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Zach’s Story: A lifetime of little things

By Leah Ruth

Section: Features, Top Stories

February 4, 2011

Zachary Spence ’11 grew up in New Jersey. He had a relatively simple life. He was involved in the Drama Club as both an actor and a director, he was the president of the Multicultural Club and he wore a tuxedo when he went to prom with his best friend.

The biggest difference between Zachary then and now is that in high school he went by his birth name, a female one (he asked that his birth name not be published, as he wants to people to know who he is now, rather than “who [he] never wanted to be”). It wasn’t until college that Spence began to identify as transgender, asking friends and colleagues to address him as Zach or Zachary and use male pronouns when referring to him.

“When I was growing up, I never had a real cognizance of the difference between genders,” Spence said. “When I was in high school and the differences became more noticeable, I started feeling more and more detached from the fact that I was born female-bodied.”

His journey was a difficult one, Spence said, recalling the “self-deprecating misery” that often enveloped him as he struggled to form close relationships with his family. It was only when he arrived at Brandeis that Spence realized that being transgender was a viable option that could apply to him.

Spence chose Brandeis after discovering that he could pursue the majors he wanted (Creative Writing and East Asian Studies with a concentration in Japanese) and still spend a year abroad. In high school, Spence didn’t identify as queer simply because he didn’t know anything about gender identity. He wasn’t looking for a queer community on campus, but he’s glad to have found such a welcoming one. Spence is now a co-coordinator of TransBrandeis, a branch of Triskelion, Brandeis’ GLBT/Queer Alliance, with Mariah Henderson ’12.

At the end of his first year at Brandeis, Spence began telling his friends to brace themselves—he would be coming back in the fall with a new name.

Choosing a new name was a lengthy process. Before settling on Zachary, Spence spent the summer narrowing down a list of 30 names he liked. The names had to fit several criteria. It had to be long to complement his monosyllabic last name. It had to start with a less common letter. Most importantly, it had to be definitively male.

“When I was first questioning what my gender identity was, I wondered if I could deal with having a gender neutral name, because it was the inherent femininity of my birth name that drove me up the wall … I really like names where you can play with the gender … but I couldn’t. If [I had chosen Victor and] someone called me Vicky, it wouldn’t tell the world anything about my gender,” Spence said.

His persistence paid off. Two weeks ago, Spence legally changed his name.

Until he informs the university of his legal name change, Spence’s birth name will appear on his Brandeis ID and class rosters. Each semester, he sends e-mails to professors in advance, introducing himself as Zachary and asking them not to announce his birth name in class. Spence said that although he has never had an “irreconcilably negative experience,” his professors do not always catch on immediately.

Strangers occasionally read him as female and use female pronouns, but “that happens about as often as people reading me as male and using male pronouns, which makes it bearable,” he said.

While studying abroad in Japan during his junior year, Spence told his mother that he identified as transgender. “Obviously it was a conversation but she was supportive and totally great with it,” he said. The rest of his family is still at varying stages, from not knowing, to knowing but not acknowledging, to accepting but not understanding.

In Spence’s day-to-day life, his friends have made everything much easier. When he sees them, he knows they will use the correct pronoun, using he rather than she, and call him Zachary without thinking about it. He relies on his friends and girlfriend as a support system after facing a transphobic comment, after someone has used the wrong name or pronouns, or anything else that might put him into a funk.

After graduating, Spence wants to be a writer but knows it will be difficult. Self-identifying as the “king of high maintenance,” he explained that he will first need a higher paying job: hopefully a “cool job” in which he can use his knowledge of Japanese. Spence is unsure of whether, and to what extent, he will medically transition, but with his friends’ and family’s support, he knows that he will eventually figure it out.

Spence has not yet explained his gender identity to his father, who still uses Zachary’s birth name and female pronouns. He hopes that his father will support him and see it not as a loss, but as a change in which his “forcibly female-identified” only child has become a much happier young man.

He plans to do so before commencement, when he will be graduating with his new legal name, Zachary Spence.

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When reading this story, please remember that it is the story of just one person. Every single person has a different journey, different approaches to their own gender identity and different desires for the future. Zachary’s experiences should not inform the experiences of others, and extrapolating from them can be a grave misunderstanding of what any personal identity means.

~Leah and Zachary

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This article was the recipient of the 2010-2011 Esther Kartiganer Prize for Excellence in Journalism and Women’s and Gender Studies, presented by the Brandeis University Women’s and Gender Studies Program

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