Tigers cultivate an inclusive campus
He. Him. Shane. For a Mizzou junior in the process of gender transition, a simple name with its accompanying pronouns has been the source of a lifelong internal struggle — and ultimately, a source of self-acceptance.
Born Sarah, Shane recently began the process of making his gender expression (his physical appearance) match his gender identity (his mind and internal sense of masculinity and femininity). In his ideal world, he already would be living as Shane, but because of the complex challenges facing trans-identified people both on campus and in U.S. culture, he has approached the changes slowly and cautiously.
Identifying and expressing
Looking back at his childhood, Shane remembers little things like wanting to be “Max” instead of “Sarah” while playing house with friends.
“I’ve always had this sense of being really, really masculine but never had a word to put with it,” Shane says. “When I found out that trans was a thing, I thought I was going to have to make this huge change right away, but there’s this really wide spectrum of figuring out where you are.”
As a junior in high school, Shane (then still Sarah) came out as a lesbian and felt comfortable in that identity. But after starting college, he began to question it. As he read about transgender identities, he felt his self-awareness expanding. As he talked with people who identified as trans at the MU LGBTQ Resource Center his freshman year, he recognized experiences and feelings similar to his own. But because gender reassignment is a permanent decision, he wanted to make sure he fully accepted himself and was ready for the physical and emotional changes that awaited him. The process was daunting, especially for a self-described “commitophobe.”
Then, in 2012, Shane performed in a drag show. Gluing on facial hair and binding his chest for the first time, he went over his song, “Boyfriend” by Justin Bieber. Looking into the mirror, Shane felt exhilarated.
“Nobody understood why I was so excited, but I remember just seeing the face, the chest and the other body parts that I wanted and being so incredibly happy,” he says, his bright blue eyes lighting up with the memory. “Doing drag was just this huge step for me knowing that maybe I do fit somewhere between these lines and maybe I am ready to make this transition. It was a life-changer.”
Shane began regularly binding, wearing a bra-like garment that compresses the chest. He sees a gender therapist to discuss his identity and a medical doctor at the Student Health Center to prepare to start hormone replacement therapy next semester, if he’s ready. It’s all part of becoming the person Shane believes himself to be: a man with masculine features, a structured chin, facial hair and a deeper voice.
“I'm taking my time because I want to be extremely confident in my decision, and that means taking the transition a bit slower,” Shane says. “Some people transition at a faster pace, and that works for them. There's a huge stereotype that people who transition are going to regret it later on in life, but it's a wrong one. When you're constantly thinking about body dysphoria and having trouble looking at yourself in the mirror, it's hard to not want to jump into taking steps to make yourself feel better. There are pros and cons to weigh when deciding.”
Coming out and family support
According to medical professionals, family support is vital to a trans-identified person’s coming-out process and affects mental and physical health going forward.
“Getting that support from the family is incredibly important because our culture just doesn’t normalize this as part of the human experience,” says Erika Patterson, a licensed psychologist in the mental health department of the Student Health Center. “Just having the emotional support of at least one other person in the world who is there with you going through this is huge.”
The experience is still fresh for Shane.
A few weeks ago, his mom asked him if he was trans. They discussed how nervous he was to tell her and how he might go about talking to his dad about it. Then, on Oct. 3, MU senior Josie, who identifies as genderqueer, was named among the top five Mizzou Homecoming king candidates. Shane was inspired to come out to his dad.
“He has his concerns because he’s a parent, but at the end of the conversation, he told me ‘I love you no matter what. It would be kind of cool to have the son I’ve always wanted and kind of always had.’ It gave me a lot of courage to go forward with the steps I want to take because even if he doesn’t understand, he’s still going to be there at the end of the day,” Shane says. “My mom told me that it’s my soul that they care about, and that they’d support me no matter what.”
Shane made his name change Facebook-official after that talk and is ready for the resultant questions. The experience isn’t entirely new, though. As a Summer Welcome leader, he chose to use only his gender-neutral last name.
The Summer Welcome staff “just wanted to understand, but it was hard for me to give them those answers when I didn’t fully understand myself,” Shane says. “Mizzou has been a wonderful safe haven. Mizzou has given me a really good experience to be open to anyone.”
Patience and communication from all parties involved may be vital in breaking down barriers and developing understanding. Watching people who didn’t know anything about trans identities become allies is one of the more rewarding experiences Shane has had.
“You reduce homophobia and transphobia by meeting someone who identifies within the LGBTQ community,” Shane says. “It’s just taking that step to talk to someone different than you.”
But while his support system has been “incredible,” Shane says, the campus could expand inclusiveness.
“I sat in Summer Welcome presentations during training this summer and we saw the One Mizzou video and the non-discrimination clause,” Shane says. “Not seeing my identity up there just reminded me that coming out might not be the best option for everyone yet. It would be great to take that further step to make it known that we accept everyone.”
Support for trans tigers
Policies protecting trans communities are becoming more widespread in higher education, and some of MU’s peer institutions are paving the way for trans-inclusive campus culture. More than 600 colleges and universities in the United States — including 57 of the 62 Association of American Universities institutions — address gender identity and expression in their non-discrimination clauses and offer protections for trans students, faculty and staff.
At Mizzou, trans Tigers have access to the LGBTQ Resource Center, the MU Equity Office, student organizations, advocacy groups, counseling and health care. Staff members say trans-specific resources might be less plentiful than their gay-and lesbian-focused equivalents in part because the public sometimes fails to distinguish between sexual orientation and gender identity. Struby Struble, coordinator of the LGBTQ Resource Center on campus, says she often encounters the misconception that people wanting to express transgender identity are doing it for sexual reasons.
“Sexual orientation had such a strong campaign and advocacy, that at times, people of privilege just lump all the [LGBTQ] alphabet together and assume if you give rights to one group that it’s generalized to the entire group of people,” says Heather Eastman-Mueller, a health educator and coordinator in the health promotions department of the Student Health Center. “People assume the needs and issues are all the same and the protection is, too, but that’s just not true. There’s so much misinformation that people are confused, which can lead to the discrimination trans-identified people face.”
Eastman-Mueller co-founded the educational TransAction Team advocacy group in 2008. TAT has grown into an interdisciplinary coalition of faculty, staff and students that provides educational training, hosts panels and offers consulting services.
TAT and the LGBTQ center have established ways for students to privately alert professors about their name and pronoun preferences before the first day of class, averting public faux pas and accidental outing. TAT also has worked to map out — and expand the number of — gender-neutral bathrooms on campus; the trans community has a significantly higher rate of bladder, intestine and kidney problems caused by infrequent restroom use because many fear facing harassment or violence in public restrooms and therefore avoid them.
Suicide prevention resources
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline
Toll-free 1–888-THE-GLNH (1–888-843‑4564)
Monday to Friday, 4 p.m. to midnight (Eastern); Saturday, noon – 5 p.m. (Eastern)
The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline provides telephone and email peer-counseling, as well as factual information and local resources for cities and towns across the United States.
The Trevor Project
The Trevor Project focuses on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth.
Even in a friendly environment, problems persist. In the Campus Climate Survey released in 2009, more than 57 percent of trans-identified people indicated they had been harassed. Rates of attempted suicide for trans-identified people are 41 percent nationally, 25 times higher than the rate for any other group. This summer the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which no longer lists transgender identity as a disorder but rather focuses on the resulting distress a trans person might feel and emphasizes the need for support.
After sexual orientation was added to the university’s anti-discrimination clause in 2003, gay, lesbian and bisexual Tigers reported a decline in harassment.
“If those tangible protections are not in place, people are at risk for health disparities and disparities in employment and housing and all those areas of life that, for someone who is trans-identified can, be incredibly risky,” Patterson says.
Many members of the Mizzou community see protective policies as a way of promoting the university’s values. Shane says broader protections would help him and his family feel safer and would bring a level of comfort to other trans-identified people.
“I think we have a unique opportunity, because we are a university, to create a cultural shift related to inclusivity,” Eastman-Mueller says. “We need to do it for the respect and dignity of others, not because the law says we have to. That’s what’s so great about the university setting: We can do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
When transgender students begin university life, housing details — roommates, single-sex buildings, shared restrooms — can present complications. In December 2011, the City of Columbia added gender identity to its non-discrimination clause, preventing transgender tenants from being denied housing or being evicted without cause. Struble says the policy has helped Mizzou’s trans students comfortably secure off-campus housing.
At Mizzou, the Department of Residential Life is exploring the feasibility of gender-neutral housing. Two of the biggest conundrums they face are how to provide gender-neutral housing to students without forcing them to self-identify or “out” themselves and how to balance the desire for such housing against other students’ needs.
“We currently work with our students on an individual basis. It’s challenging with such a high demand for our housing,” says Frankie Minor, director of residential life at MU. “As our mission says, we’re committed to providing safe, secure and inclusive housing.”
Although there is no immediate timetable for making halls or floors gender neutral, the design of new halls leaves open the possibility of converting to a gender-neutral format in the future. For example, the under-construction Virginia Avenue South Hall will have “gender flexible” bathrooms, each with a toilet, shower and sink behind locked doors to ensure the privacy of anyone using it.
TAT sees gender-neutral housing as a way to protect incoming trans students from potentially hostile living situations, but Struble says the effects are broader.
“I think we need gender-neutral housing because it’s better for all of our students, not just trans students. The fewer decisions we make based on gender, the better,” Struble says. “Our residence halls should be split up by interests: Do you want a social floor or a quiet floor? Do you want a morning-person or night-owl floor? Do you like ice cream or popsicles? Have students split up by that instead of ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’”
When it comes to medical care for trans-identified students, the University of Missouri is among the leaders in the nation. Susan Even, executive director of the MU Student Health Center, says Mizzou is one of about 20 universities in the nation whose student insurance covers medical care, hormone treatment, lab tests and surgical care.
Patterson was one of the leaders in the effort to provide that care. She says she cried when she learned trans students’ needs would be covered by insurance.
“To have the choices will very clearly, in my view, prevent future suicide attempts, prevent students from dropping out of college, prevent students from suffering for decades with psychological pain and isolation,” Patterson says.
Soon after coming to Mizzou, she met with fellow psychologists David Tager, from the Student Health Center, and Jessica Semler, from the Counseling Center, to collaborate on supporting trans-identified Tigers. After conducting a needs assessment, they created the Transgender Health Network, a list of supportive physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and therapists, and set about providing educational resources for health care providers. Working with Even, they then created a task force, which started by tackling resource materials, gender-neutral bathrooms and a preferred-name policy for health-care office waiting areas.
“From what I’ve experienced and observed, our staff feels more prepared,” Even says. “Nobody wants to inadvertently do something that makes a student or patient feel uncomfortable.”
Using anonymous surveys, comment boxes and facilities tours, the staff constantly seeks and monitors feedback, looking for ways to improve students’ experiences. Students say the steps the center has taken have been critical in helping them feel safe, valued and welcome at MU.
The Student Health Center faces some challenges, though. The conversion to electronic records ultimately will make the center more efficient and improve care, but it creates a temporary loss of flexibility. Using paper charts, the staff had developed ways to note social history and preferred names. The new system will require new procedures, but Even says they will figure out a way to make it work.
“Working with trans-identified students is some of the most powerful work we do,” Patterson says. “The first time a student received a testosterone shot here, the nurses were so overjoyed because the student was so overjoyed. They say that this feels like a way that we can make one of the most significant differences in someone’s life.”
As Shane transitions, one of the hardest things for him to understand is why friends and acquaintances might distance themselves from him, make false assumptions and become disconnected.
“The thing most people don’t comprehend is that trans people are still full human beings living their lives: amazing or petty, artistic or full of TV marathons. Or all of that. They still are whatever major they are and don’t do the assigned reading like they should and eat too much pizza. They’re still round, full human beings,” Struble says. “Gender is just one small piece of the human puzzle.”
Advocates for trans Tigers say they already have started seeing a shift in attitude on campus.
“I really do think change is coming. It’s in the process of happening now,” Patterson says. “Although there’s been tremendous progress, there is still tremendous discrimination and lethal risk to being open trans-identified in our culture, but I really have so much faith, so much hope, because I believe in compassion and the human spirit. I’ve witnessed it first hand.”
Sitting in a student commons after 11 p.m., Shane and some friends settle in to start studying. Snacking on chips and hummus and bites of chocolate — brain food, they say — they click across browser tabs and resist the temptation of Netflix. Laughing, they talk about how there are times when one of them will slip up and call Shane by the name he had when they met.
It doesn’t bother him at all. Shane says it took him 19 years to realize he could even be trans and another to figure out what that meant in his life. Being patient, he says is the only way to move forward.
“Hearing ‘he’ and ‘him’ and ‘Shane’ over and over now, it just fits me more than anything else ever has,” Shane says. “It made me feel more whole and complete than ever before.”
MU Extension releases 2021 mental health toolkit
The toolkit release kicks off Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in May.
In the News
From the wastewater drain, solid pandemic data
New York Times
‘Meant to be a marketer’: Trulaske alumna guides Nissan campaigns, branding through transformative times
Allyson Witherspoon shares how Mizzou put her on the road to success.
Scott H. Holan named Fellow of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics
Stay up-to-date on all things Mizzou when you subscribe to the Show Me Mizzou newsletter. Issues will arrive in your inbox every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.