's not on display. "I've always been in favor of finding the best in a situation, finding the people who accept me, leaving the others behind and moving on," he says coolly, eating his highly organic sandwich.

This is the person who, packaged in a more serious navy blazer and tie, sat in the Exeter library almost two years ago, hoping to persuade an interviewer that he was Harvard material.

Myers thought things were going well. He had high grades, varsity letters in lacrosse and ice hockey, the slight edge that comes from having a Harvard-grad father. The interviewer, a middle-age alumnus, "wanted to know what clubs I was involved in, what field I wanted to go into, all those typical questions," Myers recalls.

Then the guy picked up Myers's transcript to check some detail. "He goes, `Oh my goodness, someone's made a typographical error.' " The transcript, pre-name change, still read Alice.

"No, that's actually my legal name," Myers told him, explaining. He has gotten used to explaining. "There was a pause . . . I have no idea what thoughts were going through his head." The man finally said, "I see." After one or two more questions, the interview was over. Myers hoped his Harvard career wasn't over as well.

A few weeks later, Harvard called to say it was sending a second interviewer. There followed another chat in the library, during which neither applicant nor interviewer mentioned gender at all.

And now, here's Myers the Harvard sophomore, the geology major, the occasional intramural wrestler on a coed team. The newly elected representative to the Undergraduate Council. The treasurer of the campus Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Supporters Alliance -- or BGLTSA, which keeps adding more initials but never had a T for transgendered until last year, when Myers pointedly asked why not. His girlfriend -- an Exeter classmate who's at Brown -- takes the bus up on weekends. She is, biologically and behavorially, female. They describe their relationship as "heterosexual."

Confused? Alex Myers isn't -- at least not anymore.


Growing up in rural southwestern Maine, Alice Myers was so androgynous that she often was mistaken for a boy. She had screaming fights with her mother when she was forced to put on a dress, "the ultimate statement of femininity," for special occasions. "There was no way to be who I thought I was and wear a dress," Myers says.

Always an outdoorsy kid eager to traipse through the woods with her older brother and his pals, Alice left Paris, Maine, to enter ninth grade at Exeter. Shortly after arriving, she decided that she was a lesbian.

It seemed a solution to a persistent sense of being "different from other girls," Myers recalls. That's a trait any therapist who works with the transgendered would recognize, an early sense that "who I thought I was" didn't match the body nature had provided.

But how many ninth-graders would know what it meant? "I hadn't met any transgendered people, but I'd met a fair number of lesbians," Alex says now. "I figured there was a place for me in the lesbian community as a sort of masculine woman."

Which worked for a while. Alice threw herself into nonstop athletics and academics to avoid thinking too much. "But when I did think about it, who I was, there wasn't anyone who understood me."

Then in the summer after her junior year, studying at the Harvard Summer Program, Alice encountered the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth. The dawn came up. There were actually other people who, like her, had always seen themselves as belonging to the opposite gender -- and were "transitioning," with or without medical assistance, from one side of the great divide to the other. "I'd listen to these trans-people tell about their experiences and I'd realize that what they'd said could have come out of my mouth," Alex says.

Alice became Alex at Exeter in the fall of '95, perhaps not as dramatic a change as it sounds. "It's not like Alex assumed a male identity; he always had it," says his brother, Seth, a senior at George Washington University. "If you'd known Alex as Alice, you'd still see the same person."

His parents, who now live in the District, regard the gender turnabout a little differently. Though Myers asked that they not be interviewed, he acknowledged that they had found his announcement "difficult." After all, Alice, for 17 years the daughter of a lawyer father and a mother who works with disabled children, came home from a summer in Cambridge and said, "Mom, Dad, sit down, I have something to tell you. I'm a man." How could it fail to be shocking?

His father has worried about Alex's happiness; he fretted to Alex's brother that being transgendered sounded "like a tortured road." Alex's mother sometimes tangles her pronouns -- once, stumbling between "he" and "she," frustratedly called Alex "it." But, Seth reports, "We're all getting better at this. We all love Alex very much."

As Oprah, Geraldo, et al. have demonstrated, this is a story that, with variations, thousands could tell. Experts use the word "transgendered" to refer to a spectrum of people uncomfortable with their biological gender, from the occasional cross-dresser to the person who undertakes physical conversion via surgery and hormones. The latter are sometimes called transsexuals, but the nomenclature is still under debate, along with such unanswerable questions as how many transgendered people exist and what makes them the way they are. Early pioneers in the field thought most transgendered people were males who wanted to be females (called MTFs) -- but now it appears that there are equal numbers of FTMs, like Alex Myers.

Unlike many of them, though, Myers is willing to live with a certain incongruity. He isn't signing up for any medical treatment. He's suspicious of the long-term effects of taking testosterone, even though it would provide such badges of maleness as a beard and a baritone. He's equally leery of the arduous and expensive "sex-reassignment surgery" -- in his case involving a hysterectomy, a double mastectomy with chest reconstruction, and construction of a small phallus using skin from the forearm -- that would make him more fully (but never completely) male.

"If you're fundamentally unhappy with your life, surgery's not going to cure that," he proclaims. "I'm living a happy and successful life. I don't think it would make me any happier to be male."

Avoiding locker rooms and group showers, he probably could have passed as a Harvard man for some time. Outside Greenough Hall, few knew about his female chromosomes. It was Myers's decision to push the university -- to pledge even greater tolerance than it had already demonstrated -- that made his name, his cause and his unstubbled face public.

`Rules Were Bent'

Last winter, nervously facing the Undergraduate Council in a small amphitheater, Myers explained yet again what it meant to be transgendered. He wanted the student government group to amend its constitution to add "gender identity" to the growing list of categories protected from discrimination. He also wanted the council to recommend that the university change its own campus-wide nondiscrimination code.

"Alex went in and blew everyone away," says Rawlins, the first woman to be elected Harvard student body president. "He was so honest and so brave."

Understand that Harvard hasn't actually discriminated against Myers. Quite the opposite: besides offering the second interview, it acceded to his request for a single room and assigned him a dorm where the shared bathrooms had only one shower and toilet each, barring any need for mass disrobing. "A lot of rules were bent," Myers acknowledges, "to ensure that I had a comfortable first year." But Myers wanted nondiscrimination to go beyond generosity, to written policy.

Not an unprecedented idea: Ordinances forbidding discrimination against the transgendered have been enacted in municipalities including San Francisco and Evanston, Ill., as well as Cambridge itself. Minnesota amended its definition of sexual orientation to include the transgendered; several other cities and states offer protection under sexual orientation or disability provisions. But local governments don't generally get involved in choosing roommates for their citizens or in awarding varsity letters. The few students who spoke against the bill pointed out that Harvard does.

Myers was braced for some of their arguments. There was the religious objection: God created little boys and little girls, one council member argued, and who was this freshman to meddle with what He had wrought? There was also the psychiatric challenge, from a sophomore member named Stephen Mitby: Transgenderism constitutes a mental disorder. (Mainstream psychiatric opinion is shifting on this point, but the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the American Psychiatric Association's bible, still lists several categories of "gender identity disorder.")

Most debaters, however, pondered more pragmatic concerns. If the university couldn't discriminate, could any male who declared himself female move onto a women's floor? Share the bathrooms (and probably leave the seat up)? Could a sprinter too sluggish to make the men's track team decide he was really transgendered and join the women's instead?

Would male-to-female transgendered students be eligible for affirmative action benefits? What about the women's-only grants and scholarships still awarded by Radcliffe College, Harvard's sister school? Would the university code -- which already forbids discrimination based on 10 categories including sexual orientation and political beliefs -- eventually be 10 pages long?

"It's confusing," says junior Justin Danilewitz, who wrote a politely skeptical column in the Crimson, the student daily. It envisioned high school students confronting Harvard applications with three boxes to check -- Male, Female, Other -- and opting for Yale instead. "What's being said is, genitalia no longer matter," Danilewitz says. "It strikes me as a difficult argument to make when, for thousands of years, that's been the overriding factor in sexual identity."

And yes, that is exactly the argument being made: that sex is biology, but gender is a mutable social construct. Or that, as a famous San Francisco cross-dresser once said, sex is what's between the legs but gender is what's between the ears. People are already protected from discrimination on the basis of what's between their legs, the theory goes; why should gender be different?

The Undergraduate Council, by the three-quarters majority required to amend its constitution, agreed. It probably helped, Myers thinks, that two opponents transgressed what he considers the bounds of courtesy and referred to him, apparently deliberately, with female pronouns. He remembers his shock at at hearing "she" and "her" -- the audience actually gasped -- but says that "in the end, I'm grateful. . . . People kind of wanted to distance themselves from what was clearly hatred."

Though in truth, aside from a couple of tense speeches that night, the campus debate has been extraordinarily well mannered. In the months since, the whole issue has largely disappeared.

But Myers and others urging the university to amend its nondiscrimination code don't want it to. They tend to be vague about how the policy would actually be implemented; they're content to leave that to Harvard and the NCAA to figure out. But they want the principle enshrined.

Harvard's not so sure. Harry Lewis, dean of Harvard College, has met several times with students urging a change in the code. The discussions have been cordial, but Lewis thinks "the community needs to understand the issue better" before there's any action. Besides, "we very strongly believe in treating students as individuals, not as representatives of classes."

Even a veteran of the last campaign to amend the code, which culminated in the inclusion of "sexual orientation" in 1985, hasn't decided about this one yet. "I'm not clear enough on the issue to have an opinion," says philosophy professor Warren Goldfarb. But he's aware that what Harvard does has an impact; after that 1985 decision, many universities, he says, "became less afraid" of gay rights and followed suit.

Now, outside his office window, members of the BGLTSA are exuberantly celebrating National Coming Out Day by distributing literature in front of Widener Library. This is an organization that's several times larger than the 111-year-old Republican Club, whose president swears that at Harvard, it's easier to declare oneself g-a-y than GOP. Abba's on the boombox, and several members are dancing atop Widener's imposing granite stairs. "Come out, come out, wherever you are!" they carol.

`A Third Sex'

If all Alex Myers wanted was acceptance as a physiological female who lives as a man, he could stop meeting with deans and giving interviews. He's got that -- at least until he graduates and faces a society in which transgendered people may find offensive pronouns the least of their problems.

Some of this rampant tolerance is generational: Opinion polls repeatedly portray the young as more at ease in an international, multiracial, polysexual universe than their elders. And some of it, at least on this campus, is less about politics than about the premium placed on worldliness.

"Unimpressed is very big here," says Courtney Powell, who as a freshman in Greenough Hall last year watched the Alex Myers Story evolve. "It's the attitude of choice. Nothing should shock you."

This bothers some people, notably conservatives like Heather Clayton, co-founder of the campus Republican Alliance, who frets that "it's hip to adopt an anything-goes mentality. There aren't clean lines of acceptable versus non-acceptable."

It seems, though, that Clayton and others haven't yet grasped Myers's true, not particularly hidden, agenda. He doesn't want just to cross gender lines; he'd like to obliterate them.

Already, mental health professionals seem to be revising the idea that the transgendered have a mental disorder requiring treatment. "Psychiatry is much more respectful and agnostic about sexual and gender variety than it used to be," says Lawrence Hartmann, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist who's past president of the American Psychiatric Association. He's read about Myers and notes that "apparently, this person is functioning quite well. Most [psychiatrists] wouldn't leap in to label this as pathology."

And therapists who work with transgendered clients scoff at the notion that anyone would change genders merely to play a sport or nail a scholarship. Where Myers is unusual, even among the transgendered, is in seeking no medical help to become male. But his decision has some logic, since the surgical outcome for women who want to be men is far less satisfactory than male-to-female surgery.

In fact, the non-surgical solution is said to be spreading among younger transgendered people, already more comfortable with bluejeaned, nose-ringed androgyny. Maybe, just as the stereotypes of what's "womanly" and "manly" are fading, the notion that everyone is strictly woman or man -- and that one's body is the sole determinant -- is open to question.

Pat Califia, author of "Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism," swears she sees it happening: "A lot of [transgendered] people say, `I'm not a man or a woman, I'm both, I'm neither . . . a third sex.' "

Which is essentially where Alice-now-Alex stands. "I'd like to trash the entire binary system," he says with relish. "I consider myself outside the realm of this man-woman thing. . . . I'm not trying to be more masculine or less feminine; I'm trying to be myself."

Love Is a Many-Gendered Thing

Myers's girlfriend, Lexi Adams, up for the weekend, turns out to be a buoyant redhead in a tank top and jeans. They're happy to see each other, joshing affectionately on their way to a darkened bistro for dinner. They don't hold hands or otherwise touch, which might have to do with personal style, or a reporter's presence, or the still-unfolding complexities of a "heterosexual" relationship involving two females -- who knows?

What does emerge over the steak (his) and salmon (hers) is a sense of gender that's fluid, to say the least. Myers mentions his summer job as a forest ranger in Wyoming, which is not like Cambridge. He lived as a man because, well, "I didn't want to get hung." On the other hand, he allowed himself to be regarded as a woman to secure a Radcliffe grant, which he used to bring a transgendered speaker to campus. Adams, for her part, is looking forward to a conference for gay, lesbian and transgendered youth, even though -- by her own definitions -- she's none of the above; she's just interested in the subject.

She likes to tell about the Exeter assembly where three middle-aged women in poodle skirts singing '50s songs ("it was pretty scary") asked for a volunteer Elvis impersonator, and Myers, whose veneration of The King was lifelong, obliged with a vigorous version of "Blue Suede Shoes." She thinks it's a funny tale. Myers likes it, too, for a somewhat different reason; when one of the doo-woppers commented on "his" performance, "someone had announced to the whole school that I passed" as a man.

He's grateful for the looser standards that prevail, at least here in the People's Republic. He doesn't have to go to extremes to pass. Yet he also recognizes that he might one day have a change of heart about a change of anatomy: He might yet decide to take hormones or to have some or all of the surgery. He might want a beard. He might want a penis. "I'm famous for changing my mind," he says, unnecessarily.

He sees no contradiction in the things he is. A future scientist. A jock. A man who menstruates. A sophomore nervously planning to bring his girlfriend home for Thanksgiving to meet his parents.

A practiced interpreter of "All Shook Up."

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