By Natalie Orozco
Lee Morento, 28, sits at his desk, checking his PalmPilot to see who is scheduled for his next appointment. As he spins side-to-side in his rotating desk chair, Morento answers e-mails and phone calls from busy students and co-workers asking for his advice. He is the program manager and advisor at the Student Organization and Advising Resource (SOAR) office at UC Santa Cruz.
Outside of work, Morento promotes activism and education through the Santa Cruz campus and community as an educator for transgender and transsexual (trans) issues, a subject he is very passionate about.
The reason for his dedication to the transgender community: Lee Morento was born a female.
According to current statistics, about one in 12,000 females and one in 30,000 males are transgender.
Morento hopes to educate others and break down barriers for people struggling with issues similar to what he faced when coming out. As an alumnus of UCSC, Morento witnessed first-hand struggles trans students faced. But now that he is a campus employee, Morento is also able to witness the progressive changes the University has since made.
*Growing up* “I have memories of being really young, like five or six, and knowing that I wasn’t a boy but wanting to be a boy. I understood the difference in all these different ways: I knew that it meant I would have different body parts, I knew that it meant I could wear shorts when I went swimming, and I knew it would mean I could wear short hair,” Morento said.
“My mom made me [take] a modeling class when I was 10 or 11 and that was really difficult for me psychologically because I saw it as a chance: I’m this girl, and so maybe it will teach me how to be a girl because I really didn’t feel like I knew what that meant or how to do it. All the stuff that these other girls knew how to do and were excited about doing, I just didn’t even know how to do.
“So I would feel really bad, it affected my self esteem. I thought, maybe [this class] will teach me how to be a girl, but I still couldn’t get it. I used to come home from that and feel really gross and I didn’t feel very good about myself. At that time, I let go of the idea that I wouldn’t get to be a boy and I went about struggling with this idea of trying to be a girl,” Morento told City on a Hill Press (CHP).
The feelings Morento described are commonly known as gender dysmorphia, the overall psychological term for the anguish and anxiety one feels because of a mismatch between a trans person’s physical sex and his or her gender identity.
According to Dr. Edward Drew Malloy, medical director of the UCSC Cowell Health Center, “Gender dysmorphia is an intense unhappiness with one’s situation. These individuals suffer at a very early age and are susceptible to high rates of depression and maybe even suicide. A large component of psychological assistance is needed.”
But gender dysmorphia is not the only stage a trans individual faces when he or she goes about changing his or her lifestyle and gender.
The process of a complete gender transition includes a period of psychotherapy that will confirm one’s true gender. It is the beginning of lifelong hormonal therapy, and, if desired, sexual reassignment surgery.
According to Dr. Shane Hill, psychologist and transgender specialist, the process, known as the Standards of Care, was set up as a gatekeeper system to minimize the chance of someone making a mistake.
Aside from the psychological hardships, discrimination and violence are also fairly common to the trans individual. According to The National Coalition of LGBT Health 2004, 27 percent of trans individuals are victims of violence.
A San Francisco Trans discrimination study in 2002 found that 49 percent of trans individuals were discriminated against in employment and 32 percent in housing.
With UCSC’s promise to cater to all students’ needs, many changes are currently taking place on campus so that it can better cater to the trans population.
*UCSC’s Role* “I had a very close friend who recently transitioned [to male], and UCSC refused to drop his former name as part of his record, and [the school] listed him as an AKA – also known as,” Morento recalled of when he was still a student at UCSC. “His prior name was very gendered and so it actually served in outing him whenever he was to send that transcript information off.”
Though changing one’s gender and name is not common for all students, it is something that many transgender students at UCSC eventually have to face.
Today, although the process is still complicated, the registrars at UCSC have been able to drop the “AKA.”
According to Samantha Szemeredi, associate registrar for enrollment and academic records at UCSC, in order to have names changed on transcripts and evaluations, it is necessary to first present official documentation that name and gender have been changed.
But attaining official documentation is often very difficult. According to “Our Trans Children,” a publication of the Transgender Network of Parents, Families, Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), most states do not officially permit change-of-sex designations on driver’s licenses for transsexuals who choose not to undergo surgery.
While most states will recognize a new sex status and correct birth certificates after sex reassignment surgery, a few states still refuse to amend birth certificates for any reason, making it even more difficult for trans individuals to get official documentation for transition.
Despite the complexities of the law, transgender individuals continue to come out and are struggling to be out while attending UCSC.
“There is still harassment on campus,” Tam Welch, program coordinator of the Cantú Queer Center at UCSC told CHP. “There is a lot of work that has to be done here on campus. Take the health center — do they cater to or offer queer resources?”
The Cowell Student Health Center (CSHC) at UCSC is trained to deal with student sensitivities.
Director Dr. Malloy said, “We go with people’s chosen names. We try to respect that … like any system run by humans, there are mistakes. We understand that [the transgender community] is a highly underserved population.”
Certain transgender services are offered on campus. Although the CSHC does not initiate hormonal therapy, it does provide maintenance and will work with each student to find a list of resources and referrals off campus in regards to other needed services.
“The Student Health Center is [made up of] a group of physicians. We don’t have the resources to have specialists, so we refer people off-campus,” Malloy said.
While the CSHC on campus proves to be a progressive resource, the real world off campus may not be as educated about the surrounding trans population.
Lee Morento has witnessed uneducated health professionals firsthand and can relate to what Tam Welch was referring to.
“I needed to get a referral to have my chest surgery and so [when my doctor] was writing down my documentation, she looked at me and said, ‘for a chest augmentation right?’ and I said no, ‘I am having my chest reconstructed’… So having to be in the position to educate medical practitioners — that’s kind of the logistical piece to being trans,” he said.
But health care is only one factor of many other issues facing the trans community and trans students today.
“There isn’t a lot of sensitivity to gender identity out there,” Kas Ocasio-Pare, an ally and second-year Porter student said of the UCSC campus. “It’s like you have to out yourself in order to be treated as your gender.”
What if UCSC were to create an environment where gender would not matter?
Ocasio-Pare is also the only student representative of the UCSC gender-neutral housing implementation team, alongside other residential life staff and administrative members.
In June 2005, Jean Marie Scott, associate vice chancellor for the College and University Housing Services (CUHC), issued a charge for a Gender Neutral Housing Options Task force to analyze and document the need for a gender-neutral housing option on the UCSC campus.
In the fall of 2005, UC Riverside joined several other colleges and universities across the country in offering gender-neutral assignments as a campus housing option. Now UCSC is following the same path, taking much-needed advice from its UC brother, and implementing an even more revised gender-neutral housing plan.
In fall 2008, UCSC will offer gender-neutral housing as an option to students.
“I think it’s both progressive and needed,” Welch said. “As the most GLBT-friendly UC, we need to lead both with policy and programs for everyone under the GLBTI/Queer umbrella.”
“Housing will be open to all students. The point of the program is cultural competency around trans issues,” Dave Keller, director of Residential, Family and Early Education Services and University Housing Services told CHP.
Keller admits that at the beginning of planning this program, there was a little bit of concern from parents, but the campus overall was very supportive.
“There are really no institutional obstacles to doing it,” Keller said. “We surveyed to look for attitudes from students. Very few responded negatively … many students thought it was great and wanted that awareness and education.”
Although UCSC is showing how to educate and cater its services to the trans community, the Cantú Queer Center is asking UCSC students, faculty and staff to do the same.
“Step up! If you’re an administrator, step up by giving funding. If you’re an individual — step up by knowing the issues. Create programs and do the work in trans education so that the person going through that process isn’t isolated,” Welch said. “Bring it in every day to your life. Push for what is acceptable and what’s not. Look past the usual conceptions of feminine and masculine and help break them.”
As for Lee Morento, he too is continuing to educate those around him.
“Trans people, in general, experience exploitation in ways that a lot of people in society don’t deal with,” Morento said. “I would tell [trans individuals] to stay true to themselves. It will be difficult, but the reward — living true to one’s authentic self — is worth it.”