Rachael's Story
Copyright © 2001, Rachael Padman
Rachael Padman, Physicist
Cambridge University

In 1977, when I was 23, I arrived in Cambridge, England, to do my PhD. I had grown up mostly in Australia, had done a degree in Electrical Engineering in Melbourne, and had then worked for two years in CSIRO's Radio-Physics Laboratory in Sydney. I seized the opportunity to go to England for my graduate study, both because Martin Ryle's group in the Cavendish Laboratory was at the cutting edge of radio astronomy, and also because I thought that by moving to the other side of the planet, I might finally be able to start working out how to deal with my overpowering urge to change my sex.

Out of nine other new graduate students in the Cambridge radio astronomy group that year, only one was female (she is still one of my very closest friends). I also found myself a member of the then all-male St Johns College.[1]  In fact, in the early and mid 70s, several of the twenty-odd men's colleges had already gone mixed (mostly citing reasons either of maintaining their academic performance, or, more cynically, of wanting to attract high-flying male students through the presence of young women.). One of the three women's colleges had also started to admit male students. So Cambridge was in a state of flux at that time, but was still very much dominated by men. 

Almost as soon as I had arrived in Cambridge I got myself a referral to John Randall [2] at Charing Cross hospital, in London. I was (once again) a relatively poor student, so I saw Randall as an NHS patient. [3] As soon as it was clear that I was serious about exploring changing my sex, he prescribed oestrogen, and despite some initial misgivings I soon decided that this was what I wanted to do.

At the same time I was experimenting with makeup and clothes, and generally presented myself in as effeminate way as I thought I could get away with without anyone actually daring to ask what was going on. There had apparently recently been a FtM transsexual student -- the rumours concentrated on the problems his tutors had had in adapting to the idea. I drew some comfort from this -- if the University could have one such student then presumably it would adapt to another, even if one moving in the opposite direction.

By the time I had been in Cambridge for eighteen months or so, I realized that I had better start telling people. It wasn't really clear who, so I started with my PhD supervisor (in the US you'd call him my advisor). I am not sure how upset he was by the revelation, but he radiated calm, said this seemed like an interesting situation, and was generally very supportive. I have to say that all through the process, I rather arrogantly assumed that although the details of the change were my problem, I had every right both to do as I wished and to expect the University and College to cope. In general they did so, wonderfully. In 1996, when I was outed to the press, it turned out that the University had had a policy "since the early 70s" of "respecting individuals' choices in this regard, as long as the choice was made with serious intent and after appropriate medical advice".  So more by good luck than by good management I had probably come to one of the best places in the world to be. 

[After being "outed" in 1996, I discovered that there was at least one other transsexual woman working in the University, as well as an undergraduate student who had applied to join my own, all-women college. In both cases, the University and Colleges had been as laid-back about it as they had for me. So the University must have been getting used to the idea by then!]

My parents visited the UK in 1979, on their round-the-world trip following my father's retirement from the army. This was a real dilemma. I didn't want to upset their obvious happiness, but neither would it have been fair to write to tell them what I intended, when I had so recently had them there  in person. In the end I did tell them, late one night in their bed and breakfast, shortly before they went off on the European leg of their tour, and although it was immensely stressful, once it was over it was also a great weight off my mind. To their enormous credit, their immediate reaction was concern for me -- Might I not just be gay? -- but although at some point each of them asked if they were somehow responsible, I felt immediately that things were going to be ok. It was such a relief, and even now I kick myself for not telling them much earlier, when it all first became an issue for me ten years earlier.

I can't remember at this point where my new name came from. It was one of those Zen things. I have always been very fond of the name "Susan", I think because of a girl in my primary school. Not only was she clever, she was tall, and she was nice. I am pretty sure I wanted to exchange places even then. So I had more or less settled on Susan. However, there were two Sues in the group at the lab, including our very efficient secretary, and I realized that they might not be able to handle my taking the same name. So that slowly retreated, and while friends tried out all sorts of names for me that definitely weren't me, I just waited. One morning I woke up knowing that I was a Rachael, and the search was over. 

There was only one more hurdle, and that was to go full-time, and I eventually achieved that at Easter 1981, when I returned to Australia, and spent a month with my parents as Rachael. At the end of the month, Rachael returned to the UK to complete her Ph.D., which had got somewhat waylaid in all this. Before I left the UK I told almost everyone I had to deal with on regular basis what was happening, and changed my name by deed poll, but I rather chickened out and left it to my advisor to tell the rest of my research group what was happening. 

There was also the issue of College. Considering that St John's did not yet have any female students (they were due to arrive in the following year), my college was remarkably sanguine about it all. There was quite a lot of discussion about how my name should appear in the University list of Resident Members, the point being that I had been admitted to the University under one name, and now clearly I intended to graduate under another. But it was solved bureaucratically (by analogy with other female students getting married and taking their husbands' names), although in good humour, and without any suggestion that it was in any way an unreasonable request. Later, there was also an amusing correspondence with College about the appropriate dress for the graduation ceremony, and in the end I got to make up my own rules on that one. Remembering that all this was in 1981, I am still amazed at how easy it all was.

When I got back to the UK I turned up at the lab in a skirt, and no one appeared to blink.  I carried on with my PhD as if nothing had happened, and eventually had my surgery in London in October 1982 six weeks before I left for a two-year fellowship at UC Berkeley. While I was still in hospital the Faculty Board finally approved my PhD, and I graduated a few days before leaving for the States.

It was interesting at the time, and in retrospect, how little surgery really meant by then. It did mean I could go swimming again, and a few other things like that, but it mainly seemed like tidying up loose ends. The real "sex-change" had happened almost unnoticed, while I was working away on my Ph.D. and just getting on with my life as Rachael. Greatly to my surprise, once I had transitioned I seemed to be quite attractive to men (and some of them to me), and I had a couple of pre-op liaisons. Both of the men involved knew exactly what the score was -- indeed, had known me for three years or more -- and neither seemed to mind, even though my performance was rather limited (indeed, given all my various hang-ups, almost non-existent). So my sex life also improved after surgery!

There isn't a lot to say about the next fifteen years or so. I returned to Cambridge in September 1984, and have been there ever since. Overall it has been relatively easy, but I won't pretend that it was always straightforward. In the early years I went through many cycles of loss of confidence, followed by temporary recovery. I never did do enough work on my voice, and I haven't had any cosmetic surgery at all except SRS itself, and for a long while, "passing" was something that sometimes happened (usually when I was feeling happy, and not worrying about it) and then sometimes stopped happening. Sometimes I'm sure it was as simple as going too long without a visit to the hairdresser. Sometimes I didn't smile enough. Sometimes I acted (and therefore was) "boy".

However, all in all, I still don't regret transitioning quite openly, and not going stealth. Unfortunately, somehow that isn't enough to stop you being "outed". My own outing came after being elected to a fellowship at Newnham, Cambridge's last remaining all-women college. Since I had never made any secret of my status, I assumed (perhaps naively) that the Governing Body knew I was transsexual, and had agreed it wasn't an issue before electing me. In fact, while a good fraction of the GB did know, many others didn't. One of those was Germaine Greer, a well-known Australian feminist who was also a Fellow of Newnham at that point. Germaine is well known for her opposition to sex change, and so when she did find out -- she claims through people mocking her for allowing the College to elect a transsexual --  she didn't exactly make a secret of her ire. News of the spat leaked to the national (and international) press, which had a field day with it. [The Daily Telegraph editorial thundered that "there are plenty of mixed-sex colleges for distinguished mixed-sex physicists!"]  Fortunately, the Principal and Officers of the College handled it all very well, and I was astounded at the support I got from almost all the Fellows. So it all came to nothing in the end.

In the short term, my main regret following the contretemps was that it was no longer possible to talk to anyone without knowing if they knew. My past had never been a secret, but neither had I wanted it to be a factor in any relationship, and I certainly wasn't going to force it on anyone. Many people certainly did know, but I think they got so used to the idea that they actually forgot. And I argued to myself that if they had forgotten, then my part of the bargain was not to make them uncomfortable by reminding them. That, at least, was the rationalization. Now, I think that this may have been just self-indulgence, if not hubris. Changing sex is a big deal, and perhaps not talking about it is also not dealing with it.

In the end, the whole affair did have a pretty severe effect on me. For months afterwards I couldn't concentrate even to finish a newspaper article, and I certainly didn't read any books. Neither did I get much work done. I recognise now that this was post-traumatic stress (possibly plus withdrawal symptoms from my fifteen minutes of fame in the press). In any event, on top of some real depression, I suffered a prolonged and profound "femininity crisis", which persisted for perhaps two years. I believe that dealing with this has made me stronger, but at the same time more confident, so that I fret less about projecting femaleness. The realization that most people, and particularly those I know best, do in fact take me at face value, means that I can stop worrying about how I seem.

I guess that what I am trying to say is that being outed can have its up side, and that it is possible to emerge stronger from such an experience. I still rarely talk about my history, but I no longer have to watch what I say, or bite my tongue, because I know people do know. Just very recently I was talking to an academic psychiatrist in College who was saying, apropos of our (female) students that sometimes she got the impression the whole world thought that being female was a medical condition. I did suggest that I had my own take on that, which elicited a heartfelt "I'll bet you do!" in return. That's a healthy approach, I think.

How have things changed over the last twenty years? Have they got easier?

As you can see, I tend to think that I had it quite easy anyway! Now, it's true that I haven't dwelt on the problems I faced, but from this distance, they all seem to have been my problems, and not anyone else's. Would I ever achieve a normal life ? (No, not quite, but near enough, is the answer). Could I deal with giving presentations at conferences as Rachael, knowing that my voice would always be outside the 3-sigma limits? (Yes, but I still don't like it, as I don't like lecturing). Could I stop obsessing about gender for long enough to do any research? (Yes, absolutely). Ultimately, I think I have always taken the view that no other outcome was possible, so that I would just have to get on with it. I have never had a life-threatening illness, but I am always amazed how most of those that do confront it and carry on: confronting one's own transsexualism turns out to have an element of that about it.

Also, as I've noted, I had the extreme good fortune to end up at a very enlightened and liberal University. I know Oxford to be rather similar in its response to such things. At Berkeley, shortly after I had transitioned, people were if anything even more laid back about it all. So there is a very positive message there about academia in general. Of course, an alternative interpretation is that intellectuals are so obsessed with other things that they simply don't notice what sex you are, but I think that is probably something of an exaggeration. Then there are the students, who give every indication of neither noticing nor caring. And, in astronomy at least, there are now as many female graduate students as male ones. Without being able to put my finger on exactly why, it seems to me this makes things easier -- after all, one is not becoming even freakier by becoming a female radio astronomer, whereas women astronomers were very much in the minority in 1977.

There are signs that the public appetite for stories about transsexuals is waning. presumably because there are so many. As less and less fuss is made, and more and more people come out, in all walks of life, then there must presumably come a point where it ceases to be an issue. Within the last few years there has been a real sea-change in perceptions. UK law now offers employment rights against unfair dismissal etc to transsexuals, while government departments, insurance companies and the like seem to accept requests for change of documentation without blinking. This can only bolster one's confidence. If the UK government could bring itself to acknowledge sex change properly, the issue would quite likely vanish altogether. As it is, it is still illegal to marry in the new gender, and birth certificates still cannot be amended. Given that quite a lot of bodies in the UK still demand the birth certificate as proof of identity (!) then there is still huge scope for trouble. All I can say is that if you are not ashamed, you can't be embarrassed. 

What other insights can a transsexual female academic scientist offer? Nothing very profound.

First, it might appear that I have gone through all this openly without going into "stealth" mode. That's only partly right. Emotionally, it's clear that I made a major break with my past when I left Australia, and reinvented myself in the UK without all the boy-baggage that I had accumulated there. From this distance it looks like an inspired decision: cut your ties first, and then transition in situ. I'm not sure that I had this much insight at the time, but I probably did realize that, as an intensely social person, with no desire to do anything other than make a career in science, it would be very much more difficult to disappear once I had my PhD. Of course, I didn't cut all my ties: I had already been working in radio astronomy in Australia, and had established a slight reputation, and so at some point I would have to confront my past. But "she travels fastest who travels lightest" and I do think this was a very useful strategy. Of course, if I had been capable of sorting it all out before getting my first degree, it would have been even better....

Second, academics in general, and scientists in particular, are a pretty open-minded bunch. There are indeed some who will never be able to refer to me as "she" or "her". They are all acquaintances rather than friends, and are mostly people who never met me before my transition, but who had heard all the details beforehand. That knowledge somehow stops them ever from taking you at face value. These people can still make fun dining companions at conferences, or fellow skiers on the free afternoons. They can take my ideas just as seriously as those of the non-transgendered scientist next to me (if not ever as seriously as they deserve!). I suppose I could either remonstrate with them, or go into a huff, but it wouldn't change anything, and would make life much less fun overall. One necessarily has to develop a thick skin during transition, and it pays to be able to don and doff  it as needed.

By the way. I don't think that accepting that some people have problems with you is the same as turning yourself into a doormat. Rather, I think it's a recognition of how deep seated some human behaviour is. In the same way that it is now believed that recognition of emotions in others, such as fear, hunger etc is rooted in a very primitive structure in the amygdala, I suspect that recognition of someone's gender is similarly deep-rooted. Or perhaps it depends on pheromones. What are my pheromones like? I have no idea, but won't be at all surprised to find that they don't have quite the power of those of my XX female friends.

Problems of this sort may be personally upsetting, but they don't of themselves affect how you do your job. There are others that do. In the late 1980's I was deputy project scientist for a new telescope being built on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii. I got on well with most of the crew, but there were times when I had to make unpopular requests. That sometimes resulted directly in a rejection of me as a woman. The deal that was being proposed was pretty transparent -- "If you pull rank to get us to do things we don't want to, then  you're not acting like a woman and we won't treat you like one". Well, they must have realized what a potent weapon that was, and it can make it terribly hard to do what is right. So of course, you work very hard to find other ways of getting things done than just by saying that they have to be done, and in the end you're forced into the stereotypical female behaviour of using --let's face it -- guile. Good leadership is often about persuading people to do things rather than telling them, and even getting them to believe that they thought of doing it themselves. It's exhausting having to use that tactic for every minor decision, however, and there were many times when I wished the crew weren't armed with that particular weapon. 

More recently I've realized that the crew would probably have used the same tactic with any woman in the position I was in. The rejection of her womanhood would have then been symbolic rather than actual, but I'm sure just as distressing to her as it was to me, if harder for her to put her finger on. And in a way, this might be a metaphor for a transsexual woman's life. Whenever anything goes wrong, there is an immediate temptation to read something personal into it. It's very hard to be sure how to take things. Perhaps it's simple sex discrimination, but since you are new to this game, it's hard to be sure. Or maybe someone really has taken offence at your gender presentation, or is using your past against you. Or perhaps it is a simple interpersonal problem that has nothing at all to do with gender. The latter is always a possibility, but it is sometimes hard to remember this.

And the final point is that indeed this particular outlook has taken twenty-plus years to acquire. There doesn't seem to be any easy route to femaleness, except "walking the walk", as well as "talking the talk". In that, the essentialist feminists do have a point. No matter how empathetic one is when one transitions, no matter what trials one has had to that point, one certainly hasn't been born and brought up as a woman. Whatever the truth about "brain sex", we will always have that difference, and I think that calls for a certain realism and a certain humility. 

By way of analogy, I note that I have now lived in the UK in total for well over half my life. I work, vote and pay taxes here, and am politically aware, in a way that I am not about Australia  these days.  In fact, I am just about getting to the point that I can say "we" rather than "you" when talking to other Brits about national politics. But some things that are deeply ingrained in the British political consciousness date from before the time I lived here, and it's simply wrong to pretend otherwise. I can, however, and do, rejoice in my own Australian experiences. In fact, those differences in upbringing are part of what makes me interesting to my friends. Something similar would seem to apply to us -- often privileged, I think -- "gender immigrants".


Rachael Padman



[1] Note for non UK readers: Colleges at Cambridge and Oxford are a bit like dorms, or halls of residence, but they also have a full quota of graduate students, and organize small-group tutorials for their undergraduate students. Most University teaching staff also belong to one of the 20 or 30 colleges, so they are really small self-governing intellectual communities within the wider community of the University.

[2] John Randall comes in for a lot of flack from UK transsexuals. I am not sure it is all deserved. He resolutely refused to advise me what to do, and left me feeling that my future was a blank canvas, on which only I could write. Although he had the power to approve me for surgery, or not, I had the very strong feeling that all he really required was some indication (a) that I was sure that I knew what I wanted, and (b) that I would be able to function in the female role. Even that degree of paternalism seems offensive to people now, but, remembering that all this was in 1977, it did not seem so then. Unfortunately he died suddenly in 1982, shortly before my surgery, so I never got to see him afterwards to express my thanks.

[3] Note to non-UK readers: the National Health Service was, and still is, a publicly funded health service that is free at the point of delivery. There is no stigma attached to using it, and even very many quite wealthy people use the NHS.


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