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.
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.”