I’m a Transgender Scientist and I See Myself in “Frankenstein”

My unmarked body allows the world to see me as both doctor and monster

Skeletons with lampshades on their heads
Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

“It is not the slumber of reason that engenders monsters, but a vigilant and insomniac rationality”—Deleuze and Guattari

The fly’s head is rendered in microscopic detail: its bulging compound eyes set above a fleshy proboscis, cradled between its mouthparts. There is, however, something more unusual about this intimate portrait. A pair of finely bristled, jointed appendages protrude from the front of its head. Even to the untrained eye, it is unmistakable: legs are growing from where its antennae should be. It is grotesque. It is uncanny. It is so obviously made wrong.

I learned that this fly was created through the mutation of a single gene. This type of mutation is called a homeotic transformation, when one discrete part of the body is transformed into a completely different one. The animating spark that first drew me to biology was encapsulated by this little mutant. I was captivated by the pliability of the living body, and with it, the promise and possibility of transformation.

I have researched and studied developmental biology for almost a decade now, first as an undergraduate assistant, and now as a graduate researcher. My work often elicits comparisons to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It’s not completely unfounded—I study organisms in their becoming: how cells become tissue and how tissues become flesh. Many of the early classical experiments in the field evoke a similar sense of grotesque alchemy as Shelley’s descriptions of monster-making, with disparate flesh grafted together and tissues rendered into biochemical essences. The results of this experimentation resembled the eponymous monster as well—the mutant, leg-headed fly just one of a menagerie of lab-made monstrosities: two-headed, Janus-faced tadpoles fused along their shared spine, chimeric embryos formed with the cells of two different animals.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that my thoughts returned to these experiments when I first began transitioning. While a second head wasn’t among the changes I was expecting, I recognized myself in these laboratory creations. I wanted to believe that science would have no trouble accommodating me, that in its strangeness and infinite possibility I could build a space for my existence no matter how repellant it might seem to anyone else. Like every patchwork hybrid and mutant creature of science, I was visibly constructed and obviously made—and to a young scientist, that felt dizzyingly powerful.

Frankenstein proved more relevant to my experience than I’d anticipated. In some ways, this was unsurprising—I am hardly the first trans person to relate to monstrosity. In her 1994 monologue My Words to Victor Frankenstein Above the Village of Chamounix, the historian Susan Stryker explicitly articulates this struggle, positioning herself, a transgender woman, as the monster that society seeks to materially exclude and marginalize:

“Like the monster, I am too often perceived as less than fully human due to the means of my embodiment; like the monster’s as well, my exclusion from human community fuels a deep and abiding rage in me that I, like the monster, direct against the conditions in which I must struggle to exist.”

Stryker’s monologue is an unambiguous reclamation of monstrosity, a celebration and assertion of monstrous sentience and autonomy. Her rage and defiance shone through with total clarity. But it wasn’t the clarity that I felt. I felt as if I occupied the position of both doctor and monster— I didn’t just want to have autonomy. I wanted to be recognized as a scientific agent in my own transition. If I could express the changes that I saw in myself in the language of physiology, of anatomy and of endocrinology, why shouldn’t I be able to? I wanted to think of myself as capable of generating new knowledge, and capable of conveying it in a manner acceptable to the scientific community I’d been part of for almost a decade. I’d first approached transness specifically through the lens of scientific possibility—an expression more in the vein of Victor Frankenstein declaring that he would “unfold the world to the deepest mysteries of creation”, rather than the monster’s desire to simply exist. Yes, it was hubris, but wasn’t that a kind of rallying defiance too? Somehow, the desire for acceptance on these two fronts felt conflicted, but I didn’t understand why. Was it really so impossible to be both doctor and monster at once?

While a second head wasn’t among the changes I was expecting, I recognized myself in these laboratory creations.

But trying to see myself as both proved more fraught than I’d anticipated. In my excitement, I overlooked the nature of experimentation itself. Experiments are carried out by a scientist, on a subject of experimentation. This is not a relationship free of hierarchies. A scientist is not a medium through which the facts of nature simply flow through unimpeded. Experiments are designed and outcomes are interpreted. Ambiguity and uncertainty are resolved, or at least their parameters articulated. Specifically, the scientist (or the scientific establishment more broadly) is responsible for these processes and how they occur. In a scientific culture that is inextricable from, and often an active participant in, maintaining existing societal power dynamics, scientists often act in the service of maintaining hierarchies rather than dismantling them. The laboratory is not a site of liberatory transformation. It is a site of control.

Frankenstein is about science. Not only in its subject matter, but the process of doing modern science— its motivations, its ideals and the specifics of how it should be done. Victor isn’t just a scientist—he is a gentleman of science living in 18th century England. He performs experimental science, a mode of understanding and doing science that was only established about a century before his time. It is in this context specifically that the novel explores the power dynamics of experimentation. Frankenstein is commonly said to be about “transgressive” or “unrestrained” science, but the social context in which it takes place is important in defining what it is transgressing against—the qualities that define “transgression” were not created in a vacuum. Funnily enough, however, it might be said that they were created by one.

In the mid-17th century, the chemist Robert Boyle invented the air pump. Boyle was a prominent member of England’s Royal Society, and would go on to be highly influential in defining the way modern experimental science is conducted. The air pump was a large glass dome, perched on top of a brass base. It had an attachment for a pump, allowing the air inside the dome to be systematically siphoned away, forming a vacuum. The air pump would allow him to make the fundamental discovery that he is remembered for today— Boyle’s Law, the thermodynamically-determined relationship between a gas’s pressure and volume. Boyle saw the air pump as a means to control natural phenomena, to standardize observations and measurements by enabling experimental conditions to be replicated consistently. If the protocols for operating the air pump were judiciously followed, one could expect that its results would be the same during every scientific demonstration. The experimenter then became a messenger for the machine, a purveyor of instrumental readings rather than self-interested opinion. By factoring out human influence and agency, or as Boyle put it, “the morals and politicks of corporeal nature”, experimenters could produce results distilled purely from the laws of nature. 

The laboratory is not a site of liberatory transformation. It is a site of control.

Unfortunately, as we see in Frankenstein, “corporeal nature” is not so easily extricable. To me, this is the anxiety that makes Frankenstein a scientist’s horror story—the inadvertent contamination of our observations, the creeping realization that we’ve allowed our objectivity to be compromised. Just as the air pump removes all traces of air from the dome, we are expected to remove all traces of ourselves from our research. There is a special horror, then, in not only recognizing yourself in your experiment, but having your experiment attest to your presence: just as Victor Frankenstein calls the Monster “my own vampire, my own spirit set loose from the grave”, the Monster reaffirms its form as “a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance”. It follows that if the most ideal scientific process is one that can completely separate experiment from experimenter, the most transgressive is one that enmeshes them completely.

I found myself charged with this grievous transgression about two years ago, when I’d only been publicly out for around six months. A professor at my graduate school was posting his views online about the reality of binary biological sex in humans— a discussion that was not the good-faith engagement with biological taxonomy one might have hoped it was. One opinion was particularly derisive:

“Question for scientists who do not believe that humans have two distinct binary sexes: How many legs does a dog have?”

My first impulse was to form a scientific rebuttal. There are many potential approaches to discuss the complexity of sex and gender in biology—the complexity of the human endocrinological system, the inaccuracy (and insensitivity) of calling intersex phenotypes “mistakes”—I might even choose to debate the taxonomical and anatomical definition of “leg”. But I saw the likely futility of engaging. The implied equivalence had already been made: determining sex in humans is as simple as determining the number of legs on a dog. It is an easily-made, individual determination that can be made by sight alone. Any scientist who cannot do so possesses woefully compromised judgment. And, of course, anyone with such compromised judgment cannot possibly be a good scientist.

And therein lies the rub: my desire to be seen as a scientific agent—in my own transition, as a transgender scientist—is at best, according to Boyle’s experimental philosophy, poor experimental design. By this logic, like Frankenstein and his monster, every observation I make, by design, attests to my inextricable presence.

Put simply, I am a bad scientist.

That is the crux of this type of bigotry—it isn’t about empirical truth or falsehood at all. Underlying this complacent declaration of equivalence is an invisible arbiter, the unseen, “good” scientist who is able and entitled to design the terms of discussion due to their neutrality and impartiality. Ultimately, it functions not as an assertion of truth, but an assertion of epistemological control: I decide who is a reliable arbiter of their own experiences.

If my first mistake was failing to live in such an unmarked body, my second was actively calling attention to it.

With the invention of the air pump, Boyle also advocated for a very specific code of conduct for scientists. To confer upon their results a sense of reliability and validity, Boyle proposed that experimenters should always employ restraint and modesty in the presentation of their results. Experimental descriptions were to be minutely detailed, judgments should err on the side of reasonable doubt, and confident assertions should only be used to convey academic consensus. It was humble to the point of self-effacing, refusing to unduly speculate on the theoretical causes of its observations. The resulting academic voice became characteristic of 17th and 18th century scientific correspondences of the Royal Society, codified into institutional and professional etiquette. Through this deliberately constructed image of propriety, Boyle created the ideal of the “modest witness”—a persona that the philosopher Donna Haraway defines as “the inhabitant of a potent unmarked category”. The modest witness was a civic man of reason, able to transcend biasing cultural polemic or political squabbles. In return for this performance, he was given the power to distill objective truth from subjective reality. The voice of a modest witness was the voice of objectivity itself, speaking what appeared to be perfect reproductions of the natural world into existence. 

If my first mistake was failing to live in such an unmarked body, my second was actively calling attention to it. After the flurry of biological-sex based opinions had passed, a number of my peers and myself decided to quietly bring the professor’s comments to the attention of another senior professor with some oversight in the department, presenting it as an issue of potential discrimination. The senior professor attentively listened to our concerns. He paused, and looked genuinely thoughtful. Then he spoke.

“I understand, but it’s a divisive subject. It’s like…say, open carry-“

He sounded so earnest. He sounded so painfully earnest. 

I cut him off before I could stop myself. I couldn’t bear to let him finish that comparison.
“Professor, I am not a gun.”

The meeting went silent. The senior professor looked a little taken aback, awkward and apologetic. It was obvious that he hadn’t known I was trans, or that a trans person would be present at all in this discussion. I quickly launched into a formal spiel about institutional policy and workplace protections. This was my first experience making myself deliberately visible in my role as a graduate student, and all I wanted to do was take it back and disappear again. In the end we were met with expressions of sympathy, but little in the way of action. I did not speak again, nor did I follow up with the complaint. If my desire to exist freely was comparable to an instrument built for violence, what kind of justification could I ever provide for myself? What explanation could possibly suffice? I had received a tiny insight into how others—especially well-established scientists—might perceive transness. At the time, I thought I was the only trans person in my department. Newly out and still grappling with how it might impact my future prospects, even that awareness was enough to decide that being seen was a mistake. I didn’t want to see how I would be reflected back at myself, and I flinched. I am not a gun. I am not a gun.

I gave up on coming out publicly while I was still in academia.

When the Monster reads Victor’s journals, it internalizes Victor’s bitterness and resentment towards it as a deep sense of self-loathing. “Increase of knowledge only discovered to me what a wretched outcast I was,” it says, resenting that its deeply human desire to seek knowledge only leads to greater pain and misery. The tragedy is that the Monster first sees itself in relation to the world through its creator’s guilty eyes—a guilt that Victor projects onto the Monster due to his transgression of scientific and social norms. When I turned the scientific gaze on myself, I assumed that it was mine. I saw it as an exercise of autonomy: I was using my scientific knowledge to understand myself. But the surveilling gaze of science has historically been used as a project of control, seeking to make monstrosity legible through the language of taxonomy, and all too often, pathology. I was trying to see myself through a kaleidoscopic lens, each facet interconnected with innumerable others, the multitudinous inherited eyes of witnesses past. So many of those eyes are responsible for making monsters from the bodies of those too visible for the carefully guarded boundaries of polite society. Subjecting yourself to that gaze, if you are monstrous in any way, is risky—all you might see is the indelible, wretched stain of your ascribed subjectivity.

After the complaint led to little resolution, I removed all mention of transness from most of my public platforms. I deleted the pronouns from my email signature. I put off plans to medically transition. I gave up on coming out publicly while I was still in academia. This incident occurred during what collectively was my lowest and most precarious point in graduate school, and everything seemed to reinforce how thinly my presence was tolerated. An insidious mix of paranoia and shame bled into every interaction, and I began to withdraw entirely, working at strange hours and behind closed doors as much as possible. I envied peers who could so easily disappear into their arguments, who could move through academic spaces without friction. To achieve the same effect I excised whatever I could from my self, deftly performing the bloody surgery of dissecting accumulated feelings of rejection, anger and futility. I was going to be free of the baggage of an embodied existence, free of the corrupted viscera that only caused me distress. I spoke with a voice that I barely recognized. I imagined it as a ghastly hand puppet, a disembodied set of vocal cords that I manipulated by pulling on each tendinous strand. Here is a citation. Here is a scientific graph. Here is all of my heart processed into data, into statistics, into the only way you can bear to see me.

In all my cringing anxiety, I’d made the mistake of operating within the same logical bind laid out in the first professor’s derisive question. An institution that seeks to make monsters is never going to unconditionally welcome one into its midst. Stryker’s monologue is performed with this understanding in mind—it was inspired by a protest held at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. Stryker recognized that institutional science saw transness as a project of control, an attempt to stabilize ambiguity and subjectivity, and exert total mastery over the products of its creation. Tellingly, another of the first professor’s posts claimed that this exact project was the agenda of trans and gender-nonconforming people:

“[On the use of gender-neutral pronouns] Those claims are about wielding power over others…He/him and she/her are all that are necessary.

It seemed so ridiculous at the time. What threatening power did I, a single graduate student, have within my institution, or even my department? I’d forgotten, after so long of being afraid, that monsters are typically the ones who are feared. In experimental science, the purpose of an experiment is to demonstrate empirical truth. The Latin root of “demonstration” is monstrare, which means “to show” or “to make visible”. It shares an etymological root with monster— both derive from the verb monere, or “to warn”. My claim to agency, or even my very presence alone, is perceived as a threat by those who are used to their own claims to autonomy and authority being uncontested. The power and promise of unquestioned neutrality is haunted by the specter of monstrosity, as it threatens to upend the clearly defined and neatly categorizable.  And in this spirit Stryker closes her monologue with a monstrous warning:

 “I call upon you to investigate your nature as I have been compelled to confront mine. I challenge you to risk abjection and flourish as well as have I. Heed my words, and you may well discover the seams and sutures in yourself.”

So much of queer and trans memoir is devoted to the idea of the multiplicity and fluidity of selfhood…

As I had long recognized for myself, Frankenstein captures the scientist’s horror in seeing themselves in their work, and with it, their own constructed nature. But I underestimated how terrifying Stryker’s charge is to those only made aware of their “seams and sutures” through the inconvenient presence of sentient (and opinionated) monsters. This anxiety seems to follow even the most vaunted men of science—on one of the buildings on the Caltech campus (where I am pursuing my graduate degree), there is a relief based on Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. Instead of Jesus and his disciples, the great men of modern science—Newton, Darwin, Copernicus, Franklin and the like— gather around a singular figure. That figure is Richard Feynman, the charismatic physicist who rose to prominence during his tenure at Caltech in the 1950s to the 1980s, winning the Nobel prize in physics for his contributions to quantum field theory in 1965. If any one person could be considered an institutional hero at Caltech, it would almost certainly be him. In a quantum physics textbook that he authored, he describes an intriguingly-framed observation about electrons:

“Instead of going directly from one point to another, the electron goes along for a while and suddenly emits a photon; then (horrors!) it absorbs its own photon. Perhaps there’s something ‘immoral’ about that, but the electron does it!” 

Again—that moment of monstrous recognition as the electron interacts with itself. That instinctive cognitive and moral recoil from it. The intended meaning of the observation was likely to be a flippant joke about masturbation, but jokes aside, the anxieties are similar: to touch yourself intimately/to be so intimately aware of your own presence is a deeply forbidden thing. For the visibly-constructed, with our obvious cultural ties, our specific relationships with history, the non-normativity of our existence—this isn’t a new consideration. So much of queer and trans memoir is devoted to the idea of the multiplicity and fluidity of selfhood, of the careful attention to how moving through times and spaces changes us as people. But for those whose entire understanding of self is staked on the immovable pillar of presupposed neutrality, the idea that you too are a creature of context—that your perspective, your experiences, the way you understand yourself and others are a product of interactions with the world—can be overwhelming, to say the least. 

But selfhood isn’t the only construction threatened by monstrosity. Much institutional power derives in part from its invisibility: the unquestioned ability to judge, stratify, categorize, to enact your will without being seen. Haraway describes how, in Boyle’s time, the modest witness was a composite of social mores prized by contemporary English institutional power— the politesse of gentlemanly conversation, the asceticism and self-renunciation of the Protestant clergy, and the high-status ideals of ethical restraint and discipline. Monstrosity threatens to make these systemic constructions visible, revealing that Doctors are as constructed as Monsters are—but in ways that reinforce the social relations and hierarchies of power of the day, rather than threaten them. It is no wonder, then, that confronting monstrosity provokes such discomfort. Standing above the village of Chamounix, finally face to face with the creation he has restlessly pursued, Victor attempts to rebuke the Monster’s request to listen to its story in an oddly distant manner: “Cursed (although I curse myself) be the hands that formed you”. As with Feynman’s fleeting brush with monstrosity, Victor’s moment of recognition is also pointedly contained in an aside. Finally confronted with the Monster, he can barely look it in the eye. 

When I first pitched this piece, I half-heartedly returned to the first professor’s posts, to see if he’d at least deleted them. He hadn’t, but there was a curious addition to his bio: the letters X and Y. They were the very first thing there, ahead of his institution or faculty title. It took me a while to register that they were meant to be a declaration of sex chromosomes in the place of pronouns. On a professional level, this was disappointing. But on a personal level, this gesture fascinated me. If my pronouns were, as he’d put earlier, some sort of epistemological power grab, then this must be a rebuttal, inevitably revealing something of his own beliefs. The scientific legibility of chromosomes seemed to be symbolically elevated to a statement about truth— an insistence that chromosomal sex revealed something essential, or perhaps even metaphysical about people. That no matter what, chromosomes would remain the consistent guiding light, allowing you to navigate the treacherous unknown waters of gender to the safe ontological harbor of chromosomal sex determination. Their presence was almost totemic, as if brandishing them publicly would ward off the nasty unscientific ambiguity of gender identity. As the sole bearer of they/them pronouns in the biology department to my knowledge, I remain very amused that apparently, I specifically, am the hellish vampiric specter that this genomic talisman is meant to ward off. I am sure that this professor would say that this gesture was satirical, that it was simply meant to parody and ridicule irrational flights of gender fancy like mine. And maybe it was, but my accursed sentience leaves me free to find it funny from my own monstrous little perspective as well. Mostly, I was left with one thought: I can’t believe I was afraid of this chromosome-wielder for so long. 

I do not think I can explain my transness in a “purely scientific” way, not in the way I imagined that being trained as a scientist would allow me to. I no longer think of this as a failure on my part, because science itself cannot be explained in a purely scientific way. There will be those who feel that same instinctive recoil to this sentiment, who are discomforted by our shared humanity, who would dismiss or ridicule what they do not understand at first sight. But monsters are never truly banished, only deferred. Like the specter of the reanimated dead, our autonomy, our collective wisdom and experience, our personhood already looms in the corner of your eye. Our gaze will meet yours, and the inescapable realization will finally dawn on you—“It’s Alive!”

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