I knew I was in trouble when my first letter from my dream school addressed me by the wrong name.
Frantic, I called the college, explaining that I was transgender, and informing them of my chosen name and pronouns. The person on the phone apologized profusely, said they would update their records, promised to fix the mistake.
However, from my experience as an undergraduate, I knew that what I was told was too good to be true. Seldom is anything “fixed.” I remembered how my face flushed when the wrong name was called out at graduation just months before, outing me in front of my entire graduating class; I remembered the dread I felt, being misgendered at the beginning of every semester. Mistakes like these aren’t fixed with a phone call, no matter how many times you call.
The best you can hope for is an apology, and in the end, that’s all I got.
If there’s anything I’ve learned during my college years, it’s this: When you’re a transgender university student, it is a constant battle to be recognized as your authentic self — even at the most progressive schools in the country.
I am a transmasculine graduate student at a women’s college. Despite not being a woman, I believed that I would feel at home. My college holds a legacy of social justice activism, and a firm commitment to diversity; I had high hopes, sharing this idea that women’s colleges are on the cutting-edge of trans* inclusion. However, upon arriving, I learned firsthand the distance that we still have to go.
In recent months, a number of women’s colleges, mine among them, have received high praise for establishing an official admissions policy that admits transgender students. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Whether or not the official admissions policy states it, there will always be gender diversity at women’s colleges — acknowledgement of this is important. And as safe spaces for people of marginalized gender, women’s colleges are uniquely situated to meet the needs of transgender students.
However, most trans* students will tell you that things are not always as they might seem. Universities across the country, women’s colleges included, are doing a whole lot of recruiting — but what does this mean for admitted students? Many trans* students, including myself, do not always feel safe or respected once they arrive. Numerous universities have made serious efforts to bring greater numbers of LGBTQ students to their campuses, but upon admission, these students find that the institutions are ill-equipped to meet their needs.
In my opinion, bringing transgender or queer students to a campus that is not safe is nothing short of irresponsible.
From day one, it was a struggle for me to even be seen. The battle began with my school ID, which staff members insisted could not have my actual name on it, but rather, would have my birth name. Even after coming out as trans* and explaining my situation, a staff member turned to a coworker and said, “She wants her ID to have a nickname.” She? Her? Nickname?
It was a slap in the face. Why wouldn’t they recognize my identity on a card that wasn’t even a legal form of identification? Why didn’t staff members know how to handle the situation? I eventually got my ID with the name Sam on it, but it took leaping through flaming hoops and tap-dancing on my hands before they would let me do it (metaphorically speaking, of course).
I was outraged to find out later that there were other trans* students who were not so lucky, and did not win this battle.
And it wasn’t just one incident. It was a systemic issue at the college, a constant that I came to expect. It was followed by numerous letters and emails where my birth name was consistently used, despite having “Sam” in the preferred name registry. Even after contacting numerous staff members to clarify my name and pronouns, it was as if I were invisible.
A staff member even said, quite flippantly, that the problem would be solved if I would “just legally change my name.” As if there aren’t complex reasons for why transgender people delay or do not legally change their names at all.
I applied to this college as Sam, live my life as Sam, am known and move through this world as Sam. My transition and naming of myself were powerful steps in living my fullest, most authentic life. Many folks wonder why the name and pronouns matter so much. It’s an issue of recognition and validation — as I’ve mentioned before, when we neglect to validate someone’s identity, it can make them feel unsafe, disrespected, and excluded.
Every financial aid consultation, every scheduling phone call, every interaction with staff became triggering and stressful — after one too many birth names and one too many “ma’ams,” I began to wonder if this commitment to transgender students was really just a front.
Why was it so difficult to get my name right?
By connecting with other transgender students, I discovered that I was not alone in my struggles. A fellow grad student told me that as a trans guy, he was placed in an all-women’s dorm his first year on campus, and faced resistance from administrators who told him he could not be moved; similarly, his diploma and alumni records defaulted to his birth name, a name he never once used at the college.
To be clear: Students should always be referred to by their chosen name, in every form of communication, which sends the clear message that the college respects and validates their identity. Further, the diploma they receive should follow suit – a diploma earned by Joe Smith should be awarded to Joe Smith. This should be simple, and it is not an issue of technicality or legality, but instead, an issue of dignity.
There were other major issues that I had to see to believe. I, too, struggled with housing. My college offered me no assistance in finding safe off-campus housing, asking me, in all seriousness, if I’d ever heard of Craigslist. I had moved across the country to an unfamiliar city, and had no idea where a transgender person could find somewhere safe to live. I was stuck.
Horrifyingly, I also found out that SAFE training simply did not exist for staff members — there was no telling if they even knew what I meant when I said I was trans*.
Without proper training, there is no way a college can consider themselves qualified to handle the increasing number of transgender students on their campus.
I am proud of these colleges for changing their admissions policies, and excited for the next wave of trans* students who enter these colleges. But I am also afraid for them. While admitting transgender students into women’s colleges is an important milestone, the fact still remains that many trans* students still struggle to have their identities recognized once they step foot on campus, and still struggle to find safe housing and safe spaces, both of which are essential.
Transgender students shouldn’t have to face an uphill battle when they enter these universities, especially those that advertise themselves as being inclusive. Yet in my experience, it is transgender students that shoulder the burden, rather than the institutions themselves that insisted on admitting more of us in the first place.
Transgender students need validation, respect, and safety. Admitting us is simply not enough.
My experiences, both as an undergrad and graduate student, point to a larger need for institutions of higher education to examine their policies – or lack thereof – and address the ways in which they are including or excluding transgender students, not merely from accessing an education, but also from feeling safe and validated when they’ve made the decision to attend that university.
This includes trans-specific training for staff, campus police, counselors, and health providers; competent counseling and health resources; designated safe spaces for queer students; preferred name registries that apply across the board (mail, email, class rosters, diplomas, alumni relations); gender neutral bathrooms; safe and appropriate housing; and designated advocates on campus who are easily reached, well-versed, and can address and respond to the complex needs of all queer and trans* students, including those of color.
And most importantly, transgender students should be made aware of these resources at their orientation. Resources are not helpful if they aren’t known or accessible.
I believe that women’s colleges are unique and powerful spaces, standing in direct opposition to gender-based oppression and, instead, creating an environment where marginalized communities can thrive. I also believe that transgender students know intimately the weight of that oppression, and, no doubt, have something at stake here. Their presence at women’s colleges is important, so long as they, specifically trans men, are mindful of the spaces that they occupy.
Furthermore, I am proud to attend a college with such a strong commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and social justice.
But those commitments can’t just be buzz words used in the recruitment process, promises made to prospective students to woo them. These commitments need to result in action. These commitments require ongoing work, and that work does not stop at admissions – rather, it begins there.
You’ve talked the talk. Now let’s see you walk the walk.
UPDATE (11/14/14): A response article has been written.
Great point about showing support for trans* students by actually recognizing their chosen names and identities. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience.
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Speaking from the point of view of a heterosexual female, society as a norm classifies humans into either male or female. I know that this classification is something you have written of before. The thing is we are raised, from an early age, as believing that either you are a boy or you are a girl.
You mention that these universities make a big hype about admitting “trans” students; well yes you are right the staff need to be educated as in what it actually means to be a “trans”. Since I live in a very conservative country to be quite honest I don’t know what it means. You feel miss-understood, not validated, disrespected? In my ignorance, I would not know how to handle that kind of situation. The only way people understand and learn how to handle such situations is if they are open enough to sit with you and listen to what you actually have to say.
If we were friends in real life, I would be able to speak to you and you would probably need to educate me on these issues. This would help me understand what it is like for someone like you. Help me understand and empathize with your cause. Keep on writing. If brave voices like yourself speak up, then those who are like me, who don’t want to disrespect you in any way, but who simply don’t know can start to understand. Healthy and respectful debate is needed on these issues.
I totally agree that the conversation needs to continue, because so many folks do not want to offend — they genuinely want to understand.
Out of curiosity, do you think it would be a good idea to do my own Trans 101 entry at LQTU? I think some readers need more context and I’m not sure that I’ve adequately given it just yet.
yes it is a good idea.
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With all due respect I am also confused by the current range of trans identities. Especially if you say you identify as transmasculine and anticipate male pronouns be used. Do you intend to transition medically and how do you derive your male identity.
I grew up in the 1960-70s clearly, female bodied but clearly aware of a “boy” inside. This was an era of gender as a social construct and I was not a tom boy. I wanted to learn how to feel like a girl and was afraid the “boy” would be discovered. Puberty brought a strong attraction to males which was even homoerotic at times (remember no internet, books and music were my avenues). I also became increasingly aware that as a girl I was always at odds in trying to relate to other girls and figuring out how they thought and engaged socially. I used to say “I hate women”. At university feminism was still harshly man hating and with no attraction to women I missed the gay revolution of the 80s though we had many gay friends. I met a guy I was comfortable with and got married to protect my fragile female identity.
After many years and even two children to prove I could find a home in my female body which I had begun to really feel at odds with, I had a breakdown and started to question my sexuality. Finally I made my way to discover transmen, the power of T and the existence of gay FTMs. I was about 38 by this time. My marriage ended and I had to pull together professionals to help me start transition. 16 years later (14 on T) and no one questions my gender. I live as a gay man. My gendered history is mine to reveal as needed though I will write “in community” for older transmen.
If you truly identify as masculine gendered why would you want to go to a women’s college? Given my perspective and the experiences of so many men like myself who struggled their way through lesbian or, less commonly, straight community before risking everything to be whole in the world, it sounds to me like you are either uncertain or wanting to create waves. But it does sound that you may be inviting frustration by expecting people to have a psychic ability to read an identity that you don’t present.
I don’t mean to disrespect you, but I offer the challenge from my own hard won perspective.
I had to give this some time before I responded in full because, honestly, your comment really offended me. Whether you intended to or not, that’s what happened.
It was also one comment among a string of responses that invalidated my identity.
I intend to address some of these questions and more about my transition in the future. For now, I wrote a response article to some of the comments and tweets I received, which can be read here: https://letsqueerthingsup.com/2014/11/14/i-am-transgender-and-i-am-trans-enough/
In response to your question about why I attend a women’s college — the graduate programs are co-ed. Beyond that, women’s colleges, as I state in this article, have always been spaces of gender diversity and my particular college has always been one of marginalized gender. There is a visible queer presence on this campus, so I felt safe and excited to attend. Additionally, as an activist, I wanted to attend a college with a legacy of social justice work. Finally, the university advertises itself as being trans-inclusive, a problem that I identify in this piece.
Using language like “if you truly identify” and “you say you identify” suggests that I am unsure, or making a claim that is untrue; saying I don’t “present” as my identity implies I am doing gender wrong or that transmasculine people should look a certain way. All of these statements are incredibly problematic, and I encourage you to read the response article and rethink the way you talk to trans* folks about their identities.
Additionally, asking someone about their body or surgeries they might have is not relevant to this article, and generally not appropriate.
Lastly, I can understand the confusion around the spectrum of identities, because so many folks fall under this umbrella of “transgender.” These words are evolving all of the time, and it can be difficult to keep up. I am transmasculine, which is usually not the same as identifying as a transman.
You did not mean to disrespect, but suggesting that I am confused about my identity, that I’m doing gender wrong/not presenting correctly, and implying that I am not trans* all invalidate my identity and can be really triggering. There are better ways of asking the questions that you did, and questioning the legitimacy of my identity was not necessary.
I am glad that you have been able to self-actualize your identity in a way that works for you. Not everyone is in the same place, or wishes to follow the same path.
I am sorry for the tone of my post. You would probably find that my knowledge and acceptance of a range of transgender experiences is much wider than it may have come across. I am also going through a lot of personal re-evaluation at this point because I struggle with my need to write more publicly about my own trans history and my desire to control the release of that detail in social settings. In my life there are so many elements of my past that I cannot hide or wipe out given the age at which I did transition, little F’s and links to my past name that “stealth” is not an option, so I always have to re-balance. I have also experienced many disrespectful challenges to my identity, choices regarding hormones and surgery (or not) from within the LGBT community over the years.
I am willing to own my choices but I am not sure how I would have responded if the images and options open to yourself (and my children’s generation) had been available. I also value the role models who themselves fall along the gender spectrum who were important in my own search for self and have a close transmasculine friend who must be close to 60 now who is one of my dearest trans supports.
You are fortunate to be comfortable in your identity at this time in your life and I hope the college you have chosen works well for you. I have seen so many transmen completely rejected by women focused spaces over the years and it can only be positive if inclusivity and diversity are more than just platitudes moving forward. The ability to share, debate and explore the very different experiences that LGBT individuals have encountered across generations will only help not only for the spaces you seek to find recognition in but to ease the coming out processes for the many LGBT individuals who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
Thank you for your measured response. Confusion is not necessarily disrespect but I suspect that for any of us who travel such paths across or between the black and white of a narrow view of gender can be a little defensive and protective at times and I know that in this case it may say more about where I am at right now making sense of a life recently upended by a mental health disorder that, if I am correct, we also have in common.
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I wanted to thank you for the apology and for also having a really level-headed response — I can tell that what you are saying is sincere and I appreciate that.
The last paragraph especially spoke to me. “I suspect that any of us who travel such paths . . . can be a little defensive and protective at times.” That’s incredibly true for me, especially when we are conditioned to expect a certain reaction. We become so accustomed to attacks on our identity that we brace ourselves for it, even when that may not be what’s actually at stake.
I should add, your comment happened in the context of many other comments coming my way that were in an invalidating sort of vein, so my interpretation was very much impacted by that.
I think you have the best of intentions, and I am wishing you all the best as you move forward. I’m very privileged to have access to the resources that I do, and I’m still amazed at how things were for trans folks even just a short time ago. I admire your courage and I am certain that whatever you are facing now, you can handle with as much dignity and determination as you did your transition when you embarked on that journey years ago.
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It sucks that they don’t get it, and you should take it up with the administration. They should have a policy for dealing with this (you might want to draft them for one since they seem to have gotten it all wrong).
Just out of curiosity, since you are not a minor, why don’t you legally change your name? I only ask because I did a legal name change (left the gender marker at F) and it has made my life much much easier. I also removed all the honorifics (Ms. etc.) off of all of my accounts – so my mail comes to me gender-neutral.
The primary reason I have not legally changed my name is because I am getting married in May. I would rather do my name change then, when it’s already a part of the process.
Other trans* folks do not change their names because they are not out to their families, for example, and it isn’t safe to be out. College is also a time when folks explore their identity, and many trans* people are just trying out a name and haven’t yet settled on it — and colleges need to respect that process.
In the end, I think that these would be simple fixes — making the preferred name registry streamlined, and training staff members. It’s just a question of whether or not the admin wants to do it. I’ve been working with a few faculty members and advocating for these changes, so we’ll see what happens!
Congratulations on your upcoming wedding and name change wrapped up in one.
I know a lot of kids can’t do anything legally, but I am amazed at the number of trans guys in their mid-20’s and early 30’s that I have met who are on T (and read as male) but who have not yet done a legal name change or updated their documents (so it looks like a mis-match).
For me, doing the legal name change was liberating – and freed me from having to ask people to call me Jamie – particularly in the work place/professionally and in places like a hospital or clinic.
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I’m so sorry that you have to deal with that as often as you do. It’s going to take a cultural shift, a necessary one, to accommodate the fluid nature of gender and identity . I’d love to see colleges take steps but so much more should be done. We have to start at home by teaching our kids that gender is fluid and people come in all different shapes. If we don’t do that than all the other changes that go into providing a safe space for everyone are going to be tough.
Beautiful post. I love your blog.
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If we were in the same room, you would’ve seen me snapping as I read your comment! Amen. We need that shift, and I agree, starting with kids (and ourselves!) is where this needs to begin.
Thank you so much! 🙂