Transgender at BU

in Uncategorized
September 21st, 2015

Students find a welcome, but want a few changes

Ray arrived on the BU campus two years ago as a freshman from Texas who identified as female and lesbian. A sociology class that October changed everything.

“Some theorist had talked about how everything we think about in society is a social construct,” Ray (a pseudonym) says. “We were talking about that in direct relation to gender, and there was a moment when I felt, in my brain, like something fell apart. I could feel the fabric of my reality crumbling. It was scariest thing I’d ever felt. I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not a female.’ That thought had never crossed my mind before. It was really shocking to me as an 18-year-old. What am I supposed to do with this information?”

Ray (CAS’17) came to BU in part because it promised a more welcoming environment than that in Texas. “I had never really thought about identifying as transgender while I was growing up or at school, but I think that may have been due to lack of exposure and lack of a comfortable space to explore,” Ray says. “When I came to BU, a lot of things changed for me, perspective-wise.”

So Ray spent much of freshman year grappling with gender identity in “crisis mode,” and on-campus counseling didn’t provide an answer. “People can point you to resources,” Ray says, “but it’s your personal identification that only you can figure out internally.”

These days, Ray identifies as neither male nor female, but somewhere else on the gender spectrum. Like many people in the trans community, Ray rejects the idea of gender as purely binary, and prefers “they” as a singular pronoun, instead of he or she.

Ray found like-minded people to talk to at BU’s student Center for Gender, Sexuality & Activism and the Trans* Listening Circle hosted there: “I knew I had peers in that space that I could talk to about what I was feeling. That’s where I went to find support.”

There’s no count of transgender students at the University, and no one interviewed really wants to venture a guess. An unrelated survey on the climate around sexual misconduct taken last March and April found that about one percent of 5,875 student respondents identified as trans, gender queer, or other.

“I will say that, anecdotally, it seems the number of students who are publicly identifying as trans or nonbinary is on the rise,” says Stacy Ulrich, director of the College of Arts & Sciences Student Programs & Leadership and faculty advisor of the Trans* Listening Circle.

Ray is one of three transgender students who agreed to talk to BU Today about their experience at BU, where, they say, the University has done a good bit to support trans people, but still needs to do more.

Clearly this year is a turning point. The transition of Caitlyn Jenner created the biggest media splash, following Orange Is the New Black actress Laverne Cox, who made the cover of Time magazine in 2014 in a story touting “the social movement poised to challenge deeply held cultural beliefs.” The White House recently hired its first openly transgender staffer. And just last night, Jeffrey Tambor won the Emmy award for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for his role as Maura Pfefferman in the acclaimed Amazon series Transparent.

But not all the news is promising. According to Time, between January and August this year, 15 trans people were murdered, most of them young women of color.

Cameron Partridge, an Episcopal chaplain at BU, came out as a transgender man 14 years ago when he was a doctoral student. He says it’s important to remember that “the Trans Day Remembrance movement started about a mile from BU, with the killing of Rita Hester in 1998.” Hester, whose killer was never found, was stabbed to death in her apartment in Allston. Many in the trans community believe that her murder was a hate crime, and a yearly vigil held in remembrance has grown into the national movement.

Suicide is also a major issue. A study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Williams Institute found that 41 percent of trans people try to kill themselves at some point in their lives, compared with 4.6 percent of the general public.

Pronouns matter

Discussion of transgender issues has been front and center on many campuses this year. Harvard recently began accepting “they” and other gender-neutral pronouns as part of the registration procedure. Women’s colleges, including Wellesley and Smith, decided after public discussion to accept applications from transgender women.

“It’s such a weird cultural moment. So many people are becoming aware that trans people happen—and we have always happened everywhere,” says Michelle Samuels (GRS’16), a transgender woman who began her transition in earnest a year ago, when she came to BU to pursue a master’s in the Creative Writing Program.

“Society is at this point—and the campus is at this point—where we are trying to get our head around it all,” says Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), BU’s dean of students. “There is a cultural shift that is happening as far as how you engage with transgender people, and how we are all respecting what that means, how we are making sure we respect the dignity and worth of that individual.”

The three BU students have not been openly threatened or harassed, and they say their lives in the BU community are defined, for better or worse, by small moments: an awkward, distressing encounter at the door of a FitRec bathroom, or a helpful faculty member going beyond the call of duty to cut through red tape.

“If my professors didn’t support me, I think the whole thing would have been much harder,” says Jamie Weinand (MED’17), who came out as a transgender man during the last school year. “They made me feel really empowered to be who I am.”

Transgender people and their supporters pay careful attention to the words they use to describe themselves and their journeys, especially names and pronouns: he, she, they.

“For a trans student, that’s who they are,” says Ulrich. “Having others respect you as a person is one of the most important things in life, and you want to feel like you’re respected by the person that’s teaching you in classroom, by your roommate, by your friends, by staff you interact with on a daily basis.”

Samuels, who was hired this month as an assistant editor and social media coordinator in the School of Public Health communications office, says SPH has been wonderful and her overall BU experience positive, including with those in her MFA program.

“I haven’t experienced any kind of classic textbook harassment or meanness or bullying,” says Samuels. “On the other hand, there are the everyday things that really grind you down. Pronouns are a big one, being misgendered by strangers, accidentally misgendered by people who know my pronouns, being called ‘sir’ at the burrito truck.”

Tangling up gender and sexuality

It’s not uncommon for gender and sexuality to get tangled up as young people grapple with their identity. All three students say they’d come out as gay or lesbian to family members and others before they fully understood that what they were struggling with was more about gender than sexuality. Samuels says her feelings of femininity were a source of confusion, given that she was—and is—attracted mainly to women. At first, those feelings seemed to fit certain stereotypes.

So Samuels first came out as a gay man. “Erroneously!” she says, with a big laugh.

Although people increasingly address gender identity in high school and even before, many confront the issue during their college years. “People are solidifying who they are,” says Partridge. “They have a little freedom, space from their home context, so it’s a time of exploration. That’s just true in general.”

Samuels avoided the issue during her relatively happy undergraduate years at Hampshire College. “One of things that kind of scared me when trying to figure this out was that I haven’t known for my entire life,” she says. “I’ve known something was off my entire life, but I think most people feel kind of off most of their lives. I started to bump up against gender role stuff in middle school. I started thinking a lot about the idea of being female-bodied in high school. It’s a thing that has gradually become clearer. But the fact that I didn’t say at age five, ‘I’m a girl,’ doesn’t mean I’m not trans. People come to it differently.”

When she came to BU for grad school, Samuels made a pact with herself to take advantage of the Boston area’s many medical and counseling resources and start working it out. “The more attention I gave to it, the more the excuses and doubts started to look flimsier and flimsier, and the need to transition continued to feel very pressing,” she says.

Talking with a social worker at Student Health Services Behavioral Medicine started to help with her internal conflict, known as gender dysphoria, and she now seeing a therapist at BU’s Danielsen Institute.

“I started at Fenway Health with hormone replacement therapy back in the middle of March,” she says. “I joined a support group in Cambridge of student-age and grad-student-age people. It’s really proven the great place to be doing it that I expected Boston to be, and BU’s doing a pretty good job too.”

In summer 2014, before Weinand came out as trans, one of his School of Medicine professors asked him and another student for help writing a new piece of curriculum for the first-year Introduction to Clinical Medicine course. The professor wanted to offer students some instruction in patient interviewing that took into account gender identity.

“And I thought, wow, you have the initiative to want to include this in your class? That’s wonderful,” Weinand says.

The module they wrote debuted this past spring in the class, taught by Nanette Harvey, a MED assistant professor, and has since became part of the resource library for the Society of Teachers of Family Medicine. Weinand is also the first author on a study published in the Journal of Clinical & Translational Endocrinology that concluded hormone therapy in transgender adults is safe with supervision.

Weinand says faculty and administrators helped make his campus experience after coming out a positive one, especially Karen Symes, MED assistant dean of student affairs, and Douglas Hughes, associate dean of academic affairs. Single-stall, gender-assigned bathrooms on the Medical Campus became gender neutral. Gender-identity and pronoun-selection options were added to the online admissions form. Weinand’s chosen name appeared on paperwork before it was in the directory.

“The Medical Campus has been awesome,” says the upbeat Weinand.

BU can be proud, but more can be done

Some BU policies directly support trans people, and as Ulrich says, “BU should be proud of that.” For example, University health insurance covers hormone therapy and some other aspects of a transition, and BU has a gender neutral housing option, created in part to ensure that LGBT students feel safe in their living situation, although the policy is not specifically crafted for them.

Trans students seeking counseling can find support at Behavioral Medicine, as Samuels did. And Partridge says he is available to anyone who wants to talk informally. He can be reached through Marsh Chapel.

But Ulrich and others believe more can be done to make the University a welcoming place for trans students. This summer, she and a pair of students associated with the Trans* Listening Circle spoke on transgender issues to a meeting of the University administration’s Campus Activities Team—a group whose mission is to develop an environment conducive to learning and personal development for all students.

“The big takeaway here was the extreme deficit in knowledge and programming around LGBT issues at BU,” team chair Raul Fernandez (COM’00), associate director of Student Activities, says. “We need to do more, and we need expert staff members that are specifically assigned to work with this population, and to educate the rest of us on related issues.”

Until now, trans students have had to rely on individual faculty and administration members to step up, and that will change, says Elmore.

“What we’re trying to do with the working group is look at ways that those things can happen systematically,” he says. “This is about a cultural shift in thinking…so it can happen with students saying, ‘Here’s who I am, here’s what I’m about, and this is why I may need a set of circumstances that may not happen very often.’” That will probably include more and better-marked gender-neutral bathrooms and changes in policies or operations concerning how students are identified in college systems, he says.

“I think we were doing a lot of this before some of the national attention that this summer has brought to it,” Elmore says. “The great thing about this summer is that it’s gotten us all thinking a lot about it, and hopefully that does help us to move a bit faster.”

Practical challenges

Students hope that administrative attention will help solve some of the day-to-day problems and bureaucratic glitches that trans students can still face. Ray found it difficult to negotiate a new gender-neutral housing arrangement after a planned roommate didn’t return to school. Samuels, who graduates in January, spent weeks trying to make sure her correct name would appear on her diploma, and ended up prodding the Registrar’s office via email for a quick change.

“They wrote back pretty quickly saying, ‘We do not currently have a policy,’” she says. “They said, ‘We’re working on developing one. But in the meantime, we’re changing names and gender on a one-by-one basis and we’ll put that it right in.’ And they did.”

Samuels is still trying to get a new ID and picture, which also appears in the directory accessible to faculty. In the outdated picture now in use, she has a beard, she says, and seeing it is both strange and painful.

Weinand complains about the lack of a gender neutral restroom in FitRec. “Basically you’re telling me that transgender people who don’t feel comfortable in the assigned gender restrooms can’t work out or have to go work out and feel uncomfortable,” he says. “I’ve certainly done the thing where I use the outside locker and don’t go into the single-sex bathroom, and I just hold it.”

He’s had doors slammed in his face, he says, and has heard more than one nasty comment when he was still using the women’s restroom. He takes a deep breath, his otherwise cheerful demeanor gone for a moment.

“If you are wondering, if you don’t know the gender of someone or what bathroom they’re supposed to use, don’t worry about it, it’s not your issue,” Weinand advises, then smiles again. “I’ve also had people who did the opposite, who found me as a fairly masculine-presenting persona and still held the door for me when I was entering the women’s restroom…whether that person knew it or not, it was a huge ally move.”

The heart of the college experience is the classroom, and the students say that most, but not all, professors are quick to accommodate new names and pronouns.

“It’s hard for students to be empowered by what they’re learning when they’re hampered by not being able to be who they are in the classroom,” says Partridge, who navigated the issue as a grad student. “When they can be who they are, the classroom becomes this launching pad, not in a utilitarian career sense, but in a full-human-being sense.”

Support is welcome, probing questions less so, say Partridge and the trans students. Fellow students who find out that a classmate is trans should ask about pronouns, but not about their old name or what their family thinks. Particularly troubling to trans people are invasive questions about medical transitioning. None of your business, they say.

“For the first time, people are sort of aware that people transition, that people are trans,” says Samuels, “and that means there are a lot of people who react really horribly, and a lot of people who have every good intention don’t know how to go about it, and there are people who go and educate themselves, which is wonderful, and people who expect trans people to educate them—which is exhausting, but better than nothing.”

For many trans people, their story is still in progress, and they may be feeling vulnerable about it, Partridge says. Let them decide what parts of their story to share and with whom. “I think a good rule of thumb is, people’s stories are theirs to tell,” he says.

“Here’s the hard part,” says Elmore. “We can put a lot of systems in place, but there’s still going to be the interaction that students are going to have with each other—in offices, in workplaces, in residences, in classrooms—where you want this higher order thinking about the dignity and worth of a human being. And that’s where it will be awkward, and that’s where it may butt up against some old views that people have had for so long, or people who have been indifferent or haven’t even thought about this issue.”

This BU Today article was written by Joel Brown.