Tigerlily Hopson, Contributing Photographer
Content warning: This article contains brief references to sexual assault.
It was the end of August, late afternoon, and Nick Fisk GRD ’23 stood in the middle of the Senate Chambers dressed in a wrestling singlet.
Their hands, scarred from years of not being able to feel, held onto a gold and silver championship belt. Sun dappled Fisk’s face, their expression stoic, poised in perfect grace. They shifted; a smile cracked. The archaic wooden room, heavy with dust and years of Yale history, faded as Fisk came into focus.
The president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate at Yale, Fisk, who uses any pronouns, became the first openly-identifying transgender, non-binary person to take this office when they were elected this April. In their new role, they lead the representation of the largest coalition of students on campus. The GPSS is made up of representatives from all 14 of Yale’s graduate and professional schools, and acts as the liaison between these schools and University administration.
“For someone to be able to handle all the different complex issues that come up for graduate students and professional students, Nick is the best person to do that,” Patrice Collins GRD ’22, former GPSS president and current professor of criminology and criminal justice and cultures, societies and global studies at Northeastern University, told the News. “[Fisk’s] just a kind person and I know we need good people in leadership positions at Yale.”
In addition to being a Senate leader for three years previously, Fisk is a 5th year PhD candidate in Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, a National Institute of Health funded scientist studying cancer resistance, a McDougal Fellow at the Poorvu Center, a Jonathan Edwards College graduate affiliate and a wrestling coach. Now, GPSS president is another bullet on their already storied academic career. With all of these accomplishments, it is no wonder Fisk has an 11-page CV.
But not long ago, Fisk was a scared kid trying to find themselves on the wrestling mat.
Starting in the ring
“It’s a sport about being in control of your body,” Fisk said of wrestling. They sat in their office on the top of Gryphon’s Pub and down the hall from the chambers, the dwindling cross breeze brushing past their long hair and the sun glinting off their glasses. “It was a thing I could do to make my body feel more like an ally than against me.”
They started wrestling in their high school in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Committed to taking part in a sport that would make them “cool,” they were thrust into a wave of rough-and-tumble kids who were not always kind.
Fisk was not a typical student athlete. When they were young, life at home was “fraught.” Their dad was in the military and was deployed often. Fisk and their two siblings lived with their birth mother, who struggled with drug addiction.
For most of their childhood, Fisk was unable to speak or write. They were unable to feel their hands, their motor functions outside of their control. Parents told their kids to stay away from them as they lived in the shadow of their mother’s reputation. Their teachers told them they would not graduate. They were timid and jumpy. But, they decided they wanted to wrestle.
It was in the wrestling ring that they came into themselves. At first, Fisk was terrible. They won one out of 31 matches that first year in New Mexico, and the one was because of a forfeit. But, they persisted, out of spite, if nothing else. And, after a move with their father to Idaho, Fisk found their footing in the ring. For the first time, Fisk developed a pride in their body, a “synergy … between body and self.”
When their father took Fisk out of their mother’s care when they were in 5th grade, he stood up for Fisk. To the world, Fisk was “not all there” — the public school system was ready to discard them as a “nonverbal kid who [couldn’t] write.” But their dad insisted that his kid was smart, and soon, it became clear he was right.
“There’s weird times in my life where I was both in the special ed and advanced classes, a very strange whiplash for me,” Fisk said. “They were like ‘go to this advanced math’ and then ‘go learn to tie your shoes,’ and that was not an atypical day for me for a long time.”
There was finally a sense of normalcy in Fisk’s life. They started dating a girl, had a house, a dad and a stepmom and no longer had to wait outside the school cafeteria for the doors to open so they could eat a meal. Their parents worked hard to build an all-American family. And Fisk was so close to being an all-American kid.
“I think I might want to be a woman.”
It was a text sent one night in Idaho when Fisk was 14 or 15 years old. The thoughts swirling about their brain had finally started to become coherent. The friend, one of the closest ones they had made, was not unkind but responded with a “shock” that flushed Fisk with panic. It was a jolting reminder of “the social weight that those words implied.” They took back what they had said quickly, telling their friend they were gay.
In the back of their mind for the years that followed was a murmur which Fisk tried to suppress: “think about transitioning, think about transitioning, think about transitioning.” It was a possibility that would mean ending their facade of normalcy.
“But as it turns out, you can’t just wish away that sort of feeling,” Fisk said.
After navigating the college application process without much guidance, Fisk arrived at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the fall of 2011. There, Fisk was one of the “top dogs” of the wrestling team, according to the head coach at the time. By their senior year, they were a captain of the team.
After much deliberation, they decided to double major in bioinformatics and biotechnology. They had always liked science, although they were unsure what a scientist exactly did. The choice was a challenge, both because of the educational gaps coming from their “subpar public education” and because hand mobility remained a difficulty for Fisk.
“[I had to do] very precise things with my hands, which was a real challenge to me. Pipetting took me a long time to get down,” Fisk said. “But, ultimately I am glad I got through it, because again that idea of control and seeing some progress of what I was able to do with my body.”
In 2017, Fisk began as a student in Yale’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in the lab of Dr. Jeffrey Townsend. Their experience, academically and in the lab, was incredibly positive. However, Fisk said their initial time at Yale was marred by their faculty landlord, who two years later, would be found to have sexually assaulted and harrased students in an independent investigation commissioned by the University. Fisk, who was unaware that they were part of a pattern and grateful for a place to live, survived the landlord’s sexual manipulation and misconduct for nearly a year and a half.
It was another survivor stepping forward that made Fisk decide to pack up and leave. They were functionally homeless for two weeks and in the coming months lapsed into a “profound” depression, unsure if they could stay at Yale at all. Then, they discovered the wrestling team, giving into the sweaty mats and pinfalls to find themselves again.
The team looked out for Fisk, and Fisk looked out for the team. Two of the wrestlers “saw that I was really disturbed, really not okay,” and took them under their wing. Fisk began coaching from the sidelines, and then took a more formal coaching position.
Wyatt Sluga ’23, who captained Yale’s wrestling team for the past two years, said that it took becoming captain to understand how much Fisk “had been doing for all of us.” Each day Sluga said Fisk would run over from doing research to teach practice, getting there a minute or two early to clean all of the mats.
“I remember thinking wow they put so much time into the wrestling team, like how do they do anything else … but then I learned they do that with all of their activities,” Sluga said. “If I had to describe Nick in one word, it would be generous.”
It was important to Fisk to help others, and after their experience with the landlord they wanted to make a difference. The Title IX reports released each semester show that sexual assault is not uncommon on campus, but it seemed to Fisk that no one ever discussed the issue.
During Fisk’s second year of graduate school, they ran for Senate. At first, they thought they had signed up for the Graduate Student Assembly, the governing body for GSAS. Instead, they had unknowingly run for GPSS, which is made up of representatives from all the graduate and professional schools. They were elected, and became involved in initiatives such as the Period Project, pushing for Yale to provide menstrual hygiene products for graduate and professional school students around campus.
For the two years after, they served as funding and publications chair and composed the “backbone” of the executive board, according to preceding president Collins. During the pandemic they worked closely with Collins, assisting with technology needs to get the Senate and student population through the shut down. They spearheaded a complete renovation of the website and led the development of a robust five year strategic plan, an about 50-page document collating the progress made by the Senate and their strategy and aims going forward.
“[Fisk has] institutional knowledge [from] being on executive board for so long and working with me closely to make a difference, positive impact for student life at Yale,” Collins said.
She added that Fisk was “instrumental” in conversations with administration, and uplifting student voices and their concerns regarding “belonging at Yale.”
As Fisk regained their footing, they decided internally they needed to make a plan about making their time at Yale sustainable. “What do I need to be happy?” they asked themselves. They decided they needed to be around “kind people,” they needed to do something that “helps people,” and one more thing:
“I need to transition,” Fisk realized.
In October 2019, Fisk started hormone replacement therapy, or HRT. It was difficult to begin because even though transitioning was something Fisk had thought about for most of their life, it meant “relinquishing control of [their] body,” something they had worked so hard to gain. They came out to the wrestlers on their team, and were accepted with a warm embrace.
“It’s no secret now that I’m some flavor of trans.” Fisk said. “I struggle to say exactly what. The fact of the matter is, I have hormones inside of me, and I’m moving in a trajectory. If I knew the final destination, I’m not afraid to say it or anything, but I just don’t. Turns out gender is a hard, complicated thing.”
On May 30, 2022, Fisk took office as the president of the GPSS. They spent the summer setting up for the year ahead — including releasing a statement on and wrestling with the overturning of Roe v. Wade. As the school year began, Fisk considered actions the GPSS could take on this front, and carefully designed a “Reproductive Rights Healing Circle” program for graduate and professional school students, which will take place in November. The circles aim to facilitate discussion of how students can, in the context of the overturning, care for themselves, best teach and guide undergraduate students and mentees and effect larger change.
Influenced by their own experience with food insecurity, another of Fisk’s focuses has been working with administration in the hopes of establishing a food pantry for graduate and professional students.
In addition, Fisk has been working to develop partnerships with the Yale College Council and GSA. Senators for GPSS were recently seated, their first meeting last week, and as they settle into their new roles, they will push forward initiatives from last year such as the Period Project, as well as decide on new focuses for the year going forward.
After posing in the chambers in their wrestling singlet, Fisk opened the door of The Gryphon and stepped out into the late afternoon rays.
“Can you take a picture for me,” they asked, cheeks tinged slightly pink. “My partner always says I don’t have any pictures of myself.”
They stood under an arch, after changing into a flowy blue dress. Their blond hair rested across their shoulders. The skirt fluttered in the last breaths of the summer wind, their dress so blue between the stone gray. For a moment, everything was still.