Transitioning in Hope of a Better Place

by Emily Fletcher | 11/18/10 11:00pm

When Pam Misener, the acting director of the Office of Pluralism and Leadership and the adviser to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, came to Dartmouth 10 years ago, most openly transgender students at the College chose to transfer. Now, increased resources and awareness have created an environment more welcoming to transgender and gender non-conforming students, she said.

While gender has traditionally been considered a binary construction, Misener and members of the LGBTQ community stress that gender is a spectrum, and gender identity is unique to every individual. The term transgender is used to describe people whose gender identity is different than their biological gender identified at birth.

"I think our experiences with gender are as wonderfully rich and varied as our eye color, as our height," Misener said.

There are a number of groups on campus that support transgender students and alumni, including Gender Sexuality XYZ and the Dartmouth Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual & Transgender Alumni/ae Association, according to Misener.

Anna Roth '13, a member of the GSX executive board, said that while she does not believe there are any openly transgender students currently involved in the group, they work to make it open and flexible to the needs of all LGBTQ students.

"I think it's important to remember that masculine and feminine aren't biological sexes, they're social parts of our culture that we either adapt or reject," Roth said. "People should remember that they don't need to adhere to masculine and feminine stereotypes just because they feel biologically male or female."

Genny Beemyn, the director of the Stonewall Center, the University of Massachusetts Amherst's LGBT resource center, and a board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute, emphasized that seemingly small institutional policies and procedures can make life easier for transgendered and gender non-conforming students. Simply creating gender-neutral housing, gender-neutral bathrooms and private showering and changing stalls in athletic facilities help alleviate discomfort, ze (ze is a gender-neutral pronoun preferred by Beemyn) said.

"We've come to a place in our society where we recognize that sexuality is complex, that it's not just gay and straight," Beemyn said. "I think we need to get to the same place when it comes to gender identity. Gender is not a binary. Not everyone identifies as male or female."

Dartmouth instituted gender-neutral housing on the first floor of Mclane in the 2007-2008 academic year, and residence halls built recently, including Fahey-McLane and McLaughlin, contain gender-neutral bathrooms. Students can also indicate a preferred name other than their legal name that will show up on class rosters and their ID, according to Misener.

"I think the aspiration is for the campus to be skilled and practiced at how to best support all students and trans- and gender non-conforming students in particular," Misener said.

Joanne Herman '75 was a member of the last all-male class at Dartmouth. When she made the decision to transition from male to female in 2002, she found the Dartmouth community supportive every time she returned to Hanover, she wrote in the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in 2007.

"I'll never forget the day [my wife] Barbara set foot on the Hanover Green for the first time in 30 years," Herman wrote. "My heart was pounding. But my fear could not have been more misplaced. I was welcomed and even embraced by students, faculty, staff, alumni and their guests."

Native American student Montana Wilson '13 created the NAD Alliance last year to fill a need he saw on campus. Wilson's belief, and the traditional belief of his tribe, is that there are four genders: male, female, feminine male and masculine female. Those who identify with the latter two genders are considered "two-spirited."

The NAD Alliance supports two-spirit Native Americans at Dartmouth and currently has approximately 20 members.

"This group is a pilot for Dartmouth and also for everyone else," Wilson said. "We're trying to take it in little baby steps and see what each person needs."

The Greek system, dominated by single gender houses, can complicate the lives of gender non-conforming College students.

Misener said she thinks the Greek system provides important opportunities for students to congregate and learn, but that she wishes it would "allow itself to be transformed."

"I think the Greek community here, in so many ways, falls so far short of its potential," Misener said. "And some of that I think is because of our systems. The idea that we still have so many same-sex organizations on campus in this day and age is kind of archaic and kind of crazy."

In 2007, Epsilon Kappa Theta sorority reexamined its definition of "woman" when a friend of Sasha Bright '09 discussed the possibility of offering her a bid, The Dartmouth previously reported. Bright transitioned from male to female while at the College.

"I'd like to join a sorority," Bright told The Dartmouth at the time. "If I hadn't been born a boy, I would have joined."

Misener stressed that despite the gains made in recent years to support trans-identified students, more can always be done.

"There's still," Misener said, "far too much responsibility put on that student, if they're willing to be out about that piece of who they are, to do the education of people around them."

Transgender students should not have to educate their peers about the gender spectrum ideally, students and faculty members would already have some awareness of gender identity and the range it can encompass.

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