“I’m concerned that we leave as many species on this planet as possible for the next generation,” says longtime forestry professor Brenda McComb, or W.C. McComb — the name under which her academic work was long published.
She is dean of graduate programs at Oregon State University and a governor’s nominee to the new OSU board of trustees. Born in New England, but a happily converted Oregonian, McComb recalls the Connecticut farm she grew up on, now paved over by subdivisions, as a microcosm of change through her six decades on Earth. “That was the driving force behind my interest in biodiversity conservation,” she says.
Biodiversity, McComb accentuates, exists environmentally but is also inherent of human beings. She was well-prepared when Hailey Buckingham, forestry doctoral candidate, asked to speak with her in confidence. “I was terrified,” Buckingham says. “I knew my life was going to start unraveling. My hands were shaking. My heart was pounding.” McComb was the first person on campus to learn Buckingham is transgender. Excited, but poised, her simple reaction: “Congratulations!” and a hug.
As dean, McComb is responsible for administrating scholarships and overseeing admissions for 4,000 graduate students, but sometimes her responsibilities become more intimate. Beyond a trans ally, she is a veteran of that trembling sensation, and another person’s coming out gives her more joy than her professional bearing lets on.
Ten years ago, McComb medically transitioned from William to Brenda — male to female — and is now guiding Buckingham through that process. “At the end of the day, you find out who loves you,” says McComb, who concealed her gender identity through her upbringing and well into her career.
“My mantra from the time I was 5 was ‘don’t get caught,’” she says, pondering the ostracism inherent of a less tolerant age. When McComb began the long haul toward a Ph.D., she worried about her reputation and future and partitioned her life along gender lines. She says that, though male privilege took her far in the sciences, where, “in a male-dominated system, it is difficult for women to be heard and make a difference,” she certainly didn’t have cisgender privilege. “I would be surrounded by males, and I felt like I didn’t fit in at all.”
McComb has been working with queer studies program director Qwo-Li Driskill in developing classes around trans issues at OSU. In a course called Transgender Lives, McComb breaks down the transition process, instructing students on everything from the biology of transgenderism to social issues and discrimination. Driskill, who identifies as “two-spirit,” a Native American mixed gender/sexuality role, was glad to see McComb focusing on ethnic interpretations outside of the highly analytical European/American LGBT spectrum.
“Too often indigenous people get left out or romanticized in problematic ways,” Driskill says. McComb and Driskill call attention to the intersectionality of people of color with gender identity and sexual orientation. “It can make discrimination much more significant,” McComb says. The OSU queer studies program, entering its second year, will soon gain both a minor and graduate program. “Things are really open right now to develop new things,” Driskill says.
McComb has also been behind some interventions to campus policy. When Buckingham had trouble getting transcripts corrected after a legal name change, McComb and college administration masters student Dith Pamp got together and made a plan to address such complications. They hosted a “Trans 101” workshop for the registrar and have highlighted other issues as well.
“Applying for financial aid, your FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] requires you to have registered with Selective Service and that involves gender identity,” Pamp says. The two recently co-authored a manuscript on metrics for trans friendliness on campuses.
“Nobody transitions alone,” McComb says. Friends, family, co-workers and classmates have to acknowledge the change, and there comes with that an education that many are unprepared to embrace. In the Transgender Lives course, McComb says, people ask some frustrating questions. “You can’t take it all too seriously though. You’ve got to deal with it with some degree of levity.” For trans awareness, uninformed questions are always better than no questions.
McComb remembers days past of discrimination and revels in the rapid changes of late for the LGBT community, but still says of being transgender, “I think it’s easier than ever, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
First in a series of profiles of trans people in the community.
Feeling female, male or neither/both (genderqueer)
Psychological gender matches sex assigned at birth
Umbrella term for those not fitting into societal gender norms
A “cross dresser”; wears clothing of “opposite sex”; may or may not identify as transgender
Physical sex conflicts with gender self-perception; changed or may change physical sex through hormone therapy and/or reassignment surgery