From "Scientist" to "Scientista": The untold story of a transgendered woman in science
April 19, 2012
By Kelsey Cruz
As scientists, we explore and experiment. We organize and predict. We are intellects and earth shakers, commandeering the why’s and making them what’s. Although we don’t know everything, we trust that every new discovery is just a lab hour away. But what happens when the problem is harder to solve – more difficult than any mathematic formula or radioactive experiment? As a scientist, what do you do when you’re unhappy as yourself, in your own body? You change it, of course.
“In the mid nineties, I decided that I could no longer live as a male,” said Amy Prager, graduate student at Columbia University and Princeton University. “I became disgusted with the way males behaved. Males are trained from a very early age to disparage and disrespect women and anything feminine, and I could not live that way anymore.”
Prager was born Alan Barry Prager in Brooklyn, NY. Awkward at physical activity and befriending exclusively girls, she never felt like she was in the right body. She had a tough childhood, scorned by boys and men and subject to incessant ridicule. So after years of emotional and physical turmoil, Prager decided to move to Albermarle County, Virginia to attain hormonal treatment.
“Although I could not wait to get my first estrogen prescription, I did wonder what effect it would have on me,” explained Prager. “Would it make me a truer version of myself or would it change me in unpredictable ways?”
Few psychiatric issues have surged as much controversy as sex reassignment surgeries and estrogen therapy. Gender clinics have closed, doctors have been terminated, and patients have been shunned because of the transition, and not much has changed over the years. From Johns Hopkins Hospital to Larry Summers, it seems that everything and everyone has an opinion on male and female biology and their varying availabilities of aptitude.
“In general, females show less ability in quantitative fields,” said Prager. “Some researchers believe this is biochemical in nature. So there was a fear that if I became fully estrogenated, I would have the same ability deficit as biological females. But that didn't happen.”
According to Prager, Lynn Conway, a computer scientist and engineer, began transitioning in the 1960s and IBM fired her. She found new employment, wrote a standard textbook, and became a full professor at the University of Michigan. Ben Barres, who transitioned from female to male, became chair of neurobiology at Stanford after transitioning. Like Conway and Barres, Prager’s success was no different. Due to her new found confidence and innate skill, she began working as a researcher at the University of Virginia and was published in prestigious journals after transitioning.
“I believe that having experienced life as a man has given me a sense of privilege a biological woman wouldn't have,” said Prager. “I feel much happier in my own skin and this may account for increased performance levels.”
Full of confidence and inundated with job offers, Prager moved to Southern California to face her critics. Quite surprisingly, she didn’t fear what men or her peers would think of her transition. Instead, she worried about the female community, wondering if they would accept or resent her.
“I was afraid that revealing that I was transgendered would cause women to resent me, as if I were taking scarce gendered resources or slots away from ‘real’ women,” explained Prager. “None of this ever happened! I openly reveal myself as transgendered when attending women’s events and no one has ever done anything but encourage and assist me in every way possible.”
Prager started attending women conferences on campus and national conventions like Grace Hopper and Society of Women Engineers, feeling more encouraged and inspired than ever before. In fact, after returning home from these events, Prager felt more determined to pursue an engineering and computer science career. She quickly immersed herself in studying and traveling in order to fulfill her dream of becoming a STEM career woman. She took advantage of the plethora of support services and financial opportunities available to women and applied to various scholarships to help fund her school and travel costs.
“Male scientists do not go out of their way to encourage other men,” said Prager. “But women do go out of their way, sometimes extraordinarily so, to help other women. There is a definite sense of the oppressed minority helping out one of their own. When you are in the majority [like men in STEM], there is no need to help each other out.”
Initially, Prager was stunned by her acceptance. Besides a few snide remarks from men about her being a “gender traitor”, she found herself happy and at peace with her decision. It was only until she left her protected hub of women’s groups and conferences that she had a revelation: she was really a woman.
“Away from the conferences, I asked myself, ‘Where are all these wonderful technical women on my campuses? Where are they all hiding?’” said Prager. “I suddenly began to feel very isolated and somewhat alone. It was at that moment that I realized I had truly become, emotionally, a woman. I finally realized why these programs and opportunities were necessary.”
Having experienced life as first a male and now a female, Prager has keen insight on gender differences. She believes the world is not the same for men and women and feels she is treated differently by men. Women scientists look at her with happiness and respect, proud to see another woman that is passionate about science while some men blatantly reveal their sexist attitudes.
“I believe that the central issue is transgenderism,” explained Prager. “Male privilege still exists, that’s the problem. Can a person who had male privilege as a former male really know what it is to grow up female? Yes. This person – disregarding physical gender for a moment – who grew up befriended by girls and universally scorned by boys, has now become a completely integrated part of the adult women’s community and deserves full privileges in the professional and social circles of adult women.” Prager transitioned 17 years ago and hasn’t looked back. As she continues her graduate work, she looks forward to her blossoming career in STEM. Charged with confidence and fueled by ambition, she plans to make powerful changes in science that will shatter the provincial glass ceiling on men, women, and everyone in between.
About the Author
Kelsey Cruz is a Magazine Journalism major at Temple University in Philadelphia. Although she always struggled with anything science-related in school, she is fascinated by the intelligence and determination of scientists. She strongly believes in The Scientista Foundation and its vision and hopes its message can influence scientists and women everywhere.