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.”