Rainbow Research: Transgender Pride

Dr Ash Brockwell – Coming out as transgender in mid-career

As a child, I always loved being outdoors – either in the garden, drawing pictures of flowers, or out on birdwatching trips with my dad or the Southampton Natural History Society.  When I graduated from Oxford in 1999, I was lucky to have the opportunity to do an internship with the Global Initiative for Traditional Systems of Health in Tanzania, where I helped to organise a conference on medicinal plants and malaria. 

Me in my natural habitat - the wild person of the woods!
Me in my natural habitat – the wild person of the woods!

The conference marked the start of a twelve-year career in ethnoecology and integrative health care, whose highlights included researching the conservation implications of the Maasai `forest hospital’ tradition; helping to set up a rural secondary school with a co-curricular program in Indigenous Knowledge, which was cited in a UN report as an example of best practice; and taking part in a study tour of southern India with a group of African traditional healers.

After returning to the UK in 2010, I changed direction – from fieldwork and grassroots community projects, to trialling new ways of designing sustainability indicators.  Almost a decade later, I brought all my research on this topic together as a PhD by Published Works, focusing on values-based indicators in the context of Education for Sustainability.

A message for trans people
A message for trans people

My current research is still mainly based in Education for Sustainability, with the theoretical side focusing on indicators and competencies for the Sustainable Development Goals (with co-authors at UNESCO and the University of Bristol). The practice-based research that I’m doing at the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) centres around helping young people to cultivate a sense of interconnectedness with the community of life, and to bring that awareness into policy contexts.  Students at LIS (which launches its first undergraduate degree course in September 2021) will focus on using concepts and methods from different disciplines to tackle real-world problems.  I’m excited to be working on social science research methods as well as ecology, ethnobiology and green chemistry perspectives.      

So why ‘Rainbow’?  I’ve always known I was different from most people, but as a child growing up in the 1980s and early 90s, I didn’t have any language available to explain why. Life really did begin at 40 when I discovered the terms ‘transgender’ and ‘non-binary’!  After trying on a few different labels, I settled on ‘transmasculine flux’ as my preferred way to describe a gender identity that’s sometimes male, sometimes ‘sort of male-ish’, and sometimes (rarely) agender or bigender. Unlike some of my friends who prefer not to talk or even think about their trans history, the ‘trans’ part is just as important to me as the ‘masculine’ part.  

My chosen name, Ashley Jay Brockwell, reflects my passion for ecology intertwined with my spiritual path – a blend of Druidry and Christian mysticism. The ash is one of the three sacred trees in Druidic tradition, alongside the oak and hawthorn, while the jay and the badger (‘Brock’ in Old English) are my favourite animal and bird respectively.  Both represent my non-binary identity – the one pink and blue with flashes of black and white, and the other black, white and grey.  I’d love to be able to say I thought all this through, but in reality, it was the other way around: I woke up one day and somehow knew that my new name would be Ashley Jay Brockwell, and it was only later that I understood all the symbolism.       

On a 25-mile trek to Stonehenge, August 2020
On a 25-mile trek to Stonehenge, August 2020

When I started my social transition and changed my name legally, I was sure it would mean the end of my academic career and that I’d have to rely on precarious freelance consultancy from then on. I thought my reluctance to disclose my birth name would mean ‘losing’ my life’s work of over 30 peer-reviewed publications and starting again from scratch with nothing but my thesis. After being bombarded daily with transphobic ‘news’ stories in the media, along with horrifying statistics about the reluctance of British companies to employ trans people, I convinced myself that nobody would ever offer me a job anyway.    

All these fears proved to be unfounded when I discovered the London Interdisciplinary School and realised that my unconventional background and worldview were seen as assets, rather than problems.  Because of my fixation with challenging binaries, I’m now leading on the Mixed Methods strand, helping students to find creative ways of bringing together qualitative and quantitative methods!  I hope that any closeted trans people who are reading this can take heart from hearing that it is possible to transition, even mid-career, andstill keep working in STEM. 

Sorry, of course I meant STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics!  No ‘STEM vs. them’ binaries around here…

If you enjoyed this post, why not check out some of Ash’s published work:

Some pre-transition papers not included in my PhD by Published Works:

  • Harder, M.K., et al. (2014). Reconceptualizing ‘effectiveness’ in environmental projects: can we measure values-related achievements? Journal of Environmental Management 139, 120-134.
  • Podger, D., et al. (2016) Revealing values in a complex environmental program: a scaling up of values-based indicators.  Journal of Cleaner Production 134 (Part A):  225-238. Author post-print via University of Brighton: https://cris.brighton.ac.uk/ws/files/373105/Values-based%20indicators%20JCP%20-%20POST-PRINT.pdf

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