Transgender students share unique perspectives

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Editor’s note: This is part one of a three part series sharing the stories of transitioning transgender students and their interactions with the K-State community.

As students walk along the pathways on campus, most are oblivious to those around them. Often, people will look down at the ground to avert eye contact with those walking past.

But what if, for a brief moment, you did catch a glimpse of someone passing by. Perhaps you aren’t sure if this person identifies as male or female. Perhaps this person has a masculine build, yet possesses a feminine appearance.

The person you notice might be a member of K-State’s growing transgender community.

According to the National Center for Transgender Equality, transgender people are those, “whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.” Transgender students present themselves as the gender that is opposite of how they were biologically born. Before these students transitioned, they lived “cisgender” lives. Cisgender is when the way you present yourself on the outside reflects the sex you were given at birth.

“[When I began transitioning] I was presenting in what I would have considered a masculine fashion, but it was very flamboyant and kinda glam rock-y,” Adam O’Brien, senior in fine arts, said. “Because of my body structure and my voice, people often saw me as a woman, and more than that a lesbian, which I wasn’t at all, ever. Wanting to be one identity and people referring to me and addressing me as the complete opposite was incredibly conflicting. The clash of both of those worlds was when I knew I needed to change something.”

O’Brien started transitioning into a male gender during his freshman year at K-State four years ago. He first came out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allied community members. Then, he began coming out to a larger sphere of people including professors, classmates and his family.

During his sophomore year at K-State, either through email or in class, he began asking professors to refer to him as Adam. He said there were times in classes that professors or fellow students would refer to him as Adam, yet use feminine pronouns when talking about or to him.

O’Brien wasn’t the only one with this experience.

“There were a couple of points where I wouldn’t tell my teachers before showing up to class on the first day [that I was transitioning],” Will Harmon, junior in English, said. “I only did that for my third semester here, even though I had been transitioning for at least two previous semesters. By my fourth semester here, I was so tired of trying to explain it. The roster would say one name with corresponding pronouns, and I preferred a completely different name with opposite pronouns. So, I emailed all of my professors before the first day of classes.”

Harmon said he emailed professors about students using his correct name, but with the wrong pronouns. He would email professors about the issue instead of calling those students out in class.

“I introduce myself as Will,” Harmon said. “How many girls do you know named Will?”

Harmon and O’Brien both began their transitions after graduating from high school and going straight to college. For Taylor Suppes, sophomore in agricultural business, that wasn’t the case.

Suppes took time off to train to be a part of the U.S. Marine Corps. Unfortunately, he was injured before completing the training and was automatically denied the ability to sign. He then decided he was going to attend college, but didn’t have the money for it.

“I took a year off and modeled,” Suppes said. “I was favored [by photographers] and had images sold and published. Once I had enough money, though, I came to K-State and began my transition. When I got here, I was put on an all girls floor [in the dorms]. I wasn’t fully out until the last few months of spring semester my freshman year. But, that whole year I was wearing boys clothes around campus and stuff.”

Harmon and O’Brien have both legally changed their names within the state of Kansas, and are referred to as such by all of their professors. Suppes, however, has yet to legally change his name.

“It was actually really easy to change my name,” O’Brien said. “I went to Student Legal Services. The woman I worked with was really cool with it, understanding and accepting. I had to pay the legal fee and she did the rest. She set a court date. We showed up. The judge signed the piece of paper and that was it. Only took about two months from start to finish.”

Harmon went through a similar process around the same as O’Brien, about 15 months ago.

Harmon said once he legally changed his name, he sent his information to the residence life coordinator for the Van Zile Complex, where he was living at the time, and she passed his information through avenues it needed to go in order for his name to be corrected.

In other states, transgender people can be denied name changes. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, in some states, transgender people can go through “common law name change.” This refers to when one changes their name in everyday social interactions, but not legally. However, others may have to petition the name change. In some states, judges require a transgender petitioner to prove they have undergone medical procedures that show intention of living fully as the gender associated with the name.

Though Harmon’s and O’Brien’s name changes went smoothly, others are not as fortunate. Depending on the assigned judge, it is possible to be denied a name change for a transgender person in Kansas. If a name change is granted, as of 2010, Kansas will not change names or gender identities on birth certificates. Transgender people could also find it difficult to change their names by having to go through unnecessary testing, petitions or qualifications such as having to undergo medical procedures before requesting a name change.

Harmon, O’Brien and Suppes are all female to male transgender students. This means they are transitioning from the gender of female, corresponding with their birth sex, to male. They present as male and live their lives as male. Kara Baker, lab technician in plant pathology, is a male to female transgender staff member at K-State.

Baker immediately got a job after graduating from K-State with a degree in microbiology in spring 2013. Once she graduated, she began transitioning, including living full-time as a woman. She also has legally changed her name within the state of Kansas.

Baker was lucky to both graduate and receive a job. Many transgender people are not so fortunate. According to a Sept. 15 article by Cristan Williams from the Transadvocate, transgender people tend to graduate from high school 23 percent less than the general population but receive 9 percent more college degrees than the general population. Transgender students will sometimes drop out of high school but later complete their GED. Furthermore, transgender people also earn 11 percent more graduate degrees than the general population.

Often, educational level is directly related to the ability to find a job. This statement does not hold true for transgender people. According to the aforementioned Transadvocate article, even with more trans-inclusive, non-discrimination policies being passed from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, transgender people still have a more difficult time finding and keeping a job than the general population.

According to the 253 respondents of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey from April 2011, 20 percent of transgender people have lost their job because of their gender transition. However, 30 percent said they were not hired due to their transgender status and 17 percent said they were denied a promotion due to being transgender. When an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the total U.S. population is transgender in some form, according to the Transgender Law Center, there are incredible disparities in education and employment among transgender people.

Baker, Suppes, Harmon and O’Brien all acknowledge that higher education is important. All four are successful and passionate about their respective degree choices.

They realized their internal identities did not match who they wanted to be. They transitioned from their previous gender to their current identity. They scoured the Internet, some found the LGBT community, asked questions of what they were experiencing and realized the internal conflicts they faced with their physical body and their gender identity were not common among the majority of their peers. Through the LGBT community, they realized they are and were not alone in their journey and transition.

“Everyone often asks if I want to just blend in with society once I’m done transitioning,” Suppes said. “I want to pass, yeah, but I want my story to be known. Other people go through similar transitions, questioning who they are, why they don’t understand and you have no one to turn to and talk to about it. It’s hard enough going through something like this that is all your own, but once you find that community that is out, it makes the transition so much easier.”

Please send all comments to edge@kstatecollegian.com

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