According to a study conducted by the Williams Institute, about 1.4 million Americans openly identify as transgender with the largest age group being 18 – 24. Many of them are high school and college students who recall their experiences of ‘coming out’ as very difficult. They’re students at colleges and universities nationwide but a benefit to attending the Rochester Institute of Technology? They’re a number of resources to accommodate a large and proud LGBTQIA+ population such as the Center for Women and Gender and the Q Center.
Henry Trettenbach is a 19 year old openly female-to-male transgender student at RIT studying Political Science and Fine Arts Studio. He knew early on that he was trans, stating:
“When I was five or so I knew I was a guy but my parents wanted a girl.”
Other students like Ryan Roy (19), a student in American Sign Language Interpreting to English (ASLIE), that recognising their gender can be a journey. In his junior year of high school Roy began telling his close friends that he was gender fluid, a person who does not identify themselves with a fixed gender. Roy explains he didn’t identify as a trans male until starting college.
“Some days I felt more masculine but [my friends] still used female pronouns because since I was fluid they didn’t think it mattered. It just didn’t feel right my senior year. So I started to dress more masculine… I started telling my friends I only wanted to be called male pronouns,” Roy said.Both of them dreaded the experience of coming out to their parents. Trettenbach told his parents last. Instead he came out to all of his teachers before his parents. While Roy, who was raised by very conservative Baptist Christian parents, waited until he was away at college to come out.“I came out to my parents over email because I didn’t feel safe. I was with my partner when I got the reply saying they couldn’t deny their faith in God and that they couldn’t accept me. I was crying in my partner’s arms,” Roy said.
Other students such as Daniela* a 20 year old Physics major, has yet to come out to their parents. She describes struggling with internalized homophobia in high school. It wasn’t until the Caitlyn Jenner went public that Daniela researched the subject and realized she was transgender.
“My parent also works here [at RIT]. My parents haven’t said the nicest things [about trans people]. As their child I get a discount for coming here and I don’t want them to take that away” Daniela said. Recently she has been making steps to come out to her siblings.
It’s a stress students can’t afford to have.
In addition to the same course load and career pressures, trans students must also deal with daily hostile interactions. One on end of the spectrum there are inappropriate questions about their bodies or they overhear gossip. However, on the other end, the trans community also faces higher rates of homelessness and abuse. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 22 trans people were killed in 2016 and already this year 16.
Recently Donald Trump banned transgender Americans from serving in the military and on The Breakfast Club, comedian Lil Duval stated he’d kill a woman if he had sex with her and later learned she was transgender.
Young trans people often not only struggle with their identity but how to tell others about who they are.
“Sometimes it’s just not worth it,” said LeLe Parks, a transgender activist and student in Dallas, Texas. “I answer questions if they ask but really, I just keep it pushing. It’s all you can do.”
She said she remembers a time she felt attacked for being trans:
“I’d just started taking hormones and I went out to a party. Some guy was all over me. Cool. I was upfront and told him ‘hey, man, I’m trans just so you know.’ It was stupid of me but I was young, just thought it’d be cool or that he’d keep it pushing. He pushed me down and called me a ‘fag.'”
Though Universities are more likely to be embracing of trans students, issues still abound from policies in residences to how assaults are handled and off-campus student life. Part 2 of this series will explore campus life for trans students.