True to Self: Transgendered Professor Talks about Her Choice
[TYLER, TX] - Janet Barger was the only professor at the University of Texas at Tyler told not to wear nail polish.
Earrings also were off limits, and men's clothes were mandatory.
Administrators told the engineering professor that using men's bathrooms was another condition of her employment contract, and she was to hang a sign each time she went inside to warn others.
And, despite three years of positive evaluations and suggestions that tenure was possible, Dr. Barger was told in February 2001 she would be fired in May 2002 as soon as the administration could legally make her go.
The problem for Dr. Barger and the university was both basic and mind-bending: The 52-year-old engineer had come to UT-Tyler as a man in 1997. Within months after starting female hormones and other steps to shift from Allen to Janet Alayne, the professor was told she would be out of a job.
Dr. Barger says she wanted to fight but learned quickly that she had no recourse at a small school where gays stay closeted and in an East Texas town where some gender activists fear speaking out by name.
Although rights for transgendered people are now protected in Dallas and 45 other U.S. cities, civil rights groups from the ACLU to the Human Rights Campaign told her that Texas law outside such cities was notoriously bad for transgendered people ? and, while sad, her case was hopeless.
"The message was that transgendered people have no rights," she says. "The message at my school was, 'We don't know what to do with you. Why can't you just leave?' "
School officials declined interviews, saying that Dr. Barger was "terminated" after four years because of "teaching, research and service performance."
The statement continues, "The university has diligently worked with Dr. Barger to accommodate her gender change while keeping in mind the needs of students and staff."
Dr. Barger says she was told only that she was a misfit who could destroy UT-Tyler's infant engineering program.
"I love teaching, and I've been there longer than anybody else. I worked hard," she says. "It hurts."
Officials declined to say why the professor was dismissed after evaluations that rose from "met expectations and in certain areas was superior" in her first year to "overall rating: excellent" in her second and third.
In her last evaluation ? weeks after she learned of her coming dismissal ? her department chairman wrote that she "reliably, readily and valuably contributes to department business and consciously exercises ... department responsibilities."
Allen Barger grew up in Fort Worth, served as a Navy medic and married a fellow student at the University of Texas at Arlington. After years in the defense industry, Dr. Barger was hired at UT-Tyler in April 1997.
The school was starting an engineering program and wanted teachers with industrial experience, and Dr. Barger had just earned a doctorate in hopes of shifting into teaching.
Tyler's small-town atmosphere seemed a good fit for the childless couple. Conservative Republicans, they considered themselves fundamentalist Christians. Within a year of their arrival, Dr. Barger says, an inner struggle broke through a lifetime of suppression.
The struggle beginsIt began with trying to understand why Dr. Barger's teaching style differed from male peers', and why, as in earlier jobs, the professor was often seen as brash, awkward and unable to read male behavioral cues.
Dr. Barger took a series of psychological tests, and after finally answering as the person long hidden away, Dr. Barger says, "the results showed a female personality type."
In March 1998, Dr. Barger crept upstairs in the middle of the night to a home computer, went on the Internet and shook while typing in the word: transsexual.
As Allen, he had only once before taken a furtive glimpse at what that word might mean. Finding a book on sexuality at work in the 1970s, Dr. Barger read about transsexual men [note the error: Trans men dont want to live as women, here they meant Transwomen or m2f] living as women and was awestruck.
"It was, 'God, I'll give anything to be transsexual," she now says of that incident. "Prior to three years ago, I cannot remember a night in my life that I did not go to bed wishing that I could do something about my sex.
"But I also thought if I ever put on a dress and went out, I would be shot on sight. I didn't want to be a sideshow freak. I wanted to live a normal life," she recalls.
Allen Barger believed a normal life meant suppressing that confusion and following commandments learned since early childhood: Attraction to girls' things was wrong; any boy who wanted to be girlish was bad.
"My first five Christmas pictures, I was holding a doll," Dr. Barger says. But, "the first time you go to play dress up and all your clothes have been taken away, and you get your lecture, you get the message:
This is wrong, and this is not to be discussed.
"I thought that this was perversion. I kept wanting to do girl things ? just anything. I lived in terror that any interest that I showed in being female or doing female things would give me away."
'This is possible'But an internal knot of fear and self-loathing finally began to unravel with the late-night Internet search.
Reading a Web site diary of a woman's transition from a male birth identity, she was riveted. "It was that feeling: This is possible."
The engineering professor found a Dallas therapist specializing in gender issues, including gender identity disorder. Though its cause is unknown, the condition is believed to lie in the intricate dance of hormones and DNA that transform some human embryos into XY-chromosome males and others into XX females.
In childhood, some people--some studies suggest one in 10,000--realize their bodies don't match their psyches.
The International Foundation for Gender Education estimates that about 1,000 people surgically change sex organs each year. They say about 30,000 people ? or a third of the transgendered population ? have had the procedure since it became available. Qualifying requires counseling, hormone therapy and a year of living as a member of the identified sex.
Before considering that, the Dallas therapist warned, Dr. Barger had to quit hiding.
As therapy progressed, Dr. Barger recalls struggling with a heavy workload ? including a brief stint as electrical engineering chair, serving on faculty committees and the university faculty senate and juggling teaching and supervision of lab construction.
Engineering Dean Troy Henson met with Dr. Barger in spring 2000. Dr. Barger recalls being told that there was a chance for tenure, but Dr. Henson recommended waiting a year to try to publish more research. Dr. Barger says her record includes as much or more publishing as any other electrical engineering professor, but the dean's advice seemed reasonable for an instructor in the fourth year of teaching.
Tenure-track faculty have seven years to win permanent posts at the university.
That summer, she says, she came to the conclusion that she was transgendered and it was past time to begin living as a woman. Dr. Barger went home and broke the news, and her spouse of 25 years was floored; she never suspected Dr. Barger's personality crisis or knew that she'd secretly kept and worn women's clothes for years.
Dr. Barger says her wife moved out at Christmas. While sad, Dr. Barger says she understood. Her wife "just couldn't deal with it. Basically, it was, God doesn't make mistakes."
Dr. Barger's wife did not respond to interview requests. Changing appearance Dr. Barger started female hormones the next day. She was already changing her voice and removing facial hair with electrolysis, and she began telling friends.
In February, she says, Dr. Henson called her in without warning and fired her. Under university rules, she got one more year of work but didn't have to be told why she was being let go.
Although she had not told her bosses of her condition, her appearance was visibly softening and the fact that a faculty member saw her in women's clothes off-campus led her to believe they "had figured me out."
"You don't tell a person they're fine and then months later fire them," she says. "The only logical thing is that somebody outed me and they said, 'OK, we've got a pervert here. Let's get him off campus before he scares somebody.' "
She immediately told administrators she had gender identity disorder and was undergoing transition but wanted no special treatment.
They responded unequivocally: She could work only as a man. "The University expects that, during your employment with the university, you will dress in the male gender role," an official wrote twice that spring.
Dr. Barger says her dean wanted her out immediately because he felt she threatened the young engineering program and its 122 students. "He told me that if I was seen coming out of the women's restroom, every mother would pull their child out of school and the department would collapse."
Other faculty confirm that the dean and other department members voiced concerns about negative student reaction.
A school spokesman says Dr. Henson was uncomfortable speaking with the news media.
Dr. Barger asked to move to the computer science department. Faculty there say she was qualified for a post they'd tried to fill for years, but her application was vetoed by higher-ups.
Administrators then wrote that Dr. Barger must agree to use men's bathrooms. As classes began in August, the ultimatums grew more explicit.
"You may not wear any item obviously associated with the female gender (earrings, wigs, nail polish, cosmetics, etc.)," wrote Vice President David O'Keeffe. "If during the course of your employment, you are unsure whether a particular item would violate this term of your employment, please contact Dr. Henson for guidance prior to wearing the item."
Dr. Barger says administrators ignored requests for a review of her firing, and civil rights lawyers told her that Texas law wouldn't help.
The Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that gender is determined solely by chromosomes. Advocates say it remains difficult in some parts of the state to get gender changed on legal documents or driver's licenses.
Because she needed work, Dr. Barger says, she decided to wear gender-neutral clothes to teach and avoided bathrooms in the engineering building. But she dressed as a woman when she attended psychology classes as a student.
She says engineering students seemed to take her in stride.
"I walked into class the first day in my male attire, wrote my name on the board ? Janet Barger ? and they immediately figured out that I wasn't exactly male," she says. "There was a little grumbling the first day or two and a few shocked looks, but then everything was business as usual."
She says some engineering colleagues shunned her, but others were sympathetic. Some faculty say they remain troubled that a public university engaged in what they view as discrimination.
Shelly Marmion, a psychology professor since 1987, says the administration had never before imposed "any kind of rules in terms of dress and decorum" on faculty.
She and others says they knew of few other cases in which a professor was shifted from tenure track to a temporary, non-renewable job without being allowed to try for a permanent post.
"I think they just don't know how to deal with issues like this," says communications department chair Kenneth Casstevens. "Anything that's the least bit disturbing or might affect enrollment, they want to get rid of it."
In their statement, administrators say they did what they could for Dr. Barger, adding, "The university community overall has responded with sensitivity to Dr. Barger's transition." Another approachThe university's actions contrast starkly with treatment of the transgendered at the University of Texas at Austin, says Sandy Stone, a transgendered professor renowned for cutting-edge media theory.
Officials there have helped a number of faculty and staff undergo such transitions "quite supportively" ? once removing gender signs and making a department's bathrooms unisex in 1998 to end debate about where one such employee should use the restroom, says Dr. Stone, who changed her sexual identity in the 1970s before joining the university faculty.
"Austin is quite supportive of transies, not only on the faculty but staff as well," says Dr. Stone.
But Dr. Barger is fatalistic about her experience at the smaller East Texas school of 3,800. She recently had her last sex-change surgery and is continuing psychology classes at UT-Tyler.
"They aren't getting rid of me," she says.
"There's a lot of good news with this. How many people get to realize their life-long dreams?" she says. "I get to interact in a world I was totally shut out of because I'm finally able to be myself."