I'm glad that I already knew what happened after neuroscientist Ben Barres, MD, PhD, revealed he was transgender. Even with the knowledge that at the end of his life he was beloved by trainees and colleagues and widely acclaimed for his work on formerly overlooked brain cells known as glia, I was still tense as I read an excerpt from his autobiography in the latest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine.
That's because I had no idea that when he confided in colleagues and friends in 1997 that he was transitioning from a female to male, he really thought he might lose it all. His words hit me with an emotional wallop.
I did not know of any successful transgender scientists, and I worried whether, if I transitioned, I would be able to get any more grants (it was already nearly impossible). Would new students or postdocs wish to join my lab? Would my colleagues reject me? Would I still be invited to meetings and so forth? Reading about the experiences of other folks in other professions who had transitioned, I strongly feared that a transition would end my career.
For about a week, I was almost unable to sleep from the stress as I pondered whether I should transition or commit suicide.
Thankfully, thankfully, he transitioned.
The entire excerpt, and I'm sure the book as well, is well worth reading. His writing throughout the piece belies his scientific background: he approaches the topic — himself — with curiosity and honesty. The excerpt includes the letter he sent some 21 years ago announcing his transition and the very first response he received.
And, it lets us all in on the outcome:
My career went on as before without a hitch. I am not aware of a single adverse thing that has happened to me in the past 20 years as a result of my being transgender, but there was the immediate relief of all emotional pain as a result of my transition.
It was as if a huge weight had suddenly been lifted from my shoulders.
Barres died a year ago today, of pancreatic cancer, at age 63.
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