Hera Jay Brown is the first transgender woman selected for the Rhodes scholar program, one of the most prestigious academic honors in the country.
Scholars were announced this weekend, with 32 individuals selected from over 200 applicants from 90 institutions. In a tweet, Brown reflected on the announcement’s fortuitous timing, given that it’s Trans Awareness Month.
“I can’t imagine a better time to announce that I’m the first trans woman elected as a Rhodes scholar,” Brown wrote in a Sunday post. “As our rights and experiences as women are under threat, this moment has given me pause to reflect on what an honor it is to pave this path.”
A native of Tennessee, Brown created a Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Migration Studies program at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. She has focused on Syrian refugee workers through field work in Germany, Jordan, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States and is currently at work on a joint J.D. and Ph.D. in Social Anthropology.
Along with Brown, two nonbinary scholars were selected for the program, though their names were not identified.
“This year’s American Rhodes Scholars — independently elected by 16 committees around the country meeting simultaneously — once again reflect the extraordinary diversity that characterizes and strengthens the United States,” wrote Elliot F. Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, in a statement. As part of the scholarship, the winners will have all of their expenses covered to study at Oxford University for the next two years.
The Rhodes program dates back to 1902, when it was created by British businessman Cecil Rhodes. Never married, rumors alleged that Rhodes was secretly in a same-sex relationship with his secretary, Neville Pickering. That’s never been confirmed.
Incidentally, Rhodes also has a complicated history that can be unpleasant to unpack. He was Prime Minister of the colony that became South Africa and his mining company created the country of Rhodesia. An avowed racist, Rhodes called Anglo-Saxons “the first race in the world” and wrote, “The more of the world [white people] inhabit, the better it is for the human race.”
In recent years, students have led campaigns to remove statues of Rhodes from college campuses, citing his racist politics. In 2016, hundreds of past Rhodes recipients signed a letter criticizing the founder’s past and wrote that they accepted the funding “knowing that Cecil Rhodes did not intend it for us when he wrote his will.”
They added, “Nor did he intend for any of us to use the scholarship in a way that was explicitly antithetical to the pursuit of empire and white supremacy.”
Previous recipients of the honor include Bill Clinton, singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, and two 2020 presidential candidates: Cory Booker and Pete Buttigieg. MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow was the first out lesbian Rhodes scholar in 1995.