Alex Novarro, PhD: “Life is on a spectrum”
Mashomack’s Conservation and Outreach Manager discusses being a transgender ecologist at The Nature Conservancy.
Alex Novarro joined The Nature Conservancy in New York two years ago as the conservation and outreach manager at Mashomack, TNC’s 2,350-acre preserve on Shelter Island, off Long Island. There, he oversees research, stewardship, education and outreach programs. (Alex will be moving to a new role as Director of Stewardship and Ecological Management with The Nature Conservancy in Connecticut beginning in August.) A trained ecologist whose PhD research focused on how salamanders respond to climate change, he volunteered to celebrate LGBTQIA+ Pride with us by participating in this interview. Thank you, Alex!
What got you into conservation and ecology?
I was not a nature kid. I grew up in the center of Long Island and never went on a hike. My brothers would go camping with my dad in the Catskills. But the girls in my family weren't allowed to go. It wasn't until undergrad that I developed a love for nature and environmental science, after an experience at the Disney College Program, where you work at Disney World and take some classes. I was working at the food court. But there was another intern working in the aquarium at Epcot and I was like, “Well, how do you do that?” They told me there was a professional internship program but you had to be pursuing a degree in ecology. So I changed my major on the spot. Before that, I had been doing badly in college and was not motivated. Sitting in an 8 a.m. ecology class, fully into it, I realized I was in the right place. Later, one of my advisors said, “I think you found your niche here.”
How comfortable do you feel about talking about your transition?
I'm comfortable talking about it.
When did you start feeling like the gender you were assigned at birth didn’t match the one you are?
I think I've always felt that way. But I didn't have the language for it until I was 20. When I learned that a friend of a friend identified as trans, I thought, “Maybe that's what this is,” and started my physical transition during undergrad. The environmental science program I was in kept me sane at that time: Being out in the field—I found my love for salamanders there. I took every ecology class I could. I even stayed an extra year to get a second concentration in aquatic ecology. At a time when some of my closest family members weren’t supportive, my professors all were. Even the 70-year-old retired guy who I thought would never get it turned out to be my biggest supporter.
Were you able to get the health services you needed to transition?
While I was in college, I had a doctor and that was all great. But after college, when I moved back to Long Island, there were no doctors specializing in this. I chose to take hormones as part of my physical transition, but not all trans people do. It’s a very personal medical decision. I couldn't even afford blood work to monitor my hormone levels. I was basically maintaining my own testosterone levels, poorly. It wasn’t until several years later when I was in grad school that I had health insurance again and had the best doctor. Even now, it’s an issue, because it’s very hard to find this kind of medical care in most places.
Did anything else about being transgender make it difficult for you to pursue a career in conservation?
My name change. After college, I wanted to go straight to graduate school. But I wanted to apply using my name. I used online fundraising to raise the $500 to go to court and get my name change. But the process took six months and my case was assigned to a judge who denied my name change because he said it would be “deceptive to the public.” I ended up having to withdraw all of my graduate school applications. It was either do that or go by the old name, which I did not want to do. I had to figure out whether I could stay in this field. Eventually, I met a trans friend at a support group who took me through the process on Long Island. We took a day trip to Riverhead, and I got my name changed in three hours.
Do you feel like you’ve been accepted in the conservation field and at The Nature Conservancy?
I’ve always felt like the conservation community is pretty LGBTQIA+-friendly. The challenges I've had have been related to field work where you're in kind of an intimate setting with people and often have to do things you would normally do in private. That's always been tricky, especially if I'm with a group of people I don't know, like recreational hunters or people who are a bit outside of my comfort zone. There's always a fear that they might find out and not take it well while you’re alone in an isolated environment like in the middle of the woods.
Do you feel like your experience being trans has informed the way you understand the natural world of which we are all a part?
My trans identity is a big part of who I am as a conservation biologist. Nature has been my escape from many challenges with my identity and also a place to go, just to think and be fully present with myself. There are all these interesting natural systems and species that show us that life is on a spectrum and not everything is binary. When you look at the natural world, nothing is simple. That’s influenced me and my thinking and my acceptance of my identity.
I look at being trans not as a deficit but as a strength. I know who I am.
Do you want to discuss what it's like being transgender at The Nature Conservancy?
Two years ago, when I got here, I made a conscious decision not to be out and realized I wasn’t able to fully be myself without sharing my identity. I regret doing that. It's not that I was scared that I wouldn't get a job, though transgender discrimination is very real. I was scared that my identity would change how people treated me or perceived me, particularly as I was trying to become a manager for the first time and lead people. So I took a very slow approach. I’m lucky that my colleagues have been so supportive —that is not the case for most trans people in the workforce.
But even though I’m out to a lot of people, being out about being transgender is a decision I have to make almost every day. I have to decide whether to do it. It takes a lot of mental energy, regardless of who I'm working for. My first week at The Nature Conservancy, a bunch of Long Island staff joined a group for New York City Pride and marched in the parade. That was the first signal to me that it would be okay here.
You have done a lot to make Mashomack accessible to people who might not feel included there or that the preserve is open to them. Is that work informed by your experience of being trans?
My trans identity is probably the driving force for me in this. I've learned a lot from so many people and really want to support other people and communities who need it.
Are there any other things you want people who might read this article to know about your experience?
Because of being trans, I had to make a lot of sacrifices and learn a lot about who I was very fast, with pretty high stakes. It was certainly not easy. But now, 10 years later, nothing else feels quite as difficult as making the decision to physically transition and potentially losing all my friends and family. I don't feel invincible. But I have so much more confidence now than I did before. I look at being trans not as a deficit but as a strength. I know who I am.
To learn more about trans identity in the conservation world, Alex recommends checking out 500 Queer Scientists and Venture Out Project.