Incitement to Indifference: Transgender at HBS

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As the first openly transgender student at Harvard Business School, and perhaps at any top business school in the United States, Del (NC) has faced and overcome a unique set of challenges. Del’s section mate, Daniel Selikowitz (NC), reports.

“To whom is this news?”

It is October 10, 2012 – two months into first semester, and the day before National Coming Out Day – and this is the question that Del poses after revealing to our section that she is a transgender woman.

A few seconds pass, before one of my classmates voices what we are all thinking: “I had absolutely no idea.”

Del’s question may seem, at first glance, to be an innocuous icebreaker. In fact, it has significant implications. Del is not compelled by her appearance to be a vocal representative of the transgender community, for there is nothing that separates her from the other 370 women in the MBA Class of 2014. For the first eight weeks of semester, she was ‘stealth’ at HBS – a word the transgender community uses to describe the process of blending in with the cisgender (non-trans) community.

So, why come out?

The answer to this question lies in the challenges Del has faced and overcome – challenges that are still inherent to the contemporary transgender experience. “I’m coming out for the child I was 20 years ago, who didn’t see a life worth living,” Del explains. “There are 10,000 kids out there in the US who are trying to figure out what it means to be who they are, and I want to show them an identity which is neither tragedy nor punch line.”

As a cisgender person, it is hard to imagine the hopelessness that many transgender young people feel. It is easy, however, to understand where this hopelessness comes from.

The National Center for Transgender Equality’s (NCTE) 2011 report, Injustice at Every Turn, paints a picture of severe and systemic disadvantage. Of 6,450 transgender individuals who participated in the NCTE’s study, 90% reported experiencing mistreatment at work; 19% had experienced homelessness; and a staggering 41% had attempted suicide – compared with just 0.6% in the broader US population. It is tragic and unsurprising that the majority of those surveyed reported concealing their true gender identity in order to avoid discrimination.

It is tempting to infer from Del’s current success that her experience has been an exception to these rules. As an accomplished entrepreneur and a member of a student community replete with Olympians, outliers and over-achievers, her life path seems to have diverged from that of most transgender men and women in the US.

However, Del’s success comes after an intensely challenging journey, characterized by intense internal and external pressures. “Being trans is something that was really, really hard for me. I’ve lost jobs, friends and loved ones to being trans; I’ve experienced physical assault, and so much verbal harassment it’s hard to quantify. I like to forget my history, most of the time.”

As an entrepreneur, Del has faced direct and indirect discrimination. While the American start-up ecosystem tends to be portrayed as ideologically progressive, this is not always the case.

“In leadership positions,” says Del, “one has to navigate clients and business partners who might not be as open-minded as your hand-picked team. It’s difficult to balance being out and proud against maximizing value for one’s shareholders. But, as hard as that choice is, the worst moments came when that decision was made for me by friends or colleagues ‘for the greater good.’”

As an applicant to HBS, Del had to struggle with a different kind of pressure: her own self-doubt. Even with years of academic and professional success under her belt, and a stellar 780 GMAT score, Del struggled with whether and how to present her history to the Admissions Committee.

“For the first 20 drafts or so, I was determined not to be out. In the next 20, I tried to minimize and sugar-coat the impact it had on my life. In both cases, I couldn’t find a way to write with authenticity and passion.” Above all, Del feared “tokenization” – the prospect of being accepted to a top school primarily because of her history, rather than on the merits of her application.

After months of indecision, Del took what she saw as the riskier path – laying her cards on the table, and presenting her full history to HBS. This decision, and the subsequent choice to share her story with the wider HBS community, ran contrary to her natural inclinations. Del describes herself as an introvert, one who has learned from bitter experience to delineate her private and public selves in order to mitigate discrimination and harassment.

At HBS, this delineation in Del’s life is becoming less marked – a testament both to her courage, and to the openness and inclusivity of the HBS community. “HBS Admissions handled my application discretely, and the school gave me the freedom to come out to my classmates and professors on my own schedule, if at all.”

Since she came out to Section C in October, our perceptions of Del have not changed. We still think of her as one of our brightest, most outspoken classmates, someone who approaches every problem from a unique and highly analytical point of view. Indeed, “trans” is just one more adjective that can describe Del – and it is no more important or necessary to think of her as a “trans woman” than as a “tall woman” or a “white woman”.

The last time I heard Del’s gender identity come up was at an SA trivia night, when she volunteered ‘brontosaurus’ as the answer to a question about dinosaurs. “Are you sure, Del?” we asked. “I was a six-year-old boy,” she replied, “I know dinosaurs!”

At the same time, Del is open to sharing her experience with other students. “When I came out in October, I wanted nothing more than for everyone to not mention it for a month or two.  Now that time is up, and it feels important to make the most of being out by acting as a resource to those who want to learn more.”

Del’s openness has been praised by the leaders of HBS student organizations, who emphasize the importance of fostering greater inclusivity on campus. Deborah Singer and Parker Woltz, Co-Presidents of the Women’s Student Association (WSA), say that “We’re excited to have Del as a member of the HBS Women’s Association, and we’re deeply impressed by and proud of her work to make HBS a more inclusive and accepting place.”

This view was echoed by Jim Kuerschner and Blake Landro, Co-Presidents of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Student Association (LGBTSA), who state that, “as a club, we strive to be richer in experience and informed on a range of LGBT issues that affect our members. Thanks to Del, we’ve become more thoughtful and inclusive as a community.”

Being transgender at HBS has turned out to be “no big deal,” according to Del, and this is at is should be. Unfortunately, however, the same does not apply outside of the HBS bubble. For this reason, it is important that we think carefully about the implications of Del’s experience as we move from HBS into the real world.

For the HBS community, Del’s story offers a seemingly paradoxical call to action – a call to awareness, and to indifference. On the one hand, as we move through our personal and professional spheres in the years to come, we have a responsibility to be aware of the challenges faced by trans men and women, and to recognize that we have the power to minimize these challenges through the actions we take. On the other hand, we must remember that ‘trans’ is simply one more adjective, rather than the defining feature of someone’s personality – and we must strive to create a society where difference is met with indifference, rather than with fear or suspicion.

Del’s experience holds universal relevance, beyond the struggles of the trans community. By achieving success in the face of incredible obstacles, and by embracing transition as an opportunity for personal growth, Del embodies the HBS ethos of self-realization.

“Your challenges, your crises, are the most precious moments of your life,” she said. “When the time comes, this won’t be an easy thing to remember – but pause, every once in a while, when there is a moment of calm in the storm, to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown.”

Surely, this is a message we can all take with us.

If you are a trans person applying to an MBA program, or an HBS student who would like to learn more about the trans experience, Del invites you to drop her note at transathbs@gmail.com.

If you need immediate support, contact the Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ Youth on 1-866-488-7386.

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