Transgender student shares coming-​​out story

By Jason Kornwitz
Photos by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

‘Space to think’

Alex Ahmed had already told most of her friends, breaking the news in one nerve-racking conversation after another. But now she wanted to make it Facebook official. It was June 19, the third Friday of the month—her 26th birthday. “Dear everyone!” Ahmed began, writing on her Facebook wall. “I feel like this is a good time to make this post. I’m transgender—I identify as female and use she/her pronouns. As Biggie said,” she added, referring to the late Notorious B.I.G., “If ya don’t know, now ya know.”

Much to Ahmed’s relief, the disclosure of her gender identity on the social networking site was met with unanimous support, reflecting the reaction of the friends and family members to whom she had already revealed her true self. “Coming out,” she explained, “was like showing people who I am for the very first time. I wasn’t a different person, but there was something about me that was very different, something that could change how you see me.”

There’s a special power in being able to tell your story— Alex Ahmed

19 states plus Washington, D.C. have passed employment non-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation and gender identityAhmed, PhD’19, is one of approximately 700,000 transgender people living in the U.S. Like reality TV star Caitlyn Jenner and new White House staffer Raffi Freedman-Gurspan, she has a unique coming-out story to tell, a singular narrative reflecting the strength, wisdom, and compassion of the transgender community as well as the values of Northeastern University. For her, no topic is too taboo, no subject off limits. “I didn’t just wake up one morning and know I was transgender,” she said. “When I had finally figured it out, I had already thought about it every day for the previous three years.”

Ahmed grew up in Fremont, California, a city in the southeast section of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her parents, she said, did not discuss gender identity with her nor her younger brother, who is now 20. As she explained, “I didn’t know what it meant to be transgender.”

In her youth, Ahmed ignored the on-again, off-again “feelings” that cropped up—“the feelings that I wasn’t a guy”—and got on with her life. In 2008, she enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, where she studied cognitive science and worked for the school’s satirical newspaper. While writing up quirky pieces for the publication in 2011, Ahmed, then a senior, met Robin Betz, then a freshman, who shared her passion for humor, parody, and caricature.

The pair started dating in the spring of 2011 and then took up a long distance relationship in the summer, when Ahmed moved to New Haven, Connecticut, to work in Yale University’s Child Neuroscience Lab. The time alone, Ahmed explained, gave her the “space to think about what it would be like to express myself differently.” She began seeing a therapist; she read Whipping Girl, a 2007 manifesto by transgender theorist, biologist, and writer Julia Serano; and one day she sent Betz an email, announcing that she had been experiencing gender dysphoria. “I didn’t come out to her as transgender,” Ahmed recalled. “I told her that there was something about me that needed to be different.”

hair-cut-2Betz said that she was confused by the email, noting that the electronic missive marked the first time that Ahmed had broached the subject of her gender identity. But the revelation did nothing to sully the relationship. Ahmed and Betz remained committed to each other, Skyping daily and playing online video games together. Their discussions frequently centered on Ahmed’s therapy sessions and her progressive journey toward self-discovery. “I feel nice in girls’ clothes,” Ahmed confided in Betz. “I want to grow my hair out,” she noted on another occasion. “I don’t know why, but thinking about getting it cut feels bad.”

Over the next two years, Ahmed kept returning to one of the most popular questions posed by the gender nonconforming population: Am I trans enough to come out? Betz, for her part, was pretty sure that Ahmed would make the male to female transition and took this time to prepare for the change in her partner’s physical appearance. “During this process of discovery,” Betz said, “I tried my best to be a supportive partner and refrain from saying or doing anything that could trigger her dysphoria.”

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‘A safe place’

Ahmed completed her two-year stint in Yale’s Child Neuroscience Lab in June of 2013 and then returned to UCSD in July. She moved in with Betz, then a rising senior, and started working as a research associate in the university’s Machine Perception Laboratory. The couple spent the next several months pondering their future plans and then applied to graduate programs in early 2014, hoping to study at the same school—or, at least, in the same state. But there were preconditions—Ahmed, for instance, was pretty sure that she was going to transition and needed to matriculate into a doctoral program in order to pay for her medical expenses—and the couple resumed their long-distance relationship out of sheer necessity. By the time classes began in the fall of 2014, Ahmed was living in Boston and studying in the personal health informatics doctoral program at Northeastern. Betz remained on the West Coast, studying biophysics at Stanford University. “We tried to synch up our locations,” Ahmed said, “but I had to come out here.”

A big reason why Ahmed chose Northeastern was professor Matthew Goodwin, one of the co-founders of the personal health informatics doctoral program and the principal investigator of the Computational Behavioral Science Lab, where she is currently working as a graduate research assistant. The student and the professor first met in the fall of 2013, at UCSD, where Ahmed was a research associate and Goodwin was a subcontract principal investigator on a project focused on developing new technologies to automate the evaluation of pediatric pain in the hospital setting. Goodwin pitched Ahmed on the merits of the personal health informatics program, trying hard to recruit her for her computational prowess. Ahmed, in return, told Goodwin that she was mulling over the possibility of transitioning and wanted to know how he’d handle the change. “I had to know he was cool with it before I came to Northeastern,” Ahmed said, “because I knew I could be in his lab for five years.” Goodwin was unequivocally supportive, highlighting Northeastern’s culture of inclusion, mutual respect, and understanding across cul­ture, race, reli­gion, eth­nicity, and sexual ori­en­ta­tion. “Northeastern is very tolerant of diversity,” he said, “and I told her that it would be a safe place.”

Coming out was like showing people who I am for the very first time. I wasn’t a different person, but there was something about me that was very different, something that could change how you see me—Alex Ahmed

Another reason why Ahmed chose Northeastern was its proximity to Fenway Health, the nation’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender healthcare facility. Founded in 1971 by a group of Northeastern students who believed that “healthcare should be a right, not a privilege,” the Boston-based organization served 134,000 patients in 2014—including Ahmed. Ahmed, who officially came out to most of her friends and family in the fall of 2014, scheduled her initial appointment with Fenway Health just one week into her first semester on campus and then started hormone therapy on the final day of October. Aside from doling out $20 for each visit to the health center and $10 per month for her estrogen pills, her transgender care is completely free. As she put it, “I’m really lucky. Fenway Health is awesome.”

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‘Voice is such an important part of identity’

While hormone therapy assuaged Ahmed’s gender dysphoria, she didn’t begin presenting as female until this spring. She waited, she said, for the effects of the estrogen pills to kick in, and frequently scrutinized her looks in private. “Estrogen takes time to work,” she explained, “and I worried that I wasn’t going to be seen correctly.”

Ahmed still frets over her physical appearance in public, clinging to “irrational fears” like walking down the street with a patch of stubble on her face, and she is somewhat self-conscious about the sound of her voice too. “I’m constantly evaluating myself, and it hurts me if I’m not presenting in the way that matches my identity,” she said. “I worry about being harassed or attacked if people can see or hear that I’m trans.”

voice-2One day in the spring of 2014, Ahmed was inspired to harness her technological acumen and tackle the voice-identity conundrum. It was Admitted Students Day at Northeastern and she was touring associate professor of speech language pathology and audiology Rupal Patel’s Communication Analysis and Design Laboratory. After Patel had summarized her work to create custom synthetic voices for individuals with severe speech impediments, Ahmed spoke up, talking before an assembly of her prospective peers and professors. “I know a group of people who have speech issues too,” she said, and then expressed interest in creating a free vocal-training app for transgender people. “That sounds really cool,” Patel replied, compelling Ahmed to delve deeper into the ins and outs of the technology.

Ahmed eventually submitted a funding proposal to the National Science Foundation and received the good news in March, winning a $102,000 Graduate Research Fellowship to build a voice-training app for Android. She plans to write her thesis on the app’s efficacy and wants Patel to be part of her dissertation committee. “I think the app is a much needed tool to help with voice identity realignment for transgender people,” Patel explained. “Voice is such an important part of identity, one that is so intricately tied to the physical form and societal norms.”

uptalk-2The app will record and track vocal qualities like pitch and uptalk—a manner of speaking in which declarative sentences are uttered with rising intonation at the end. Users will receive feedback via graphic visualizations, indicating how close they are to achieving the desired sound of their voice, and every metric will be subjective, based solely on their end goals. “I definitely don’t want the app to tell the user that her voice is 95 percent female,” Ahmed explained, by way of example. “That is insulting and not correct, since people have a wide range of voices.” It will include a community platform, allowing users to record, upload, and then share their stories. Noting that she would like prospective interview participants to contact her, Ahmed said, “I want it to attract people who want to share their own narratives. The trans community is filled with brilliant people with stories we don’t get to hear.”

Northeastern is very tolerant of diversity, and I told her that it would be a safe place— Matthew Goodwin

‘We’re all nerds here’

Ahmed’s experience as a transgender student at Northeastern has been largely positive. She feels safe on campus, despite new data showing that transgender college students nationwide face a particularly high risk of sexual assault and harassment, and keeps a small circle of close friends. “They’re super cool,” she noted, “and I’m glad I’ve met them.” Ahmed is particularly active in Northeastern’s Tabletop Roleplaying Society, a student organization where she spends much of her free time. She joined in October 2014, volunteering to participate in a pen-and-paper roleplaying game called Mage: The Ascension, and then emailed the club in January, informing them of her decision to transition. The reaction, noted club president Steven Pletcher, was unequivocally positive, summed up in the simple phrase, “Cool, thanks for telling us.”

cisgenderPletcher, CIS’16, is keenly aware of the male-dominated nature of tabletop gaming and has worked hard to diversify the group’s demographics. “Tabletop gaming has a reputation for being dominated by cisgender white guys,” he said, “so I’ve been going out of my way to make sure that that’s more of a demographics issue than one of exclusion.” Ahmed, for her part, has found a home away from home at the club, a place to hang out and have fun with like-minded gamers. “We’re all nerds here,” Pletcher explained. “When new nerds show up to the club, we usually hang out a lot and end up becoming friends. It’s as simple as that.”

If only everything were so simple. A few weeks ago, Ahmed was harassed by a stranger on the subway, a 50-something male who persisted in invading her personal space. And class, she said, has been “tough.” Since the spring semester, when she began presenting as female, a number of students and professors have accidentally misgendered her. In most cases, she’s hashed out the misunderstandings, but the immediate impact has always left her feeling hurt. As she put it, “It’s important to be respectful of pronouns. It’s a matter of having your identity validated.” To her, politely asking transgender people which pronoun they would like you to use is perfectly acceptable, but asking private questions, particularly those pertaining to their surgical status or sex life, is strictly off limits. “Don’t ask invasive questions,” she advised. “It’s hard to blame people who don’t know any better, but it’s not too hard to educate yourself.”

Experiences of Discrimination and Violence in Public Accommodations for Transgender People

Location Denied Equal Treatment Harassed or Disrespected Physically Assaulted
Retail Store 32% 37% 3%
Police Officer 20% 29% 6%
Doctor’s Office or Hospital 24% 25% 2%
Hotel or Restaurant 19% 25% 2%
Government Agency/Official 22% 22% 1%
Bus, Train, or Taxi 9% 22% 4%
Emergency Room 13% 16% 1%
Airplane or Airport Staff/TSA 11% 17% 1%
Judge or Court Official 12% 12% 1%
Mental Health Clinic 11% 12% 1%
Legal Services Clinic 8% 6% 1%
Ambulance or EMT 5% 7% 1%
Domestic Violence Shelter/ Program 6% 4% 1%
Rape Crisis Center 5% 4% 1%
Drug Treatment Program 3% 4% 1%

Source: National Trans­gender Dis­crim­i­na­tion Survey

Ahmed noted that Laverne Cox, the award-winning transgender actress of Orange is the New Black fame, responded perfectly to journalist Katie Couric’s particularly invasive question about her genitals—a highly-publicized gaffe whose response went viral. “The preoccupation with surgery objectifies trans women, and then we really, really don’t get to deal with the lived experiences,” Cox told Couric in an appearance on her now defunct daytime talk show in January 2014. “The reality of trans people’s lives is that so often we’re the targets of violence. We experience rates of discrimination disproportionately to the rest of the community.”

The numbers bear this out: According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, 90 percent of transgender and gender nonconforming people experience harassment, mistreatment, or discrimination on the job. More than 40 percent attempt suicide. Ahmed, who is familiar with the survey, pointed out that family acceptance was found to have a protective effect against threats to the well-being of transgender people, including suicide, homelessness, and drug use. And, she said, “this underscores how hugely important it is for us to support the trans community.”

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‘The holy trinity of awesome’

Following its release in June, Ahmed and Betz binge-watched the first season of Sense8, the new science-fiction series created by Andy and Lana Wachowski of The Matrix trilogy. It’s far from the only TV show depicting transgender people—for starters, there’s Transparent and Orange is the New Black, Becoming Us and I Am Cait—but it’s Ahmed’s favorite.

In the show, transgender actress Jamie Clayton portrays transgender hacktivist Nomi Marks, a 20-something who was raised in an upper middle class family and now lives with her girlfriend in San Francisco. Marks is based in part on Lana, the first major Hollywood filmmaker to come out as transgender, and represents TV’s first transgender character whose storyline does not center on transitioning. As Ahmed put it, “You have a trans filmmaker directing a trans actor portraying a trans experience. That’s the holy trinity of awesome.”

For her, TV stars like Cox and Clayton—not to mention non-transgender actor Jeffrey Tambor, who recently won an Emmy award for his portrayal of Maura Pfefferman in Transparent—have played a crucial role in breaking pervasive transgender stereotypes in mainstream pop culture. “The status quo is that trans characters are sex objects or the butt of jokes,” Ahmed explained, “and the common narrative is designed to make you feel disgusted or feel superior.” Cox, Clayton, and Tambor, on the other hand, all play strong, determined women—women who fight for their beliefs, who stand up for what’s right. In the second episode of Sense8, for instance, Clayton’s Marks delivers an impassioned speech in advance of an LGBTQ pride parade, a speech that garnered widespread acclaim from the transgender community. “Today,” Marks proclaims, “I march to remember that I’m not just a me. I’m also a we. We march with pride.”

The trans community is filled with brilliant people with stories we don’t get to hear— Alex Ahmed

Like Marks, Ahmed is motivated to march on—to share her story and encourage other transgender people to hone their own narrative. “There’s a special power,” she said, “in being able to tell your story.”

About the Writer

Jason Kornwitz

Jason Kornwitz, AS' 08, has called Northeastern home since 2003. In his spare time, he enjoys playing sports, watching pretentious movies, and cooking kingly breakfasts. Follow him on Twitter @jasonkornwitz.

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