Cassidy Cobbs is many things —
A valued colleague and employee who works at the Sloan Kettering Institute — the basic and translational research arm of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK).
A doting parent to a pit bull named Mando.
A beloved sibling.
And a passionate baseball fan who memorized the stats of Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg at the age of 5.
What Cassidy is not is someone who identifies as either a man or a woman.
“As a kid, gender was never a strong part of my identity,” says Cassidy, who uses they/them/their pronouns. “I wanted to opt out entirely.”
Cassidy found language for how they felt when the term “nonbinary” came into common use.
Nonbinary people identify outside of the binary structure of man or woman. They may identify as somewhere in between a man and a woman, outside of those categories, or as more than one gender, no gender, or as a gender that is fluid.
Some nonbinary people, like Cassidy, also identify as “transgender,” which is a term that may apply to a person who does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. Others may not feel the transgender umbrella is for them.
“Just as there are lots of ways to be a man or a woman, there are lots of ways to be nonbinary,” says Cassidy. “For some nonbinary people, it’s about connecting to different genders at different times. For me, it’s very much about not connecting to either one.”
Discovering Their Nonbinary Transgender Identity: From the Mountains to the Lab
Cassidy was born in Alabama but grew up in western North Carolina in the Appalachian Mountains, where their mom and stepdad have a Christmas tree farm. They are the oldest of four, with two brothers and a sister, and enjoyed a happy childhood within a tight-knit family.
“It was the best of both worlds,” says Cassidy. “Most of the year, I tromped around in the woods with my brothers, catching frogs and salamanders, and then got to spend summers in Atlanta with my dad, stepmom, and sister, going to museums and Braves games.”
Raised in a family of athletes, Cassidy played Little League and soccer and helped on the farm. “We all knew how to plant, fertilize, run a chain saw, and tie an 8-foot tree onto a Volkswagen Beetle,” says Cassidy. “Every weekend between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my mom would haul us down to the retail lot in Columbia, South Carolina, and we’d sell trees.”
Cassidy often felt different, but never alone. “I had friends and I had my family. If I didn’t want to wear dresses or wanted to cut my hair short, my parents were OK with that. They just wanted me to be happy.” Cassidy adds that being labeled as “gifted” was more isolating than anything else.
After college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Cassidy spent a year in Korea teaching English — and doing a lot of reading. “I read a lot about science and evolution and decided I wanted to go back to school for that,” Cassidy says.
Over a two-year period, they earned a second bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University in Raleigh while working in a lab that cloned pigs. “It was a really cool first job in science,” says Cassidy. After graduating, they headed to Vanderbilt University for graduate school, where they earned a master’s in ecology and evolution.
Following grad school, Cassidy joined the Sloan Kettering Institute, where they have worked for the past eight years as a project manager for the Integrated Genomics Operation.
“When I interviewed here, I really liked the vibe of the lab. Our former director, Agnès Viale, PhD, and the current director, Neeman Mohibullah, PhD, are fantastic leaders and scientists. It’s a positive, collaborative place.”
The Integrated Genomics Operation provides a broad range of services and expertise to investigators interested in evaluating gene expression, chromosome structure, and nucleotide sequence.
“I do a lot of the upfront work with investigators, helping them plan their projects, both in terms of logistics and scientific questions about what our data can actually answer,” Cassidy explains.
How To Support Nonbinary and Transgender People at Work
Respect lies at the heart of Cassidy’s worldview. “With any colleague, you want to interact with them in a way that makes you both comfortable, which — at a minimum — means using their correct name and pronouns,” says Cassidy.
They add that respect should be shown to any employee consistently — and publicly. “Continuing to use people’s pronouns when they’re not in the room makes a big difference in helping the community at large get more comfortable with trans people,” they say.
Cassidy never felt the need to “come out” to family or friends — “I think people get the vibe that gender is not part of my identity.” But they do feel the need to advocate for and give voice to those in the community who are underrepresented or whose voices are unheard. They participate in the LGBTQ+ Pride employee resource network at MSK and have become involved in recent efforts to improve the experience for transgender patients.
While a staunch supporter of increased visibility for transgender people, Cassidy also believes that healthcare organizations should focus less on how to classify patients and more on their physiological needs, which vary within any gender category. “If a woman has had a hysterectomy, their physiological needs are different than another woman who’s pregnant. Similarly, a trans woman also has different physiological needs,” says Cassidy.
“Sometimes the conversation gets so caught up in what category a patient is in that we forget what really matters — things like, ’What organs does this patient have that need to be screened for cancer?’ ”
The Importance of Transgender People Being Visible — and Outspoken — at Work
Although Cassidy’s analytical brain is drawn to hard facts, they recognize that it’s frequently the intangibles — like the way another person makes you feel — that matter most. They know too that where there’s little understanding among people, there’s often danger.
“It’s safe for me to speak up, so I feel an obligation to do so. But many trans people are not safe,” says Cassidy. “The more visibility we can bring to them, the better. The more we humanize each other — especially those we think of as profoundly different from ourselves — the more likely we are to be kind. And the kinder we are, the better off we’ll all be.”