Photo: Courtesy of Vivienne Ming
One day in 1984, 12-year-old Evan Campbell Smith—freckled and towheaded, with the same brilliant eyes that now glint behind Vivienne Ming's futuristic glasses—stood in his uniform at football practice, watching his teammates huddle, hustle, hike. The long-ago scene is hazy in Ming's memory, but the insight it provoked is as clear to her now as it was to Evan then: "I was out on the field," Ming says, "and I realized I was playing for the wrong team. I didn't want to be a boy."
The realization began to explain Evan to Evan. It accounted, at least partially, for his chronic feelings of isolation. It clarified his furtive forays into the closet of his older sister, Cassandra, where he would try on clothes and wonder how it would feel to live as a different person, not yet understanding that his deeper question was how it would feel to live as a girl.
Evan now grasped that the bylaws of boyhood—aggression, competition, locker room japes—had nothing to do with him. "I didn't understand," Ming says, her hands uncharacteristically still. "I didn't understand why the jokes boys told were funny, why boys were so crude. I explained it to myself as, Well, they're all just idiots." She pauses to let the punch line land: "Which largely holds true right up through the fraternity years."
And yet Evan did the things boys are supposed to do, and did them well. He was a talented athlete, winning track meets and excelling at football despite himself; his coach was so eager to put him in games that Evan took to hiding from him. He reliably dazzled in science and math; his father, a beloved doctor in Monterey, California, groomed him to be, Ming recalls, "his intellectual heir," and with his high marks in biology and advanced chemistry, Evan seemed poised to fill those shoes. As a teenager, he morphed into an attractive young man with a nest of wavy copper hair. He began dating a girl he'd known since childhood. He hung out with his two best friends—Ming remains close to both men today—and his younger brother, Eric, concealing the schism inside him.
"Evan wasn't someone you would've called effeminate," says Eric Smith, now 39 and a Foreign Service officer with the State Department. "But he also wasn't the older brother you idolized because he talked about girls and partying—and I understand now why that is. I looked up to him for other reasons. There were occasions when someone would pick on me, and he'd stand up to them. He was there for me when I needed him."
Cassandra Smith, now 46 and a nurse for the San Francisco school district, says, "I always knew there was a sadness about my sibling. But when Vivienne told me later that she'd tried on my clothes as a kid, it was incredibly surprising. I didn't see any signs" that Evan had struggled with his gender.
By high school, however, there were signs that he was coming unmoored. The star student began to flail. Though his advanced classes enthralled him, he couldn't be bothered with homework or tests. When school administrators attempted to remove him from his honors courses, he decided to rally his efforts, and forged a letter from his parents blocking the move. The ploy worked—Evan wasn't caught in his ruse until the end of the year—and after a heroic final push, he salvaged his grades enough to enroll at the University of California, San Diego.
There, far from the stabilizing presence of home, Evan watched the air go out of his life. He paid tuition and then blew off his classes. He refrained from socializing, refused to date. ("Getting involved with someone seemed like a cruel thing to do," Ming says.) His thoughts darkened, drifting toward violent visions of being beaten or set on fire. He contemplated suicide. And after three years of scraping by academically and emotionally, he dropped out and returned to the Bay Area, staring down a bleak and uncertain future.
In need of a job, Evan eventually took a position at, of all places, a failing abalone farm overlooking the ocean. The company was so deep in the hole that as soon as it turned even a meager profit, creditors arrived with lawsuits in hand. Yet its owners refused to close up shop, so "there was nothing to do but make it last as long as I could," Ming says. The futility was oddly liberating. Each day Evan watched men spatula shellfish into containers, then ship them to Japan to become sashimi. He reorganized the books, prolonging the company's doomed life. Sometimes he stood at the cliff's edge and gazed into the rippling Pacific, watching humpbacks and their calves glide beneath the swell.
The experience shifted something in Evan. "I thought, 'I'm going to stick this out,'" Ming says. "'And if I'm going to stick it out, I'm going to go do something substantial.'"
He flipped a coin between economics and cognitive science—"the fields where I thought I could make an impact"—and cognitive science won. In 1999 Evan returned to UC San Diego with renewed purpose, and this time completed his degree with ease, going from a transcript littered with Fs to one full of As. He applied for a spot in Carnegie Mellon University's psychology PhD program, intending to study the nexus of computation and neuroscience, and was accepted. Within a month of landing in Pittsburgh in 2001, he'd met a pretty and driven Harvard graduate named Norma Chang, also a PhD candidate in psychology. By the end of their first year, they had fallen in love.
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