Photo: Jessica Todd Harper
On the bookshelf, just below the framed photograph, is the Mings' wedding album. In July 2006, Norma and Vivienne—as she was by then known at home, if nowhere else—were married in California, having driven their possessions from Pittsburgh in a clattering U-Haul after accepting positions at Berkeley and Stanford, respectively. Ming had grown her hair, lost 60 pounds of bulk by switching from P90X to yoga, and begun wearing women's clothes at home. ("Goodwill was my best friend," she says. "Starting from scratch is surprisingly expensive—we keep quite a little fortune in our closets.") Reverting to the costume of manhood for the wedding pained her. "Norma looked beautiful," Ming recalls. "And I was up there with my long hair, so skinny. At home, I was finally me! And then to have to get married in a tuxedo..." Ming trails off. She dislikes looking at the photo album.
By the spring after their wedding, Ming was eager to extend her gender transition beyond the bubble of home. At first, she had come out as transgender only to Cassandra—who calls being trusted with that information "one of the greatest honors of my life"—but she'd already begun investigating gender reassignment surgery, or GRS, which, it turned out, she was eligible to receive through Norma's University of California health plan. (Very few employee healthcare plans are willing to cover GRS, which can run into the tens of thousands of dollars.) She legally changed her name to Vivienne Ming: Vivienne was a name Norma had imagined for a daughter, and Ming is a hybrid of their family names, Smith and Chang. "The name change rankled my parents more than a little bit," Ming admits. Then her expression twists into a wry smirk. "But I don't need a name to remind me that I'm a pasty European mutt from very cloudy places. I know where I come from."
Ming had also investigated hormone therapy, which would increase estrogen levels and suppress testosterone, but she waited until Norma had safely reached 12 weeks of pregnancy with Baxter to begin the prescribed course of injections and pills, when she could be confident they would no longer need Evan's sperm. "We conceived Baxter the good old-fashioned way," Ming says. "I thought, 'This is a part of me I'm not happy with, but here's a good thing I can do with it before it's gone.'" (Thalia was conceived with sperm frozen prior to Vivienne's transition.)
Once she'd begun hormone therapy, Ming's personality underwent a tremendous shift. She was animated where she had been silent, emotional where she had been stoic. "Estrogen's a wonderful thing," Ming says. "I'd be doing the dishes and suddenly be like, 'Wait a minute, why am I crying?'" ("It was kind of like living with a teenage girl," Norma recalls.) Ming slept peacefully, regularly, deliciously, for the first time in a decade.
She was apprehensive about coming out at work. "Vivienne sent an e-mail to her students and colleagues the night before," Norma says, clearly relishing the telling of a favorite story. "And then I came in super-early the next morning," Ming continues, "hoping to get there way before everyone else to avoid some kind of perp walk. I'd been particularly worried about this student who, when he didn't realize there was"—Ming points to herself—"a lady present, would every now and then make a joke or say something that made me wonder how he might react.
"So I showed up and he was already there. And he walked right up to me and said, 'You know that idea you had for the model? I implemented it and it worked great and here are the results.' And for engineers, that's like their version of a big hug."
Ming also came out to the rest of her family. She composed a letter—"I have ghosted my way through life," it said—that she read, in person, to her mother and father, and, a month later, sent to her brother, Eric, who was stationed in Budapest. "I can remember it was on July 4, 2007," Eric recalls. "I was alone in my apartment and I got this e-mail, and it came as an absolute shock. I didn't know anything about this—any of it. I just sat there, disoriented, in a state of disbelief." It was a few days before he replied, saying that life deals us some difficult hands, and that he understood, and would offer his full support. When he returned to the States shortly thereafter, Ming came to pick him up at the airport. "That was the first time I saw Vivienne," Eric recalls. "When I left I had a brother, but when I returned from Hungary I had another sister."
For Ming's parents, the news was harder to swallow. "My mom struggled for a few days," Ming says, "and then called me and said, 'Well, we've got to get you a wardrobe.' I think she was still grieving the loss of her son, but in her interactions with me she never let on." (Asked about her reaction to Ming's transition, her mother, Sally Smith, handwrote a few sentences for Ming to pass along. "I am very proud of the woman Vivienne has become," the statement reads. "She is a caring and attentive parent, a brilliant scientist...she's beautiful inside and outside.")
After Ming's announcement, her father also expressed his support, but in the measured language of resignation. "You know," Ming says, "a classic thing you hear is, 'I love you no matter what.' Oh, so this is a 'no matter what'? I had that with my father. He hugged me, and he was initially accepting, but it got harder and harder for him. And there were a couple of moments when it peaked. Once, he said, 'Don't let Norma slip away, because no one else is ever going to want you.' Which was not remotely like anything he'd ever said to me before.
"I thought, 'I've been unhappy my entire adult life, and you can see the transformation. You know I'm happier now. And it's more important to you that I'm a certain person than that I'm happy?' And that was the hard thing for him and me."
Ming's father, Dr. Jon Smith, died last March at the age of 73. "My father got there with my transition," Ming says. "It was gradual, but he got there. I'd get e-mails from family members who'd say, 'Your dad was bragging about you, and I wanted to find out about all the amazing things you're doing.' The idea that he'd reached a point where he could call me his daughter, and actively did so because it gave him the opportunity to say 'My daughter had this paper published, my daughter just started her own company...'" Ming's voice is tight in her throat.
In 2008 Ming underwent GRS, a grueling series of surgeries that involved roughly 46 hours on the table (in the male-to-female procedure, a man's genitalia and urethra are restructured to function like those of a woman) and a recovery time of about three months. The following year, she had further operations to feminize her facial features. She hesitates before discussing her surgeries, explaining that they were deeply personal choices—and that the medical route to gender transition is not the only option available to transgender people. "It's important to me," Ming says, "that talking about my experience not undermine those who choose differently. There can be a stigma for people who don't take the path I did, as though not having surgery means you're not really transitioning. No one should feel as though it's everything or nothing."
Ming didn't expect the GRS to shift her thinking so completely, but it did. "It really changed my thoughts about myself," she says. "My body became aligned with my identity, and it was profound."
Next: How life is different as a woman
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