Stephanie Burt, Harvard English Scholar, Discusses Her Transition. Read Her Letter Here.
Stephanie Burt (also known as Steph and Stephen), a Jewish professor of English at Harvard, is one of the first out transgender people to serve on the faculty of the prestigious university. She discussed her transition on Facebook in June, and we have adapted it here for a wider reading public.
Hi everyone! As many of you know, but some of you don’t, after several years of presenting myself as a lady some of the time, and as a guy at other times, I am now a lady all the time.
I don’t regret waiting, at all! But I would regret it if I didn’t make this change now. I can’t overstate what I owe, nor how grateful I am, for the support, love, advice and listening skills that I’ve had and continue to have from my spouse who has been and is the love of my life, from both our kids, from our family and from all of our friends.
This change seems to me like a set of life tweaks and minor changes, some convenient and some inconvenient, that make it easier for me to do consistently and fluently something I’ve long done, openly, for part of the time, but inconsistently: it’s more another step along a familiar path, or a small leap in the direction I’ve been headed all along, than it is a swerve or a big reveal.
I’ve realized it may seem like a bigger or more surprising change to some of you.
If you’re already used to calling me Steph or Stephanie, and used to seeing me presenting as female, don’t change a thing.
If you’re used to seeing me as a guy, and to calling me something else, you may need to adjust your set: I’ll still answer to Stephen, and it continues to be the name on my books for now (in part because I’m really not sure whether I want my name in print to be Steph or Stephanie or not to change), but Steph or Stephanie, in person, are best. She/her or they/them pronouns, whichever you find more comfortable, are preferred.
That said, please do not let it ruin your day if you call me by an old name or use the wrong pronoun. It’s not ideal, but it won’t ruin my day. (It would ruin some trans people’s days, though.)
Over the next year-plus, some parts of my appearance may change gradually (you may have noticed them changing already). I don’t expect my voice, nor my week-by-week, month-by-month schedule, to change. (I may have more or different hair, or just more cute hats.)
For some of us, gender transition means becoming a new person, or leaving behind your former life. That is not how this year, nor this decade of being out as trans, has felt, to me, at all. I’m the person I have always been, but I feel better about being that person, and I look more like her than I could before.
“The greatest poverty is not to live/ In a physical world, to feel that one’s desire/ Is too difficult to tell from despair,” wrote the great cisgender poet Wallace Stevens. The more I get to live as a woman, the more I feel like I can live in a physical world. I like my life better, and feel much better about the body in which I live my life, when I can try to present myself as a woman. When I get support in doing so, my stack of reasons for living part of my life as a guy — which were very good reasons at earlier times — no longer apply.
I’m lucky in many, many ways, not just in friends and family but in my institutional security; I have an employer, and live in a state, that at least seem willing to protect me. For many trans people, of course, that’s not the case. I’d like to do more to support the rest of us. Suggestions are welcome.
Over the past several years some cisgender people — close friends, new acquaintances, and professional colleagues — have come to me asking for help and advice about trans and gender-nonconforming people in general, or about particular LGBTQIA people (kids and adults) in their lives. I’m generally happy to provide such advice if I think I can give any (it now seems to have become a small slice of my actual job). Please continue to feel free to ask me anything. If it’s an inappropriate question I’ll let you know — if not, I’ll answer as soon as I can!
If you’re a trans or gender nonconforming Facebook friend and you are reading this post, but we are not (or are not yet) close in person (at least a few poets might read this for whom that’s the case), please feel free to message me if you want either to give, or to ask for, advice. Some things about being out as a trans lady, or about day to day life as any kind of woman in our society, are pretty familiar to me by now. Others (including some of the disadvantages) are still pretty new (and I will, of course, get some things awkwardly wrong).
You may now return to your scheduled pictures of cats, or to the book you were reading before you opened Facebook an hour ago. (Also, if you live in the U.S., call both your senators. Trumpcare affects everyone. Let’s stop it now.)
Thanks for listening, Stephanie.
Stephanie Burt is a professor of English at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is the author of numerous books of literary criticism and poetry, including “Advice from the Lights,” coming out this fall from Graywolf Press.