Blazing their own path

Jan. 17, 2017
Mel Ferrara

First enrolled as a pre-med neuroscience student, University Fellow Mel Ferrara changed to Women and Gender Studies in their sophomore year and has blazed a new path of research and advocacy while remaining connected with their scientific roots.  Mel was recently awarded a prestigious Point Scholarship in recognition of their accomplishments.  In our feature interview, Mel talks with Terry Pitt-Brooke about their story, their research interests, and their plans for the future.

Terry: What are you up to?  Tell us about your current studies and research—what are you finding exciting?

Mel:  Academically, I’m a second year student in the PhD program for Gender and Women’s Studies (getting my MA on the way, because I came straight out of undergrad) with a minor in the new interdisciplinary program, which is Social, Cultural and Critical Theory.  So partly I’m in the midst of coursework, but I’m also working on a qualifying paper, and that’s where I’d say my research is most exciting right now.  I’m working on a project looking at policies on intersex athletes in the Olympics, not just this past year when the issue came to the forefront with Caster Semenya, but looking at how intersex policies have changed over time, looking at the specific rhetoric being employed, the specific scientific techniques being employed, and how this all ties in to larger histories of Scientific Racism that span back all the way through the nineteenth century and beyond.  I’m also looking at the ways in which all these things tie into how the Olympics is a museum which reflects a Nationalist discourse.

I became initially interested in the Nationalist element of things when I was looking at the particular athletes over the years who have been involved in “scandals” for being potentially intersex.  During the 20th century, the athletes were largely from Eastern European countries.  Because of this fear of “gender fraud,” a lot of intersex athletes in women’s sports, especially track and field, were stigmatized and often disqualified. There was one German track and field athlete who had participated as a woman under a different name, and there was confusion about whether this person was intersex. He said he was forced to masquerade as a woman by the Nazis to be more successful.

What I saw wound up seeing happen, which I haven’t seen in the literature, is that in the twenty-first century the focus of accusations of gender fraud has shifted to African women and women from Southeast Asia.  A very interesting racialized discourse is right there:  Why the shift? What is this racialized fear and how does it relate to the technology that is used to determine intersex status?  Right now the methodology is to test levels of testosterone, rather than the original method—visual examination of athletes’ genitalia.

Testosterone is such an interesting substance, in part because we haven’t really seen what exactly testosterone does to benefit athletes.  There has been no real evidence to show that testosterone is tied to the traits that would give an athlete an advantage.  In addition, testosterone is a substance that easily transcends boundaries, as discussed in Paul Preciado’s Testo Junkie.  The idea of this uncontrollable substance  that can transcend boundaries is where I see the mapping onto this nationalist dialog in which black and brown bodies become a terrorist threat that disrupt our idea of nation. 

Terry: When did gender studies call to you? 

Mel: I’m late to the game.  In terms of entering the actual academic discipline, it was the second semester of the freshman year of undergrad (spring 2012).  I had entered college as a pre-med track neuroscience student, but I had always been interested in what I would find out in Gender Studies, which I had been understanding as Feminism. I hadn’t really had a formalized opportunity to take a course in it.  I grew up as queer trans person though I didn’t have the language for that yet, either. In a way we are all always doing Gender Studies because we all interact with gender and sexuality every day in our own way. But in a formalized sense I hadn’t had a chance to do this.  I had gone to a very conservative all-girls Catholic high-school, and it was not something I could have discussed, even though the mission of the place was to create strong women—strong Christian women.  I guess they failed with me on both counts there.  

Terry: How about “strong”? 

Mel: Oh yes, definitely strong!   Well, I wanted to take a Women and Gender Studies course. I took Philosophy of Feminism with Dr. Marcia Morgan. I remember being absolutely floored.  One of the first texts we read was Judith Butler:  Performative Acts and Gender Constitution.  From what I can remember of it as an 18-year-old, I can remember it coming very naturally—it felt like I was discovering the words for what I’d been experiencing and observing all along, and having the language to explain my experiences was very powerful.  Meanwhile my STEM classes were not getting my full attention.  I had this moment when I realized I wasn’t as passionate about the Sciences as the Social Sciences and Humanities.  It was a hard decision to switch.  My parents had struggled financially through my lifetime, and they didn’t want my brother and myself to have to go through that.  Becoming a doctor meant no money worries, but Gender Studies—what do you do with that?  Work for a non-profit?  But I said “No, I want to study this: I want to be a professor.”  They were still nervous, but they encouraged me to do it.  They said that if you go where your talents are, you are going to succeed.  Sometimes I wonder if they still worry, but they’ve been very supportive of the switch. 

I read the book Sexing the Body by Anne Fausto-Sterling the beginning of my sophomore year. That was the first thing I’d really read in depth about intersex, which I’d only heard of.  When I read this book, I was stunned by the violence and invisibilization faced by this community.  That’s where I began doing research as an undergrad.  I studied abroad during the spring semester of my junior year.  I lived in Amsterdam (I was sooo fit there with the biking and the food!) and had a three week excursion in Morocco, for a Migration and Gender course I was taking.  Because a lot of folks from Morocco and Turkey emigrate to the Netherlands, there is a lot of racial tension and xenophobia there. 

The last month of my program, I did an independent study project.  I wound up interviewing a few medical practitioners who work with intersex patients.  The more important part of the project for me, the part that helped me realize the kind of work I wanted to be doing in the future, is that I interviewed four men who had been diagnosed with Klinefelter’s syndrome, which Is known by the medical community as a DSD—a disorder of sexual development.  (A lot of people in the intersex community have moved away from that language because it is very pathologizing.)  There are some intersex conditions that manifest at birth.  With some of these, when the infant is born it is literally considered a “medical emergency”  Not that there is usually any actual life-threatening risk for the infant.  For the most part, the “emergency” is that they’re not sure whether the child is a boy or a girl.  There are now some tests that are applied to anticipate what the child’s identity will be.  At the end of the day, I agree with assigning a child a gender at birth, just like other children, and as with any child, being open to seeing what that child’s gender identity becomes, and supporting that. What I disagree with, what intersex activists disagree with, is that these infants are then subjected to “corrective” genital surgery, which is physically traumatic, emotionally traumatic; it is done without the child’s consent, because they can’t consent.  When the children grow up, they’re often not told what has happened or why continuing surgeries are taking place.  These are the people I originally thought I was going to be talking to, but I wound up only being able to get in touch with a Klinefelter’s organization.  With Klinefelter’s syndrome, before the era of prenatal testing, most of the men with Klinefelter’s weren’t diagnosed until they wanted to have children, and discovered that they are either completely infertile or have very low fertility.  The doctor runs a karyotype on them and comes back: “you’re XXY.”  Sometimes these men have increased breast growth, smaller testes and some so-called “feminized” traits.  A lot of the conversations we had were about the nature of masculinity and manhood and if this diagnosis meant that they were less of a man.  Also our conversations pointed out to me how much medical professionals lack the knowledge about Klinefelter’s beyond the very basics.  Some men I talked to would describe doctors pulling out a textbook in front of them and reading though the entry or being unable to answer basic questions the patient had.  So the sense of mistrust in medical professionals was something I found interesting.  So that’s where I see my research turning down the line.

Terry: Tell me about the Point Scholarship.  Is it something you apply for, or get nominated?

Mel:  You apply for it.  It’s such a crazy process (in a good way!)  You do one written part; if they like that, you’re pushed on to a second part, then after that they do a phone interview with you, then after that they fly you out to LA for a finalist weekend where there is another interview, and you do a presentation on the community work you’ve done.  And also you get to meet a lot of really cool people.  I started in November or December, and the finalist weekend was in April.  I had this interview at a time of my life when I was struggling a bit with anxiety, not very confident, and went to this interview and met all these people who were so amazing and have become very close friends now.  But most of all, they helped me find my spirit about things--in life overall, but especially in the work I was doing.  I always say that even if I hadn’t received the Point Foundation Scholarship, that weekend would have still changed my life.  I thought I blew the interview.  “Well, that’s unfortunate, but I’ll apply again down the road.”  Mid-May, I get the call in the car, and after some chit-chat he [John Finn of the Point Foundation] casually said “you got it” (my Mom and I both started crying...).  Suddenly I found myself in this really incredible community of people.  That’s what sticks out for me when I think about point.  I mean, the money—yes, I’m not going to say that the financial support isn’t helpful or necessary for me,  but the bigger component is getting to get together and network with a lot of other young queer people—older folks, as well—who are doing such important work, and all over the map when it comes to anything related to queerness.  You don’t have to be studying gender studies—there are doctors, lawyers, every discipline, really.  And that’s what I think makes it so special.  We’re all fighting similar fights but we’re coming at them from so many different lenses.  In talking with some friends who take different approaches, I’m able to reconsider methods I’m taking.  There’s four years of funding, and each year you work on a community engagement project of your own.  You’re also assigned a Point Foundation mentor—someone in your local area who you share interests with, who would be a good guide for you.  Mine is Eva Hayward from the Gender Studies department.  She’s helped me parse through some thoughts I’ve been having about academia, theory versus praxis.  It’s nice to have someone to talk to who has been thinking about that for a while, and especially being paired with a trans faculty member, as someone who is looking forward to being a trans faculty member.  In addition to the mentorship activities, you attend conferences.  I was just at a National Leadership conference in the summer with all the other Point Scholars and some alums in DC.  There are also smaller conferences that you attend according to your own interests.

Terry: Where does the organization get its money?

Mel: Wells Fargo, a lot of it. There are a lot of donors, and a lot of celebrities who are supportive of Point.  At the finalists’ weekend, I met Judith Light, for example.  I jokingly tell myself I have friends in high places.

Terry: And I think soon enough, you will be one of those, which brings us to the next topic: mentorship.  Do you see that in your future?  Obviously it’s a process that is important to the Point Foundation, so you must be sensitive to the value of mentorship. 

Mel: My mentee in the University Fellows and I haven’t been together formally that much, but we circulate in the same community on campus and see each other that way.  When I was an undergrad, I was very confident in the value of what I was doing and my own competence.  When I got here, a lot of that went away and I was assailed by doubts about my own worth.  Am I up to this?  Obviously, Eva is my Point Foundation mentor, but generally I have a lot of professors I’ve been able to turn to and get my footing back, to not deny these feelings, but to see that I do deserve to be here—people like Monica Casper, Susan Stryker, Eric Plemons, and of course Meg Lota [Brown].  I wouldn’t say I have official mentees except through the University Fellows program, but it’s important for me to be there for undergraduate students, especially Trans students.  All the things you have to deal with—internal and external—weigh on you.  I think that I at least try to be there and listen to the student who needs to talk.  I don’t know if it qualifies as mentoring:  I think of it more as community building.  And I get things from it, too.

Terry:  What do you feel has been the biggest thing for you in the University Fellows program?

Mel:  I think the Fellows program is incredibly interesting and successful in mixing students from all ends of campus and disciplines.  As a grad student, in addition to liking to know things, I also like not knowing things and learning. The Fellows program is great because it forces you to always be learning and approaching things differently.  And it really helped me with how to be a grad student, especially as a first generation college student.  How to make a CV, how to write a grant.  For me the biggest, most important thing about the fellows was not the academic community but the personal community.  When I first met Byron Hempel, it was on the Biosphere orientation, and I was terrified, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I was in a bad mood.  I remember Byron being, like, “Hey.”  And I’d hoped that was it, but he just kept talking to me.  As we were talking, I realized that this was the first time I’d been laughing since I got to Arizona.  I feel we pick each other up when we’re down.  Grad School is hard, and it’s normal to be doubtful about yourself, to be horribly overwhelmed by work, flailing.  But what’s been so nice about the Fellows is that we’re going through that together as a cohort in our own ways.  We’re able to pick each other up, turn to people for help, muddle through together.  To have a common ground, a common program that brings us together, is awesome.

Terry: I can see your intense focus on your own body of knowledge and work, but do you see anything in your future in the way of interdisciplinary collaboration?

Mel: Well, there’s also the medical folks but also literature.  I find myself consulting the hard sciences a lot, looking at how a certain molecule works, trying to understand that and how it relates.   Having taken those science classes in undergrad wasn’t a waste of time, after all, because they helped me understand in a personal way empirical thinking, how someone in the hard sciences approaches a problem. 

I find the pressure to pick a narrow discipline weird.  When I was going to grad school, I had profs saying: “Mel, apply to some disciplinary programs—you want to be able to get a job one day.”  At the end of the day, I don’t think along disciplinary lines.  Interdisciplinary work challenges you, challenges a lot of the assumptions inherent in the tight disciplinary framework.