An unprecedented rise in anti-transgender legislation this year in the United States has particularly targeted educational settings. Several states have passed laws barring transgender women from women’s sports, with others introducing bills that would mandate reporting of gender nonconformity or explicitly permit misgendering in the classroom.
While this specific backlash against transgender inclusion is a recent phenomenon, transgender people have been a part of even our nation’s most elite academic institutions for decades.
This Pride Month, The Daily Princetonian met with seven transgender and non-binary Princeton alumni who graduated from the University between 1960-2000. Their accounts, along other archived interviews, shed light on how transgender and non-binary alumni explored their identities and navigated the University in their time as undergraduates, as well as how they have renegotiated their relationships with the institution in their time away from it.
Gay Spaces, Trans Closets: Transgender Undergraduate Experiences from the ’60s to ’90s
Most of the interviewed alum presented as their gender assigned at birth as undergraduates. Gender identity was not a conscious or explicit part of their time at Princeton, especially for those who graduated in earlier decades.
When Nancy Lamar attended Princeton in the mid-’60s, it was decades before she would realize that she was transgender, and the University was not yet co-ed. She saw its student body as only beginning to integrate — Lamar described the school as, “clean, white, WASPy.”
During Lamar’s time at Princeton, she never even heard the word gay or homosexual spoken aloud, and the term transgender was not yet in popular use. This lack of terminology meant that Lamar’s transgender identity remained latent.
“It was always there, at Princeton, and I’m sure it was there within others,” said Lamar, “but to what degree do people recognize it, and to what degree do people live it?”
In the coming decades, alumni noted that there was at least a consciousness of LGBTQ+ identities at Princeton — mostly of cisgender gay men. In an interview from the LGBT Center’s LGBTQIA Oral History Project Archive, Dana Leslie ’78 recounted that she became aware of her bisexuality as an undergraduate but did not identify as a woman until 1992.
“I was still in the closet, and I hadn’t reached out to the Princeton gay community, which was very small and very hidden and very uncool at that time. And so I didn’t feel like it was something I could do, reach out to that community,” said Leslie.
Attending Princeton just a few years later, Tina Madison White ’82 was also aware of a small gay and lesbian community on campus.
“Things were still pretty hush-hush. It was okay to be gay, but it was still kind of a secret,” White said. “I didn’t even know the word trans.”
“I had no idea that there was anyone on Earth like me, really, and so [I] felt very alone and frightened and was quietly obsessed with fixing myself,” she added.
Part of that journey to “fix herself,” White said, included joining Ivy Club, making her technically the first co-ed to join the club. She stresses, though, that her good friend Sally Frank ’80, “really gets credit in [her] book” for the gender integration of the eating clubs.
By the ’90s, the LGBTQ+ community at Princeton had expanded and become more visible as more students came out and an LGBT student group formed. This environment allowed some students to find connection and support, and some even to come out, but those interviewed recount that transgender identities remained largely undiscussed and unrepresented.
Melody Maia Monet ’93 appreciated seeing happy, out gay students on campus, as well as people who played with gender nonconformity, but she didn’t come out herself. Twenty years later than Lamar and Leslie, Monet recalled a similar lack of language for and visibility of trans identities.
“I didn’t have the language to express who I was. And part of the problem was Princeton was still centered, at least the student community was still centered on gay and lesbian, a little bit bi ... I don’t really recall the word transgender even being used in these spaces,” Monet recalled in an interview from the LGBTQIA Oral History Project Archive.
“I just kind of thought that there was something wrong with me,” Monet continued. “I didn’t have a way to access the [trans] community my high school years or my Princeton years. So I think that was a huge detriment for me. I think it really stunted my development, my exploration.”
Around the same time, Andrea Razi-Thomas ’96 did not have the language to identify herself as non-binary, but she came out on campus as lesbian her freshman year. A member of the basketball team, she was around other LGBTQ+ athletes, but most were closeted at the time.
“At Princeton, I had a perfectly fine experience in terms of being a gender-bending lesbian person ... My basketball teammates and my good friends were all very supportive. There weren’t very many ‘out’ people around me but people were great.”
“But I thought I was pretty atypical,” she continued. “I didn’t really realize that there was a huge LGBT community out there.”
Like most interviewees, Cameron Scott ’93 enjoyed his Princeton experience academically but dealt with feelings of social alienation. He was able to access some form of LGBTQ+ community, though, as part of Terrace Club.
In a separate interview from the archive, Scott remembered Barton, a cook at Terrace. “He was a big queen, and he ended up dying of AIDS. I think just him being there gave it a little bit of a vibe,” said Scott. “And there were some guys that were fully out. God bless them. They had courage.”
Scott remembers social events for LGBTQ+ students at Terrace, too.
“They had some queer mixers … I do remember there was a queer party of some kind at Terrace and I went and there were like five people there … And I was like, oh, man, I so do not fit in,” Scott told the ‘Prince,’ “That was my experience of ‘out’ life at Princeton.”
Navigating the Intersections of Multiple Identities
Dr. Joi Weaver ’97 didn’t begin to question their gender identity or sexuality during their time at Princeton.
“My biggest identity and the challenges I met at Princeton were being Black, basically,” said Weaver. “I was a pre-med student, and so I had a good number of Black pre-med friends and we really supported each other as minorities, and the microaggressions we faced, the racial issues that we faced.”
Weaver reflects that this may have overshadowed questions of sexuality or gender identity.
“When you go to places that are predominantly white you always feel a little different,” Weaver said. “I think I’ve had a whole life of that, so I always thought that that was the difference. So maybe that impaired me from digging deeper to understand that there were some other differences as well.”
Monet also found that intersections between her identities impacted her experience at Princeton and as a trans person, namely being Latina and the daughter of an undocumented immigrant.
“To the extent to which I was used to being marginalized, it helped me. A lot of white trans women are shocked at suddenly becoming marginalized,” said Monet.
“It helped me to be an activist. I was certainly an activist on campus,” she continued.
Being blind shaped Leslie’s experience coming to terms with her identity, as she relied on other people’s support to transition and to find other LGBTQ+ people. Instead of easing into a transition, she had to begin her journey by coming out.
“I couldn’t do it as a single person looking and exploring. I needed the community just to find out about the community,” said Leslie in her interview from the archive.
At the same time, being blind encouraged her to enter activism, because she had to connect personally with activists and leaders of organizations to get information. “I wound up, just out of necessity, becoming an organizer,” she explained.
Taking on Activism as Alumni
Leslie and Monet engaged in activism in their time at Princeton, while others didn’t begin their advocacy efforts until after graduation — but all interviewees now dedicate themselves to various LGBTQ+ issues and communities across the country.
Leslie first focused on bisexual issues and later took on trans activism as well. In her interview from the archive, she recalled one particularly memorable moment from the early days of her activist career in ’87, days after the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights.
“There was a civil disobedience action at the Supreme Court. And I was on the steps of the Supreme Court singing ‘We Shall Overcome’ and all kinds of other protest things reminiscent of the 1960s.”
Leslie was arrested there for not vacating the steps and spent several hours on a paddywagon along with Michael Hardwick, the plaintiff in the landmark Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court case which upheld states’ rights to enforce sodomy laws.
White has served on the Board of Directors for the Human Rights Campaign and as executive director of the Blue Ridge Pride Center, as well as traveling as a speaker and helping organize pride marches in North Carolina.
“My story was a good one. My family didn’t abandon me, and I thought they might; my work didn’t fire me, and I thought they might. I wanted to retire and pay it forward by becoming an activist,” White explained. “So I moved to the south, because we need more trans voices in the south.”
Monet’s activism is focused primarily on the digital sphere, where she uses her YouTube channel to educate people about trans issues and experiences. Some of her videos have millions of views.
Monet is proud of her channel’s impact. There, she is able to share resources with many people who are beginning to question their gender identities and says she has helped cisgender people understand trans issues better.
“I have literally talked people off of train tracks,” she said. “I know I have saved people’s lives, encouraged people to come out.”
Lamar also helps trans people at the beginning of their journeys through the organization she helps run, Cross Dressers International.
“It’s our main purpose to take beginners by the hand ... give them the feeling that [they’re] not alone,” Lamar explained.
Renegotiating Relationships with Princeton
While spending years or decades discovering their identities, transitioning, and even engaging in activist work, many interviewees have had ongoing interactions with the University. They have watched the school change, and for many, their relationships with it have changed too, and even improved. Others are unable to mend the negative associations they have with the institution or reconcile their transitions with memories of their time as undergraduates.
Lamar decided not to come out to former classmates, and like many transgender people her age, prefers living a double life, presenting as male to her family and community.
“Like a lot of people my age — I went to Princeton in the ’60s — I live two lives. I got married, I have a daughter, I have grandchildren, as male me. And I’m also Nancy. I’m both,” she said.
“I went back to reunions as male me, and I went back with my wife, so it was just the standard reunions … The reunion is an attempt to recapture the years you were there, when in my case neither I nor anybody else there presented as LGBT,” Lamar continued.
Although Scott publicly transitioned, it had little impact on his experience at reunions. Scott felt “visibly queer” by the time he attended his fifth reunion, which he said seemed to surprise or put off classmates, although no one made direct comments.
“I went to my 25th and no one knew that I transitioned,” said Scott.
Though they could have learned from social media, he didn’t actively explain or come out to people. “It just wasn’t really the most important thing,” he said.
All of those interviewed appreciated the changes they have seen taking place in the University. Leslie enjoyed visiting the LGBT center at reunions.
“There wasn’t an LGBT office — activities office, support services, anything of that sort. But now it was there, and it was so good to get that feeling, to have that support from the Princeton community now,” recounted Leslie in her archived interview.
White not only returned for reunions, but also spoke at and helped run the She Roars conference. After pushing past her nerves, White had a very positive experience reintroducing herself to her classmates as Tina.
“Everyone was very kind,” she said. “I suddenly felt, when I visit Princeton now, and I walk the campus, I feel like I’m really walking on my campus, and I had always felt like a foreigner on my own campus because I hadn’t attended Princeton as me.”
White also loved being a part of She Roars — “everyone was very welcoming.”
“The coolest thing for me was to be there in this sea of women and to feel connected, because I had never felt that,” she said. “I just felt like I was home. I’d never had that before and it was just so wonderful.”
Monet also found she was able to add happy memories to her connection with Princeton — from working for the Alumni Council and helping run TigerNet, where she launched a discussion board for LGBT alumni, to speaking at the tenth anniversary of the campus’ LGBT Center and reintroducing herself to classmates at her 25th Reunion, to even getting married in the Chapel and having her reception at Prospect House.
“You can reclaim that space,” Monet explained. “If you ever look back at Princeton’s traditions and how they’ve changed over time, they don’t actually date back that far, most of them. It wasn’t long ago that the institution didn’t even allow women.”
“I was in the closet for four years. There weren’t a lot of us around. But hopefully, the next generation of students won’t be able to say that, and that’s a beautiful thing,” she said. “We’ve been around forever, but it’s taken us a while to get our moment in the sun.”
Editor’s Note: Interested readers can hear from these individuals, and from dozens of other LGBTQ+ alumni, in the Oral History Archive.