A Time of Transition

Illustration by Cathy Gendron

In this cradle of intellectual exploration, transgender people at Williams are on that most basic human quest—figuring out who they are. Illustration by Cathy Gendron.

College is a chrysalis into which 3 million hopeful young freshmen enter each fall. Four years later, most emerge smarter, surer, more worldly—ready to spread their wings.

For some students, the metamorphosis is far more significant, and more fundamental, than deciding whether to major in anthropology or astrophysics.

They start college as one gender. They leave as another.

No one knows exactly what portion of the population is born feeling out of sync with their assigned sex. By any measure, the number at Williams is small. But so is the college. And for students making decisions about how they will present themselves to peers and strangers alike, Williams’ close-knit community can be intimidating even as it is comforting. While most people yearn for acceptance, trans people are also coming to accept themselves. And for some the only way to do that is to switch to the gender they feel they were meant to be.

This self-discovery complicates every aspect of campus life, from the gender boxes prospective students must select on their college applications to the names printed on graduating seniors’ diplomas. In between, they worry about housing assignments, physical education classes, and which bathrooms to use. They wonder if they’ll be able to find friends who support them, if they’ll find doctors and therapists if they need them, and if they’ll be able to pay the doctors if insurance won’t.

“Personal transitions are like wooden Russian dolls,” says Norman Spack ’65, an endocrinologist who has done pioneering work with transgender youth through Boston Children’s Hospital (work for which he received a Bicentennial Medal from the college in September). “Open the outermost, and there’s another within. It’s equally shiny, often different, and hopefully pleasing to the eye.”

Read more of this story in the fall 2012 issue of Williams Magazine.