Speaking out

LGO student seeks to raise awareness, understanding of transgender population

December 12, 2013

Willow Primack, LGO ’15

Willow Primack, LGO ’15

Willow Primack, LGO ’15, like many MIT Sloan graduate students, is here because she’s transitioning between careers.

Primack is also transitioning between genders, with the support of her classmates in the Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program.

Born the middle of three sons to a suburban Massachusetts family 27 years ago, Primack today identifies as a transgender woman. She is only the second openly-transgender student to attend MIT Sloan, according to School officials.

Primack’s transition from living as male to female has been a difficult one, but she wants to share her story so that others will understand her journey. “I am confident and outgoing, and think that the transgender community needs more professional role models,” she says. She named some of her personal role models within the transgender community, and many of them had transitioned only after achieving successful careers. “People are now transitioning between genders at a younger age as social stigma lessens,” she notes.

The word “transgender” is an umbrella term, which at the most basic means someone who lives as a member of a gender other than that expected, based on anatomical sex at birth. It’s very difficult to say how many people identify as transgender, but some estimates place the number at between .5 percent and 2 percent of the population, says Abigail Francis, director of LBGT Services at MIT. Many transgender people undergo medical procedures to align with their identified gender, but some do not.

Fitting in

Primack says she feels she was born into the wrong body, and has lived with that knowledge for years. “I realized I was transgender when I was 11, right when I was hitting puberty,” she says.

The realization wasn’t easy for her. “It felt like there was tremendous social pressure and family pressure … to fit in,” she says. There also wasn’t much information on what it meant to be transgender at the time.

Primack broached the topic with her parents when she was around 14, and they were initially “very confused” by it and took her to a psychologist who was not well-versed in transgender issues. It was the start of a long phase where Primack tried to live as a male.

“It was a very difficult period for me,” she says. Primack coped as well as she could, eventually graduating from Boston University Academy, a prestigious independent high school, and entering the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

She admitted she joined the military in part to suppress the yearning she felt to be female. “There’s this theory that transgender women, who are not transitioning, and are trying to keep from transitioning, will undergo a ‘flight into masculinity,’ and will do very masculine things to try to ‘fix’ themselves … I don’t know if that’s true for everyone, but it was definitely true for me,” she says.

The academy only heightened her feeling of insecurity, Primack says, but once she entered active service following graduation, she enjoyed her role in the Army, where she was stationed in upstate New York, South Korea, and Afghanistan. In the military, she served as an executive officer, second-in-command of a military police unit, and as a battalion logistics officer.

For four years, Primack blended in as a male soldier, had a steady girlfriend, and had no intention of following through on her desire to be a woman. She loved the challenges of her job, but the emotional cost of continuing to live like a man was high.

A life-altering moment

A couple of years ago, Primack was stationed in Kandahar City, Afghanistan, when a rocket attack forced her into a bunker. She used the time she spent in the bunker to contemplate her life.

“The risk of being hit by a rocket was a motivator to consider what was really important,” she says. “I had recently gotten promoted and I felt professionally fulfilled, but I really needed to transition [to female] and make that change in my life in order to feel whole.”

When she returned to the United States with a year left to serve in the military, she told her parents and her girlfriend of her decision. Fortunately, everyone took the news in stride. “My mom and dad were somewhat surprised initially, but they were also very supportive, and continue to be so.” Her girlfriend was also supportive, and although the two are no longer dating, they remain close friends.

Next, being a logistics officer, Primack says, “I composed a spreadsheet charting all the steps necessary to transition to female.”

The first step was a meeting with a psychologist to get diagnosed as transgender. Around the same time, looking to change careers, she applied to MIT. “I was very impressed with the LGO program, where I could earn both a management and engineering degree in two years,” she says. But it was an awkward time in her life. “I was presenting as a male whenever I was at work, but a female when I wasn’t. It’s strange to feel like an imposter in your own skin. That’s how I felt then,” she says.

Primack left the military in April 2013. Many of her military colleagues were aware of her intent to transition between genders and supported her plan, she says.

She underwent facial feminization surgery and started taking hormones, which she’ll be on for the rest of her life, subject to adjustments in age. It’s taken time, but Primack says her face and the rest of her body have finally started to converge with how she sees herself.

Although Primack says she has felt like a female for a long time, the transition to actually looking like one has brought about some surprises for her. For one, she was startled by the emphasis society places on women’s physical looks. “Honestly, that was not something I was prepared to deal with,” she says. “There is a whole industry built around making women feel uncomfortable with their bodies, and then trying to sell them solutions to correct this. I had always been vaguely aware of this, but running into it was surprising and unpleasant.”

Finding support at MIT

Primack says she has found nothing but encouragement from the LGO and MIT Sloan communities. She is an active member of the MIT Sloan LGBT Club, and is working as an outreach officer in an attempt to increase the group’s visibility. She is also a member of the MIT Sloan Veterans Association.

Primack, who is planning on a career in operations management, lauded her LGO peers. “The program has been incredibly wonderful. My LGO classmates have been supportive throughout the transition process. MIT has also been very supportive. We place a lot of emphasis on collaborative work and interacting with fellow students and dealing with them as individuals. These values really give the school an advantage in diversity,” she says.

MIT’s Nondiscrimination Statement explicitly states that the Institute does not discriminate against people on the basis of “sexual orientation” or “gender identity.” The Institute offers many awareness and community groups for LBGT and trans students, says Francis, the LBGT services director. They include an active student Gender Fluidity Group, which meets regularly to discuss all aspects of gender and gender identity in and outside of the binaries. It is supported by the Rainbow Lounge, a meeting space and support network for LBGT students located in the basement of Walker Memorial (Building 50-005), where Francis’s office is also located.

For the third year in a row, MIT participated in Trans Awareness Week in November, which featured a series of events and workshops on relevant issues.

The MIT Trans website offers multiple resources for transgender people. For those who wish to be allies for the transgender community, there is a link with includes “10 Steps to Being an Ally for Transgender People” document. Tip number one? “Don’t assume.”

MIT is steadily working to raise awareness of trans issues, Francis says. Physics Professor Edmund Bertschinger was recently appointed Institute Community and Equity Officer, in an effort to further President L. Rafael Reif’s goal of “cultivating a caring community.”

Still, there is more to be done, says Francis, who has been in her role here since 2005. “In other countries, people could be killed just for ‘coming out,’” she says. “Student groups and my office work hard to educate people and raise awareness … unfortunately we are still advocating for basic services for our trans population.”

Primack says she hopes she can make a difference with some of the outreach work she is doing with the LGBT Club. “We are really trying to help students understand who we are. They are going to work with gay people, and transgender people, and for some, this is the first time they’ve had a chance to meet a gay or transgender person. Finding out more about us and having some candid conversations will help them feel more comfortable,” she says.

Finally comfortable in her own skin, Primack says she has no regrets. “It’s an ongoing process, but so far, I’m very happy.”