Exploring narratives outside the gender binary

by Sonia Qin | 5/19/16 8:21pm

green-by-Annie-Ma
green by Annie Ma
by Annie Ma / Annie Ma

For Logan Henderson ’17, his identity as a trans and gender-queer person of color has been significantly affected by the College’s small size, lack of racial and ethnic diversity and location in a rural town. Most people hear the identity stories of wealthy, white people, Henderson said, adding that stories like his own are rarely, if ever, told.

“My trans experience is inseparable from my blackness,” he said.

Each transgender and gender nonconforming student at Dartmouth has unique stories and seeks to find inclusion and acceptance at an institution that seems to still be struggling to be inclusive to people of all gender identities.

Kendall Christensen ’19 identifies as a female and said that while she has always been “more or less comfortable identifying as a female,” she has not always been comfortable with the norms associated with that gender label.

“I’m female-presenting and comfortable within that label, but I feel pretty a-gendered in that I feel fluid, and I don’t always feel comfortable with what society expects women to be, and I don’t think I fit that role,” Christensen said.

When Christensen first applied to the College, gender-inclusive housing and social spaces were not a top priority for her because she had not yet come to terms with her identity. However, she added that if she were to redo the whole process, this would factor much more into her decision.

Christensen said that because she is a white female from a well-off socioeconomic background, she enjoys certain privileges that other students in her position may not have.

“I’m hoping that I can continue to become informed about other people’s experiences and continue to reach out to people, and then use what privileges I do have to bring about change that I think needs to happen at Dartmouth,” she said. “That’s a responsibility I have and a responsibility that people who care about these issues do have.”

She added that while it may be easy to be cynical and complain about bigotry and toxic social spaces, it is more important that people actually take action to positively affect the campus climate, and to not be “complacent and used to the norms and scared to speak out.”

Prodhi Manisha ’17 identifies as a trans man and gender-queer individual who “always knew [he] wasn’t someone who [he] was designated to be.”

“It’s been an alienating experience,” Manisha said. “I think this place can get very isolating, very lonely and there are times I need to get away from here to regain perspective and feel like a human.”

Manisha said that when he first started coming to terms with his own identity, he felt “sub-human” at the College and was sometimes reduced to a political statement. He has also been personally subjected to transphobia and said that from what he has seen and heard, transphobic verbal abuse remains a prominent issue for those in the trans community at the College.

He added that he feels a strong contrast when he leaves the College and feels like “somebody has poured back the humanness into [him].”

Some students, however, have been able to find a sense of community within certain subsets of the Greek system.

Christensen said that while she does not feel comfortable in most fraternity scenes, she felt disappointed about the suspension of the Tabard gender-inclusive fraternity, because the organization seemed to provide a more welcoming community based on what she had heard from members in the house. Now that the Tabard is gone, there is one less inclusive house in the Greek system, Christensen said, adding that the suspension reinforces the monoculture at the College. In February, the Tabard was suspended for three terms after the house admitted to violating the College’s hazing, alcohol and recruiting policies. Following the suspension, the house will be placed on probation until the end of 2017.

Alexander Weinstein ’16, who identifies as a trans-masculine, non-binary person, said that while he has not always had a great response from professors regarding his gender identity and is often misgendered in class, he found a welcoming community in Phi Tau coeducational fraternity. He said that his house responded extremely well when he came out about his gender identity.

Other students criticized the Greek system for its lack of inclusivity and focus on the gender binary.

“Dartmouth is very unique in being a small school and being so dominated by the Greek system,” Manisha said. “The Greek system is probably one of the last remaining systems in most parts of the world that truly, so legislatively, enforces the gender binary.”

Henderson, who is unaffiliated, said he tends to shy away from Greek life and from big or main events on campus, usually secluding himself with other people who are black or queer.

“I tend to avoid situations that I know would make me uncomfortable or unsafe,” he said.

Justin Maffett ’16 is a leader in Spectra, a group for queer and allied students. Maffet, who identifies as gay, advocated in his freshman year for the creation of the residential college system, hoping for these houses to be a new type of social space for those who do not enjoy the Greek lifestyle.

“I wholly and unapologetically believe that [the Greek system] has to be abolished,” Maffett said. “It stands in stark contrast to the values and the needs of queer students on campus and also students on campus of racial minority and socioeconomic minority.”

A former member of the Tabard, he added that since his time here, the Tabard “is not immune from any of these social ills or prejudices regarding transphobia that one might find elsewhere on campus.”

In the past few years, the College has put forth several initiatives such as programming and the creation of gender-inclusive housing and bathrooms, though many students expressed skepticism at the effectiveness of these measures.

Henderson said one of the challenges he has encountered on campus has been finding accessible bathrooms. In order to reduce the bathroom problem for other students, Henderson has created a Google map of all the gender-inclusive spaces on campus.

Last fall term, the gender-inclusive bathroom in the Collis Center was defaced, but Collis failed to fix the wall until the Office of Pluralism and Leadership pressured the staff to do so at the urging of students, Weinstein said.

However, he added that most of the time, the College has been “relatively accommodating” for trans and gender nonconforming students, examples such as students being permitted to change their name in the College’s internal system, as well as the College having one of the best trans student health care coverage in the country.

Director and head endocrinologist of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s transgender health clinic Jack Turco is the doctor in charge of trans students’ medical care at the College. He has been providing medical care to trans people in the Upper Valley for decades.

OPAL director Reese Kelly said that very early on, Turco and others had advocated for transgender health care to be covered by the Dartmouth Student Group Health Plan. Currently, the DSGHP covers health care for trans-associated needs such as hormone therapy and gender affirming surgeries.

“I feel like the administration can take action, but in the end it’s a campus culture thing,” she said. “I think administration can do a lot in terms of affecting campus culture but it can only do so much, because at some point it just feels like an artificial thing that’s being engineered.”

Maffett said that it seems as if the College repurposed single-use bathrooms instead of really building new, safe and inclusive spaces for all identities.

The programs put forth by the College right now are a means of providing safety for students in an implicitly hostile community, Manisha said.

“That’s more of a short-term measure, because the hostile environment should not exist in the first place,” he added.

However, Maffett expressed optimism regarding Dean of the College Rebecca Biron’s confirmation that the new social space being constructed outside of Hitchcock would have gender-inclusive bathrooms.

“That’s a positive sign that the College is moving towards building as opposed to repurposing these spaces,” he said.

Another progressive move by the College has been to adopt the NCAA transgender student-athlete participation policy, which allows trans students to participate in any varsity sport, Kelly said.

He added that in late spring, OPAL will also be piloting a program called “Speak Up,” a 60 to 90 minute training workshop similar to the Dartmouth Bystander Initiative, but focusing more on discrimination and bias.

Maffett said OPAL is uniquely positioned to promote inclusivity for all gender identities, as some OPAL staff members identify as gender nonconforming or trans themselves.

“Within the sphere of Dartmouth, OPAL is at the forefront,” Maffett said. “They provide resources that other offices or other student organizations don’t necessarily do.”

Henderson and Weinstein both agreed that OPAL should receive more funding, resources and attention from the College.

The sexuality, women and gender division of OPAL recently hosted an event in observance of Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31. For this event, SWAG sent out campus emails every day for a week as part of an online awareness campaign.

Weinstein, a student coordinator at SWAG, helped run the campaign. He said this event is about more than just visibility, as for many transgender people, visibility is tied up with the risk of violence.

“My fear is that we don’t provide the spaces in which trans people can be visible here on campus every day, for the other hundreds of days in the term,” Maffett said, adding that other than during Transgender Day of Visibility or PRIDE week, trans and gender nonconforming students can be invisible.

Dartmouth also held a Transgender Day of Remembrance in the fall to honor deceased trans people, Weinstein said, adding that only four students attended the event.

“That speaks volumes about the importance that Dartmouth places on trans people,” he said.

Christensen said she would like to see a freshman requirement or distributive requirement added to the curriculum, regarding diversity, social justice or something that covers issues of diversity around race, gender, sexuality and intersectionality.

“I think the biggest problem here is people just don’t know,” she said. “Some people just haven’t had the privilege to be informed about these things in the first place.”

Distributives may not be that useful because people may not be taking the classes seriously, Manisha said, adding that a “full-blown understanding and respect of the human being” is more important.

Kelly said that the discrimination and bias surrounding trans and gender nonconforming people is a broader aspect of American culture that is not singular to Dartmouth.

“There’s still a lot of negative perceptions of trans and gender nonconforming people in U.S. culture so people bring a lot of misinformation and bigotry, whether conscious or not,” he said.

Since the student body is changing every year, it becomes necessary to reeducate every new class that comes in, Kelly said.

“If our goal is to prepare responsible leaders, we’re leaving something out if we’re not helping prepare people to work with people who are different from them,” he said.