'Call me Amy': Professor comes out as trans in viral letter

“Sharing this in such a public way has led a lot of other people in the world coming out to me," Amy Ko of the University of Washington said.
By Gwen Aviles

When Amy Ko, an associate professor at The Information School at the University of Washington, earned tenure there, her colleagues kept asking her what she planned to do with the privilege.

“A big question for me was, I have job security, I had some power, and I have an audience, what should I do with it?” Ko told NBC News. “I felt like a really important thing to do was make ideas more accessible to the world. The writing that we do in academia, we really do it for each other, and it’s often locked away in digital libraries that are behind paywalls.”

Amy Ko.Courtesy Amy Ko

Ko already had been directing “Bits and Behavior,” a Medium.com blog launched in 2006 about software and its effects on the world. However, in the last five years, the blog has gotten more personal, with posts about navigating academia as an introvert.

Last week, Ko took to the blog to reveal a significant aspect of her identity that she had been hiding for more than 30 years: She identifies as a woman, prefers she/her pronouns and would like to be called Amy instead of her given name. The post has received more than 2,400 “claps” on Medium and more than 7,000 likes on Twitter, resonating with transgender, nonbinary and LGBTQ college students and faculty around the world.

“People make some assumptions about others so consistently that they leave little room for difference, creating stigma,” Ko wrote in the essay. “For example, because most casually assume that everyone can read, that no one is depressed, that no has invisible disabilities, and that everyone has food, shelter and safety, we stigmatize people who cannot read, who are depressed, people who have disabilities, and people who struggle to meet their basic needs. When we erase difference, we shame difference. … Don’t avoid me because I’m different.”

Ko, 39, wrote that as a child she “learned to play boy well enough” to avoid bullying by her peers, but when she reached adolescence, presenting as a male became all the more painful. This is why, she said, she threw herself into school and research.

“I got into computers because they were an escape. They were a way for me to go and see other worlds and learn about new things and not really have to think about me at all,” Ko said. “As academics, we think about ideas, we think about the future. We think about the ways the world could be and the ways the world has been and just wondering about all of those things was an even more powerful way to avoid confronting my identity.”

But after a sabbatical and marrying for the second time in 2017, Ko decided to allow herself to fully embrace who she is. After going to therapy and coming out to her friends and family over the course of two years, Ko shared her story on Medium in a post that outlines the ways in which others can affirm her identity.

“Sharing this in such a public way has led a lot of other people in the world coming out to me. Students on this campus at University of Washington, students and faculty on other campuses, just hundreds of people scared to be themselves and by me being public about this, that’s helped them have a little bit more courage, in the same way that I got courage from all the people in the world who are out that I saw in public,” Ko said.

Ko understands that she has to grapple with “new kinds of hate” — from the strangers who’ve yelled transphobic slurs on the street to the women and men who’ve given her “dirty” looks when she uses public restrooms.

Still, the professor, known for her research in human-computer interaction and software engineering, acknowledges that she holds a privilege many trans people don’t, including trans-inclusive health insurance, job security at a university that was recently ranked as one of the safest campuses for LGBTQ people in the U.S., and residence in an LGBTQ-friendly city. While Ko is of Danish and Chinese descent, she said that she “does not appear to be a person of color” and that living as male for so long has provided her with extra opportunities for stability. She stresses these details because she says it's important for others to know that not all trans lives look the same.

“I’ve had nearly everything that a trans person needs to transition and thrive — aside from space to come out as a child — and yet accepting myself and transitioning has still been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” Ko wrote.

Ko said she plans to continue exploring for a gender expression she’s comfortable with, and that she’ll continue blogging about her journey. She has already written a follow-up post, “What Coming Out as Trans Should Look Like,” chronicling how she changed her school ID to reflect her name and the support others have shown her, including colleagues who’ve fixed syllabi referring to her work.

“In some ways, the blog post marks the end of a story for me," Ko said. "Probably the biggest thing for me is not having a cloud over every moment of my day, a cloud of fear and a cloud of concern or worry.

“It’s hard to explain what it’s like to keep a secret for that long, a secret that’s so central to your identity, but it’s exhausting and so much work to hide all the time.”

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