Search

Some Nerd Girl

Some Like It Nerdy

Category

Tessa

A Young Man’s Guide to Becoming a Nerd Girl, Epilogue: Fight for Your Rights

After I finished my previous series on my transition and what it’s taught me, I realized that while there was much to celebrate about trans identities, I hadn’t really gotten into the darker aspects of trans life. After all, in addition to the often-exhausting psychological struggle of gender dysphoria, trans people also still face considerable oppression, both legally and socially- and the numbers are truly staggering.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2011[1], 90% of trans people faced harassment in the workplace,  78% at school, and 53% while trying to use public accommodations.

1950sValues

Statistically, we are twice as likely to be unemployed, and 19% of us have been homeless at one point in our lives due to our gender identity (with 11% being evicted from our homes and apartments for being trans). 19% have  dealt with police harassment (particularly trans people of color)- a specter even more alarming when the near-universal policy of housing trans people with their assigned-at-birth gender (e.g., trans women with men) is factored in.  57% have reported significant family rejection, exacerbating much of the difficulty trans individuals face.  Finally, the cumulative effects of this intense discrimination is clear- 41% of trans people have attempted suicide, an order of magnitude above the general population.  Worse yet, an alarming number of trans people are murdered each year, with trans women of color being especially vulnerable.

SuicidePrevention
Click for International Hotlines

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve had a comparatively easy transition- my family, friends, partner, and colleagues have all accepted, and often even celebrated, my identity- but even I have been subjected to my share of hatred.  In 2014, when I started my transition, my fiancée was in her final year of veterinary school at Washington State University.  After word of my transition began to circulate, we discovered that at least three of her fellow vet students had spent some of their break time between shifts at the veterinary teaching hospital having rather involved conversations featuring gross speculation on both my anatomy and the nature of our sex life.  The matter was serious enough that she  filed a complaint with the university’s Office of Equal Opportunity, which subsequently launched an investigation into the incident.  Unfortunately, nothing came of the investigation, as none of the other students who witnessed it directly were willing to come forward (something that is all too common in these scenarios).

After three and half years of being told that her fellow students would have her back, the fact that no one would speak up for her was a tremendous betrayal- one that was honestly traumatizing for her, and which she has only recently begun to recover from.  For me, it was a rude awakening to the fact that I was now part of a marginalized community. It may not seem like much to the outside observer, but it’s hard to describe how crushing it is to be dehumanized in such manner- to have an identity that you, or someone you dearly love, have fought hard to accept and embrace, only for it to be reduced to a spectacle, a sideshow, for the entertainment of others.  And that’s the best case scenario- after the incident, we never really felt safe at the university, since casual Othering can easily evolve into more overt forms of discrimination, or even violence (for example, we had genuine concerns of whether or not it’d be safe for me to go to her graduation ceremony, since what if some of those students’ family members considered me an abomination that needed to be purged?)

OddOneOut

And yet, this only a minor example of the transphobia my community faces on a regular basis.  It doesn’t just come from our coworkers or fellow students, either- we see it in the media (where we’re often portrayed as either mentally ill and dangerous villains, or pathetic, deluded victims), in the punchline of jokes, and in our places of worship.

More ominously, we’ve seen it coming from our governments- in the past year, an increasing number of anti-LGBT legislation has been proposed in state legislatures (often under the guise of “religious freedom” bills), with actual laws being passed by in North Carolina and Mississippi.  Many of these target trans people in particular- so-called “bathroom bills”, which, if passed, would legally require trans people to use the sex-segregated facilities of their assigned-at-birth sex, regardless of how they identify or where they are in transition [2].  The rationale for these bills is based on the myth that trans people- and trans women in particular – are dangerous sexual predators, who dress as the opposite sex in order to gain access to gendered spaces so they can commit sexual assault.  This is despite the fact that no such incidents have ever been reported: as John Oliver aptly observed, it’s like dragon rustling- sure, it’s terribly, but it doesn’t really happen.  Additionally, these bathroom bills make life even more difficult for non-binary trans people who don’t necessarily identify as male or female, and for people who are cis but gender-nonconforming.

Print

Other proposed bills would make it harder for trans people to change their legal identification or birth certificates (which is often already difficult as is, since many states require proof of sexual reassignment surgery, which many trans people cannot afford or simply do not desire in the first place),  or allowing therapists to refuse service.  The timing of these bills suggests a coordinated effort- one that is at least partially the result of election year politics and a backlash to same-sex marriage- but which has the potential to become what trans writer and activist Brynne Tannehill has described as the cultural genocide of the transgender community.  This may seem like an exaggeration at first, but Tannehill cites a policy white paper published by the ultra-conservative Family Research Council which explicitly call for anti-trans legislation, in an effort to make it as difficult to be trans as possible[3].

These policies, if enacted, would push an already marginalized community to the brink of destruction.  If we are to survive, we’ll need to actively fight for our right to exist as we truly are.  The trans community has never been more visible, even if this visibility has come at the price of increased vulnerability.  This is our moment to seize- to demonstrate to the rest of the world that we really are just normal people, who deserve a shot at normal, everyday life, just like everyone else does.  We are your neighbors and coworkers, friends and family members, and all we ask is that you just accept us in our authenticity.

visibility infographic update 2015

So. This election year, regardless if you’re trans or cis, do something.  Vote against transphobic politicians or referendums.  Educate your friends and coworkers, and remind them that we’re human, too, even if we do have a somewhat unusual condition.  Support trans leaders, artists, business people, and activists.  Like those who have fought for their rights before us, the trans community has come to the point where history will be made.  Do your best to be on the right side of it.


[1] Incidentally, the NCTE conducted an updated version of this survey in the Fall of 2015- results will hopefully be available later this year.

[2] For those of you keeping score at home, these bills could potentially require a post-operative trans woman- who might be physically indistinguishable from a cis woman by everything short of a detailed gynecological exam- to use the men’s restrooms and locker rooms, in the name of preventing sexual assault.

Infuriated yet?

[3] As far as I can discern, the rationale of the FRC is that trans people are just mentally ill, and that making it easier for us to transition is enabling our delusions.  From their point of view, making our lives hell is doing us a favor, since it’s presumably would encourage us to seek out “real” treatment to help us “accept” our assigned-at-birth gender, instead of transitioning.  Keep in mind, these are the same people that still think gay people can be “cured”, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

A Young Man’s Guide to Becoming a Nerd Girl, Part 3 of 3: Life on the Other Side

Part 1 | Part 2

Given that I’ve lived as both a man and as a woman at various points in my life, I’d like to think that the experience has given me a relatively unique perspective on how men and women interact with, and are treated by, society. Some of these differences are minor, even subtle; others are quite striking. In the process of transitioning, I’ve had to learn first-hand what it means to be a woman in our culture, allowing me to compare and contrast those lessons to what I learned living as a man. While sometimes surreal[1], my journey has been utterly fascinating from a sociological point of view.

Amongst some of the more notable things I’ve learned in my transition:

Male privilege is totally a thing, and very real

WhiteMale.png

Lest ye doubt that women are just making it up, or exaggerating the pervasive societal bias towards men, let me assure you, we’re not. While men certainly do face unique struggles of their own (I’m no stranger to toxic masculinity), women have to deal with far more widespread difficulty in navigating the world. This has ranged from minor annoyances (suddenly I’m getting talked over a lot more, especially when men are involved in the conversation) to dealing with rather frightening scenarios (making sure I would be able to get an early ride home from an overnight New Year’s Eve party if I didn’t feel safe staying there- something that would’ve never crossed my mind before I transitioned). While I knew that women had to deal with a lot of crap that men didn’t (my fiancée had made a point to get me more educated on feminist issues, even back when I still identified as a man), and had been warned about it by other trans people, nothing prepared me for the sheer ubiquitousness or insidiousness of it.

Women’s personal space isn’t as respected as men’s is

PersonalSpace

This is arguably a subset of male privilege, but it’s one that particularly sticks out to me. When I presented male, people usually gave me a respectable berth. Now that I’m seen as woman, people tend to get much closer, and sometimes will even casually touch me during conversation or while walking by, even if they’re complete strangers. I suspect this is because, as a man, I was seen subconsciously as a potential threat; as a woman, I’m not. There is one upshot to this, however, and that is

People are friendlier to women

It’s not a huge difference, but I have definitely noticed more smiles and casual conversation, especially from other women. It’s definitely been one of the more positive social changes I’ve had.

People are more likely to open up to women

Friendly.png

This goes hand-in-hand with the above- people (men especially) seem to feel safer being more vulnerable around women then men. Previously, when I was still seen as male, people (again, men especially) were generally more hesitant to discuss more personal and emotional-laden topics, sticking to more impersonal subjects such as politics, current events, shop talk, and the like. One thing I’ve really enjoyed since starting transition is that now it seems like people are much more likely to have actual, real conversations with me, conversations that feature a much higher degree of emotional intimacy.

This difference does have its downside, however: for example, many women in science have noted that there’s a tendency for students and colleagues within their departments to preferentially come to them when they’re dealing with emotional or psychological struggles, since it’s expected that as women, they’ll be better suited to handling it, even when they’re not.

The reason it takes women so long to clothes shop is because nothing fits

Clothes

Seriously. The sizing system for men is pretty straight-forward- you measure your waistline, and that’s your pants size. Shirt size isn’t much harder.

The sizing system for women, however is nothing short of capricious and arbitrary. For example, depending on the manufacturer and cut, my dress size can literally be anywhere from a 4 to a 16. Bra sizes are an even more eldritch madness. It took a while for me to actually figure out what would be likely to fit me, and even then I usually have to try things on to know for sure.

The astrobiology community is actually pretty gender equitable

Space.png

Given the difficulties faced by women in science, the first time I went to a science conference after socially transitioning, I was really bracing myself for a sudden onslaught of sexism that I’d hitherto been shielded from. However, I was very pleasantly surprised- even amongst people who had no idea I was trans, I never felt like I was treated differently than I had been when I was presenting as male. I’m not sure if that’s because our field is young and has a very high percentage of women, or because the people who tend to go into such a cutting-edge area of research are more likely to be open-minded, or both, but whatever the reason, I’m very grateful for it.

Conclusion

Of course, there have been plenty of other, smaller things I’ve learned along the way- how to put my hair in a ponytail, that there’s a qualitative difference between male and female orgasms [2], the indescribably exquisite feeling that comes from taking off your bra at the end of the day, and so forth.

Overall, however, the whole experience of transition has been not quite like anything else I’ve done in life. Despite the hardships and challenges it sometimes entails, my choice to transition, and to live my life as the woman I truly am, has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.


[1] Something that trans people rarely mention about transition is that, while it’s often a liberating and empowering experience, it also is pretty weird when you stop to really think about it (particularly if, like me, you spent a large part of your life honestly believing you weren’t “really” trans). I have at least one very strong memory from the early stages of my transition, of thinking to myself “My fiancée just explained to me how to put on a sports bra. How did my life get here?”

[2] Since I know you want you want to know, but are afraid to ask: male orgasms tend to be sudden, intense, and highly localized- kind of like you’ve been struck by lightning. They’re also accompanied by a feeling of pressure being released. Female orgasms, on the other hand, feel more diffuse through the body, have a better build-up, and tend to linger- it’s like when you’re swimming out in the ocean, and a swell slowly picks you up and puts you back down.

There’s also quite a bit of variation in quality compared to male orgasms: with weak male orgasms, you can generally tell that at least something happened, but with female ones, you can’t necessarily even tell that; middling orgasms are about the same for both genders; and for really good orgasms, well, let’s just say there’s a reason women tend to be screamers and men don’t.


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

A Young Man’s Guide to Becoming a Nerd Girl, Part 2 of 3: Hormones and Other Magic

After reading part one, you may be wondering what exactly goes into transition. Well, as it turns out, a lot – and while it is a time and energy consuming process in the extreme, the results can be nothing short of astounding.

Popular media might have you believe that getting a “sex change” is a single procedure- you walk into the hospital male, and walk out female (or vice versa). Alas, if only it were that easy.

The truth is that transitioning has a number of components to it (including hormone replacement therapy (HRT), changing names and pronouns, dressing differently, and surgeries, amongst others), and often takes years before completion (however that’s defined by the trans person in question). The nature of the transition reflects the identity of the trans person – whether they identify as male, female, both, neither, or something else all together. Furthermore, which components a trans person includes in their transition varies widely – many, for example, may just take HRT and socially present as their identified gender, and eschew surgery (whether it’s because they can’t afford it, aren’t satisfied with the results, or simply don’t feel it’s necessary for them to be happy).   The order often varies, as well – some going on HRT and then changing their social presentation, while others do the reverse. Excluding one or many of these components doesn’t make the person any less trans- ultimately, it’s their body, and their decision.

Here are some of the common elements of transitioning:

Counseling

Couch

While not all trans people feel the need for counseling, it can be helpful to many of us. After all, you usually don’t spend years or decades trying to be something you’re not without developing a few issues- not to mention having to cope with a culture that, while it’s gradually improving, is still often hostile to trans people. Additionally, some doctors require a note from a mental health professional before administering transition-related procedures, though there has been a movement away from this “gatekeeper” model towards one based around informed consent, at least when it comes to hormonal treatment (surgery still requires letters from not one, but two therapists, one of which must be a licensed psychologist with a PhD, who certify that you’re mentally fit for the procedure, and that you’ve been living as your target gender for at least a year prior- it’s quite a number of hoops to jump through).

Hormones

Hormones.jpg

Many trans people seek to transition medically- that is, to modify their bodies to reflect their identity, and so that they can (quite literally) be comfortable in their own skin. Hormone replacement therapy is the keystone of transitioning medically and results in dramatic and pervasive changes.

In my case, I was put on the standard HRT regime for someone transitioning from male to female, as I felt I would be most comfortable in a female body. This typically includes estradiol (a form of estrogen, which can be injected, absorbed through the skin via adhesive patch, or dissolved under the tongue in pill form). However, since testosterone “competes” with estrogen for binding with cell receptors and will overpower it, the regimen usually includes one or more testosterone-blockers, which prevents testosterone from binding. Additionally, estrogen, once it reaches sufficiently high levels, will greatly lower testosterone production.

Some of the effects of my HRT treatment have included:

Breast development

Probably the biggest and most visible change, and honestly, the one I’ve enjoyed the most – watching myself go from being completely flat-chested to a C cup (and still growing!) has been rewarding on a deeply visceral level. As a side note, with the right hormonal treatment, lactation can be induced, allowing me to breastfeed – something my fiancée and I plan on doing when we get around to having a kid, so we can split the midnight feeding runs.

Reduction in body hair

My body hair has thinned considerably, and what’s left is much finer and lighter colored. I still have a bit more than I would like, though, especially on my chest. I’m hoping that’ll eventually thin out, too.

Softer skin

My skin is a lot smoother, softer, and clearer than it was before. Oddly enough, this- along with my change in scent[1]- is one of my fiancee’s favorite aspects of my transition.

Body fat redistribution

This is a subtle, yet extremely powerful effect of HRT. Not only have I started to develop curves (previously, I was basically a rectangle), my facial appearance has changed as well- my cheeks have filled out and become more prominent, my lower jaw has thinned a little, and my face overall is now much softer and rounded.

Reduction in muscle mass

My overall figure looks more feminine now as a result, though my stamina and strength have definitely taken a hit. I can still open most jars, though.

Increase in my sense of smell

While I’ve never had a particularly strong sense of smell, I do notice scents more than I used to. This, apparently, is widely reported amongst trans women, with many experiencing a much greater enhancement to their olfactory acuity than I did.

Emotional changes

While I was always pretty emotional, the speed at which my moods change has greatly quickened (in technical terms, I have higher emotional lability). While previously it might take me a bit to get angry, sad, or joyful about something, now it feels like my moods go from zero to sixty in milliseconds. I also occasionally have to deal with mood swings, which took some getting used to. With that said, overall I feel much calmer and confident, and far happier than I ever could’ve imagined- in fact, I’m not sure I really knew what happiness was before I transitioned.

 I should note hormones don’t do everything- they can’t change your skeletal structure, for example. Nor, in the case of trans women (but not trans men!), do they really affect the voice – I had to go through eight sessions of voice therapy and months of practice to be able to speak with a female-sounding voice (I also recently started taking singing lessons, which has also helped). And while my beard grew in more slowly, to actually have it removed I’ve had to undergo numerous sessions of laser hair removal and electrolysis (which, somewhat frustratingly, is still ongoing- though I have gotten to the point where I no longer need make-up to hide my beard shadow).

Social and Legal Transition

Social.png

This is a fancy way of saying of changing how you dress, act, speak, and so forth, as well as having your legal documentation updated to reflect your identity. In my case, once I had been on HRT for a few months, I gradually started dressing more and more androgynously, until I switched over to wearing women’s clothing completely. My style remained somewhat androgynous for a few months after I started living as Tessa full-time, but over time I’ve gotten more femme (I heart sundresses! And sweater dresses!).

Getting your legal documents updated varies from state to state- I was lucky to live in a state that all was required for changing the “M” on my driver’s license to an “F” was a note from a doctor verifying that you are receiving the “appropriate treatment” (as deemed by the doctor) for your gender transition. The Social Security Administration and the State Department (for passports) have similar requirements. Other states, however, require that you’ve had surgery, and in some cases, when it comes to birth certificates, won’t let you change them at all. Which is horrible and those states should feel bad about themselves.

Surgery

Surgeon tools - scalpel, forceps, clamps, scissors - isolated

There are actually several surgeries available to trans people – some trans women elect to have facial feminization surgery to make their facial appearance more womanly. Breast augmentation/removal is another, and voice surgeries and Adam’s apple reduction are also an option for trans women.

The one that gets everyone in a tizzy, however, is referred to variously as sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), genital reassignment surgery (GRS), or simply “bottom surgery”. For trans women, the results are often highly satisfactory[2], in terms of sensitivity (many surgeons boast that 90% or more of their patients are orgasmic post-surgery), function, and appearance; the resulting vulva, clitoris, and vagina can often only be distinguished from that of a cisgender[3] woman’s by a gynecological exam. For trans men, unfortunately, the results are often less satisfactory and require painful skin graphs; consequently, most trans men elect not to get bottom surgery

A caveat: asking a trans person their surgical status (if they’ve had it and/or if they plan to) is considered highly offensive (since it’s basically a roundabout way of asking what’s in our pants).   While I’m pretty open about such things, it’s often best to just not ask.

With that said, I personally haven’t had surgery yet, but I’m currently scheduled to in July 2017. I can’t say I’m looking forward to the surgery or the recovery process itself (which includes three months of convalescence and activity restriction, plus another three to nine months of healing before you’re fully back to normal, as well as daily maintenance [4] for the first year or so), I am definitely looking forward to the end result.

Conclusion

So far, transitioning has been the most audacious, scary, exciting, demanding and ultimately rewarding thing I’ve done in my life. While it’s a little mind-boggling to think how much I’ve changed in such a short time (three years ago, I was still convinced I was a straight dude), I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Part 3


[1] Apparently, I smell way better than I used to. Make of that comment what you will.

[2] If you’re morbidly curious as to how this procedure works, there’s an excellent (and bloodless) CGI animation of it here.

[3] If you’re not up on the vernacular, cisgender (or simply cis) is how you refer to someone who’s not transgender.

[4] Specifically, you’re required to do what’s called dilation. You know how when you get your ears (or other body part) pierced, you have to at least periodically leave the ring or stud in so the body doesn’t treat like it a wound and heal it shut? Yeah, same idea, except with what are essentially medical grade dildos instead of piercings. Thankfully, like a piercing, over time, you have to dilate less often, first multiple times a day, then only once a day, then only once or twice a month.


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

The Young Man’s Guide to Becoming a Nerd Girl, Part 1 of 3: Wait…Tessa is Evolving

While I’ve alluded to my trans status and transition and how it’s affected me in previous pieces, I thought it was time to talk about the subject directly. After all, trans people are more visible than ever, and I hope to do my part to foster greater societal acceptance of my community. In the interest of keeping things within a sane word count, this project will be divided up in three parts- the first chronicling my personal journey towards self-understanding, the second detailing what went into my transition and the third, what I’ve learned from it.

So, strap in, and prepare yourself for a wild ride across the gender spectrum.

 Once there was a boy…

picture 1

I was born in 1987, the eldest (by less than a minute) of a set of twin identical twin boys [1]. Surprisingly, my early childhood was fairly normal, at least in the gender department – people told me I was a boy, and I took their word for it. I wasn’t a particularly feminine child, but I wasn’t a very masculine one, either – possessing a very sensitive temperament and a tendency to cry easily. I do remember wanting – and being allowed – to wear my mom’s costume jewelry (my parents, thankfully, weren’t particularly invested in gender roles or expectations), but I also recall spending a lot of my time playing in the dirt outdoors with my brother, or building LEGOS. Had I been raised female, I suspect I would’ve been an incorrigible tomboy.

I did pick up some stereotypically-female hobbies – I rode horseback[2], played the flute (giving me the distinguished honor of being That One Guy In the Piccolo section in my high school and college marching bands, which I really enjoyed), and later, learned swing dancing and knitting. However, my development otherwise didn’t appear unusual, and my brother – who is 100% a dude – had similar interests and temperament.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It wasn’t until age eleven or so that I began to become aware that something was wrong (later, I would discover that such “late onset dysphoria”, as it’s referred to clinically, is quite common in trans people, often appearing around the onset of puberty). I had a growing sense of discomfort and dissonance with my body. I felt like I should be something else – but I couldn’t articulate what. I chocked it up to being the sort of weirdness that happens during puberty, and didn’t think too much of it.

Around age 13, I discovered that I felt better and more relaxed when I pictured myself as female. This lead to suspicions that I might be trans (after all, I can’t imagine too many teenage boys daydream about being girls). While I knew trans people existed – frankly, I was fascinated by them, and devoured whatever media I could on them – what little information was available then described someone I was very much not. I liked girls, hadn’t “always known”, wasn’t overwhelmingly feminine, wasn’t particularly interested in cross dressing, and wasn’t constantly suicidally miserable. It didn’t help that popular media tended to depict trans people, and trans women in particular, as either being painfully obviously trans (the so-called “man in a dress” trope), or the product of numerous surgeries (trans writer Julia Serano has suggested these tropes aren’t accidental, and are the result of social anxieties surrounding what trans women represent). Furthermore, at the time there existed a spurious psychological theory that suggested my feelings were purely the result of a sexual deviance, which didn’t help matters, either (the theory has since been largely debunked).

picture 2

Thus, I assumed my feelings stemmed from something else, and did my best to rationalize it all away. I assumed it was some sort of sexual kink, personality quirk, result of social anxiety, or consequence of being single for too long. I noticed that it would (temporarily) go away when I was in a relationship, which lead me to conclude that whatever it was, it wasn’t that serious, and would surely go away once I got laid/fell in love/got married (later, I would find this form of denial – that “love will cure us”, as Jenny Boylan put it – is extremely common). If you would’ve asked me then what I identified as, I would’ve sincerely told you that I was a heterosexual male [3].

And so the matter sat for the next 13 years.   In the mean time, I graduated high school, went to college, and then started grad school. I had a few girlfriends, but nothing really long-lasting – until I was 25, when I met the woman who would become my fiancée.

The first year and a half or so was amazing, and resulted in me proposing to her. Surely, I thought, that would be the end of the lingering fantasies about being a woman.

 Things Get Weird

Soon, though, they began creeping back – and worse, the feeling of dissonance was gradually getting worse (this, too, is common). I had told my fiancée of my gender issues early on in our relationship, dismissing them as nothing serious – fortunately, when I realized that there might be something more to them, she was largely supportive and encouraged me to get to the bottom of it.

I started doing research, and discovered that the type of daydreams and fantasies I’d been having (sometimes referred to as cross dreaming) were sometimes the result of gender dysphoria – something which stuck at the back of my mind. I also began reading about toxic masculinity, which lead me to critically question how I related to masculinity, and lead to my eventual decision to distance myself from it (my first conscious act of gender rebellion was buying a pair of pink earbuds to replace ones I had lost – admittedly, it was also because I figured I’d be less likely to lose something brightly colored).

 The question of my gender identity simmered on the proverbial backburner for a few months (I was preoccupied with other things, including sadly, my stepfather’s rapid decline in health and death). However, on Dec. 29th, 2013, it was thrust front and center. On a flight down to visit my fiancée’s family over the holidays, I suddenly and inexplicably had an epiphany sear through my brain: Oh my God, I need to be a girl.

 Despite the seeming clarity of this revelation, it took close to six months – and a lot of help from my amazing psychologist – to fully accept my womanhood. At first, I toyed with the idea of being genderfluid or non-binary (which, in retrospect, was mostly me trying to see if I could be a woman without necessarily giving up being a man and all the sweet, sweet male privilege that goes along with it). However, as I did more research – which lead to me discovering that, despite what I had previously thought, there were many trans people who shared my experiences, sometimes even using the exact same words to describe them[4], and also that truly dramatic changes were possible from transitioning – my conviction that I would be happiest as a woman grew.

 I gradually came out to family, friends, and colleagues (all of whom have been incredibly accepting and supportive – I’m a very lucky girl). There were times when things were a little touch-and-go with my fiancé (after all, this was an extremely traumatic change to our relationship, and she needed time and space to grieve for the man she’d fallen in love with), but she ultimately chose to stay with me (as she put it, “I fell in love with you, not your gender”).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 On Sept. 23rd, 2014, after driving 4.5 hours one way to get to a trans-friendly clinic, I took my first dose of hormone replacement therapy, designed to lower my testosterone and raise my estrogen. Within days, I noticed that my mind was calmer, quieter, and more at peace than it had been in years, erasing whatever lingering doubts I had that this was the right decision. Six months later, on my 28th birthday, I legally changed my name to Theresa, got my gender markers updated on my legal documentation, and began living as my authentic self full-time. Tessa had officially arrived.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA


 [1] Family lore states that my brother and I are actually half-identical – that is, we’re genetically identical on the mother’s side but not the father’s, due to the egg splitting before fertilization. However, we’ve never had a DNA test to confirm this, and practically speaking, we appear largely identical to most people.

 [2] Admittedly, having a former Olympic-level equestrian as a mother, and growing up in a horse farm meant this was probably inevitable – after all, I was literally in a saddle before I could walk. However,

I’ve stuck to it far longer than many men I knew who grew up in similar environments.

 [3] In retrospect, there were obvious signs – the discomfort I felt in all-male groups and happiness I had in otherwise-all-female ones, the fact that I felt the need to periodically grow my stubble out during my freshmen year (which I otherwise despised) to remind everyone that I was, in fact, a guy, the strange mixture of envy and yearning I had for lesbian relationships, my toying with the idea of going on herbal supplements alleged to encourage breast growth “to see what would happen” – it’s surprising how I missed it, honestly. Just goes to show how powerful denial can be.

 [4] I also found out that trans lesbians were A Thing, which was truly revelatory – in fact, as it turns out, two thirds of trans women identify as lesbian, bisexual, or queer.

Part 2 | Part 3


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

The Astrobiologist’s Guide to the Galaxy

In my last post, I detailed some of the hottest locations for astrobiology in our Solar System. Today, however, we’re going to be going farther afield- outside the Solar System entirely, in fact.

The discovery of exoplanets – planets that orbit other stars- has been one of the great scientific success stories of the last century. In less than 20 years, we’ve gone from a handful of early detections to literally over a thousand (plus thousands more “candidates” that are awaiting verification). Obviously, astrobiologists have been more than a little excited by this pace of discovery.

Detecting an exoplanet is no mean feat- such bodies are usually a million times dimmer than their host star, and the light of the star tends to overwhelm such faint emissions. However, several techniques have been developed to get around these limitations.

exoplanets.jpg

The earliest used, Doppler spectroscopy,takes advantage of the fact as a planet orbits a star, it “tugs” on its center of mass, causing it to “wobble” ever so slightly. The motion due to this wobble can be detected by looking for the resulting Doppler shift in the star’s spectra. However, this method is generally most effective in determining extremely large planets that orbit close to their parents stars (so called “hot Jupiters”), which are unlikely to host life.

The most successful method used to date has been transit photometry, which looks for tiny dips in the star’s light output as the planet crosses in front of it. This method does have some limitations- the star, the planet, and Earth have to be precisely aligned for the transit dip to be visible- but it’s a relatively easy signal to look for otherwise. Transit photometry has been used by a number of different observing missions, the most famous example being the spectacular planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.

A few other planets have been detected using more esoteric methods, such as gravitational microlensing or timing pulsations in stars and pulsars. A scant handful have even been directly imaged, although this only feasible if the planet is extremely large, hot, and widely separated from its host star.

Using these methods, a whole zoo of exoplanets has been detected. Most of them are likely to be uninhabitable- but let’s take a look at the ones that might be a bit more promising for seekers of extraterrestrial life.

Keplers

Kepler-296e

One of the most Earth-like planets (at least in terms of mass and theoretical surface temperatures) yet discovered, Kepler-296e is 1.75 times the size of Earth.   It orbits a red dwarf star 1089 light years away, which is part of a binary system. It is located within the habitable zone of the star, where the temperature is warm enough for water to be liquid on the surface. Kepler-296’s habitable zone is much closer than the Earth is to the sun, owing to the cooler temperature of the host star; the planet orbits its star in only 34 days.

Kepler-442b

Located 1,120 light years from Earth, Kepler-442b also orbits a cooler red dwarf star. It’s 2.34 times the size of Earth, and would have a surface gravity about 30% greater (definitely the planet to go to if you want to get a good workout).

Kepler-62e

Detected 1,200 light years from Earth in the Lyra constellation, Kepler-62e is a member of an older star system, being likely billions of years older than Earth. It is thought to have a rocky composition (like Earth’s), and computer modeling suggests the planet could be largely covered by oceans. It’s considered a strong enough candidate for habitability that it’s been targeted for observation by the SETI program.

Gliese 832 c

Gliese.jpg

One of the closest potentially habitable planets detected, Gliese 832 c is a scant 16.1 lights away. It is thought to have an extremely elliptical orbit, as planets go- that is to say, the distance from its star varies considerably. Consequently, the surface temperature may swing from -40 degrees Celsius to 7 degrees Celsius, depending on where the planet is in its orbit; on average, however, the temperature is warm enough to allow liquid water. However, it is possible the planet may have developed a dense atmosphere, leaving it in an uninhabitably hot state similar to Venus. Further observation will be required to determine how friendly to life the planet really is.

KIC 8462852

KIC.png

Unlike the other entries in this list, KIC 8462852 isn’t a planet. In fact, we’re not entirely sure what it is.   The star first became well-known when analysis of Kepler data detected a intermittent, massive drop in the amount of light produced by the star- equivalent to covering up over half the star’s visible surface- something that had never been observed before. Furthermore, no dust or debris cloud has been detected around the star.

Initially, it was thought that the dimming could be due a mass of comets pulled inwards by a passing star- and, indeed, there’s another star in the local area that could’ve done such a thing. However, an examination of historical images showed that KIC 8462852 has been dimming for the last century- far too long a timescale for the comet explanation.

Lacking any other explanation, some researchers have begun speculating that the dimming could be due to the construction of megastructures in orbit around the star- perhaps a swarm of solar power satellites to capture the maximum amount of the star’s energy (popularly referred to as a Dyson sphere or Dyson swarm).

Admittedly, there are some problems with the aliens-did-it hypothesis- the laws of thermodynamics dictate that such structures would generate a large and detectable quantity of waste heat, which has yet to be observed. Observing campaigns by SETI also haven’t turned up any signs of intelligent life. Nonetheless, the sheer weirdness of the system means it will likely be a target of investigation for the foreseeable future. Whatever’s going on out there, it’s not like anything we’ve seen before.

Conclusion

These are just a handful of the potential living worlds that might be found throughout our galaxy. Undoubtedly more will be detected by upcoming missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope, PLATO, and Kepler’s successor TESS. Get your travel itineraries ready- because the list of possible cosmic vacation hotspots is only going to keep growing!


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

 

The Astrobiologist’s Guide to Life, the Solar System and Everything

As I’ve mentioned previously, my career is based around looking for alien life in the universe. Naturally, this brings up the very pertinent question of “Where exactly does one look for aliens?”

The answer, surprisingly, is “pretty much all over the place.” And with good reason – here on Earth, living organisms have been found in some of the most seemingly inhospitable places, which suggests that life is, above all, tenacious in the extreme.

Where to begin, then? Why not in our own backyard? As it turns out, there are more than a few places in our own Solar System that might harbor life. So, without further adieu, let’s take a guided tour of the Solar System’s hottest real estate, moving from the inner planets outwards.

Venus

Venus copy.png

Venus may seem like a surprising candidate – the surface is hot enough to melt lead, the atmospheric pressure is crushing, and it rains sulfuric acid. But Venus was not always so grim. It is thought that it may have had oceans for the first two billion years of its history, before the growing intensity of the young sun triggered a runaway greenhouse effect that boiled them off. Life may have been able to get a toehold in these early seas, as it did on Earth.

But where could such life have fled to under the onslaught of rising temperatures? Curiously, it turns out that while the surface may be utterly inhabitable, at ~50km above the ground, the atmosphere of Venus is remarkably Earth-like in temperature and pressure. It’s still fairly acidic, there’s no oxygen, and it’s still on the warm side, but there are organisms on Earth that will quite happily live in similar conditions. UV radiation would be a problem – however, interestingly enough, cylcooctasulfate – a sulfur compound that absorbs UV rays and re-emits them as visible light, and that’s used by terrestrial microbes as “sun screen” – is found in the Venusian atmosphere at an altitude of 50km.

Earth

Earth.png

No, I’m not suggesting Earth’s been invaded – I’m instead referring to the idea of the shadow biosphere. The basic premise of the shadow biosphere is that we assume that all life on Earth is biochemically similar to us (e.g., it uses the same types of proteins and DNA, same chemical reactions, and so forth), and therefore we would fail to detect microbes that used radically different biochemistry. The microbes wouldn’t be “aliens”, per se, as it’s assumed that they would’ve evolved here on Earth – but such a finding would still be incredibly significant, as it would suggest that life may developed independently on Earth, multiple times.

Supporters of the shadow biosphere hypothesis point to the fact that the vast majority of microbes can’t actually be cultured in a laboratory, and as a result, we know very little about them. There have been searches for “weird life”, including, most notoriously, GFAJ-1. GFAJ-1 was initially reported to use arsenic in the construction of its DNA (as opposed to phosphorus, which is what all known life uses instead). However, after its discovery was announced, further experimentation couldn’t detect the presence of arsenic in its DNA, and biochemical modeling suggested that DNA using arsenic wouldn’t actually be chemically stable. The search goes on.

Mars

Mars

This list obviously wouldn’t be complete without everyone’s favorite red planet, Mars. Mars has long held a fascination, in part due to early observations of channels or canals on the surface (these were later revealed to be the result of an optical illusion). As it turns out, such a reputation might be warranted – Mars is the most Earth-like planet in our Solar System, and shows evidence of being a much warmer, wetter planet in its past (most notably, the presence of dry river networks and lake beds). In the present day, there also appears to be seasonal flows of liquid brine or extremely salty water, most likely the result of salts absorbing water vapor from the atmosphere.

As I mentioned in my previous essay, methane has also been detected in the Martian atmosphere. Since methane isn’t chemically stable under Martian conditions, something must actively producing it. Stranger yet, the production appears to be sporadic, suggesting that this is the result of an active process. While there are purely geological processes that can produce methane, here on Earth, the vast majority of methane is produced by microbes, which obviously raises suspicions.

It’s unlikely the Martian microbes – if they exist – are living on the surface, due to the high flux of radiation. Instead, they’ll most likely be found in deep subsurface habitats or aquifers, or potentially underneath the polar ice caps. Future missions to Mars (notably the ESA’s ExoMars and NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover) will hopefully give us better answers to the age old question of life on Mars.

Europa

Europa.png

Moving into the outer Solar System, Europa is one of the four major moons of Jupiter, and is covered entirely by a thick layer of ice. It’s been a target of great interest to astrobiologists since the data from the Voyager missions suggested the presence of a vast ocean underneath the ice layer. The thickness of the ice shell and the depth of the ocean is subject to debate, but it’s thought that it could be as much as 100 miles deep, and encompass a volume of water twice the size of all of Earth’s oceans. Given the importance of liquid water to life as we know it, this obviously makes it a potential candidate for habitability.

Due to the complete absence of sunlight underneath the ice shell, if there’s life on Europa, it’s probably clustered around hydrothermal vents, much like the vent ecosystems seen on ocean floors here on Earth. These vents are driven by volcanic heating driven by the intense tidal forces of Jupiter, which also keeps the ocean from freezing, and is also most likely responsible for the alleged plumes of water erupting from the surface.

Several missions are planned to study Europa – ESA’s Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer and NASA’s Europa Multi-Flyby Mission, which will hopefully be able to measure the thickness of the ice shell, gather more data on the chemical composition of the surface, and sample the surface plumes (if they exist). Proposals have been circulating to actually drill down and explore the ocean, but such a mission is a while off.

Enceladus

Enceladus.png

Similar to Europa, Enceladus is an ice covered moon orbiting Saturn. It features extensive plumes of water erupting from its southern hemisphere, thought to originate in a subsurface ocean. The exact mechanisms driving the plumes hasn’t been determined, but there’s likely hydrothermal activity in play. Since the plumes are so extensive, the Cassini mission in orbit around Saturn has been able to conveniently sample some of the erupted material, and discovered that it has a high salt content (suggesting hydrothermal activity) and traces of simple organic compounds. Given the presence of organics, liquid water, and a likely energy source, Enceladus has become a hot topic amongst astrobiologists, and will hopefully be the target of future exploration

Titan

Titan.png

Another moon of Saturn, Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System, and the only one with a dense atmosphere. The atmosphere is made up of a mixture of nitrogen, methane, and a mixture of organic compounds. Titan is a chilly -355 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that methane is liquid at the surface. In fact, the most interesting thing about Titan is that liquid methane takes the place of water – there are rivers and lakes of the stuff.

Consequently, unlike the other worlds we’ve looked at, if there’s life on Titan, it’s very different from the water-based life we’re familiar with. Potential biochemical pathways have been identified for the Titanian atmosphere, and, interestingly enough, some of the features in Titan’s atmospheric composition would be consistent with presence of metabolizing organisms. Nonetheless, life on Titan remains a much more speculative topic, and will require further exploration of this mysterious, haze shrouded moon.

Conclusion

While Earth may be the most habitable world in our Solar System, it isn’t the only place life might have evolved. No alien life has been conclusively detected, but the hunt is on. The most exciting aspect of this search is that if life evolved independently, multiple times within the same solar system, it suggests that the emergence of life is a common event.

In other words, if we discover that our Solar System is teeming with life, it’s likely that so is the rest of the galaxy.


Tess

Tessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

I Hunt Aliens for a Living

When people find out that I’m an astrobiologist – that is, my work concerns the search for life on other planets, amongst other things- invariably, the first question is, “Have you found any yet?”

So, to start, I’d like to say for the record, that no, I haven’t (believe me, you would have heard about it if I had). But while that goal remains unattained, astrobiologists have still made astounding discoveries about life in the universe – and the finding of truly alien life may not be that far off.

I think the reason people find my field of research so fascinating is because it tackles some very foundational questions. How did life originate? Under what conditions can it survive? Where else might we find it? And what might it look like when we do? Because of the scale of these questions, astrobiology isn’t really a single field, per se – but rather a collections of many different disciplines (including, but not limited to, astronomy, geology, chemistry, biology, and planetary science), all trying to come up with answers.

Moon
Strap in for a good ol’ fashion existential crisis!

In order to determine the likelihood of finding life elsewhere in the universe, we first must know how easy or difficult it is for life to emerge in the first place. This is the realm of the prebiotic chemists, who focus on how living systems can develop from simple chemistry (sometimes poetically referred to as abiogenesis). There are different theories as to how this happened – some scientists suggest that RNA, a molecule similar to DNA that has the capability to reproduce itself may have been the forerunner to life as we know it; others suggest that metabolic processes, or the creation of simple bubble-like “protocells” set the stage for life. It should be noted that these theories are not necessarily mutually exclusive – it has been suggested that life may have originated independently multiple times on Earth, competed and merged with each other, and finally gave rise to the biosphere we know today.

Difference-DNA-and-RNA.jpg

I should note that a general assumption about life in the universe is that it’ll most likely be similar to us, biochemically speaking. The foundations of Earth biochemistry are carbon (due to the fact that it can easily form complex molecules) and water (which is particularly good at dissolving molecules, and appears to be abundant through the universe). The latter was considered so key to life as we know it that, for a period of time, the motto of NASA’s astrobiology program was “Follow the Water” (this is also why there’s so much buzz whenever NASA announces the detection of liquid water elsewhere in our solar system). With that said, more exotic biochemistries – using silicon instead of carbon, for example, or using ammonia or methane instead of water – have also been proposed.

In addition to how life comes into being, we also must know how many places are available for it to live. One approach to this question is studying the abundance of habitable planets in the universe. Exoplanets – planets found around stars other than our sun- have been discovered to be staggeringly common. The Kepler space telescope mission, in particular, has found dozens of potentially Earth-like worlds, many located in the “Goldilocks zone” of their main star (where the temperature is “just right” for liquid water to exist on the surface).

GZone.png

We don’t know necessarily know if these planets are actually inhabitable or not (though we hope to answer that with future missions, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite; I’m particularly fond of the latter since it shares my name), but these early findings are certainly promising.

Another angle on the question of habitability is studying the conditions on which life can survive – especially in environments that seem extreme and inhospitable to us. As it turns out, life is extraordinarily hardy, with organisms, known as extremophiles, making their homes in even incredibly harsh surroundings. From microbes living in the superheated water of hydrothermal systems to radiation-eating fungi discovered in the ruins of Chernobyl , it appears that life is amazingly adaptable. While most extremophiles are microbes, there are some more complex organisms that hold this distinction as well – my particular favorite being the iceworm, a glacier-dwelling invertebrate that is so well adapted to the cold that it will literally melt if its temperature is raised too high above freezing.

ice-worm_1813.jpg

So, having established how life might originate and where it might survive, the next question is how might we detect it? This brings us to one of the primary areas of research in astrobiology – the identification and detection of biosignatures. Biosignatures are simply the chemical and physical traces left by living systems on their environment. A classic example is the presence of both methane and oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere – since methane isn’t chemically stable in those conditions, some process must actively be producing it (incidentally, methane isn’t stable on Mars, either – which is why there was such excitement when very low levels of it were detected by the Curiosity mission). Biosignatures can also include microfossils or other geological traces left by microbes, and spectral lines in the light reflected off a planet indicating the presence of chlorophyll.

Nemesis_tricorder
I am still waiting for my engineering counterparts to hook me up with one of these.

Related to biosignatures is probably the most famous aspect of astrobiology – the search for technosignatures. As the name suggests, these are indicators of the presence of a technological civilization. SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, is the most well known effort to locate signs of an advanced aliens, but it is not the only one- there also astrobiologists keeping their eyes peeled for everything from signs of astroengineering (constructions the size of stars) to potentially looking for the lights of alien cities in the spectral signatures of planets. A find of this sort is the holy grail of astrobiology – after all, as exciting as an alien microbe might be, we’rd really prefer something we could talk to.   It’s worth noting, though, it is statistically unlikely that any other alien civilization is at the same technology level as us, and may be much further advanced on the Kardashev scale, so they may not be as interested in what we have to say.

Are we alone? Where did we come from? These are just some of the questions astrobiologists hope to answer. And, even better, you can help the astrobiology community answer them, too! The field has been a pioneer in the use of citizen science – recruiting assistance from everyday people.   Projects include SETI@Home (a screensaver that uses your computer’s idle processing power to search for signals in SETI radio data) and Planet Hunters (a website where users can help detect planets around other stars).

PlanetHunters
Be part of the search!

So, if you find the search for life in the universe as thrilling and fascinating as I do, then feel free to join in the fun! Who knows- you might just find help us find something.

And I’d finally have a good answer for “Have you found any yet?”


Tess

Tessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

Looking Skywards

‘Looking Skywards’ is part of a multi-post series where the writers of Some Nerd Girl share their Origin Stories – in other words, when and how did the nerdening happen?!

It’s hard to say when I first became a nerd. My earliest memories include my mom reading me J.R.R. Tolkein’s Letters to Father Christmas, and, later, excerpts from Anne McCaffrey’s The Dragonriders of Pern series. I’ve always been fascinated with the natural world, and was a pretty outdoorsy kid. And from an early age I loved stargazing. However, even if I can’t narrow my entry to nerdom specifically, there are a few discrete events that definitely set me on my current path.

The first one I can think of is when I was 7 or so, my parents took me to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in D.C. At some point during that trip, they decided to treat my twin brother and I to a showing at the IMAX theater. The film we saw was a documentary narrated by none other than Leonard Nimoy, entitled Destiny in Space.

DestinyInSpace

To be honest, the film actually hasn’t aged all that well, but at the time, the imagery absolutely captivated me. Soaring over the newly radar-mapped terrain of Venus. Watching Mars become slowly more Earth-like as it was terraformed. Astronauts spacewalking above the surface of the Earth. From that point on, I had been bitten by the space bug, and I got it bad.

A few years later, at a Scholastic Bookfair (remember those?) my brother picked up a beautiful illustrated paperback, entitled Extraterrestrial: A Field Guide for Earthlings. It was the first book I had ever come across that presented the possibility of alien life as a serious scientific topic. It imagined how actual extraterrestrial lifeforms might evolve under a variety of environmental conditions, what sense organs they might use, possible body layouts, and even speculated on more radical forms of life that we might not even initially recognize. While it didn’t seem like as a big of idea at the time, the idea that aliens were a concept that could be seriously addressed scientifically stuck with me.

Although this guy doesn't help _at all_.
Although this guy doesn’t help at all.

As I hit middle school, I became increasingly interested in the sciences. Unsurprisingly, I also got more into science fiction, as well. After cutting my teeth on my mom’s old Andre Norton and Anne McCaffrey paperbacks (guess where I got my scifi gene from?), I started exploring the science fiction and fantasy section of the local library. First, I read mostly McCaffrey, but soon serendipitous discoveries lead me to other authors. The cover of Ringworld intrigued me, and introduced me to Larry Niven, who’s hard science fiction I devoured (I was particularly fond of the Known Space series). Via The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, I discovered Robert Heinlein, though I found a lot of his writings a bit more difficult to get into (I did slog through most of I Will Fear No Evil, but I had additional motivation). Later my list of favorite authors would include Alfred Bester, Rodger Zelanzy, Neal Stephenson, Lois McMaster Bujold (who’s Vorkosigan Saga is one of my current favorites), Connie Willis, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Neil Gaiman.

So... much... great... sci fi!
So… much… great… sci fi!

Also, as an aside, I became a massive band geek, and would later have the distinction of being That One Guy in the Piccolo Section, but that’s another story for another day.

As I made it into high school, naturally I began to think about college and careers. Unsurprisingly, I looked at space-related careers – considering being perhaps an astronomer or astrophysicist, or maybe an aerospace engineer. I would later back down from both of those careers as, at the time, I thought they’d be too math intensive for me (ironically, my actual work now is focused pretty much exclusively on mathematical modeling). In any case, the question was somewhat incidental – from age 12 onward, I knew what I really wanted to do was be an astronaut – but I figured I should at least have some options.

However, towards the end of high school, I somehow stumbled upon a new and upcoming field of study: astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life throughout the universe, including beyond Earth. While I was still fascinated with studying life beyond Earth from a scientific point of view, I had no idea that this was a real area of study, with NASA support and everything. I suddenly knew what I wanted to do with my life.

This. Changes. Everything!
This. Changes. Everything!

In college, wanting to cover all my bases, I double majored in astronomy and biology, and did my senior paper for my astronomy degree on the possibility of biosignatures on Mars. During the summer before my senior year, I also got the opportunity to intern at NASA, analyzing images of Jupiter’s moon Europa from the Hubble Space Telescope; to date, that experience remains the best summer job I’ve ever had.

Recognize!
Recognize! Yes, I was geeking out a little!

At some point, I went to a talk given by former astronaut Kathy Thornton, who mentioned off-hand that having a terminal degree (e.g., a PhD or an M.D.) was a requirement to have a serious chance of being selected into the astronaut corps. While I don’t want to say this single-handedly persuaded me to go to grad school, it certainly sealed the deal.

I eventually located a graduate school that had an astrobiology lab (there are about a dozen universities in the U.S. that are involved in astrobiology research), though, ironically, rather than astronomy or biology, it was actually housed in the geology and environmental science departments. I got my first chance to do real scientific research – the topic I eventually focused on was using mathematical modeling to help understand microbial ecosystems that exist in extreme environments (underneath glaciers, in hot springs, and so forth). The hope is to use these models to try to characterize what constitutes a habitable environment for life (for example, if we find microbial communities underneath the ice sheets of Antarctica, is it possible similar communities exist underneath the polar cap of Mars), and what sorts of detectable effects those ecosystems have on their environments (this may sound dry, but it isn’t; my master’s thesis involved this place).

Here I am, doing science-y stuff!
Here I am, doing science-y stuff!

At the moment, I’m currently working on my PhD in the subject. My dream job is to be a researcher for NASA, being on the cutting edge in our search for life throughout our Solar System. Following this path has allowed me to embrace my nerdiness to new levels, turning a passion into a career (and if you think cons are nerdy, wait until you experience a science conference). I’ve gone from reading science fiction to pretty much living it (I’m a gender-changing scientist who hunts for aliens- tell me my life isn’t the plot of a New Wave scifi story from the early ’70s). And I’m sure there’s even greater heights of nerdiness awaiting me on my journey.

And for the record, no matter what, I still fully intend to become an astronaut.


Tess

Tessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

Toxic Masculinity and Nerd Culture: Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire

This past year, we have witnessed a tremendous struggle over what it means to be a nerd (or a fan, or a geek, or a gamer, and so forth). From GamerGate to the debacles over the Hugo Awards, the debate has raged across multiple media, and resulted in no small amount of cyber-harassment and worse. And, often, the crux of the conflict has been a simple question: should nerd culture remain primarily the domain of men? Or should it be open and inclusive to all?

Plenty has been written on the topic, by commentators with much better nerd pedigrees than me – but nonetheless, I like to think I do offer a bit of a unique perspective on the issue. As a trans woman, I’ve seen first-hand how men and women are received by nerd culture, and it’s shown me a lot about how male self-identified nerds interact with masculinity.

Or, in some cases, avoid it altogether!
Or, in some cases, avoid it altogether!

During my teen years, being seen as a nerd seemed like something as a blessing. Male nerds are largely excepted from much of the expectations of traditional masculinity. No one’s surprised if you don’t know anything about fixing cars, or professional sports, or any other stereotypical male topic. If your hobbies seems odd or unconventional – such as being the sole male member of the piccolo section in the marching band – that’s easily attributed to your (presumed inadvertent) lack of social conformity.

Or perhaps this is just a little known lady wooing technique...
Or perhaps this is just a little known lady wooing technique…

Romantic or sexual failure with women- perhaps the ultimate mark of shame in the view of conventional masculinity – is not only accepted, but virtually expected. And while those outside the nerd community may mock male nerds for their failings at masculinity, within nerd community such traits are considered normal, even a point of pride.

So far, this seems like an improvement over traditional masculinity, at least when we’re talking about high school age. It certainly did to teenage me – no one (not even me) bothered to question why I had so little interest in following stereotypical male interests, why I always seemed a little uncomfortable or awkward, or why I never socialized with my more conventionally masculine peers. He’s a nerd, they’re like that. I’m a nerd, we’re like that.

One of us...!
One of us…!

However, if you look closer, for all its pretensions of being above and beyond the toxicity of traditional masculinity, nerd culture possesses its own brand of masculinity that’s just as toxic – and it’s exactly this conceptualization of masculinity that is currently wreaking havoc.

At least part of the problem, I suspect, is that male nerd culture never really disposed of perhaps the two most potentially dangerous elements of traditional masculinity – insecurity and entitlement. It merely cloaks them under a guise of social indifference.

All for one and one for one!
All for one and one for one!

Rather than being acknowledged and explored, the insecurity about how others – women especially – perceived us, was deeply internalized. Romantic rejection was so assumed that it was often seen as futile to even ask someone out. This, combined with the sense of entitlement that is reinforced in media depictions of nerds, lead to a slow boiling resentment of the perceived rejectors, which can easily fuel such activities as doxxing, SWATing, and other forms of harassment.

But since male nerds ostensibly are excluded from traditional masculinity, they assume that they can’t possibly be the bad guys – and thus, anyone bringing attention to the more problematic aspects of male nerd behavior only further stokes the flames of resentment and hostility. The result is just as dysfunctional as traditional masculinity, and has just as much potential to hurt women – who are all too often viewed as a potential adversary.

The only thing you need to worry about is our mad board game skilz.
The only thing you need to worry about is our mad board game skilz.

Unsurprisingly, female nerds often end up bearing the brunt of all this toxicity. If our nerdiness hasn’t been sufficiently vetted, our presence is resented as “fake” or “attention whores” (since apparently there’s no other conceivable reason for us to be in nerd spaces) – never mind the fact that women have been a major part of many fandoms from the very beginning. This isn’t really surprising, since our presence is considered strictly optional to begin with (I heard some variation of “Eh, women, who needs ’em?” more than a few times from some of my male nerd friends in high school). If we are judged worthy by the gatekeepers and allowed in unmolested, the cost is our own womanhood – we are suddenly “just like one of the guys,” better than those “other girls” (though ultimately even this status is conditional).

How long did it take Ron to get the clue that Hermione liked him??
How long did it take Ron to get the clue that Hermione liked him??

I have no doubt that there are plenty of dejected teenage girls out there who embraced that distancing from conventional gender expectations, just as I embraced the male version of it to escape my own gender issues. But nonetheless, the end result is that women are never really considered part of “real” nerd culture.

This feeling of being an outsider was particularly shocking to me, since I’d been shielded from it during my years of presumed maleness. The first time I entered a used game store with my fiancée (who was hunting for old PS3 games) post-transition, the change in how I was perceived was palpable. We were the only women in the store, and there were more than a few glances in our direction, glances I’d never received while presenting male. You get used to it, my fiancée later told me.

State your business, female.
State your business, female.

What is to be done? How can male nerd culture live up to its own expectations of a healthier masculinity? First and foremost, male nerds need to have an honest discussion about their own insecurities. This in of itself could be a challenge, since male nerd masculinity discourages open talk of feelings just as much traditional masculinity does, albeit for slightly different reasons (emotional discussion is considered below the logical, ordered mind of the male nerd). But if that can be accomplished, work can then begin on dismantling much of the hostile suspicion of women and other “outsiders”. It is only then that nerdom can truly achieve what it has long promised- a community bound only by shared passions that will accept you, no matter who or what you are.

If nerdom cannot foster the radical acceptance that proclaims to have, it may be in for a rough ride. If gamers are dead – because now everyone’s a gamer – than we may not be too far off from the time when nerds are dead. After all, in world where Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, and more, have all become thoroughly mainstream, the walls that distinguish who’s a nerd from who isn’t are slowly eroding.

In the not too distant future, everyone may be able to rightfully call themselves a nerd – and I strongly suspect the community would be better off for it.

In the immortal words of my homegirl...
In the immortal words of my homegirl…

As for me, personally, I drifted away from most of my high school male nerd friends as time went on. I eventually found the disdain for emotional expression, casual misogyny, and bizarre one-up-man-ship over lack of social relations too obnoxious to bear. This isn’t to say I’ve abandoned nerdom – after all, I’m an astrobiologist, my life basically is science fiction – but I look forward to the day when male nerds, my brothers and former comrades, welcome me with open arms.


TessTessa is a 28 year old PhD student, and perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist. A nerd going way back, her interests include science fiction, space exploration, sustainability, science communication, and feminism and gender. Her hobbies also include horseback riding, playing the flute, social dancing, knitting, and occasional attempts at writing fiction. She currently resides in Tempe, AZ with her even nerdier fiancee and a mastiff mix who thinks he’s a lapdog. She tweets occasionally @spacermase.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑