Harvard student crosses the boundaries of gender and sex by living as a man in a woman's body

IS BIOLOGY DESTINY? A

September 24, 1997|By JOE MATHEWS | JOE MATHEWS,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Alex Myers sits down to breakfast inside Harvard's Memorial Hall. Amid the marble busts of graduates and historic stained glass, Myers fits right in. Dressed in a loose-fitting running outfit and wearing a baseball cap backward, he is every inch the Harvard stereotype: a lacrosse-playing Exeter preppie whose daddy went here.

Except for one thing, which may be a very big thing or a very insignificant thing depending on how you think about things.

Under the running outfit, or the conservative blue suit, or the hockey goalie's equipment, he -- strictly biologically speaking -- is a she. Without hormone treatment or a sex change operation, Myers is living as an articulate, intelligent, funny, straight young man with a bright future in science. "I am ..." Myers says, munching on an English muffin, "not your traditional freak."

"It's 100 percent wrong for me to be referred to as a woman," he continues. "And it feels 60 percent wrong to be called a man. I wish there was a pronoun that easily described me."

There is a word, though. Myers, 19, considers himself "transgendered." And here at Harvard, Myers has sparked a campus-wide argument that reflects a larger debate in American society, and in the medical community, about the boundaries of gender and sex, and whether biology is destiny.

The term "transgendered" originally referred to people like Myers, who live as a gender different from their biological sex but don't alter their bodies. But in recent years, the term has become a catch-all word for surgically altered transsexuals, hermaphrodites, even effeminate men and masculine women. Critics, including many psychiatrists, suggest that such people may be mentally ill. But Myers says he is a living, breathing, (not to mention mature and well-grounded) example of the notion that gender and sex don't naturally go together, that gender is a construct.

"Man and woman -- those are societal molds," says Myers. "I think it's a big trap. I believe gender and sex are two different things. They are not complimentary forces. ... And I'm hardly the first person to feel this way."

L True. But at Harvard he is a novelty, in more ways than one.

A stressful time

Consider that freshman year here is an enormously stressful time when many undergraduates -- some homesick, others intimidated by their surroundings -- have been known to gain or lose significant amounts of weight. In this hothouse of frayed nerves and terrific insecurities, most students are wary of putting even their most minor frailties out for public consumption.

Then, there's Myers.

Last spring, as a freshman, he came out, in his uniquely disarming way, to the entire campus. He gave a lengthy interview to the student newspaper, the Crimson. He successfully lobbied the student government, known as the Undergraduate Council, to add protections for transgendered undergraduates to its constitution. And he ignored a fair number of hard stares, as well as a few nasty words, with the stubbornness of someone who used the stairs instead of the elevator to his fourth-floor room in Greenough Hall.

He is the only campus figure in memory here, who can legitimately claim to have stretched the noggins of Harvard's professors and students, who take particular pride in their open-mindedness. Before Myers, few had heard the word transgender, and fewer knew anyone who was open about the identity. Before Myers, the Bisexual Gay Lesbian Student Alliance, or BGLSA, expanded the horizons of others. When Myers showed up to the first meeting last fall, he expanded theirs -- with a T: It's the BGLTSA now.

"The issues Alex raised have created one of the most interesting debates I've seen at Harvard," says Lamelle Rawlins, president of the Undergraduate Council. "I'm incredibly impressed with Alex. He's so inspiring, so brave, and so articulate."

Last spring, as the Undergraduate Council changed its constitution at Myers' urging, Rawlins joined Myers in asking Harvard to do the same. They want this 361-year-old university to amend its legal policy to prohibit discrimination on the basis of "gender identity." Such a change is serious business, and the proposal has received a serious reception.

Of course, this is Myers, and so his campaign has included no protests. No sit-ins. Just some quiet meetings with the deans. He is more insider than outsider, a closet but not closeted activist whose appeal is that "I'm just like them."

"The way I look," he says about his conservative attire, "sometimes I walk into meetings on transgender stuff, and people think I'm there to protest [against] them."

The Alice years

While most of Harvard sleeps, Alex Myers is up at 6: 30 a.m. every day, ready to run. Five miles later, he has barely broken a sweat.

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