Complicating the Binary

“I had no access to resources and didn’t know anyone who was trans.” Charlie continues, “I felt like I would be alone for the rest of my life.”

“I made a promise that when I hit college, I wasn’t going to worry about labels and what other people thought. The beginning of senior year was when I began identifying as transgender,” says John, a student at the college who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson because he did not want his gender identity known to his family, which still considers him female. “Junior year was when I really started thinking about it.”

Charlie, another transgender student who has been granted anonymity by The Crimson because he wanted his gender identity to stay private, relates a similar experience. “I knew that I was a gay man at a pretty young age, and was feeling like I was an impostor,” he says. Yet having been born biologically female in rural Virginia, there were no places where Charlie felt comfortable discussing both his sexuality and gender identity, neither of which matched what was expected of him. “I had no access to resources and didn’t know anyone who was trans.”

He continues, “I felt like I would be alone for the rest of my life.”

Misunderstood identities

As perhaps the least-recognized group in the BGLTQ acronym, Ariel C. Churchill ’15 explains, there exist a lot of misconceptions about trans individuals—people whose gender identities don’t align with the gender assigned to them at birth. These identities may fall within or outside of the male/female binary, or may include aspects of both male and female.

Churchill, who does not identify as trans, is cochair of the Trans Task Force, a student group promoting awareness of trans issues and advocacy on campus. She says that the concept can be a difficult one for people to understand.

“There’s a lot of weight to the idea of being trans. It implies a lot of historical oppression,” Churchill says. First, says Churchill, is “the idea that someone who is transgender is a man trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa.” In fact, says Churchill, many trans-identified people don’t feel that way.

Another misconception is that all trans people seek to alter their bodies. “For some people, there is a level of body dysphoria,” or intense bodily discomfort, she says. While some who feel that way do seek surgery, continues Churchill, this doesn’t account for all people who identify as trans. “For many people, they are perfectly happy with their bodies, and to them, transgender means a different kind of gender expression.”

“When you meet a new person, the first thing that you will code into your mind is gender. Before race, before whether they are good looking or not, you will decide whether that person is male or female,” says Churchill. She adds that this can make it difficult for some people to accept a more nuanced view of gender. “If you tell people that there is more than male or female, they will disagree, because then they have no security in what they think.”

Finding a Community

John says that he first came out to members of the Harvard community during Visitas. After the experience, John says, he realized that he wasn’t ready to come out to others.

“When I got here, there was the LGBTQ meet and greet, and I didn’t really know anyone in the room,” he says. “That’s when I fully said my gender identity out loud in front of basically strangers.” Though he was excited in the moment, John says, “Afterwards, I felt I wasn’t actually ready to come out.”

For Charlie, Harvard was immediately more comfortable than the community in which he had grown up. “I found that there were resources if I looked hard enough,” Charlie says.

This sense of personal comfort was a stark difference from the sense of danger he had faced elsewhere. “I was in a lot of danger at home. Physical danger when people began to notice that I was queer,” Charlie says. Yet life at Harvard was different. “When I came here, I didn’t feel unsafe,” he continues. “I wasn’t worried about sleeping at night.”

John and Charlie, who are both members of the Trans Task Force, allude to the organization as a safe space among people who understand their concerns.John emphasizes the benefit of being in a community where he doesn’t have to constantly educate others about his identity. “It’s nice having a space where you don’t have to preface everything with an explanation,” John says.

Daily Struggles, Long-Term Improvements

One issue that trans students face on a daily basis is a lack of gender-neutral spaces on campus. According to Churchill, two major manifestations of this concern are anxieties and risks concerning housing and public bathrooms. When it comes to restrooms, Churchill says, some students must ask themselves,“‘Do I go into the women’s room and get yelled at, or into the men’s room and get beat up?’”

According to the Queer Students and Allies’s 2006 report, the University has 73 single-stalled, gender neutral bathrooms on campus.

John echoes Churchill’s sentiments, asserting that he “hates bathrooms” and places like clothing stores, which distinguish people based on binary gender identities.

Although daily life can be a constant negotiation of discomfort and risk, according to Charlie, the university has become significantly more accommodating to trans students during his time at Harvard. He points to improvements in health care for trans students at University Health Services, including provisions accommodating students who wish to transition to a different gender through hormonal or surgical means. He also says the University has become more accommodating for students requesting gender-neutral housing.

“It can be difficult getting through the web of administrators,” says Charlie, “But recently the administration has done more to be more educated and more open.”

Advocating for Change

There are a number of barriers to political and social advocacy for and by trans individuals, yet the community has also managed to make some strides.“In general, one of the biggest problems is that [trans people] get forgotten in the gay rights movement for many reasons,” Churchill says. “People in the LGB community sometimes will think that we will never advance if we also advance trans people, because society will not be able to handle that.”

Charlie adds that a lot of the issues that the trans community has faced in their campaign for equality deal with public perception of the group.

“The trans community is very small,” Charlie says. As a result of this, he continues, information about trans people is less readily accessible than education about other queer groups. This leads to the proliferation of harmful stereotypes.

On the other hand, Churchill points out, the trans community has made strides at universities like Harvard and at institutions like some Wall Street banks, which have implemented new policies to accommodate transgender employees.

Looking Forward

For many trans-identified individuals, however, their gender identity remains a daily struggle.

“I really would like to be stealth one day, and not have to be openly transgender, and be comfortable with my body,” John says. For him, the constant need to explain his gender identity to others can be exhausting, as “It gets tiring educating people all the time and being the go-to trans person.”

Though John affirms that this educational process is significant—and, in fact, crucial for making positive change—he envisions a time when greater understanding of trans identities will remove part of this burden. “One day, I would like not to have to do that,” he says.