ADVENTURES OF A
As of today, I have been on testosterone for a year. It comes at a kind of strange time: I’m currently at sea and only explicitly out as trans to 3 people. I haven’t told any of them because, although I am out, I don’t really talk to them about being trans.
I also have conflicted feelings about “celebrating” a year on T. I am no more or less trans than I was before starting hormones. I am very much the same person I’ve always been. It feels like a step towards loving myself, but in some ways it was not any bigger step than cutting my hair, coming out on social media, or getting tattoos. I also have complicated feelings about before and after hormone pictures. On the one hand, it's super helpful for other trans people, and it documents a journey. On the other hand, starting HRT was not the defining moment of my life, and no one posts before/after photos of their piercings.
I’ve tried to use the day to reflect on how hormones have changed me over the past year. There are some obvious physical ones: a deeper voice, more muscle mass, a little bit more body and facial hair. But I actually don’t care that much about any of those. For me, the biggest change on T has been emotional. I can’t really describe why, but since starting T I just feel better in so many ways. I used to have panic attacks every few weeks; now I can’t remember the last time I had one. My social anxiety is a thousand times better. I feel able to deal with difficult situations. Situations that used to overwhelm me and send me into a depressive spiral are now just frustrating. I find it easier to say no to things I’m not interested in. Taking care of myself used to feel really difficult and sometimes overwhelming, now it is easy. Most of these changes I didn’t expect. I had heard from many people that T doesn’t change who you are (which is true), and so I expected changes that were more purely physical.
I am not sure exactly why I feel so much better, but I know I do. I try not to wonder too much, because my mental health is valuable regardless of why T improves it so much. After 10 days on T, I wrote: "I'm feeling great. Energetic. Inhabiting my body". After 2.5 months, I wrote: "testosterone has changed a lot about my body & my relationship to it but the most unexpectedly beautiful thing has been that it is now so easy to take care of myself". I'm glad I wrote both of those; without them I would not remember how quickly T made me feel good, at home, like myself.
Hoping for many more years of accessible health care and good mental health.
One thing I have been trying to take notice of is how my experiences at sea are different passing (ish) as a man than previously passing as a woman. It’s been kind of hard to suss out because this cruise is so different than any I’ve been on before. I’ve mostly been overwhelmed by how many more resources there are on this ship than on any of the South African vessels (this ship alone has more of many types of instruments than the entire country of South Africa....). But I have started to think about how I am taken more seriously than my female colleagues.
One of our responsibilities as students is to “sample cop”. This means we verify what bottle people sample from the CTD, and that they are going in the right order. It’s a fairly easy but very important job. Sampling in the wrong order or from the wrong bottle will make the measurements useless.
I’m on shift with 2 female students, one of whom really wanted to sample cop. She had to ask the chief scientist if she could, he asked if she wanted any training, and then her first two times, many of the male scientists purposely fucked with her, saying the wrong numbers to see if she would catch it, telling her she put the date in the wrong format, just generally being assholes. To some extent, this is normal at sea. Things get boring so we give each other a lot of shit. However, it really felt to me like they were trying to catch her fucking up to prove she was incompetent. It’s worth noting: she did not mess up, and she responded to them with things like “fuck you” (probably the only good response).
But my first time as sample cop, I was just told I should do it since no one else was. There was no asking permission or people thinking I needed training. No one tried to mess with me. They largely just assumed I knew what I was doing. And since it’s a super easy job if no one is trying to fuck with you, it was very obvious I did know what I was doing. Maybe people were just in a calmer mood when I was sample cop; I have no way of proving their reactions were about gender. But I can’t stop thinking maybe they were.
And the outcome of that is a perpetuating cycle. Because if you’re trying to get someone to fuck up, and you succeed, then you think female scientists are less competent, and you’re going to watch them even more closely for mistakes. Meanwhile I (and other male passing people) just quietly fly under the radar
We finally made it to our first station and started working! This cruise is made up of a series of 91 sampling locations between Antarctica and South Africa. We call each of these a “station”. At each station, we lower an instrument called a CTD (conductivity-temperature-density) to about 10 meters from the bottom of the ocean. On the way up, we stop periodically to “fire bottles”, aka, to send a command to the instrument to close a bottle and get a water sample at that depth. Once the CTD is back onboard, we use the bottles to fill smaller sample bottles for different measurements like carbon, oxygen, salinity, pH, nutrients, and chlorofluorocarbons while the ship navigates to the next station. It takes about 4 hours at each station, and then it is 2-3 hours in between stations.
Our first day of work was hectic: the first stations are shallower and closer together, so we made it to 5 stations in one 12 hour shift! The longest break I took was 20 minutes to eat dinner. But, it was also an amazing day. The night before, we could see the southern lights. And in the morning, we were surrounded by pancake ice and grease ice. The water was so viscous that waves looked like they were moving in slow motion.
The second day was a little more relaxing. We did 2 stations, which is more typical of what we will be doing each day for the rest of the cruise. We also saw a beautiful iceberg at sunset, and an incredible moon rise. I have seen so many amazing things I never dreamed I would see. Even with it being super cold outside, and working a ton, these have been 2 of the best days of my life.
I realized that most people have not lived on a research vessel, so I should probably give some basic info on what it’s like!
Even though it is called a “cruise”, it is very different than a vacation cruise. We typically work 12 hour shifts, either noon to midnight or midnight to noon. During shift, you may not be working continuously, but you do need to be awake and readily available for anything that comes up. It’s a lot of sitting and waiting in the lab, doing something for 5-60 minutes, waiting again.
There are 3 meals served a day, but no matter which shift you’re on, you’re only going to be awake for 2 of them. On the Thompson, the food has been great. There is always a salad bar, and then entrees and desserts. An example from a recent lunch: quinoa salad, philly cheese steaks, open faced smoked salmon sandwiches, garlic kale, roasted carrots, fries, and chocolate cookies. I’m eating better than I ever do at home! They also leave snacks and leftovers out, everything from chips and crackers to diced fruit and cereal and corn bread.
Outside of shift, you are free to do whatever you want. I usually get bored: even working 12 hours leaves you with a lot of free time when you have no commute, no cooking, and very few chores! American research vessels are dry, so you can’t whittle away the evening with a few beers.
I like to work out, in the gym if there is one, or I’ll do push ups and yoga if there isn’t a gym. I also read a lot. And I’ll socialize by chatting and playing card games. And, being on the ocean, you often end up on deck to see the whale/iceberg/bioluminescence/sunset/stars/etc. That’s my favorite part: seeing so many amazingly beautiful aspects of nature. Last night, we saw bioluminescent waves along the bow of the ship and it was magical. Other people will use their free time to watch movies, paint, draw, write, play ping pong, crochet, play guitar, do crosswords, whatever keeps them sane. Everyone tends to sleep a lot at sea too, it’s very tiring just to be awake and moving about a rocking ship.
And the ships do rock! It depends on where you’re going, the time of year, and the weather, but the seas can get quite rough. Generally, you’re expected to keep working. Maybe take a Dramamine, or a nap, but get back to work. Everything is harder when the ship is moving. You can’t carry as much, it’s hard to walk, you may even fall out of bed. Showers get pretty tough. I usually give up on shaving. I don’t really get sea sick, though, which is very convenient.
You very quickly get to know people at sea. You eat every meal together, you work together, sometimes you share a cabin. I get to Peak Introvert Friendship Level with people very quickly: where I am happier to read in the same room as someone rather than reading totally alone. Most of the people I’ve sailed with feel like family to me. I may not keep in touch with them regularly, but I am always happy to see them and I would do just about anything for them.
Since everyone is so close, there is inevitable coupling up. It’s pretty common among oceanographers to meet your partner at sea. There is also casual sex; after a few weeks seeing no one else, everyone around you starts looking more attractive (is this a known phenomena in psychology?). Personally I avoid that since I’m usually one of very few queer people on a ship. It also doesn’t seem very comfortable to me. Our cabins are usually shared, with twin sized bunk beds with very little headspace. But somehow people make do! Since we have no work to do right now, my routine has become: breakfast, group yoga on the deck (another scientist is an aspiring yoga instructor), lunch, read/write/work, dinner, watch sunset, run, upper body weights, read/write/work, bed. Not a bad life!
Depending on the cruise, you could be at sea anywhere from a single day to 60 days or more. I’m always happy to see land again, but after a few days on land I want to go back to sea! It can be hard work, but I really, really love it.
This whole trip (all 4 days of it), I haven't tried too hard to pass as a man, but I have also let everyone assume I was a straight man. Mostly I censored my speech a little to avoid mentioning things like drag shows, testosterone shots, male exes, etc. But, I didn't consciously change anything about my body language, speech patterns, personality, etc. I wear a mixture of men's and women's clothes. I assumed I would pass as a man since I have facial hair and I'm the second tallest person on the ship.
There are few things I love as much as heading to port in Cape Town and seeing Table Mountain materialize on the horizon. But, that was supposed to be 34 days from now, not today!
We blew an engine pump and made a U turn to go back and get a replacement part. It should be here soon, and we will head south again. I know these kinds of things happen at sea, but I can't help feeling like maybe I am bad luck (so far my cruises have included several broken winches, a blown bow thruster, enough bad weather to completely cancel one cruise, a broken drive shaft... and a few more things I'm forgetting).
The upside is that we are close to shore with beautiful weather. I spent all day today sitting on the back deck reading Crime and Punishment. In the past few days, I have napped in a hammock on the bow and joined in with some colleagues playing guitar and drums and singing. I've seen albatross, seals, whales, dolphins, and a penguin. If I had a gin and tonic, it would be an ideal vacation! Attitude is super important at sea: you can either think of this as us being trapped on a ship, away from friends and family, or you can take it as time to disconnect, learn, grow, meet new people.
I injected my T shot a few days ago. I'm not a huge fan of doing IM injections at sea. It's part of why I do injections every 2 weeks, even though it makes your hormone levels spike and dip more dramatically. Sometimes I'll move my shot day too, to avoid injecting in rough seas. This is the first time I haven't had to pass as female at least a few times a week, so I'm not shaving my face. It's weird to see facial hair on myself! I think it's coming in red, which is Not Ideal, but genetics didn't ask me.
In order to not go crazy, I've made up some goals for myself for the next 34 days (yes I am that kind of person):
Finish Crime and Punishment
Learn to run on a treadmill on a rolling ship
Get so I can do 10 pull ups continuously on a rolling ship (note: our "pull up bar" is climbing grips so it's harder than usual!)
Read Rob Stewart's Intro to Physical Oceanography textbook
any more I should add? I imagine I'll get good at ping pong, cards, and singing since I've already done more of those these past 4 days than the rest of my life combined. And of course I will get really good at operating the CTD, once we are able to start working.
On Wednesday, I am setting sail from Cape Town to the Southern Ocean, as part of the US GO-SHIP program. We will be taking measurements of parameters such as temperature, salinity, velocity, carbon, oxygen, and trace gases. This section gets repeated every 10 years to determine changes over time. The cruise is 38 days, making it my longest cruise so far. I’m super excited to cross the Southern Ocean and see Antarctica (we aren’t going on land, sadly).
Today we were onboard the Thomas Thompson to get a tour and do some training. This was my first time aboard a US research vessel. The previous cruises I joined were all on South African vessels. It honestly felt like going from a beat up 20 year old honda civic to a brand new tesla. For instance, our CTD operations in the past were run off a laptop, with no altimeter to tell us the CTD was close to the bottom. We also did not have read outs of things like wire tension so we just did our best. Today, they showed us 12 monitors of read outs for the CTD. It is a 36 bottle rosette, compared to the 12 bottle ones I am used to. There was plenty of lab space for everyone, multiple people stopped what they were doing to teach of about their work, the ship has a gym, we were each given a login for wifi while at sea… none of these things had happened on my previous cruises. They also fed us mussels, and had ice cream and candy and chips readily available. I knew it would be different, but I’m in awe. It is amazing what decades of adequate resources towards science can do.
This cruise will also be different for me for a few other reasons. One is that I am a student, and this is not my data. Of course I care about the data, but I think it will be much less stressful since my personal research does not depend on this. My journal from the last cruise includes entries from several days that say “this was the most stressful day of my life”. So I’m hoping to avoid that. I am also going to sea “as a man” for the first time. This is somewhat strange to me on many levels. Although I pass as a man on a daily basis for things like ordering food and using the bathroom, I’ve never had anyone close to me think that I was a cis man. I am very out as non binary in my daily life. I am called “she” at least once a day, and probably more like 10-20 times (note: my preferred pronouns are he/him). I use the women’s restroom at work. I am also very openly bisexual. These past 2 days, I have consistently been called “he”. I am sharing a room with a man. Although the chief scientist knows I am trans, no one else does. And I’d guess people think I’m straight? I feel a little like I am tricking people, and also a little paranoid for them to somehow figure it out. I think most of that is internalized, though.
I plan to continue blogging about science and about my experiences passing as a man! I will update when the internet is good.
Many people ask me why non binary people may want to be on HRT, or more specifically, why I am on testosterone despite not identifying as a man. Speaking only for myself: I had extremely disordered eating habits for most of my adult life. I was paranoid of gaining weight and looking more feminine. I also had low body awareness, and I love running, so it was easy to not eat enough. I was medically underweight from age 13-25. Among many other changes, testosterone has made food taste good, it's made me hungry, and it's made me stop fearing gaining weight. A few weeks ago I realized that I couldn't see my ribs, for the first time ever. I consistently feel good and strong. My chest measurements have gone up 6 inches. I don't get lightheaded anymore. HRT can be lifesaving in many ways
Pictures are from February 2019 and November 2017. I have gained 20 pounds and finally am starting to feel healthy.
and yes, I have scoliosis :)
In 2016, there were zero ocean science PhD's awarded to African Americans. Zero. We are not talking "low percentages", we are talking literally zero percent. It is abhorrent to not be doing something to fix this, particularly since we know climate change, sea level rise, and pollution disproportionately impact low income communities and communities of color.
No one can change the entire system. But, there are some small things we can all do, in the hopes that there is never another year with zero African American PhD recipients. And particularly if you are faculty or otherwise in a position of power, be aware of your power and use it wisely.
Most of these suggestions apply to making oceanography more welcoming of anyone who is not a straight white man.
The University of Miami has 17,000 students and 15,000 faculty and staff, mostly based on its Coral Gables campus. There are exactly zero locker rooms/showers on the Gables campus that are not explicitly gendered as male or female. I understand that there aren’t a lot of trans students/staff/faculty, but there are some. I personally know at least 10 trans students/staff and I honestly don’t know very many people.
There are 16 gender neutral restrooms on the Gables campus. On the one hand, 16 is a lot. On the other hand, 16 restrooms spread across 239 acres and servicing a total of about 30,000 people is nothing. I don’t use the gender neutral restrooms very often because they are hard to find (9 out of 16 are not on the first floor), sometimes closed for events (why is this a thing???), and frequently occupied. I’ll use them when I happen to be near one, if it is not occupied.
As a graduate student, I have to pay fees that go towards things like my access to the campus pool. And since I love swimming and I’m obligated to pay the fee, I am going to use the pool. But, there is nowhere for me to shower and change. I used to change in the women’s locker room until I was asked to show my ID to “prove” I was a woman. The men’s locker room doesn’t work well since I am very clearly not a man once my pants come off. Recently I have been wearing my swim trunks around campus, paired with a nice shirt and sometimes with dress shoes, and I change back into “real pants” in my car before heading to my evening tutoring. While it’s not awful, it doesn’t seem right that I feel more comfortable getting naked in my car, in a busy parking lot with untinted windows than in any locker room.
My primary campus is on Virginia Key, where we do 2 gender neutral restrooms/showers for a few hundred students/staff/faculty. I only use them if I’m showering, because they are all in a single building which is not the one my office is in. But I do appreciate their existence, and use them when I bike to campus, and I think it’s a somewhat appropriate number based on campus size and population.
Mostly, I just want to be able to pee and to shower when I’m on campus. Recently there was a survey about campus culture at UM, and how included we feel. It’s difficult to feel included when my best option is to walk around campus dripping wet and then change pants in the parking lot.
See Gables campus gender neutral restrooms map here.
Non binary fashion post swim