Last year, Harvard Business School accepted its first transgender student. She is, in fact, the first openly trans person to be admitted to any top management program in the country.
The implicit message to the business world that comes with a school like Harvard’s acceptance isn’t one Del (who prefers to go by her first name) expected to hear in her lifetime. Society’s tolerance for homosexuality may be on the rise, but so far transgender individuals have been largely left out of this growing openness to queer identities. One of the greatest challenges trans people face comes with employment. Employers are often reluctant to take on the perceived risk of hiring a visibly trans person, fearing that they will lose customers or make other staff uncomfortable. Thus, despite having consistently greater levels of education than the general population, one in six trans people subsists on a total household income of under $10,000 a year, a dire financial situation compounded by their needs for hormone replacement therapy.
As a result, 16 percent of trans women end up in the underground economy, primarily within sex work, further perpetuating the stigma against them. The overwhelming stigma and social isolation that trans people experience puts them at risk for depression and sexual abuse. Half of trans people attempt suicide. While other marginalized groups have days of celebration - such as the pride days within the gay communities - trans people have only the Transgender Day of Remembrance, which occurs on November 20. It is a day when the trans community remembers those who have been killed as a result of transphobia and draws attention to the continued violence inflicted on the trans community. Every year, the memorial event includes a reading of the names of those who lost their lives in the previous year. The list does not get shorter as the years go on.
Though Del, too, has faced prejudice socially and professionally, working within the technology sector has meant that she has been largely behind the scenes, resulting in far less discrimination than many others within the trans community. But while Del has never fallen into indigence, she has experienced the intolerance, verbal abuse, and physical violence that are part of everyday life for trans people.
When I met with Del in Cambridge on a crisp fall evening, I could not help but wonder why she has chosen to be open about being trans at all. She is a strikingly beautiful blonde whose history is imperceptible when you look at her. Del agrees that telling her story puts her at a disadvantage: “Even the mechanics of sharing my past are difficult. The only exposure the average person has to transgender issues is from overwhelmingly false media stereotypes. We haven't had our Will & Grace moment yet, so coming out usually needs to be accompanied by a lot of education.”
If she wanted, Del could seamlessly blend into the background at Harvard Business School. It is very clear to me that the only reason she has decided to identify with the trans community is to help others by changing negative stereotypes. Most transgender individuals who manage to defy the odds by achieving success do so because they exist in stealth, hiding their trans history. While Del has chosen to speak out, she says she doesn’t fault those who choose not to share their past. “After transition, transgender becomes less an identity than an experience for many people, and one most are happy to forget.”
Sometimes it is the indirect discrimination of otherwise well-meaning people, rather than deliberate acts of hate, that most profoundly affects a transgendered person’s quality of life. “Most employers and administrators have not only never met a transgender person before, they have never been in an environment where they see others embrace a trans person. As a result, many open-minded and accepting people do terrible things out of the fear of what other people might think.” That’s why she sees the school’s acceptance of a transgendered individual as being so important. “Any difference I can make by being here is dwarfed by the impact the school and my peers have had by embracing a trans student as one of their own. They are the ones who are changing the world.”
Del speaks warmly and admiringly about her classmates. She describes them as bright, idealistic and sincere. That doesn’t mean she always feels at home, however. For over a decade, the Australian and New Zealand Club at Harvard Business School has thrown an annual “Priscilla Ball,” a themed cross-dressing party inspired by the movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. This year, it is scheduled to take place on October 19. Though it is held off campus and is not sanctioned by the university, since its inception it has been one of Harvard Business School’s best-attended parties.
Male attendees tend to trade in the clichés of the porn industry, dressing as stewardesses, nurses, French maids or Catholic schoolgirls. Female students generally wear hyper-sexualized outfits. Last year, for instance, a section of women went with the theme of Risky Business, wearing collared shirts, ties and little else.
A recent article by Jodi Kantor in The New York Times highlighted the ways in which Harvard Business School still struggles with an atmosphere of gender inequity and stereotypes, particularly in social contexts, such as when male students openly ruminate over classmates they would “fuck, kill or marry,” or when women are disparaged for being too assertive.
But if the party has been taken to be an affront towards women, to Del, it is equally offensive to the transgender community. “The ball sends the message that a man in a dress is inherently funny or humiliating or something not deserving respect,” says Del. “It is exactly that stereotype which takes away our respect and shuts us out of employment and fulfilling careers. The Priscilla Ball institutionalizes a humiliation of those who are most vulnerable -- those who do not visually conform and who most need society to move forward.” Adding insult to injury in her eyes, she asserts, “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert was the first positive representation of a trans woman on film.” Thus, the party “bastardizes something that is a symbol of progress within the trans community. To make it a joke, over and over and over again, every year, and to keep it this year when I am here among them, pleading with them not to go through with it, is so painful.”
If interests of transgender students have lagged behind those of female and gay students at Harvard Business School, this is a trend that reflects the realities outside of higher education as well. However, I am struck by how positive and optimistic Del is about the future. Though matriculation into a top business school may seem like a small matter to more accepted minority groups, to Del this is a significant step towards acceptance of transgender identities in society at large and a harbinger of a better destiny for trans people in business. “I don’t feel that being trans at Harvard Business School has held me back in any way,” she says. “But make no mistake: that it has been no big deal is a very big deal indeed.”