Transgender students adjust to their families, society during transition

Hannah Hunsinger | Collegian Taylor Suppes, sophomore in agricultural business, shows how he looks before he began transitioning. Suppes, a male to female transgender, was born a woman and his gender adhered to that social norm before he began his transition.

Editor’s note: This is part two of a three part series sharing the stories of transitioning transgender students and their interactions with their families, home life and adjusting to new social norms.

Students coming to college each individually experience that transition of their life differently. Some may miss home and their families. Others may enjoy the complete freedom collegiate life has to offer.

For others though, college could be the time in their lives to find and transition into who they really are. For three current K-State students and a recent K-State alumna, the collegiate experience was about finding their true gender identity and transitioning into the men and woman they are today.

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 male or female based on societal or cultural norms 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 one was given at birth.

Currently, three students are female to male transgender. This means they are moving from a female gender, corresponding with their birth sex, to male. There is one recent alumna who is a male to female transgender staff member at K-State. She lives her life as a woman, even though she was born with the sex of a man and lived as a man before her transition.

Adam O’Brien, senior in fine arts, has been transitioning for more than four years. He is now categorized as “stealth,” which the Connecticut Outreach Society defines as a transgender person who has transitioned enough to live as their preferred gender without other people knowing they are transgender.

“I grew up in Lawrence, so progressive-ness was all around [me and my family],” O’Brien said. “When I came out, [my immediate family] was accepting of it, but it was hard for them to wrap their heads around it. For them, it was even sort of more difficult because they saw my transition in stages. I would come home from K-State and look completely different break to break. My extended family was accepting, not necessarily understanding, but they’re really cool with it now. Sometimes, they’ll mess up pronouns every once in a while, but they continue to get better with time.”

For Will Harmon, junior in English, it was a slightly different experience. Harmon is originally from Americus, Kan. with a population of slightly less than 900 people.

Harmon said he doesn’t see his family a lot since coming to college. His sisters weren’t too enthusiastic about his transition. While his transition didn’t change the fact that Harmon was their sibling, his sisters were losing a sister for a brother, something they weren’t used to. He told his parents before telling his siblings.

“My mom, I guess, she was alright with it,” Harmon said. “She did offer to tell all of my relatives once I came out and began transitioning. I don’t know how my extended family took it. I know my younger cousins, between the ages of 9 and 14, still use my birth name and feminine pronouns. But my older cousins will, like, message me on Facebook and make sure I’m OK.”

Harmon said his dad would ask if he was doing this just to be strange or different, which was a question he was frequently asked.

“No. Who would want to be so different that they were so hated by the majority of the population?” Harmon said.

Growing up in different geographic areas can affect how families react to their children wanting to transition into the opposite gender than how they were raised. Taylor Suppes, sophomore in agricultural business, grew up in Olathe. He said his family wanted him to grow up to be a member of “regular” society – he was expected to be the perfect successful person with lots of money, a big house and too many cars.

“My mother and I don’t speak now that I am transitioning,” Suppes said. “She knows that I am [transitioning] to some degree. She always expected something of me, something that I’m not. I’ve always tried to make her happy and be the perfect child. Then I realized I wasn’t going to ever live up to her standards; technically no one can.”

Suppes said he feels like he can’t talk with his family about it because they look down on his transition. He said it’s something that affects his life and it isn’t their place to make a comment about it.

These three students are at different stages in their transition. Each individual must do different things during different stages in order to fit in with the new social norms they have from transitioning from one gender to another.

O’Brien said he has been binding for about two years. He binds with a partial binder that goes from mid-sternum to the midriff area.

Binding refers to wearing a compression garment under one’s clothing to compress feminine breasts and give the body a more flat, masculine look. Binding is something most female to male transgender people must do.

For Harmon, he must wear almost a full body binder. This goes from about the collar bone to the middle of the thighs. Harmon said he has to wear a full body binder because he had large breasts, as well as an hour glass, feminine body structure. The binder evens Harmon’s body out to look more masculine.

A tri-binder is what Suppes uses. The tri-binder has shoulder straps and ends along the line of diaphragm. All binders can cause issues with breathing, potential spinal pain and other upper body issues due to the constant pressure the upper body is put under. Binding is for transgender men who either haven’t, can’t or don’t want to have their breasts reduced or all of the breast tissue removed.

O’Brien is the only transgender man of the three on the male hormone testosterone. Before taking testosterone, O’Brien had to find and meet with a gender therapist for some time before finding an endocrinologist. The endocrinologist needed the official OK from O’Brien’s gender therapist before beginning treatment. The endocrinologist actually prescribes O’Brien the testosterone, whether that is a shot, patch or pill.

Among other things, testosterone increase’s ones sex drive, allows O’Brien to grow facial hair, stops menstrual cycles and redistributes fat around the hip and waist area to make the body look more traditionally masculine. The effects of testosterone are irreversible, even if treatment is stopped.

Kara Baker, lab technician in plant pathology and spring 2011 K-State graduate in microbiology, is a male to female transgender person. She said her experiences with hormones were similar to O’Brien’s. She said she had to find a gender therapist, who would then be able to explain to an endocrinologist that Baker was pursuing, wanted to and is living life as a woman.

Baker has been prescribed estrogen, a female hormone supplement, and antiandrogen, a testosterone blocker. The effects of estrogen include decrease in sex drive, fewer instances of waking up with an erection, slower growth of facial and body hair, and increased breast growth, among other changes.

“Some of my girlfriends took me out shopping when we were in Indianapolis,” Baker said. “We went shopping at Goodwill because I essentially had to buy a completely new wardrobe when I began transitioning. That’s the one downside to transition while having just graduated college. You might have money, but not a lot of it, and you don’t have an actual career yet. My girlfriends also taught me how to put on makeup and how to fix my hair more femininely. It’s been growing out for years.”

Bathrooms are a difficult place for transgender people. Harmon said he often tries to avoid public restrooms, unless absolutely necessary. If he does have to use a public restroom, he tries to find a unisex one.

O’Brien and Suppes both use the men’s restroom, unless there is an easily accessible unisex bathroom. Sometimes they get odd looks, but both pass well enough as men for no one to really notice.

Baker uses the women’s restroom, even though there were initially issues with Baker using the women’s bathroom before she legally changed her name and gender identity. Those issues, though addressed, are still pending a final solution. While none interviewed have faced blatant discrimination within a public restroom, some have heard comments and received awkward looks.

“I’ve heard horror stories of what has happened to some transgender people in public bathrooms,” Harmon said. “I don’t want those things to happen to me. I usually use my own private one-on-one bathroom where I know it’s safe and is locked. Sometimes I’ll try to brave a bathroom in one of the more liberal buildings on campus. But I won’t use one unless it’s a single, locked bathroom.”

Through transitioning from one gender to another, four K-State students have had to learn a completely different set of social norms and customs. With these customs varying from having to now shave their face or having to wear a bra, Harmon, O’Brien, Baker and Suppes all have experienced things they may not have expected at the beginning of their journeys.

Though the customs may have varied for each individual, these students have felt love and loss from their families through all of the changes. But, Suppes said he would like to see more support from the larger community in understanding and supporting the transgender community through all stages of people’s transitions.

“I believe I was born this way,” Suppes said. “It wasn’t a mess up or something that happened. The world needs to change its perception on this community. The [transgender] community needs to be out there and needs to receive support. If there was more support and education and just knowing of someone else out there like you, people wouldn’t have to go through [transitioning] alone.”

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