Many people say that the open environment of Phillips Exeter Academy helps people be themselves. This concept has transcended time, all the way back to 1996, when Alex Myers (previously known as Alice), was welcomed back to the Academy as a boy for his senior year after coming out as transgender.
Twenty-two years later, Mr. Myers is an English teacher at PEA and has impacted thousands of students’s lives with his incredible journey. His first steps began in his childhood, growing up in rural Maine, where he faced difficulties of self-discovery, without any help from those around him. He clung to a tomboy persona, shifting it in middle school to a jock, and in freshman year to come out as a butch lesbian.
Then, his days at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard University led him to become a pioneering figure in the transgender community. Mr. Myers was also the first openly transgender student at Harvard and worked to change the University’s nondiscrimination clause to include gender identity.
“When I was 4, 5 or 6 years old, adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I was older,” he said. “I told them I wanted to be a boy. They normally didn’t like that answer and would ask me what I really wanted to be, which would lead me to say a doctor or even the Lone Ranger. Strangely enough, both of those answers seemed more plausible to adults, even though in my adult life, I can guarantee that I am not a doctor or the Lone Ranger.”
Along with his array of achievements, he is also a successful author. His novel, “Revolutionary,” is the true story of Deborah Sampson, an ancestor who disguised herself as a man to join the Continental Army to fight for America’s independence. The novel highlights elements of struggle against the rigid bounds of colonial society. The story truly begins when she cuts her hair, binds her chest and enlists in the Continental army under the name Robert Shurtliff
“When I nearly lost hope, stories truly saved me as they helped me believe what’s impossible,” Mr. Myers explained. “One story that I always loved was the story of my ancestor, Deborah Sampson.”
The book began by highlighting the barriers that women faced at the time, including economic, political and social setbacks. At the mere age of 8 years old, Deborah Sampson was sold into servitude and she was not free until the age of 18. Women at the time, until the 20th Century, were treated as property and had no independent rights. Hence, what she did next was considered revolutionary for her time: she decided not to get married.
Free from the constraints of a male “master”, she supported herself and lived an independent existence. However, her next step was the most radical action a woman could have taken at the time: for financial reasons, in 1782, she signed on for a 3-year term of enlistment in a time when it was illegal for women to fight in the war. Selected for the light infantry, (one of the best troops in military service at the time) she spent 3 years in the army.
Her service did not come without struggles in concealing her identity, including performing surgery on herself in order to avoid being detected as a woman by a doctor. One of the most remarkable struggles Deborah overcame was living in a hut with one chamber pot with 16 men for months on end.
“This will make you feel better about living in the dorms this summer,” Mr. Myers joked. “In sharing this hut with 16 other men, you could imagine how bad it smelled and how little privacy there was. Even in this situation, she was never detected as a woman.”
There’s a link between Deborah’s story and Mr. Myers — fighting for your personal independence.
“I am so grateful to be coming of age in this place and time when there’s terms like transgender and concepts like support groups; something that Deborah never had access to.”