When he came to speak to the students of Exeter Summer, Alex Meyers talked about one thing: stories.
Heaven knows he has many to tell. As an English teacher, author, speaker, and the first openly transgender student of both Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University — and is also a former student of Brown University — it would have been hard to choose just one experience to listen to. So he shared them all.
When asked what he hopes Exeter Summer students will get out of his experience, he said, “I would want them to think about their own gender as well as how to be a good friend and ally.”
Later in his speech, he addresses the million dollar question: what is gender? To understand that, you must understand the rest of his story.
“For as long as I can remember, I have always felt like I was a boy,” he began.
Alex Meyers was born Alice. He shared his inner turmoil growing up, about not feeling at home in his own skin. When relatives asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he knew exactly what it was. “I always told them I wanted to be a boy. I learned that this was not an acceptable answer.”
“You see me today, and I never got to be a doctor… but I did get to be a boy.”
His explanation of the “constant dissonance” he felt in his childhood struck a chord with the audience, which was composed of many students from many different cultures and backgrounds — some of whom may not have completely understood what Mr. Meyers was talking about.
However, everyone could understand the feeling he described, of being someone when the world told you not to be. Exeter has long been a place for people from all walks of life.
And that was where Mr. Meyers arrived in the fall of 1992. The diversity of the school was a shock to a child brought up in rural Maine, but it gave him room to blossom, first as a lesbian, and — by his return in senior year — as transgender.
“Exeter is a place where conversations happen,” he said. “It forced me to speak for myself.”
He explained the realization of his own identity in simple, universal tones. Staying in Boston the summer before his junior year, he began attending an LGBT youth group, identifying as a lesbian at that point. One meeting was devoted to a word, “transgender,” which Mr. Meyers had never heard before.
He listened to the panel of transgender teens who told him the meaning of the word for the first time: someone who is born as one sex but identifies as the other.
After this panel, he went along with the group of women, who were asked about their relationship with their own gender. Expecting that they would have had similar experiences to him, he was shocked when one by one, they spoke of their love of their own womanhood and how being a lesbian didn’t interfere with their femininity.
“When it got to be my turn, I stood up and I said, ‘I‘m sorry, but I think I’m in the wrong room,’” Mr. Meyers said.
But that was just the beginning of another story. He spoke of coming out to his parents, the hardest experience of his transition. Then he had to come out to his school.
He related his experience to that of the main character of his book: his famous ancestor, Deborah Sampson. Deborah Sampson was a woman who wanted independence in spite of her gender. A weaver during the Revolutionary War, she disguised herself as a man to fight for her country.
“I was told I had an ancestor who so loved her country that she wanted to serve it and that she watched the boys in her town march away to become soldiers, and was jealous and wanted to join them,” he said. “And so she did. And that was a story that I could understand.”
So in the end, gender to Alex Meyers “is like breathing air.” And stories are what you breathe in and out.
“There’s power to be found in stories,” he said. “Both the stories we’re told and the stories we tell about ourselves … We have to learn the stories. And then we have to make our own.”