Some have written of their graduate student lives studying sociology at U.C. Berkeley as years of privileged contact with esteemed professors, and others have written of a time of alienation. For me, graduate life at Berkeley came as an enjoyable escape into another world after working as an attorney in Washington D.C..
I left the law to pursue a career in sociology for a number of reasons. The one I gave on my application, which the Berkeley faculty were kind enough to accept, was that I was devoting a good deal of time and energy to research that was being received with odd glances by my legal colleagues, along with the dismissive comment, "This isn't law, it's *sociology*." I thought I would take that dismissal as advice, and move on to a more hospitable academic career. Berkeley did indeed provide that to me, with professors (particularly Arlie Hochschild, Jerry Karabel, Kristin Luker, Troy Duster, and Evelyn Nakano Glenn) who nurtured my interests in sociology of law and sociology of the professions, and how these related to the construction of identity.
There was another, more personal reason that I left legal practice to study sociology at Berkeley--something I kept private. In fact, I wanted to move on and start a new chapter in my life after an unsuccessful attempt to begin to gender transition as a lawyer. I had made the attempt in 1991, and while I was working at what all considered a very liberal private public-interest law firm, with two prominent gay partners, accommodating gender transition was not yet on the radar for almost any business. The firm instituted a dress code just to stop me from wearing men's suits and ties. (In fact, the code applied to everyone, but the lead partner of the law firm sat me down and explained that the partnership had drawn it up with me in mind. It required "women" to wear "professional feminine dress" including pantyhose and "light makeup" in order to show "respect for clients.") I acquiesced, and went back to doing my best to present myself in a gender with which I didn't identify, but I also decided to leave for a more hospitable setting. The Berkeley sociology department was certainly that.
Once I arrived at Berkeley, I knew I'd made a good decision. After lawyering in Washington, D.C., seminars seemed friendly rather than intimidating. I loved the sense of intellectual community I found at Berkeley, chatting in the corridors and bantering on the picket lines. I invited my whole cohort to my commitment ceremony, and the fact that I wore the tux while my (cis) male partner wore the dress was received without a batting of an eye by my peers, treated with endearing straight-facedness by Elsa Tranter, and addressed with careful curiosity on the part of my students. Graduate school provided me with sufficient flexibility to have a child, who was welcomed into the occasional seminar meeting. I learned the mechanics of framing sociological articles from Claude Fischer, and continue to share that foundation with my own students today. A course on sociology of the body with Loic Wacquant, while not directly influencing my dissertation project, set me on a research trajectory that would bear fruit years later in my career. And dissertating involved the most thrillingly unalienated labor I've ever performed. Working with my dissertation writing group was the crowning experience of my time at Berkeley.
Years later, after the struggle to get tenure at U.W. Milwaukee, I did at last have a secure enough setting to make a gender transition. I earn as a tenured professor slightly less than I did twenty years ago as first year law firm associate, but I'm very happy with the life choice I made. I teach classes I love, like sociology of sexuality and sociology of the body, and hopefully impart a critical sociological manner of thinking to the nearly 1,000 students I teach each year. I'm very grateful to U.C. Berkeley for helping to make this possible.