Dear San Francisco,
I have a confession: I miss you. More than I’d like to admit.
I am sitting outside on the patio overlooking the Verdi Island Passage, it’s just before sunset and the sky is glowing. There is a slight breeze and I am sipping on a mango shake. In 30 minutes I’ll run upstairs and grab my gear for our night dive. My muscles are the good kind of sore and I’m sun-kissed. I’m able to identify so many more nudibranch species underwater, and I’ve probably eaten an entire chocolate cake. As far as science goes, this is pretty much the best. Wake up at 6am every day, eat breakfast, do two 90-min dives, eat lunch, process specimens, drink a mango shake, maybe do a night dive, dinner, share a bucket of beer, process specimens, sleep. Being here is a not so subtle reminder of how happy I am in this career choice, how excited I am to be working towards someday being able to run an expedition like this myself. There is no better way to learn than in the field. I’ve thought a lot about Pez Maya, the volunteer coral reef monitoring project I joined five years ago when I wanted to make sure that a career change to biology was what I wanted to do. I was as sure then as I am now.
Layered between the bliss of it all is gender. Transitioning as a grad student has been one of the more challenging spaces I’ve had to navigate. First, I have to say that I’ve gotten nothing but acceptance and support from everyone, which means the world to me especially because I had been so scared of how my transition might impact my career. What’s so tough about it out here in the Philippines is two-fold, how I’m seen and treated by others, and how I see myself. We are all living in pretty close quarters here (I was assigned a cis-male roommate for the first week, something my advisor checked in with me about in advance, which meant the world to me) and it’s the first time I’ve spend this much time with everyone. There are also folks from other institutions and other departments that I’m less familiar with. So as to be expected, I got “she’d” a lot right off the bat, and I had to decide on the fly if/how to have some conversations with folks who I want to respect me professionally. The guy I roomed with is a casual acquaintance from high places at the Academy, someone I hadn’t personally told about being trans. I saw him downstairs having a drink with the guys so I thought it was safe to give myself a shot. I was debating if I should bring it up when he walked in on me. We ended up having a really good conversation about it (he’s family too), and with some of the other visiting researchers, but it is really challenging being around people who still see me as female even though they want to be supportive. The “she’s” are turning into “she-he” corrections and a lot of folks seem to be just avoiding pronouns all together, something that I used to prefer pre-transition, but now makes me just as uncomfortable. Which is where you come in San Francisco. Even though the “she’s” are par for the course, it’s usually way offset by the overwhelming amount of support and community, and the power of being around people who aren’t just supportive, but who really understand, who get it. That’s gold. There are times when sexist and homophobic undertones make it into the joking around here. And it’s hard to know how to navigate it in this situation. Normally, I’m quick to speak up about this sort of thing, but it’s my first expedition as a grad student, and I’m struggling equally as hard to keep up as a budding scientist. I find myself desperately trying to remember that all of these people don’t mean it. It’s making the boys club a little hard to be a part of, and the feminist in me is disappointed that I’m not standing up for what I believe in. What it is doing is helping me appreciate my advisor, and reminding me what I’m looking for in a PhD lab. The days are hot, the work is hard, the sleep is little and with that, the weight of the reminders that I was born female is heavier. This brings me to how I’m dealing with seeing myself. It is hard to be pre-op in the tropics. It’s hot. Many days it’s over 100 degrees. I wear more clothing swimming than most people do on a cool San Francisco day. Also, the truth of the matter is, it’s hard to hide your body in a wetsuit. It just is.
Where I am getting support, though unknowingly, is from the Filipinos. I’m being read and treated exactly they way I’m comfortable with. Thank you. It’s hope. It reminds me that there’s hope for an easier future.
I’m leaving the expedition tomorrow for a week on the beach. Time to think, reflect, and rebuild my confidence that being who I am, and being patient in this process, is worth it. San Francisco, see you soon.