Transitions: Voices of the Trans Community

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Within the intimate space of the Cantú gathered the support group Blender, a mix of 7 or 8 individuals identifying as trans or gender-fluid, out or not out, stealth or not stealth, questioning or sure of their place here and now. They sat around a table, on top of which sat a container full of last year’s Halloween candy and a pan of pumpkin bread someone brought in to share. Every hand was occupied. Mine was taking notes, others were either fidgeting, holding a cup of green or Earl Grey tea, or using a fork to eat the fresh quinoa the group’s director prepared moments before.

Five minutes into the meeting, a member walked in with a look of distress on her face. She sat down in one of the empty chairs, let out a long sigh and said, “being trans sucks.” No sooner were there arms extended and hands on her shoulders to comfort her.

While support groups such as Blender make transitioning an easier and more comfortable process, being trans is and remains a definite struggle. Many trans-identified people recognize early on that their physiology does not correlate with their own internalized gender affiliation, often times mistaking these notions as a mental disorder and seeking therapeutic solutions to try and suppress their feelings. Consequently, trans individuals—like many who fall under the LGBTQ sphere—grow up in isolation.

“Not being presented as any other option other than a boy was really hard for me to come to terms with,” said Marwa El-Abbadi, a Kresge affiliated trans-identified student. “I would think of being a girl, but I also tried to fight that because I didn’t want to be portrayed as a negatively stereotyped trans woman.”

Vocabulary Terms

Even after beginning to transition, trans-identifying individuals’ life-long process is constantly disrupted with physical challenges—hormone prescriptions cause the body to undergo puberty a second time, changing a birth name can be a tedious, time-consuming affair and medical procedures can be so costly they quickly become unachievable. Trans individuals battle these challenges on top of many others when facing the pressure to “pass” — to look as either male or female. Not every trans individual has the privilege of passing, as Ethan Hutchinson does, an openly trans-identified adviser at Cowell College.

“Unless I told you I was a trans person, you wouldn’t look at me and say ‘oh, look at that trans person,” Hutchinson said.

Few would have guessed this bearded individual to have once been a 115 pound “southern belle” from the Southeastern United States. But regardless of being able to “pass” or not, Hutchinson like the rest of the trans community — and quite frankly, all of the queer community — continues to be at risk of discrimination and violence.

Transgender Europe, an organization advocating greater rights for trans people, updates their mortality rate regularly. Just this past year, there have been a total of 238 cases of homicide reported globally, adding to the shocking total of 1,374 reported killings from Jan. 1, 2008 to Oct. 31 of last year.

The National Center for Transgender Equality, a social justice organization dedicated in advancing transgender equality through advocacy, conducted a national survey in 2009 asking respondents if they have ever attempted suicide. Forty-one percent overall said yes to the question, while trans-identified African-Americans had an attempt rate of 45 percent, Latino/as were 44 percent, and multi-racial or other were 54 percent.

Although Hutchinson is not stealth, he has been able to make a distinct transition, having been born with certain privileges that others were not. Just because Hutchinson has these privileges does not mean his transitioning is any easier.

Cowell Adviser Ethan Hutchinson grew up in a Southeastern city, forced to conform to stereotypical “southern belle” expectations. After transitioning, new expectations were placed on him in order to conform as a man. He describes himself as breaking the gender performance rules by being “a man who cooks and sews and cleans.” Photo by Alex Posis.
Cowell Adviser Ethan Hutchinson grew up in a Southeastern city, forced to conform to stereotypical “southern belle” expectations. After transitioning, new expectations were placed on him in order to conform as a man. He describes himself as breaking the gender performance rules by being “a man who cooks and sews and cleans.” Photo by Alex Posis.

“Usually when I say I grew up in transition in the southeast United States people go ‘oh wow, that must have been difficult,’” Hutchinson said. “I think that has to do a lot with the misconceptions about the South. Not that it wasn’t difficult. I think transitioning for anyone, at any time, anywhere — even in magical California — is difficult.”

He has had to overcome physical challenges like any other trans person. For one, Hutchinson had to go through puberty twice. He has had to not only deal with simple annoyances like acne and a cracked voice, but with more significant changes as a result of new hormones. His jaw physically widened out, his muscles physically got bigger—each involve a degree of pain.

Social challenges included conforming to be a Southern woman at a time when he felt that to be unauthentic. Stereotypical expectations such as being “a good host, a charmer, being passive, calm, and quiet” were placed on him at first and when he began transitioning, those expectations were flipped.

“People have really interesting ideas about gender performativity and who you are supposed to be based on those things,” Hutchinson said. “If I’m a man who cooks and sews and cleans — which I am — then so be it. I enjoy those things.”

“FREE TO PEE”

As Hutchinson said, transitioning is difficult for anyone, anywhere, and this is undoubtedly the case for several of our own trans students at UC Santa Cruz. Whether they present themselves as stealth or out, whether they pass or struggle to, these individuals have faced challenges many would have completely overlooked — myself included.

In listening to my peers talk about their everyday lives, I heard of instances I would have never guessed to be a challenge, quickly noting the privileges I have of being cisgender. The otherwise simple, everyday task of even using the restroom for cis individuals is a major challenge to trans students everywhere. Facing these sort of everyday struggles, it is extremely crucial trans students have a safe space to discuss such issues—that’s where the Cantú Resource Center comes into play.

A warm and welcoming place for queer people to come in, communicate and establish community. The first time I set foot through its cabin-like doors was for a Familia X meeting, a group that particularly welcomes queer Latino/as.

The second time I spoke to Deborah Abbott, the Cantú’s principal director, was to familiarize myself more specifically with the trans group Blender. Both Abbott and Blender made it clear to me that the Cantú is definitely a resource beneficial in all stages of the transitioning process. But it is also treading deep water, dealing with a financial burden unfairly placed on its substantial shoulders.

Various budget cuts made on the university have directly affected the Cantú. The center is struggling to pull up the funds to create a safer space for trans and gender-neutral students and faculty on campus. “Free To Pee At UCSC” is the latest project, which is aimed to create a safer space in the most intimate of places — the restroom.

Abbott, alongside the American with Disabilities Act compliance officer on campus, Susan Willats, and a transgender student program coordinator, worked together to change the signage of all the single-stall restrooms of every building on campus.

The process was certainly not easy and was costlier than expected. It costs just about 100 dollars to change one single-gendered sign into the more appropriate gender-neutral sign, fitting for anyone of any physiology, Abbott said. There is not and has never been any central funding for “Free To Pee”.

“There’s not been any UC wide institutionalized focus on this issue or funding for it,” Abbott commented. “There [was] an expectation that the Cantú pay for these signs, and I became pretty vocal about it. Our budget is very small and we should not be expected to pay for the signage when we have had a gender non-discrimination clause UC wide that includes gender identity for many, many years.”

When asked why other projects take precedence over projects like Abbott’s “Free To Pee,” executive vice chancellor Alison Galloway said funding distribution has to follow particular guidelines.

“There are other things required by law that we may not see the advantage of, but it is required — I have to do it. It’s either state law or federal law,” Galloway said. “Sometimes, there are UC policies that say, ‘if you don’t do this, we will not fund such and such’ and that actually takes up a lot of the resources that we have.”

Primary funding for project “Free To Pee” has come from secured donors, one of which was a mother of a trans-student who had been murdered. She donated a generous $400 to convert four more doors. The program also had the help of a few colleges, which were able to take out of its facilities’ budget to pay for some signs. To Abbott’s knowledge, every single-stall bathroom on campus has now been resigned thanks to her and her small team of two. However, she insists  the project is far from over and is now turning its head to address the gaps.

Abbott as well as other LGBTQ resource center directors are the only ones advocating for an institutionalized response so that even new buildings aren’t going up without accessible bathrooms.

“It has to be prioritized at the systemwide level,” Abbott said, “but it’s very piecemeal.”

Bathrooms are one of the scariest places a person who is trans can try to access. First-year Merrill student Rose Eccles began her MTF transition early in high school, where harassment and discrimination was something she had to face daily, especially when using both male and female assigned restrooms.

The high school she attended at the time was not accommodating to her needs, refusing to let her use the girl’s restroom after being harassed several times in the boy’s restroom. It was only after “it got bad enough,” Rose said, that they allowed her access to the restroom in the teacher’s lounge.

“The faculty wasn’t very supportive,” Eccles said. “Most people I’ve encountered in the education system don’t know nearly enough about trans students as they should. Having a gender-neutral bathroom would have been huge in helping myself [because] there’s no stress about trying to conform to a certain gender, especially at a stage when you’re not sure yourself.”

Merrill affiliated first-year Rose Eccles experienced a significant amount of discrimination within her high school restrooms, from both students and faculty. Cantú’s “Free To Pee At UCSC” project is working to establish a safe and comfortable space for trans-identified students who want to use the restroom. Photo by Alex Posis.
Merrill affiliated first-year Rose Eccles experienced a significant amount of discrimination within her high school restrooms, from both students and faculty. Cantú’s “Free To Pee At UCSC” project is working to establish a safe and comfortable space for trans-identified students who want to use the restroom. Photo by Alex Posis.

 

LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE

Gender “neutral” bathrooms have undoubtedly had a positive effect on the trans community as well as a smaller subset of the queer sphere, namely gender fluid individuals who identify as either both male and female or neither male nor female.

At the same time, gender “specific” bathrooms continue to reinforce the gender binary that creates a language barrier for gender fluid people.

Kresge-affiliated second-year Riley Williams quickly recognized that their gender pronouns were going to be difficult not only for them to get used to, but to anyone they communicate with on a regular basis.

The reason for this difficulty is because these pronouns are fairly new and are just now becoming prevalent in our everyday language — as the discourse pertaining to gender fluid individuals is also fairly new. Growing up, Williams had a difficult time describing their feelings because there was simply no language to describe them.

“For a really long time, I didn’t have a way to explain [my gender fluidity] — I didn’t have the language,” Williams said. “A lot of people don’t even know that non-binary people even exist.”

Kresge affiliated second-year Riley Williams lacked the proper discourse to describe their gender fluidity when they were younger, struggling to make sense of their own feelings and consequently, expressing them to others. The use of proper gender pronouns have now made it easy for Williams to communicate with their peers. Photo by Alex Posis.
Kresge affiliated second-year Riley Williams lacked the proper discourse to describe their gender fluidity when they were younger, struggling to make sense of their own feelings and consequently, expressing them to others. The use of proper gender pronouns have now made it easy for Williams to communicate with their peers. Photo by Alex Posis.

Even with the evolving use of these pronouns, many have yet to grow accustomed to using them instinctively. This can be achieved only through practice — highly encouraged by Hutchinson and many queer individuals — by always trying to address a person with the correct preferred gender pronouns, even if it means messing up the first few times.

“Often, we don’t even need to pronoun people,” Hutchinson said. “If someone is early in their transition, use the name that they’re using. They need your help for them to internalize their own name. Use the name, use the pronouns, so they could acclimate to those.”

No matter how long it can take one to learn the language, at least trying to become used to the changed pronoun or name certainly goes acknowledged, Hutchinson said.

“How do you correct yourself if you use the wrong pronouns? Do you correct yourself? Yes, of course,” Hutchinson said. “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ means you’re recognizing your mistake.”

Thankfully for Williams, their transitioning process has been a fortunate experience. Williams had the support from many of their friends and family, even when their transition was difficult for a few of them to understand.

“My parents are struggling slightly, but they’re trying — and that’s what counts,” Williams said. “Some family members thought I was coming out as a lesbian and I had to tell them, ‘no it’s not who I am attracted to, it’s who I am. It’s not for anyone else. Just me.’”

Gender and sexuality are two separate binaries. One’s sexual attraction does not have to correlate with their specific physicality, whether that be cis, trans or fluid. Williams, while pertaining to no specific gender, for example, expresses their sexuality as demisexual, the need for an individual to attain an emotional connection with another before becoming physically attracted to them.

Marwa El-Abbadi, a Kresge student who identifies as transgender, also had trouble explaining to some of her loved ones the difference between gender and sexuality. While she transitioned MTF, her sexual attraction remains to women.

“My dad, a computer science professor, kept trying to figure out a way I could remain a boy. ‘If you like girls, then what’s the point?’” El-Abbadi said. “Obviously, that’s really sexist. I like girls. People always assume someone like me is going to start liking guys. People have this association that they’re connected — sex and gender.”

 

A KICK START TO TRANSITION

Besides these assumptions on sexuality and gender, assumptions are also made about the physical transitioning process. Many believe reassignment surgery is the final step of transitioning, while there are plenty of people, like El-Abbadi, who feels otherwise.

“People in general, cis and trans, view sexual reassignment surgery as the end goal of being trans and I think that’s really harmful,” El-Abbadi said. “Not all trans people care about their genitals. Personally, my dysphoria is my facial hair, while some trans women don’t care about that at all.”

Unfortunately for El-Abbadi, this procedure will have to be made outside of the university. The UC Student Health Insurance Plan, UC SHIP, covers a significant portion of medical benefits the trans community can take advantage of — gender reassignment surgery included.

According to its brochure, UC SHIP pays up to 90 percent of transgender surgery rates — rates that can go as high as $75,000 for students under the Anthem Blue Cross network. It does not, however, cover laser hair removal because it is considered “cosmetic surgery.” So although this is El-Abbadi’s main priority, it is a procedure that will have to be paid at her own expense elsewhere.

While this is the case for El-Abbadi, for others such as Williams, most of their priorities are met with UC SHIP.

“It is really rare for insurance to be that good in terms of trans insurance,” Williams said. “My insurance covered my androderm patches, which are more expensive than needles. [The patches] are over $800 without insurance and I only payed $25.”

UC SHIP covers testosterone injections, androderm patches — which substitute for needles — and hormone prescriptions, which can be administered through the Student Health Center on campus. Reassignment surgery — although covered by UC SHIP — must be conducted off campus.

One of the first steps to transition physically is to take hormones. While students interested in beginning hormones may seek medical practitioners at the Student Health Center, they will most likely be referred off-campus to attain written support from a psychologist before being allowed access to them.

Hutchinson, although not a student, faced frustrations in finding a medical practitioner back in his southern hometown.

“In order to see an endocrinologist — the one who would prescribe testosterone for me — I had to drive an hour away,” Hutchinson said. “There was no one in the city — which was a city of over a quarter million people — who was willing to put their professional practice on the line in order to provide healthcare to trans people.”

As soon as counseling about hormones is complete and the proper dose has been established, students can then begin receiving their prescriptions on campus, as well as begin seeing medical practitioners at the Student Health Center for on-going monitoring.

El-Abbadi received her first prescription for estrogen at the Planned Parenthood on Pacific Avenue. All of her subsequent prescriptions were then sent and continue to be sent directly to the Student Health Center on campus, making it easy for El-Abbadi to acquire her necessary medication without having to make the bus trip downtown.

Principles

FEELING AT HOME

Sometimes students seek resources outside of the medical sphere—resources to help them cope emotionally. Resource centers like the Cantú help make the transitioning process easier for trans-identified people who are simultaneously juggling the struggles of being a college student. It is within that confined, safe space that students who are trans — as well as all queer students and allies — can come together and have proper discourse over relatable matters. No discussion here will ever be judged as inappropriate — topics range from medical procedures to various kinds of emotional trauma.

“Being able to be around exclusively other trans people is really validating,” El-Abbadi said. “It gives you a confidence boost when people share doctors or  therapists who are good. [The Cantú] is definitely a valuable space.”

Blender, the trans support group that meets at the Cantú, specifically has been an incredible outlet for self-discovery, as Williams noted in his early transitioning phase.

“It’s amazing to be with people who have had similar experiences,” Williams said. “One piece of advice: don’t try to fit yourself into a box. Talk to people. That’s why Blender is such a good resource.”

It’s comforting for these individuals to not only have access to this specific space, but to also attend a school noted for its LGBTQ inclusiveness. Just last year, UCSC made the top 25 list of LGBTQ-friendly campuses nationwide by Campus Pride, a national organization dedicated to making colleges and universities safer and more inclusive for queer individuals.

“I feel really safe [at UCSC], especially when I see the ‘safe space’ posters they have at the Cantú center,” Williams said. “That’s something about my first injection. The nurse had to get something and I looked up and there was that ‘safe space’ poster with Sammy the  Slug and the queer rainbow. I had this moment of ‘oh, I feel so safe here and it’s so exciting.’ Seeing things like that is amazing.”

Williams, along with the others I had the privilege to speak to, will continue to transition their whole lives. No matter how difficult the circumstance, no matter what challenge is presented next, these trans individuals will consistently push through their process with as much confidence and with as much will as they can.

“I used to hate talking about being trans because I didn’t like being trans,” Eccles said. “But after a while, I just realized I can’t be friends with someone fully if I’m not 100 percent honest with them and with myself. Being vocal and educating people about being trans is good. It’s kind of selfish, but I wish I could change people. I don’t need to change myself.”

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