We live in a world defined by gender. From the cradle to the grave, gender plays a crucial role in shaping our life experiences and how we perceive ourselves.
Although it may be difficult to define what gender actually is, it’s easy to explain what it isn’t. Despite common belief, it is not a two-dimensional spectrum with “woman” on one end, “man” on the other, and a grey area in between. Rather, it could be conceptualized as an infinite circle of many different identities, expressions and orientations.
|Tristan Wright, a first year Interpreting major.
An Important Distinction
While sex is clearly defined by a person’s reproductive organs and functions, the definition of gender is a bit hazier. Gender refers to the behavioral, cultural or psychological traits typically associated with one sex. Therefore, while sex is purely biological, gender is a personal construct that is heavily dependent on the specific environmental and cultural factors a person experiences. When one’s sex and gender don’t align, they are classified as transgender, an umbrella term for anyone with a non-normative gender. Many different subgroups classify as transgender, including transsexuals, cross dressers and bi-gendered people. But since most of these terms are self-applied, there is no true definition.
During middle school, Melissa Maron, a fifth year Information Technology major, began to feel her gender didn’t quite match up with her sex. Initially, these feelings were difficult to quantify, but they steadily grew stronger over time. A little under a year ago, Maron began identifying herself as trans woman, undergoing a male to female transformation.
When considering the concept of gender transformation, many people have predefined expectations of what the term means. The term “transformation” is a vague one and can include anything from cross-dressing to sex reassignment surgery. For this reason, Maron believes the terms “pre-op transgender” and “post-op transgender” to be highly offensive, as terms like these perpetuate the idea that one isn’t a successful transgender until after surgery. She says that many people don’t even want to undergo sex reassignment surgery due to its high risk and huge costs, which can range from $7,000 to $50,000 depending on the operation.
A New Start
In order to feel more comfortable with their gender, some transgendered people use hormonal supplements. While there are several different options available for hormone intake, such as pills ó common in estrogen treatments ó or patches, testosterone injections are the least expensive and the fastest acting. These injections are usually taken once every one or two weeks, depending on the dosage. While testosterone injections produce clear physical effects such as increased body mass, a deeper voice and reduced body fat, they can also affect emotions and memory retrieval.
Tristan Wright, a first year Interpreting major, has recently started testosterone injections as part of a female to male transformation. For Wright, the decision to participate in hormone treatments came after a long and difficult journey with gender identity.
Entering SUNY Buffalo at 17, Wright perceived himself to be a straight female, but throughout his four years there, he began to identify as gay. During this time, he struggled with his changing identity. “I had to go through a series of individuating myself before I could reach a certain level of stability,” he recalls. After several years and a move to Rochester, Wright identifies as a gay trans man, a decision that just “felt right.” After his transformation, Wright realized that his self-harm ceased without any conscious effort, saying that this was an “obvious indicator of what was right.” Still, here at RIT, Wright, Maron and the entire transgender community face several major roadblocks.
Room for Improvement
RIT policy makes it extremely difficult for students to have their name changed on any school documents such as ID cards, transcripts and diplomas. Before RIT will honor any name change, the Institute must receive court certification of a legal name change, which is a lengthy process in itself.
In order to change his name, one must first submit a petition to the court. Once this petition has been reviewed, he must meet with a judge to discuss the change. If the petition passes, the legal name change must be published in the newspaper for a certain amount of time in an effort to notify anyone who may need to get in contact with this person. This process, which can take up to several months, is complicated by time commitments and legal fees. Transgender students, who may see choosing a name as a significant step, are left with little choice; they must either legally change their name or be officially recognized by a name they no longer identify with.
In addition to this challenge, transgender students on campus face another, slightly more irritating problem: a lack of gender-neutral bathrooms. While gender-neutral bathrooms, which usually also serve as handicapped bathrooms, must be installed in new buildings, many older buildings on campus are exempt from this rule. This proves to be an issue for transitioning students who, in some cases, may have to travel to an entirely different building just to use the bathroom. By reserving even one gender neutral bathroom per building, these problems can be easily avoided. Although this may seem like a minor change, it is certainly a large step in fostering a sense of acceptance between transgender students and the rest of campus.
|Melissa Maron, a fifth year Information Technology major.
Building A Community
Despite these challenges, the sense of community between transgender students has certainly strengthened this year thanks to Maron’s work. Last fall, she created Tangent, a student organization aimed at bringing transgender students together. Tangent, which works closely with the GLBT Center, OUTspoken and ritGA, is the only transgender group on campus. She describes the organization as “more of a social group, not a support group” but also mentions that “if someone needs support, they’re welcome to bring it up.” Meetings are held weekly, and the group is looking to hold more social events such as bowling trips or clothing swaps.
While transgender people are looking to make some headway here at RIT, they are still denied basic rights by many facets of society. One of the biggest hurdles they face is workplace discrimination. A transgender person, or even someone suspected of being transgender, may legally be fired, often without any repercussions for the employer, as no federal laws prohibiting such discrimination exist. Still, while several states have recently enacted laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender expression or identity, transgender people are still at a significant disadvantage. Transgender people also face severe discrimination when it comes to healthcare coverage. Many doctors and hospitals will refuse to treat transgender patients, even those with life-threatening conditions. Some of this inequality stems from transphobia, the irrational fear of transgender. Wright believes transphobics feel as though the idea of transgender is “a challenge to their own identity.”
With the help of Tangent, as well as other GLBT organizations on campus, the transgender community at RIT has emerged with a newfound voice. While Maron wants to encourage transgender members to stop by Tangent for one of their meetings, she has a different message for the rest of the RIT community. Although Maron admits that people are “often uncomfortable with things that they are unfamiliar with,” she says that she wants everyone to “treat [transgendered people] like normal people.”