First transgender student, teacher at PEA shares his journey

NEWS CENTER's Tory Ryden explores what it means to be transgender in Maine. In this three-part series, she talks with Alex Myers, the first openly transgender student at Phillips Exeter Academy and Harvard. Alex now teaches at PEA and is working in New Hampshire to make the state more transgender friendly.

Teacher trying to change transgender laws

EXETER, New Hampshire (NEWS CENTER) -- Alice Myers grew up in the small Maine town of Paris, but she wasn't a typical girl. She preferred to play with boys, wear flannel shirts, jeans and climb trees. 

RELATED STORY: What it means to be Transgender?: A 12 yr-old's journey

In 9th grade, Alice left her local school and began attending Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, one of the oldest, most traditional schools in the country. It was there Alice says that she would become the person she always knew she was: a boy. 

“What she really wanted to know was, how others saw her.  And no lake or mirror could tell her that,” Myers reads from his book “Revolutionary”, a book about a woman who fought in the Revolutionary War alongside men. 

Alex Myers didn’t have to look far for inspiration; his lead character disguised herself as a man and lived among other soldiers.

RELATED STORY: Leading Maine transgender pediatrician sheds light on what it really means to be trans

“She ran away from her hometown, disguised herself as a man, joined up and signed on as Robert Shirtliff, she mustered in the town of Worcester in Massachusetts and they marched all the way from Worcester to West Point.”

Not only is Myers distantly related to his main character, Debra Samson Gannett, he like her, was a woman who wanted to be and felt she was, a man.

“I was so fascinated by the culture in which she grew up, the way in which she understood herself and her gender roles and I found myself asking not only how did she do this but why did she do this?”

Many would ask the same of Alex Myers. 

“I was athletic, I was jock-ey.  I came as a tomboy.  I think I had the typical rural Maine childhood:  a lot of tree climbing, running around in the woods, climbing mountains. I have an older brother and loved to do everything that he did.”

Myers teaches English at Phillips Exeter Academy, the very school from which he graduated in the late 90’s.  A serious student, Myers also played on the women’s hockey team.

“I came here and found that I was largely not like the other girls here.”

At 17 years-old, Alice was a confused, until she met young transgender people her junior summer in Boston.  Suddenly everything became clear.

He explains that, 

“being transgender is being in between genders but it’s also about somewhat being both at once, which seems very contradictor but it’s just how I understand them.  So I’m neither and both at the same time.” 

When Alice met others who seemed to be in the same place, there was, what he describes as a ‘eureka’ moment. 

“That’s what I want to do.  I want to live as a boy.” 

He snaps his fingers and says “just like that.  I came out within weeks of realize you could do that.  Cut my hair short, asked people to call me Alex.”

After the summer, he returned to Phillips Exeter for his senior year, making history as the first openly transgender student on campus.  The next year, he made history at Harvard as well, where, he says, they immediately made him feel included. 

“They looked through their housing and they asked ‘what’s appropriate housing for a transgender student?  Where will they feel safe?  Will that student be able to pass?’“

Myers picked up a handful of Master’s degrees, got married and he and his wife landed back at Exeter, where he teaches English classes.

Student Autumn Herness is from Wisconsin and says before Phillips Exeter, she didn’t know anyone who was questioning their gender identity.

“Where I’m from, I never had met a gay person before coming here, a transgender person before coming here, nothing like that.  And now it’s a lot of my friends, so it’s a very different world.”

The PEA senior takes Myer’s Margaret Atwood literature class and says she sees no difference in his approach.  “He’s just our teacher”.

But at Exeter, he is much more.  Alex Myers has gone full circle.  22 years after playing for the girls’ ice hockey team, he is now the team’s coach.  

“What I love most about coaching is having a student who joins the team at the start of the season without a clue of what they’re doing and at the end of the season watching them execute a play or move or something that we’ve worked on as a team.”

He acknowledges there are one or two students on the team who are “gender questioning”. For them he says,  the path at Phillips Exeter Academy, will be easier to navigate. 

Back in 1995, Myers’ historic announcement helped change PEA’s policies, making them more inclusive and tolerant of all transgender students.  A progressive move in a state that is lagging in its own policies.  The state of New Hampshire has no explicit protection laws on the books for transgender people.

According to the Transgender Law Center, based in Oakland California, New Hampshire is one of 8 states in the U.S. with a low gender identity policy tally, Maine ranks medium and the rest of New England:  Vermont, Massachusetts , Rhode Island and Connecticut all scored high marks.

“These are fundamental rights, they’re not super special things that we’re asking for,” Myers says. 

He is leading the charge; in the first week of February, he and three other transgender adults met with 150 New Hampshire state lawmakers, sharing their personal stories, hoping to help change protection laws for transgender people.

“People currently living in New Hampshire who in the past decade have come out at work and transitioned...(have) been fired because of that.  You know, it should be illegal and that’s effectively what we’re asking for.”

Alex Myers says the biggest lesson he hopes to share is the importance of being secure in who you really are.

“Gender is who you are on a very basic level.  And who I was hadn’t changed a bit.  I’d just finally been able to live as I wanted to.  Put that on the outside instead of holding it on the inside.”

RELATED STORIES: What it means to be Transgender?: A 12 yr-old's journey and how her school responded, Leading Maine transgender pediatrician sheds light on what it really means to be trans



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