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Alum Shares Earned Wisdom With the Wabash Community

Andrea James was an 11-year-old boy when she first discovered the word transsexual. She found the term in a publication called "The Book of Lists," which listed ten famous transsexuals. She tried to do some follow-up research at her local library, but she could not find any books about the topic in the card catalog. She was disappointed. But now, having completed the transition from male-to-female, she dedicates both personal and professional time filling the information void she first discovered as an 11-year-old boy.

After spending a decade in the advertising business, James is now a film consultant, actress, and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) activist. She operates a free website, TS Roadmap, which provides practical information to transsexuals about the physical, legal, and social aspects of transition. She co-founded Deep Stealth Productions with her friend Calpernia Addams, whose male partner was murdered while in the army because of their relationship. They produce educational materials for transsexual women, focusing specifically on violence and the portrayal of trans people in the media. James is also a producer, director, and consultant, most notably she worked closely with Felicity Huffman in her role in TransAmerica. 

But James is also a member of the Wabash Class of 1989, a FIJI, Board of Publications President, and Swimming and Diving Team member. She was on campus this week, and she gave a speech last night in Korb Classroom, "Identity, Gender, and Sexuality."

"I was invited by 'shOUT," James said. "I was really excited to hear from them because when I was here there was no gay group on campus. It was a very different time. People weren't really out on campus. Even people who considered themselves or self-identified as gay, it just wasn't discussed, like don't ask don't tell policy on campus. The mind set is really hard to get your head around. In that climate, you were very much discouraged from talking about sexuality. There was just a sense of conformity that seems like it's really lifted now."

Not having been back to Wabash in more than a decade, James said the atmosphere feels different to her.

"It kind of feels like a waking dream, it's very of strange," she said. "They say you can't step in the same river twice, and that's what it really feels like. There's a familiarity, but then there's so much that's unfamiliar and is new that it's not the same place I knew. So I'm looking forward to meeting more students, so I can get reacquainted with the feel of the school because I don' think that really changes."

Although James was very active on campus, she was not out. Classics Professor John Fischer was the first person she ever told at Wabash. She said the student-faculty relationship was significant part of her decision to attend Wabash.

"I was good friends with John Fischer," said the Greek, Latin, and English major. "He was my mentor, and the first person I came out to. He was very cool about it, very supportive. It took me a while to really get to where I was ready to do anything about it, even though I had finally told somebody. But I think it goes to show the kinds of professors you have here. I don't know anybody at any other school who has forged that kind of friendship with a professor: this sense that the professors really care about their students, not just in terms of their academic growth but in terms of their personal growth as people. That's one of the reasons I came here.

James said she found qualities at Wabash that she could not find at any of the other schools to which she applied. She grew up in Indiana, south of Indianapolis.

"I didn't choose an all-male school," James said. "I chose Wabash. I didn't apply to other all-male schools. Of the liberal arts schools that I applied to – they were all small schools in small towns – this was the one which resonated with me the most. I talked to professors. It was swimming and classics and being at a small school. It was a sense of seriousness that I wasn't getting elsewhere."

James separated her talk into five parts: her first 20 years, Wabash and the late 80s, her 20 years after graduation, the main issues she sees coming to the forefront in the next 20 years, and finally some "earned wisdom" from her time at Wabash and the intervening 20 years. 

For the next 20 years, James said she sees issues of bioethics, eugenics, and privacy as resurgent topics. With the unlocking of the human genome, she said the society will probably face serious ethical choices in the future, from insurance companies possibly using the genome to cherry pick those in their pool to employers using it to find pre-dispositions to disqualify people from being hired. But most serious, she said, was the prospect of designer babies. James also mentioned how researchers have already started the search for the gay gene.

"No one's looking for the straight gene," James said. "They are looking for the gay gene because where there is a cause there is a cure. That's how these people think. They think if they can identify the fetuses, they can abort them. The next wave of genocide is not going to be like Hitler. It's not going to be by the state probably. It's going to be this kind of distributive eugenics that occurs in-utero. It's going to be presented as a parental right. It's going to be presented almost of a consumer issue. And that's a pretty scary thing."

James also said she thinks society to expand its binary view of the world, that not all classifications fit into such a framework. She compared it to the division between the United States and Mexico because the river is a natural boundary, but it's really arbitrary that the United States chose that river.

"It's really arbitrary that we decide this is the delineation for race, sexuality, or nationality," James said. "So I see sex and sexuality as social construct instead of an absolute truth. It's a way that we organize the world. Although it's really a spectrum, if I have to choose between two, this one feels more natural, although I probably fall somewhere in the middle. We all have characteristics of both groups."

James left parting words of advice to the Wabash community:

"I would hope that everyone would look at the things that they really want to do with their life because we don't have much time – and make the most of every day. And just be happy and do the thing that you love. Don't live for other people. Don't try to meet other people's expectations. Go after the things that really mean something to you. Don't let go of those and 20 years later you will have accomplished many goals."