Laurie and Debbie say:
We each separately saw obituaries for Ben Barres, who died of pancreatic cancer at the end of December. Laurie saw one from the New York Times, with a headline describing him — accurately — as a “neuroscientist and equal opportunity advocate.” Debbie saw one from the Atlantic, with a headline describing him — accurately — as transgender.
We know that headlines are written by newspaper staffers, not reporters, and it is interesting that the Atlantic article doesn’t focus on his trans identity until several paragraphs down, while the Times article mentions it very early.
Barres himself was clearly a remarkable scientist:
While most of his fellow neuroscientists studied neurons, the branching cells that carry electrical signals through the brain, Barres focused his attention on another group of cells called glia. Even though they equal neurons in number, glia were long dismissed as the brain’s support crew—there simply to provide nutrients or structural scaffolding.* But Barres showed that glia are stars in their own right. They help neurons to mature, producing the connections that are the basis for learning and memory, and then pruning those connections so that the most useful ones remain.
In showing how important glia are, Barres revolutionized our understanding of the brain.
And he was a remarkable human being:
“I interviewed for grad school with Ben Barres and he stopped mid-interview to call another school and advocate on my behalf,” said Alycia Mosley Austin from the University of Rhode Island. As Kay Tye from MIT succinctly said: “Ben Barres was a role model for role models.”
His role as an equal opportunity advocate was inextricably intertwined with his gender history.
An article he wrote for the journal Nature in 2006 titled “Does Gender Matter?” took on some prominent scholars who had argued that women were not advancing in the sciences because of innate differences in their aptitude.
“I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able,” he wrote. “Historically, claims that disadvantaged groups are innately inferior have been based on junk science and intolerance.”
The article cited studies documenting obstacles facing women, but it also drew on Dr. Barres’s personal experiences.
Of course, a cis male scientist can be a gender equity advocate, but no cis scientist can have the lived experience of someone who transitioned when they were already studying in their field, and saw the difference in how they were treated. Outside of neuroscience, Barres is perhaps best known for this quotation:
By far, the main difference I have noticed is that people who don’t know I’m transgendered treat me with much more respect: I can even complete a whole sentence without being interrupted by a man.
What’s important is remembering him in his fullness: for his science, for his directly trans related advocacy, and for his other advocacy, while knowing that his friends and colleagues also remember him for his food preferences, what he was like at the end of an all-nighter, and what jokes he preferred.
The two headlines open a complex conversation about how people are identified in the news. Barres was a groundbreaking scientist who did transformational work, and that’s what he should and will be remembered for. Because he was also out as a trans man, and called upon that experience in his advocacy, an obituary which didn’t mention that he was trans would be incomplete. And because he did such important scientific work, calling him a “transgender scientist” subordinates his work to his less central gender history.
Because the two articles are in direct opposition to their two headlines, we get a chance to look at how much the headlines affect what else we read. If you put the Times headline on the Atlantic article, his trans history would come as a surprise to the reader who read far enough. If you put the Atlantic headline on the Times article, you get a story that focuses on Barres as a trans man, more than his important work.
So, kudos to the Times for keeping trans out of the headlines, and also featuring it up front as part of Barres’ story.
And endless kudos to Barres, whose good work will continue to flourish both through the ways he transformed brain science, and through the students he mentored.