Monday, 24 April 2017

Interview with Tessa Fisher

Monika: Today’s interview will be with Tessa Fisher, an American Ph.D. student, astrobiologist, blogger, and occasional aspiring science fiction writer. Hello Tessa!
Tessa: Thank you for having me, Monika!
Monika: You call yourself “perhaps the world’s only queer trans astrobiologist.” What does an astrobiologist do? Could you say a few words about yourself?
Tessa: Well, first off, I must confess, that title is no longer accurate - I recently discovered there’s at least one other one out there (though she works on a different area of the field than I do).
In brief, astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, and distribution of life throughout the universe. It’s an extremely broad, interdisciplinary field, and astrobiologists study topics ranging from how life evolved from inanimate chemicals, to how habitable Mars might be, to looking for signs of intelligent civilizations in other star systems.
My work in particular is focused on using some of the techniques developed by a field of mathematics called graph theory to try to come up with better ways of detecting the presence of life on planets around other stars from looking at the composition of their atmospheres. It’s pretty neat, cutting-edge stuff.
Monika: If life exists beyond Earth why they have not contacted us yet?
Tessa: This question - sometimes referred to as the Fermi Paradox - is one that is often debated by astrobiologists. There are many theories- some arguing that intelligent life tends to be self-destructive, others that we don’t know how to properly look for them, or even that they already have and we just haven’t noticed.
Personally, my take on the question is that we must remember the unimaginable scale of our universe- I believe that there is almost certainly another intelligent life out there, but it may be so far from us we haven’t been able to detect them yet (after all, we’ve only been listening for a half dozen decades!).
Alternatively, the difference in timescales may be too vast- statistically, it’s extremely unlikely that any intelligent extraterrestrial species that arose, did so at the exact same time that we did, and therefore are probably either much more primitive than us or much, much more advanced. In the case of the former, they wouldn’t have developed the technology to communicate with us; in the latter case, they might not even see the point in bothering- after all, do you regularly try to communicate with the ants on your sidewalk?
Monika: How did you discover your space sciences and extraterrestrial life?
Tessa: I’ve been interested in it from a very young age- I remember my parents taking me to a planetarium show when I was a small child and being absolutely captivated. There was also a film about the origin of life (with dancing and singing amino acids!) that probably contributed as well.
My mother also was quite a science fiction fan and exposed me to a lot of the classic literature in that genre, which also piqued my interest. As a result, as soon as I found out “astrobiologist” was an actual, viable career when I was 12 or so, I immediately knew what I wanted to be (well, that, and I also wanted to be an astronaut - which is a dream I haven’t necessarily given up on, either).

Photo taken by Abigail Weibel as part of her interview with
me for her Women in STEM project.
(available at

Monika: You aspire to be a science fiction writer. Have you written any books so far? 
Tessa: Ha, no! I’ve written a few short stories, but nothing’s gotten published as of yet. Maybe someday. I actually haven’t had much time to write in the last year or so - I like to think that’s because, as an alien hunter who’s changed gender, I’m too busy living science fiction to write about it.  
Monika: Do you have any favorite science fiction books or movies?
Tessa: In terms of books, I’m a big fan of Anne Leche’s Imperial Radch series. I’ve also recently gotten into The Expanse series, which does an excellent job of keeping the story grounded in (mostly) realistic science.
I also have a soft spot for Connie Willis, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Lois McMaster Bujold’s devastatingly witty Vorkosigan saga. As for movies, I greatly enjoyed Interstellar and loved Arrival. I’m also a recently converted fangirl to the Mass Effect series of video games (which has surprisingly good science, as these things go).
Monika: At which stage of the transition are you right now?
Tessa: I’ve been on HRT for 2.5 years, socially transitioned for 2, in 6 days(!) as of this writing, I’ll be having GRS. I guess you could say that I’m close to the “end” of transition- though I’d argue that, since we all are constantly learning and evolving as people, I’m not sure where I would consider the “end point” of transition to be.
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow?
Tessa: Julia Serano was a major early influence- reading her book Whipping Girl played a significant role in my coming to terms with my identity as a trans woman (plus, she’s a fellow scientist, to boot).
A lot of the other trans women I look up to are writers - I adore April Daniel’s ability to portray a thoroughly likable and relatable trans character, I admire Brynn Tannehill’s astute sociopolitical analysis and pull-no-punches style, and I love Isabelle Wedin’s ability to strike a deep chord within me with her poetry.
Monika: What was the hardest thing about your coming out?
Tessa: Honestly, coming out to myself. I’d had suspicions I might be trans since I was 12 - I can’t imagine there are too many teenage boys out there who daydream about being girls- but there wasn’t much information available back then, and since I didn’t fit the stereotype of a trans woman (I liked girls, hadn’t definitively known from an early age, wasn’t particularly interested in crossdressing, and wasn’t suicidally miserable), I figured I couldn’t be and did my best to rationalize it all away for the next 14 years or so.
It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I really started to come to terms with it- and even after I’d started recognizing the dysphoria I was experiencing for what it was, it still took months of work with an amazing psychologist to really fully process it and get beyond all my self-doubt and uncertainty. Once I’d really accepted my own identity, the rest was pretty easy- I’ve been very fortunate that everyone in my life has been totally accepting and supportive of me. 
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country?
Tessa: Here, in the U.S., it’s pretty grim, especially for trans women of color, who are facing a horrifying epidemic of violence. While the social climate has become noticeably more trans-friendly in the last decade, the political climate has not (as witnessed by the current presidential administration). I’m hoping we won’t end up backsliding on some of the progress we’ve made recently, but I’m afraid that we might. 
Monika: What do you think about transgender stories or characters which have been featured in films, newspapers, or books so far? 
Tessa: It’s been a long and painful process, but the media portrayal of trans characters is definitely improving, and slowly becoming more mainstream. I’m particularly fond of Nomi from Sense8 (it’s rare to see the existence of queer trans women acknowledged). I love the fact that trans-lit fiction for and by trans people- is growing into its own, as well.

My wife and I getting married on Halloween of 2016.

Monika: Are you active in politics? Do you participate in any lobbying campaigns? Do you think transgender women can make a difference in politics?
Tessa: Not as much as I should be lately I’ve been so overwhelmed with my own transition, academic research, and other personal commitments that I haven’t had the emotional energy to jump into the fray just yet. I do believe it’s extremely important to get out there and get our voices heard, to face down politicians and make them really see us and acknowledge our humanity. I do definitely believe we make a difference if we’re strategic and, most importantly, persistent, about it.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of your local LGBTQ community?
Tessa: Yes! I’m a member of the Phoenix’s Women’s Chorus, a singing group for LGBT women and their straight allies. Some friends and I have also recently helped start up a social group for queer women, which has proven to be wildly successful. Lastly, one of my hobbies is burlesque dancing, and I’ve started to become more involved with the queer community within that scene. 
Monika: The transgender cause is usually manifested together with the other LGBTQ communities. Being the last letter in this abbreviation, is the transgender community able to promote its own cause within the LGBTQ group?
Tessa: There’s definitely been some tension there, to say the least, but I definitely have seen an increasing awareness of trans issues within the wider LGBTQ community, especially amongst the younger generations. Given the history of our community getting thrown under the bus (so to speak) by LGB activism, this is very encouraging.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Tessa: I generally describe my aesthetic as “lazy femme.” In the summer, I usually wear either sundresses or shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. In the winter, I live in jeans, cowl-necked shirts, and the occasional sweater dress. I wouldn’t say I particularly pay that much attention to fashion trends, but I do try for more timeless looks. I also have a marked fondness for bright, deep jewel tones, especially reds and blues.
Monika: What do you think about transgender beauty pageants?
Tessa: I honestly don’t know enough about them to comment one way or the other.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life?
Tessa: Going through my transition, I’ve been extraordinarily fortunate to have a loving partner who stayed with me through the process. While it wasn’t always easy- the first six months, in particular, were a little touch-and-go- ultimately my living more authentically brought us even closer together (admittedly, the fact that she’s identified as bisexual since high school also helped). Her support and acceptance finally gave me an environment where I could explore the facets of myself that I’d hidden away, and come to terms with who I really was and how I felt inside. I’m not sure my transition would’ve been possible without her.
One of my fondest memories is when, not long after I’d started living as Tessa full-time, she reciprocally proposed to me (figuring that since I’m a girl now, I needed an engagement ring, too). I’m happy to report we got married six months ago, in what was described by some of our friends as “the gayest and nerdiest” wedding they’d ever been to. 

Tessa's blog. Her Twitter: @spacermase

Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Tessa: The thought has definitely crossed my mind - though I’d want to wait another decade or two. I’d like to think that, if everything goes to plan, my transition will be far from the most interesting thing that’s happened in my life. 
Monika: What would you recommend to transgender women that are afraid of transition, discrimination, and hatred?
Tessa: Even though there were costs- my wife and I were subjected to institutional harassment early on in my transition, which we still feel deeply hurt and betrayed by - it’s been unquestionably worth it. Transitioning is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made (second only to marrying my wife).
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Tessa: Ideally, working as a research scientist for NASA or another exploration-focused institute, continuing to do cutting-edge research and pursuing the search for life beyond Earth. My wife and I will hopefully have finished with our degrees, settled down with a little love nest to call our own (and perhaps even brought our own rainbow child into the world).
With that said, if you’d ask me 7 years ago to describe my life today, I would’ve gotten literally almost every detail wrong (including gender)- so, for all I know, I could be on Mars by then :-)
Monika: My pen friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transsexuals and transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Tessa: Definitely! I’d like to think the most exciting, interesting, and joyous parts of my life are yet to come.
Monika: Tessa, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Tessa: Thank you, Monika - it’s an honor to be asked to join the ranks of your heroines!

All the photos: courtesy of Tessa Fisher.
© 2017 - Monika Kowalska

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