Alex Myers, author, activist, and English teacher at Phillips Exeter Academy, shared his personal experiences as a transgender individual and discussed the importance of gender identity in the context of this year's school theme, Mental Well-Being, at an all-school convocation on Monday.
"Gender is at the core of who each and every one of us is — it's one of the primary ways we understand ourselves, and through that understanding, one of the primary ways we see and understand the world," Mr. Myers said. Yet even after speaking publicly for 25 years about issues related to gender, he said, it is still challenging to succinctly answer the question "What is gender?"
"In addition to being at the core of who we are, gender is also about language ... and how we communicate about ourselves," he said. Born and raised in the small town of Paris, Maine, Mr. Myers explained that although he was biologically female — and his parents named him Alice — he understood himself to be a boy while everyone else thought he was a girl. As he grew up, he said he first identified as a "tomboy" and then as a lesbian as he was given those labels. As a high school student in the early 1990s, Mr. Myers came to identify as transgender, a newly-coined word at the time, as the stories of transgender individuals aligned with his experience of knowing he was a boy from an early age. He came out during the summer of his junior year, aided by having words like 'transgender' with which he could adequately explain himself.
More than terminology, gender is about "how we move through the world," he said, and is reflected in our hairstyles, clothes, and what we call ourselves. A boarding student at Exeter, he returned to school for his senior year having changed his name to Alex, with a short hairstyle, following the boys' dress code, and using he/him/his pronouns to refer to himself.
"It was a social transition," Mr. Myers explained and furthered that he did not take hormones or have surgery at that time. "I began to live as a boy — and that's how gender works. It's how people around you perceive and understand you." He realized that living as a boy was how he felt most comfortable, and he made the choice to tell his parents, who took the news with some difficulty as he'd anticipated. His parents came to accept and understand that because of his outward appearance, which reflected how he felt inside, other people perceived and accepted him as a boy; therefore, socially, he was a boy, he said.
Gender matters, Mr. Myers said, because it is used to sort people. We make rules and policies and facilities based on what we think people's genders are," he said. Gender in many ways determines where you can go, what you can do, and who your friends are going to be, he said, especially in high school and college. Gender also affects an individual's legal rights and poses some challenges when one's gender identity doesn't match the biological sex indicated on a birth certificate.
After his talk, Mr. Myers invited questions from the audience. In response to an inquiry about the difference between sexual identity and sexual orientation, he explained by posing the questions one could ask to understand each. Gender identity answers the question, "Do I understand myself to be a boy, or a girl or non-binary?" Sexual orientation answers the question, "Who are you attracted to?"
Mr. Myers answered several questions from the audience related to LGBTQ issues in high school, especially in athletics and campus life, and in society. After the convocation, several faculty members engaged in a conversation with Mr. Myers about making the Loomis Chaffee community more inclusive for transgender and other underrepresented students and faculty members, and students joined Mr. Myers for an open discussion about his convocation in the Parton Room during lunch.
Mr. Meyers' visit to campus was organized by Loomis' Office of Diversity & Inclusion.