The Oregon State University Sesquicentennial Oral History Project

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Brenda McComb Oral History Interview

Life history interview conducted by Chris Petersen and Kalia Flocker.

February 24, 2015


Brenda Coleen McComb was born William McComb in 1952. Growing up on her family's New England farm, McComb long harbored a sense that her true identity did not match with her assigned gender. Though being treated and referred to as a boy did not feel right to her, McComb was hesitant to reveal these feelings and largely kept them a secret for almost fifty years. As a youth she coped with her emotions by going walks around the farm; later she took up running and motorcycle racing, partly as a means of distraction.

In 1970 McComb began her college years at the University of Connecticut, receiving a B.S. in Natural Resources Conservation in 1974 and a M.S. in Wildlife Management in 1976. From there she moved on to Louisiana State University, earning a Ph.D. in Forestry, with a minor in zoology, in 1979.

Her studies completed, McComb was hired to her first academic position as an Assistant Professor in the University of Kentucky's Department of Forestry. She also married her wife, Gina, that year - their first son, Kevin, was born in 1985. Not long after their son's birth, McComb and her wife decided to move to Oregon, in part because they preferred the Pacific Northwest as a region, but also because more was happening with respect to natural resources in Oregon than was the case in Kentucky. McComb ultimately taught and conducted research in the Department of Forest Sciences and the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University from 1987-1996.

In 1996 McComb left OSU in favor of the University of Massachusetts, where she worked in the university's Department of Natural Resources Conservation. She began her career in upper administration in 2008, serving as Dean for Research and Outreach in the College of Natural Resources and the Environment.

During her time at the University of Massachusetts, McComb also began her formal gender transition. For some time, McComb had been seeing a therapist for depression issues, many of which were stemming from her feelings about gender. Her therapist ultimately referred her to another specialist who helped her to begin her transition. This process involved finding a support group, talking to family, coming out at work, and connecting with medical doctors for hormone therapies and surgical procedures. After her eldest son, Kevin, graduated from high school and her younger son, Mike, finished the eighth grade, McComb formally came out as a woman to co-workers, administrators, and students at the University of Massachusetts. In 2003 she began her medical transition and officially changed her name to Brenda.

In 2009 McComb returned to OSU to lead the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. Two years later, in 2011, she was appointed Dean of OSU's Graduate School, and in 2016 she was named Vice Provost for Academic Affairs. McComb is also a member of the OSU Board of Trustees and is involved with the OSU Curriculum Council and the Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity Leadership Council.

When McComb arrived at OSU, there was no trans support group in the community or on campus. She and another transwoman decided to create one, first hosted at OSU's Pride Center, and later at the Corvallis Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. While at OSU, McComb regularly taught a Queer Studies course on transgender lives and continued to serve as an advocate for trans students and staff at OSU. She retired from the university in 2016.