For Hillary Whittington, Marshall ’04, and Vivienne Ming, Muir ’00, the road to self-discovery was marked by courage, acceptance and the will to live an authentic life.
“I’m a boy.”
Parents hearing these words from their daughter may very well file such a statement along with all the other fanciful ideas that come from a child. They might even play along for a while, indulging in the phase until it runs its course and life returns to normal. This, after all, is what Hillary Whittington, Marshall ’04, and her husband, Jeff, did upon hearing these words from the mouth of their 4-year-old daughter, Ryland. Only they had no idea the truth being told, and how much more they had to learn from their child.
The Whittingtons had already faced major challenges in their young family. At just one year old, it came to light that their daughter was deaf. The family pursued cochlear implants, and over the next four years Hillary stayed home and successfully taught Ryland to speak. Yet as soon as she could express herself, Ryland began to insist she was a boy, and elements of what her parents considered a “tomboy phase” rapidly reached a striking level of shame. Whittington recalls her daughter saying, “I’ll wait until the family dies to cut my hair,” and “Why did God make me like this?” Ultimately these behaviors intensified, and the Whittingtons prepared to come to terms with reality of having a transgender child.
“It was a process,” says Whittington. “As a parent you have these images in your head about what your child’s life will be like, and I had to let a lot of that go, those expectations. Especially when I realized that they were hurting him.”
During their research and counseling, what especially struck the Whittingtons was a disturbing statistic: 41 percent of transgender people attempt suicide due to lack of acceptance.
“We were not willing to take that risk,” the family explained in a YouTube video that chronicles Ryland’s initial transition. The video has since garnered more than 7.7 million views since its original posting in 2014 and led to Whittington’s recent memoir, Raising Ryland. “For Ryland’s well-being,” the video explains, “we were advised to allow him to transition as soon as possible.”
The family did a social transition, simply changing pronouns and allowing Ryland to get a shorter haircut and wear boys’ clothes all of the time. The video served to inform friends, family and educators of the transition, and also asked them for support in what had been a multiple-year process of parenting Ryland with “no strings attached.”
“It means we allow Ryland to be who he is without expectations. We let go of our own internal thoughts of what his future should be, so he could be who he is without feeling that he needs to please us. We want him to know he’s loved and that he can be himself without any expectations about who he should be.”
Thanks to the understanding of his parents, Ryland’s story is now a success story. He has a loving family that has found support in their community and in other parents of transgender children. In all, Ryland is healthy, happy and productive.
It’s this last part—healthy, happy and productive—that has become the calling of another alumna, Vivienne Ming, Muir ’00. Ming’s story is likewise one of success: a loving family, with a wife and two children, part of a thriving community in California’s Bay Area and a successful career with several technology and software companies.
Ming’s road to get there, however, was long and difficult, and fortunately one that Ryland likely won’t have to endure. Ming is also transgender, and while her personal story is marked with the loneliness and anguish that so often characterizes that passage, it’s often cited as the driving force for Ming today, in her mission to help all people discover what’s inside of themselves, and help develop the potential inside the next generation.
Growing up, Ming was a typical though somewhat lonesome boy who excelled in sports and academics. It wasn’t until coming to UC San Diego that Ming—who went by a different name when enrolled—began to truly struggle, withdrawing from social activities and soon, class altogether. She dropped out—though in truth, flunked out is likely a better way to describe it.
“I flunked out of life,” she says. “I wasn’t getting out of bed very often; I pretty much moved into the closet at the condo where I was living. Something about being closed up in the dark felt like it was a solution to something. And the loneliness I felt didn’t come so much from being different, but being unable to share that difference with anyone else.”
Still conforming to her gender at birth, she left UC San Diego and moved back to the Bay Area to take an office job managing a failing abalone farm, where against all odds, something clicked, and she found a new sense of purpose.
“There was this sense that there was nothing you could do to stop the inevitable,” Ming says. “I was living onsite, next to the wet lab in a building where the roof had caved in, working incredibly hard just to keep these little snails alive, to keep it all going. It helped to take me out of myself. I realized that I can direct myself back out into the world again.”
Ming directed herself back to UC San Diego and dove into the cognitive science department, ultimately going from college dropout to honors student. She matriculated to the psychology Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon University, where Ming met her future wife, Norma Chang. Chang was there to help when, then in their 30s and back in the Bay Area, Ming realized she was ready to lead her life as her true gender, a woman.
With the pair having now become powerhouses in Silicon Valley, Ming’s gender transition has become little more than a biographical side note to the groundbreaking ideas she puts forth. She is a noted speaker and essayist, and has the added distinction of being named one of Inc. magazine’s “10 Women to Watch in Tech.” Together, Ming and Chang are founders of Socos, a data-based education company that mines an enormous amount of natural data to not only predict life outcomes, but improve those outcomes by identifying ways to tailor the individual educational experience. In these data points they can literally see the potential in everyone, and were motivated by maximizing what Ming calls “authentic living.”
“What is it that we really want education to do?” she asks. “Education should produce happy, healthy and productive lives. Then let society reap the benefits.”
Drawing upon an extensive background in machine learning, Ming developed intricate and complex algorithms, which she can articulate easily thanks to a generous ability to pick up on her audience’s level of understanding. She takes cues from listeners that tell her if they’re getting it or not.
A similar quality lies behind Socos’ first ready-for-market product, called Muse. Designed for parents, yet with the potential to expand to educators and employers, Muse collects and processes data supplied by caregivers—anything from uploading audio or pictures of children’s drawings to answering a simple daily question about their behavior or activities. In return, the MuseBot—billed as a parenting co-pilot—gives parents one simple action each day that they can then do to boost the child’s development. The goal is to help maximize a child’s life outcomes by providing simple, customized activities that can be performed every day.
“My ultimate goal is that every single night, along with a question, we send a single message home with the parent: here’s one thing you can do that will have the biggest impact on your child’s outcome,” Ming says. “It’s the action you can take.”
The Muse and Socos team cite an intervention study done 20 years ago in Jamaica, in which researchers visited the homes of severely at-risk youth once a week for one hour only. They weren’t working with the children, but rather the parents—teaching them simple games they could play with their children. The study lasted for two years, then ran out of money.
“Total loss, right?” Ming asks with a gleam in her voice. “Nothing could possibly happen.”
Twenty years passed, and researchers returned to the original children, now adults. They were earning 25 percent more income than their at-risk peers and are now economically indistinguishable from the general population. They see less time incarcerated, and even have lower levels of stress.
“One hour a week, with little games, we have kids that are healthier and more productive,” Ming said. “Happy, healthy and more productive.”
The essence of Socos lies in the benefits of meta-learning, or learning how to learn. Far from textbook memorization or training someone to take a test, Ming is devoted to understanding how and why people learn, and maximizing the outcomes of this natural motivation. This kind of self-understanding is a cornerstone of the Socos philosophy, and the key to living what Ming calls “an authentic life.”
“So much of what we think about ourselves is tied up in our fears or beliefs about what other people think,” Ming says. “But authenticity is really about having the courage to understand yourself and then having the courage to be yourself. This was the case not only for me—there’s an entire body of research that shows that real happiness and accomplishment comes from the courage to be different and authentic, even if it sets you apart from others.”
Whittington also reiterates the importance of living an authentic life—which she learned via her unique experience as a parent. “Ryland just fits what it means to be a little boy in our typical culture, and what our expectations are,” Whittington says. “It doesn’t have to be these typical gender roles and these rigid boxes. Ryland can be whatever he wants to be. He should know that he has the opportunity to do this.”
Ming, in her analytical way, has looked at this same sentiment through a much broader lens, one focused on the world of economics. Her recent research led to a robust database of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) entrepreneurs over the last 10 years. She looked at how much money their companies brought in, how many jobs were created by their work, where they were based and, importantly, where their founders were from. She found LGBT entrepreneurs created 3 million new jobs after moving from places that were not inclusive—locations that have anti-transgender bathroom laws, no LGBT representation in local politics, no other LGBT business owners, for example—to places that were more inclusive.
“It’s exporting jobs—high-paying, high-skilled jobs—to other cities. And these people are thriving,” Ming says.
Moving to areas like New York City and San Francisco to escape anti-LGBT attitudes is nothing new, but as Ming shows, promoting and living authentic lives is integral to being happy, healthy and productive, for an individual as well as a community.
Both Whittington and Ming have come back to the UC San Diego community as well. Whittington and her husband spoke on campus this past March for Transgender Day of Visibility, part of a talk organized by current School of Medicine student and undergraduate alumna Daniella McDonald, Muir ’11, to provide visibility for transgender patients.
“The Whittingtons’ story resonates so well because they too struggled, as many people do, with transgender issues,” McDonald says. “The family is warm and relatable … . They show that you don’t need to be ‘radical parents’ to accept your transgender child.”
Ming will also make a welcome return to the UC San Diego campus as the keynote speaker for the 2016 All-Campus Convocation. She returns this September with a far different perspective than when first on campus—no longer the quiet, lonely young man from before. In her trajectory since, she has found within herself a life that she calls a “mashup” of all her experiences: as a student, a neuroscientist, an education technologist, a labor economist, a cognitive scientist—and she talks about these mashups with ease and confidence, all contributing to a greater knowledge of who she is and what she’s capable of.
“I refer to them as reincarnations,” she says. “You die and you start over again. And every time you start over again, you go all in.”