On CUE sits down with Connie Childs. Connie is a fourth-year aerospace engineer studying at CU Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science. After years of contemplating life as a woman Connie began to transition from her assigned at birth male identity to the woman she is today. Today we'll talk about the transition, why she chose aerospace engineering, how being a woman makes her a better engineer, and about life beyond CU engineering after graduation.
Connie Childs - TRANSCRIPT
Announcer: [00:00:04] And now from the University of Colorado in Boulder the College of Engineering and Applied Science presents On CUE.
Maria Kuntz: [00:00:13] Welcome to this edition of On CUE. I'm Maria Kuntz here with Connie Childs. Connie is a fourth-year aerospace engineer studying at CU Boulder College of Engineering and Applied Science. After years of contemplating life as a woman Connie began to transition from her assigned at birth male identity to the woman she is today. Today we'll talk about the transition, why she chose aerospace engineering, how being a woman makes her a better engineer, and about life beyond CU engineering after graduation.
Maria Kuntz: [00:00:51] Welcome Connie.
Connie Childs: [00:00:52] Thanks. Thanks for having me here.
Kuntz: [00:00:54] I wanted to let you have a minute to introduce yourself to the listeners and tell us in your own words who you are.
Childs: [00:01:01] Sure. Well I was born in Southern California in San Diego and then moved to Broomfield Colorado for the rest of my childhood. That's where I kind of got into the world of engineering and space in general, [I] went to Legacy High School for all four years and you know got to have some fun with friends and live that high school life. That's definitely when some interesting things about my identity and personality started coming to light and you know once college came around it led me to make some big life decisions, and, completely not only change my identity but to better be a person and then come college. I came here to CU Boulder and continued to discover more about my personality and my identity. And it has led me to the complex yet interesting person I believe I am today.
Kuntz: [00:02:01] Cool. I'm excited to talk with you today and share your story with our listeners. Before we get into maybe some of the personal part of your story, although of course your research and education are very personal as well, can you tell us a little bit like how did you choose engineering? Why aerospace engineering? Why CU?
Childs: [00:02:22] Yeah well CU, I must admit, it was a very easy decision. It being the closest college physically to where I lived. However, I kind of backed that up more with the great engineering program that was here at CU and just the very, very liberal Boulder environment that I definitely do like and kind of get along well with particularly engineering. My family has definitely been kind of the engineering family for such a long time. My grandfather was in the World War II in the Navy. My dad definitely spent a lot of time working at Sony and then Ball Aerospace later in his career and during the entire time he made sure that I knew all about space by the time I was five I knew the order of the planets in the correct order not including Pluto because we were anti-Pluto just seeing a bunch of rocket launches with payloads of satellites that he himself helped work on just so many things over the years growing up that I don't really know much of a life outside of space and when it came to the time of college CU engineering, aerospace engineering all were very appealing elements. That really just made the decision actually frankly quite easy for me to make.
Kuntz: [00:03:49] Oh that's cool. I know that you were working in a lab this past summer. Do you want to, can you share a little bit about that experience with Professor Bosanac.
Childs: [00:04:01] Yes, so, over this summer I got myself an undergrad research position under the CU SPUR program and through that I got in contact with a professor of mine Professor Natasha Bosanac, and the graduate students that she was already working with at the time, and she had a project idea that would allow me to research about low thrust lunar approach trajectories specifically for small satellites. That whole project pretty much was asking me to develop trajectories for very small mass satellites such as satellites that are equipped with ion engines or cube sats, which are a type of satellite that is growing in the field recently, and developing the trajectories so that they can get from point A to B in space to complete their mission.
Kuntz: [00:04:52] Tell me a little bit more about low thrust engines.
Childs: [00:04:56] Yeah low thrust engines are not that entirely new of a type of engine. We've seen them for quite a few decades now. Particularly ion engines and plasma thrusters are engines that are highly efficient so they don't consume a lot of fuel which means that you have a very small fuel tank for the amount of thrust that you need. And they are able to thrust for long periods of time meaning that instead of—you know I always refer to the analogy of a Ferrari with one gallon of gas and a golf cart with one gallon of gas one of those two is going to be initially much faster such as your chemical rocket engines and the other like your golf cart similar to your ion engines are going to start off slow but they will last for a lot longer and will in the end get your vehicle much further on that one gallon of gas.
Kuntz: [00:05:50] So what makes low thrust engines really important within aerospace?
Childs: [00:05:58] With low thrust and you don't need as much of a fuel tank on your payload. You are able to replace that weight that would have been dedicated to fuel with weight that you can actually now dedicate to science instruments. So, you are able to get more bang for your buck per object that you send into space.
Kuntz: [00:06:17] Can you give an example of a scientific instrument maybe one that you specifically worked on recently—or just specifics about a project that was supported by low thrust engines?
Childs: [00:06:27] Yeah there is the DAWN spacecraft that was launched in 2007 which, that had an ion thruster on it which allowed it to get to many different objects in the asteroid belt. There was Deep Space 1 in the late 90s and early 2000s which was an experimental craft that used one of the first ion engines in space. And now with the miniaturization of technology we were able to fit cube sats with an ion engine on them. Now, we have very small satellites with very small thrusters on them. They are able to bring down the price on what it takes to get something to space. And, so, a lot of cube sats we're seeing these days have ion thrusters on them.
Kuntz: [00:07:10] Connie, when we spoke before you had an interesting analogy to help describe the differences between low thrust and high thrust engines. Something about ants do you think you could share that. Do you remember exactly what I'm talking about?
Childs: [00:07:24] Yeah. To give a sense of scale on what kind of thrust magnitudes were talking about the traditional chemical engines that we see on like the first stages of rockets here on Earth. Those are extremely, one of the most, powerful engines that mankind has ever created. And so those are able to offer forces that are extremely strong. But with ion engines and low thrust things they are analogous to the weight of an ant pushing on your satellite in space. And though it is small, a very small amount for force, it is a force nonetheless. And we do get good acceleration out of that and eventually design a trajectory that you want does arise eventually.
Kuntz: [00:08:11] So Connie we've been talking a lot about your research and education how you got into engineering and I know that for you there are these you know two major parts of who you are and your identity; there's life as an engineer—as an academic a researcher, and your time at CU has also been really at the center of this larger life change to becoming a woman. And, so, I know we're going to talk about that and I wanted to, along with you, go over a couple vocab words terms that might not be familiar to everyone who's listening. So, you're ready to kick that off?
Childs: [00:08:56] Yeah, I'm ready for a pop quiz.
Kuntz: [00:08:58] OK. No quiz because you're the expert. But, just for people who maybe aren't as familiar. Can you describe the difference between someone who identifies as transgender versus someone who identifies as cis gender?
Childs: [00:09:15] Yes. So definitely the focus of those two words are the prefixes trans and cis they kind of have their Latin or Greek roots in the developments. Trans is kind of a term that is used to describe something that is kind of across two different concepts. While cis is a prefix used to describe something that was on the same side of one concept to the other. Kind of, the whole point of this is that cis gender people, which is the majority of the population, are people that agree with the same gender that they were assigned at birth and transgender people are people that disagree with the assigned gender that they were given at birth and then they make that transition to a different gender. There are also terms, like acronyms, like MTF and FTM that are also highly discussed and used in the community. Those mean male to female, MTF, and female to male, FTM, and you know many acronyms have been developed over the years but those are some highly common ones.
Kuntz: [00:10:26] You mentioned that these are terms used within the community and I wonder if you could just share who that community is for you.
Childs: [00:10:34] Yeah that is in reference to the LGBT community. Where they are very adamant on using the correct acronyms, pronouns, they are just very keen on how they address people and so they develop these kinds of tools and methods just to make that process a little bit easier and faster.
Kuntz: [00:10:51] Connie, I also want to clarify that in our communication, and in my background, we're discussing gender as a more fluid concept that it's not just male gender or female gender, that the gender really is a spectrum and that people might place themselves on different places across that spectrum, and, then, for people who transition, they're transitioning from maybe a more socially recognized side of a binary gender concept. But that's not to say that they, that everyone, fits into a simple binary.
Childs: [00:11:29] Yes definitely true. There's examples of nonbinary people who kind of meet in the middle of that spectrum. There are also people that would like to be entirely outside of that spectrum of a-gender, gender queer—the list, you know, is quite substantial but they are definitely valid genders that do exist in this world.
Kuntz: [00:11:51] So, I know that you've told me that you've known for a long time that you are intrigued by a gender other than what you had been assigned at birth. Can you tell me more about that and maybe what were those initial memories or thoughts and feelings?
Childs: [00:12:14] Yeah those initial thoughts and feelings it kind of started from a young age as subtle as they were. It kind of, just, kind of had me confused whether I was attracted to women or was I wanting to be a woman and that was a confusion I held for a very long time. There is evidence kind of in my memory is that I was daydreaming a lot—kind of wishing what life would be like on the other side of gender. I remember very interesting memories where I was stealing clothing from my mom's closet. But at such a rate that she didn't notice it happening. There is kind of an overall more femme personality of me definitely in my friends in high school kept on pointing that out to me though in a more bigoted sense. I definitely was volunteering as like a make-up model for anyone that ever proposed that kind of idea to me. I was right on the spot always wanting to volunteer in that kind of stuff. And, so, it is these culmination of memories and events like this that really had me turning to really question my identity—is just like this odd personality of mine or is this something more fundamental than that?
Kuntz: [00:13:37] When did you decide that it was not just an odd personality or how did you know that it was something more fundamental than an odd personality trait or a quirk?
Childs: [00:13:51] I think once I was introduced to the word transgender, and that was late high school right beginning of college. When I finally learned of this word and that not only has it been named, but other people experience the same type of thing. And you know people really do, I'd say, go further than just hiding it literally in the closet. So, knowing that I can realize to myself that it's not weird. It's not a horrible secret to keep to myself that there is a community, for the most part, a socially accepted community, where people do this and their support systems and you can kind of elevate your happiness overall in life by doing this transition.
Kuntz: [00:14:44] Knowing that transitioning, knowing now that transitioning to be a woman has elevated your happiness. What was that like to begin to think that you wanted to be a woman and know that you weren't on the outside seen as, accepted as, perceived as a woman.
Childs: [00:15:08] Yeah it's not a fun feeling to have to be honest. There's a term called Gender Dysphoria where one experiences extreme anxiety, discomfort, panic. It's just you know all these lists of just horrible feelings that happen when somebody is just fundamentally mistaken by either other people or how they see themselves in the mirror. And you know it's, it's a huge disagreement with oneself that not many people get to experience, but at the same time I'm very glad that not many people have to experience that. And it really you know after a long time of finally realizing what was really happening with myself here, it brought along a lot of motivation. What can we do to alleviate this dysphoria? And there are sources and support groups that can help guide that process.
Kuntz: [00:16:09] What was it like to make the decision to transition to being a woman?
Childs: [00:16:14] Yeah it was a decision I didn't really make immediately when I came out. It was more of a slow self-discovery of myself not only learning about the word transgender but then being sure that it applied to me. So, I didn't really like to attach myself to that word for quite a while even though I was transitioning for reasons being like you know it's very subtle stuff like not cutting my hair kind of slowly trading out my wardrobe for more femme style. But all is still the time not saying that I was truly a woman yet because I didn't see what I saw in the mirror to be that way. And so it was very difficult at first to finally accept that about myself and to really take hold and speed up the process a little bit faster.
Kuntz: [00:17:16] What are some of the challenges you faced making the transition to being a woman over the past three and a half, four years?
Childs: [00:17:25] Yes, some of the challenges have been finding not only acceptable people, because in Boulder specifically there are a lot of accepting people towards trans people, but also, you know, finding people that would want to also interact with you take the next step further. Like actually be your friend and want to have interesting conversations with you about many different topics. You know those people are a little bit more rare than others would like. Other challenges would be just kind of the, now I have to kind of give away my male privilege that I originally had. Examples of that would be kind of in class people kind of, they have an easier tendency to speak over another woman. They have kind of a tendency to mansplain, that term, if we've heard that term a few times you know there's just that very much stereotypical struggles that cis women come across. Trans women do eventually acquire that themselves just later on in life.
Kuntz: [00:18:36] Looking back on years ago your previous iteration of Connie do you think that you ever mansplained to colleagues? Do you think you ever did some of these things that now you're receiving that you know as a woman are challenging but maybe at a different point in life you might have actually done yourself.
Childs: [00:18:59] Yeah though I can't personally recall any specific memories of myself mansplaining to women I definitely wouldn't be surprised if someone else could pull an example from my backgrounds. It's just kind of something I was oblivious to the fact of and kind of knowing that that's how men are thinking when they do the mansplaining they aren't entirely aware that that's what's going on. It's more obvious to me now that I'm receiving it than it was when I had the chance to do mansplaining to others.
Kuntz: [00:19:37] Yeah and I'm not suggesting that you did. But I think you're in a rare position and there have been some recent articles about this that transgender people are in a rare position to actually experience a life in the classroom, in the workplace, from two very, very different perspectives. I think especially in STEM you know, gender equity, diversity are really important issues and of challenges that you know entire industries and institutions are trying to tackle it. How do we make equitable and inclusive communities where everyone's really valued? So I'm wondering if you have any other sort of experiences that stand out? Maybe something unique that you've seen because you've been able to to walk and live in two sort of different worlds are on two sides of a spectrum.
Childs: [00:20:35] Yes, definitely kind of how friendships not only come about but how they are maintained and how friendship develops has significantly changed. More feelings are involved, a lot of talking. I very much often get texts from friends asking how I'm doing just kind of however, how my mental state is overall definitely more personal, talks, one on ones, many coffee conversations at Starbucks happen all the time. These are things that living in presenting as male I didn't see a lot of, it was definitely more let's go out to the fields, play Frisbee, sports whatever kind it is. More physical activity as far as my personality goes I've kind of strayed away from that a bit. But all the time it was those kinds of suggestions. Let's go out and let's get sweaty, let's do some sports, let's ya know. It wasn't really a lot of sit down and catch up with my old friends back in high school and outside of friendships and overall interactions, there's just a lot less aggressive of a tone when I'm spoken to, particularly with phrases like suck it up whenever I like maybe some bro will punch me on the shoulder and you know I'd react and say 'Ow that hurt.' But then they'd say suck it up like I didn't hit you that hard. But that completely changes like it doesn't even happen in the first place that my girlfriends hit me on the shoulder as a form of what's up. And even then I would say ow that hurts and they would take it seriously, and they say “oh I'm sorry” or you know try to alleviate the pain in some fashion that just doesn't happen. And so I've gone from a social environment where it was very much, I just stick up for myself to a social environment where it was kind of not a clique but a more friendly version where people can look out for each other more. And for me I was very more appealed to that kind of social life.
Kuntz: [00:22:52] Yeah. Did that take some getting used to?
Childs: [00:22:54] No, because I preferred it I did not like going out to the field and playing with the football and for you know whatever sport there was like getting sweaty and dirty. I wanted to just sit down and have a good chat over coffee with friends and they said no bro that's no.
Kuntz: [00:23:16] So it actually it sounds like like a relief like a return to home.
Childs: [00:23:20] Yes. It was just more stress relieving. I didn't feel like, I didn’t want to say no because I always wanted to say no with these kinds of activities. But now I want to be saying yes and that's a complete 180 on how much I like and appreciate my social life.
Kuntz: [00:23:38] That's amazing. So, there's an episode of the popular TV series Orange Is The New Black where one of the wardens makes a comment about Sophia who's MTF male to female transgender woman and he says that transitioning from male to female is like winning the lottery and giving it all up.
Childs: [00:24:03] Yeah I saw that episode. I kind of had to pause and yell at the screen for a bit because I just did not like that whatsoever, because for me personally it was the opposite. I didn't win the lottery and I had to fight back to get that lottery in a sense, you know, and that's completely understandable for a cis person who agrees with their gender. Why would they give it up? They would be getting themselves into a world of hurt and discomfort had they started living like their like another gender they didn't want to be. And to that I say well that's how we started. So we were trying to fight back and get our lottery winnings while many other people were just born with those lottery winnings as we see it.
Kuntz: [00:24:58] So your choices have been an act of winning the lottery?
Childs: [00:25:02] Yes.
Kuntz: [00:25:03] Yeah. So you've shared a bit, some of the sort of observations you've had like realizations that you've had because of the transition you've made. You've shared some of the things that made it harder. And I'm wondering what were, what were some of the things that maybe made the transition easier, were there things that helped?
Childs: [00:25:26] Yes. Substantial things made my transition much easier. The location that I'm in particularly Boulder, Broomfield those cities and counties are very LGBT friendly and so it's very best case scenario as far as being a trans woman in these cities and not really being all that scared of the people around me and what the strangers around me are thinking. Family is another huge factor. I've had both a mom and brother who have both taken the time to not only accept my coming out, but they have also put in the time to learn about trans women and people in the LGBT community, and they've definitely have put the time and even the money into making this transition possible.
Kuntz: [00:26:22] So what are the steps that you've taken to make the transition possible, to aid in your transition?
Childs: [00:26:28] Yeah I definitely started with just using makeup, getting good at make up and hair growth. I didn't get a haircut for like three years straight doing what I can as far as voice training, getting away from that low pitch work you know the something more femme. Over the many years I've switched out my wardrobe from the old male style clothings to more femme looking dresses and stuff. More recently I have done work with laser hair removal getting unwanted facial hair and other body hair just off and permanently off and definitely one of the big ones is HRT or hormone replacement therapy. That's where I'm on medication where I am taking estrogen pills and also taking other pills to stop the production of testosterone and that is definitely kind of taking the medical transition side of things where everything else is more socially how people see me, what name I go by and kind of how the world perceives me to really getting into the internal workings of my own body and fundamentally changing how that works so it too can start living as a woman.
Kuntz: [00:27:44] You shared some examples of steps you've taken to aid and your physical, mental, social, medical transition. But I know you've also told me about some of the things you've had to go through for legal purposes and I'm wondering if you could share kind of where that's at and what that looks like such as names and paperwork.
Childs: [00:28:03] Yeah definitely, over the past summer I've been working on getting my legal name changed and my legal gender changed so that when you look on the driver's license you see my new preferred legal name and my new preferred legal gender on the driver's license because that is a big deal for not only myself, but many trans people in the world for they go to a bar and you get your I.D. checked and there's some serious incongruities going on there. So having that kind of stressor relieved for me by going through this process is very helpful. And I have just recently finally finished that process and the legal name of Connie Childs is set in stone, legal gender of female is set in stone, and its now just a matter of going to the Social Security offices and all the other government offices out there and getting that new paperwork filed in.
Kuntz: [00:28:59] Well congratulations. That's a huge milestone. I've heard you say that you are a better engineer as a woman. And I'm curious if you could share with our listeners what that means.
Childs: [00:29:14] Yes, I'm a better engineer as a woman because by doing this transition I have eliminated myself of many stressors that were happening in my head. Personally, I wasn't really able to focus because I was either daydreaming too much in class or anywhere on the job. Kind of a little bit of envy too, like looking at another woman in class and saying gosh why can’t I have hair growth like that or a wardrobe like that. I was just losing focus all the time and when I came home at the end of the day I would look into the mirror and just not be happy whatsoever. Really I'd put paper and posters over a lot of mirrors in my house at one time. And so just to get rid of all of these negative things that were holding me down in life. Huge improvement like my grades have actually gone up. No longer am I getting Cs at best in my classes, they're all A's and B's now I'm just able to interact with other people and myself way more naturally. It's a sense of normality that was missing in my life for the longest time, and I just feel normal now.
Kuntz: [00:30:30] Well and clearly you're doing really well in school. I know you were doing research this summer, you applied, you got probably a coveted spot in an aerospace lab and that's amazing. I never would have guessed that you were getting C's and D's previously. I always got the impression from you that you were a top student. So interesting to hear. So there's been a lot said in the media and the news. I think it's fairly well known that there are pay gaps for men and women and the opportunities for women in STEM fields like engineering are more challenging maybe the opportunities are less numerous, leadership roles are harder to come by. And I'm, you know want to know what you think about what lies ahead for you.
Childs: [00:31:26] Yeah definitely. There is a wave of new struggles that I that are new to me but familiar to many women not only in the engineering world but just any women that is a woman ever. Pay gap as a good example. That is a new burden that I've had to take on and realize and you know that can be argued as a demotivator for trans women to not commit and do their transition. They might as well just stick as a male because they have all the privilege and the women don't. But it really is more about like which path of life is easier for trans women. It's really talked about in nature a lot that things in nature take the path of least resistance. We see this in electronics, we see this in water flow, everything just takes the easiest path and I definitely believe that people do the same thing as well. So with that notion of kind of how nature works in general, one can ask themselves like well if it is really so hard and difficult for trans people to do this transition but they still do it anyway because it obviously must be the path of least resistance. How difficult was their original path in life gonna be like for them? That kind of puts in this perspective that yes as difficult as transition is it still is the easiest path in life.
Kuntz: [00:33:00] What do you say to you know people who are wondering? How do you make this choice? Why did you make the choice?
Childs: [00:33:10] Well I kind of make the joke that if you understood you do it yourself. I hear very often like people or people like aw man being a woman sucks or being a man sucks it's like 'OK why don't you commit?' Why don't you go to the other gender that you are that you were alluding to is way better. And they said no no no no no I'm just saying that you know periods are gross and that sucks, that's the only thing that sucks. And it's like OK well you're just complaining. It still is a better suited gender for you compared to a different one. So I mean you have to really take is taken out a step up and say no. For me personally being a man sucks. Well how bad does it suck like, it sucks so bad that I would rather be a woman. Well that's kind of a more significant thing compared to previous.
Kuntz: [00:34:06] So we've had a lot of people listening and. I'm wondering you know if we split our audience for conventions sake into cis gender individuals and maybe people who are questioning their identity or have transitioned or have considered a transition or maybe identify as gender queer what would you say to each of those audience members?
Childs: [00:34:34] Yeah for many cis gendered people out there that I mean they don't entirely agree or understand the trans community in general. You know is what you don't understand you often fear. And I know people feel that way about math in the STEM fields but that also applies to trans people as well. We're not to be feared, we're not pedophiles, or you know just overly sexual people who get off from the fact that they are now living as a woman or whatever gender, it's not, it's not about that. It's about trying to fit in. And though we might be from some people's point of view taking the exact opposite path in order to fit in. We don't see it that way. We we want to feel normal and this is how we are wired in such a way that we feel normal all these trans women don't want the attention they just want to blend in. In a sense that's kind of way a lot of people strive for what's called passing privilege that they pass and they look like the gender that they do want to be and agree with. So it's not about like some sort of agenda or trying to trick people into thinking we're something that we're not. It's just straight up wrong and with the gender questioning people who absolutely are not thinking that way. You know, I get the feeling of feeling scared, feeling isolated. I have spent many, many nights myself where I just don't want to exist. Very basic fundamental thing right there and building up from that, anything more than just existing is a struggle. And so being, I guess if these listeners are at CU or in the Boulder area, this is one of the greatest cities to discover yourself, to experiment a little bit find that identity of yours that's you've been longing to be. That's what I did for about the first two years. It's just self discovery, what clothing do I like, what clothing don't I like, what name do I even like? So it's just a very good atmosphere to try things out. That's all what college is about it it's a learning experience. And not only are you doing that academically you're doing that personally with yourself and so just I dare say don't be afraid because... I have been afraid myself and I still do. Every once in a while with the steps I'm taking even today. But once you get over that hump once you go I always say once you ride a roller coaster for the first time you're no longer scared of that roller coaster. You just got to take those steps those first steps as little as they are as big as they are. They will lead you on a path that is guaranteed to make you more happy with your life in every manner of it.
Kuntz: [00:38:02] Thank you Connie for sharing so deeply from your heart and your experience. I want to also invite the audience if you'd like to connect with Connie online and you can follow her at...
Childs: [00:38:16] Yes. I am probably most active on Twitter: @IMConnieMiranda That's the two letters I M Connie Miranda. You know I'm you know I try to keep posting you know a lot of transgender and engineering and since those are the two pillars of my life that's really what I kind of like to focus about online.
Kuntz: [00:38:37] So @IMConnieChilds on, Twitter follow her for updates about engineering and life. And to connect.
Announcer: [00:38:50] This has been On CUE for more information visit Colorado.edu/engineering
Maria Kuntz is the assistant director for communications, inclusion and community in the College of Engineering & Applied Science.