Nancy Williams Talks Activism, History on Transgender Day of Visibility

A smattering of students gathered in Harvey Mudd College’s Drinkward Recital Hall on Friday, March 31, to hear a presentation in honor of Transgender Day of Visibility. Nancy Williams HM ‘95, Keck Science Department Associate Professor of Chemistry, who is a transgender woman herself, spoke about her experiences with transitioning, activism, and the idea of visibility.

“I knew, when I was a student at Harvey Mudd, one out gay student,” Williams said, “So the visibility of LGBTQIA+ students at Harvey Mudd and the Colleges was really quite different.”

For the last few years, Williams has been involved with the Leadership Lab, a project of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. The aim of the Leadership Lab is to send canvassers out into the city to talk to voters about LGBTQ+ issues in the hopes of swaying people to vote favorably on those issues.

Throughout the talk, Williams showed footage the Leadership Lab had filmed of actual canvassers talking to actual voters. Over and over again, the audience was surprised at how effective the canvassers seemed to be at convincing voters to side with them.

Williams herself helped canvass on the issues of same-sex marriage in California and transgender non-discrimination legislation for schools in California. She also assisted when the Leadership Lab sent people to Miami-Dade county in Florida to canvass surrounding a transgender nondiscrimination ordinance there.

Woven in with Williams’ talk about her activism work were stories about her own social transition and her time as a professor at the Claremont Colleges. She explained the tenure process, where after six years of working at an institution, one is either offered a job as a professor for life, or is fired.

Williams was going through the tenure process around the same time Proposition 8 passed in California, banning same-sex marriage.

“I was going through a lot. I wasn't sure whether I was going to get tenure. But [Proposition 8] grabbed me," Williams said.

She received tenure and was sent on sabbatical to New Jersey.

“[Within] weeks of getting tenure,” she said, “I can date my first fully adult visualizations of myself as a woman.”

Even though Williams was speaking on serious, personal matters, her talk was incredibly entertaining. In her overview of her time on sabbatical, she openly talked about her excessive drinking to try and drown the “gender issues” she was dealing with. To a crowd of science-minded mostly Mudd students, she said, “And it didn't work so if any of you are contemplating trying to use alcohol to suppress a gender identity issue, I've done the experiment. It's not successful.”

Both Williams and the crowd laughed.

It took Williams two years after returning from sabbatical to come to terms with her gender identity and to start coming out to people on campus and in her life.

“I started coming out one by one to all the faculty members and staff members of Keck Science Department,” she said. “There were 60 at the time in a spreadsheet [and I] kept turning lines from red to green as I came out to them one by one. [I had] about a hundred coming out conversations on the Claremont campuses one by one, important people who I thought needed to know.”

In 2013, as Williams was coming out to her colleagues and students, California passed AB 1266, also known as the School Success and Opportunity Act. AB 1266 requires that students in kindergarten through 12th grade be allowed to participate in “sex-segregated school programs, activities, and use facilities consistent with their gender identity, without respect to the gender listed in a pupil’s records.

There was immediate backlash. “There were two signature gathering campaigns, one in 2013 and one in 2014” to repeal the law, according to Williams. To combat this backlash, the Leadership Lab sent canvassers, including Williams, out into Los Angeles to talk to people about the law and hopefully gain their support.

During the talk, Williams showed a video of a canvasser talking to a person about transgender non-discrimination ordinances and then led a discussion about the video. “Thoughts?” she asked.

An audience member raised their hand. “Even though [the canvasser] was cisgender he had someone to talk about that was trans to keep the visibility and the personal connection,” they said.

Williams agreed. She explained that in her time working with the Leadership Lab, she had met many cisgender students from UCLA and other schools who were eager to canvass but didn’t know any trans people.

“So we've got to make sure that in the two-hour training we're going to sit [them] down in a circle [and tell them], ‘we're going to pair you up with a trans person and tell some stories,’” she said. The audience, again, laughed. “And now [they] can talk about [their] friend Nancy, and [I] make sure that they've got a picture of me on their phone.”

Near the end of the talk, Williams offered up three guiding principles she learned while canvassing: keep the conversation open, don’t talk over the other person, and use the power of a story.

“As soon as things start to get ugly or people start to feel threatened, they're going to raise their defenses in a big hurry,” she said. “And that's when the conversation goes south.”

However, when it comes to visibility, Williams offered up a piece of advice: “It always has to be on your terms.”

The talk was organized in part by they/them, a nHMC club for trans and nonbinary students. Quentin Barth HM ‘18, one of the founders of they/them and one of the talk's organizers spoke to how extraordinary he thought Williams was, calling her an “example for activism.”

Similarly, one of Barth’s co-organizers, who asked not to be named for fear of being outed, explained that they felt the talk was extremely positive and much-needed in the wake of all the unhappiness on campus.

“Nancy William is almost single-handedly responsible for the change in attitude [at the Claremont Colleges] towards trans people,” Barth said. “It’s impressive how effective her activism is.”