Ben Barres lounged in a plush leather armchair in his office in the Fairchild Building of the Stanford School of Medicine. The first words out of his mouth after an initial greeting were: “So, are you gay?”
I said no, hesitantly, and he nodded, his glasses reflecting the light from his ceiling. “Just wanted to get it out of the way,” he added, his bearded face cracking into a wry smile.
He propped his sneaker-clad feet on the table in front of him. “Shall we begin?”
Barres doesn’t like having his picture taken or speaking in public, which are perhaps not traits one would expect to find in a prominent activist for women’s rights. However, he is a staunch supporter for women in science, and despite his reservations against appearing in public, has spoken at Harvard and published articles about the matter.
He came to national attention in 2006 for his article published in “Nature” that firmly negated the idea that women are somehow innately at a disadvantage in scientific fields. He calls this presumption the “Larry Summers Hypothesis,” referring to Summers’ comment that the underrepresentation of women in the sciences could be explained by a “different availability of aptitude at the high end” instead of social discrimination and prejudice.
Barres knows what he’s talking about—he has a degree in biology from MIT, a medical degree from Dartmouth and a doctorate in neurobiology from Harvard. He is currently chair of the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine, and he runs a lab that focuses on researching the interactions between neurons and glial cells in the nervous system. And what’s more, he is sympathetic to women in a way few other men are—after all, he was born a woman, and spent the first 40 years of his life playing that role.
Growing up female
Barres said he was a happy child, despite being repeatedly scolded for transgressing gender norms.
“I had a good childhood,” he said. “But kids always have fun. I grew up in New Jersey, so there you go, so I had to deal with that. But back then, I didn’t know I could have been living out here, in paradise.”
His gender identity became clear from the very beginning.
“I noticed from a very early age I was very different from [my sister],” Barres said, referring to his fraternal twin. “She wanted to play with little girls and I wanted to play with little boys. It’s a pretty typical transgender story, from what I’ve read.”
Although Barres wasn’t aware of the social term for his identity, he couldn’t help but notice a difference in the way he acted.
“I felt like a naked chicken shaving,” he said. “I was very aware that I felt more like a boy; I guess I just thought I was a tomboy. It was a little awkward. That was in the days before the Internet, and there were really very few transgender people. I knew I was different, but it wasn’t something I would ever talk about. I sort of just behaved that way.”
However, unlike many transgender individuals, he never found himself attracted to members of either sex.
“I had a boyfriend in college, kind of in the experimentation of youth,” he said. “I didn’t realize that I just don’t experience the same feelings — the butterflies in the stomach, the sweaty palms, whatever you’re supposed to feel. I’m just not wired that way.”
His true passion — science — stayed constant throughout his life.
“I found dates boring,” he said. “I always found myself wishing I was in the lab.”
It wasn’t until Barres found himself in Silicon Valley after accepting a job at the Medical School that he discovered the possibility of using surgery to fully assume his gender identity.
“I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about James Green, a woman who underwent surgery to become a man,” he said.
For Barres, science had been a passion throughout his life, and he was worried about the effect transitioning — changing from female to male —would have on his career.
“I couldn’t move away like some other people did, and start fresh somewhere else where nobody would know,” he said. “But I couldn’t resist the idea [of transitioning] once I learned of it. To know there was something I could do about it — that was irresistible.”
However, after his sex change, he was welcomed back at Stanford with open arms.
“Everyone was fantastic, really fantastic. They were immediately supportive, and it hasn’t affected my career at all,” Barres said.
“There was a huge weight off my back,” he continued. “It’s like my whole life I had to pretend I was a woman, and that’s very hard for a person to do.”
Women in the sciences
Barres experienced every social bias associated with a woman aspiring to a career in science — he was a tenured professor at Stanford by the time he underwent his transition. However, he noticed a difference in the way he was treated before and after his treatment.
“You become aware of the differences in how people treat you,” he said. “When I was at MIT, I couldn’t get into a good lab, and they were all headed by men. I had the grades, I worked hard, I had everything I needed. Have things really changed?”
He paused, and answered his own question.
“Nothing has changed,” he said. “Women also assume that things are okay, but they aren’t. There’s a lot of work left to do. There are real barriers, and they’re pervasive.”
Although Barres has gone above and beyond in his defense of women in science as well as in society in general, he insisted that women should be doing more to fight for their own opportunities.
“Men are not only to blame for the prejudices in our society,” he said. “Women need to be less complacent. All they need to do is get together and ask, with a few men to help them, and people will listen.”
Contact Niuniu Teo at niuteo ‘at’ stanford.edu.