Trans Students Speak on Identity

When I first came to Sarah Lawrence as a freshman, all the way back in 2009, I was the only trans woman I knew at this school. The members of Transaction, the school's transgender student group, included me and two other people. Petitioning for gender neutral bathrooms seemed like it was a utopian task and reminding my teachers that I preferred to be referred to as “She” or “Her” felt like I was telling them a dirty secret. 

Now, the trans population has at least quadrupled in size. Transaction has about a dozen regular members, and the gender neutral bathrooms can be found at various junctures throughout the school. In the last four  years, Transaction has helped host more than a few annual events, such as Coming Out Stories and Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Harry Barrick ('17), one of the co-chairs of Transaction, came out as non-binary right after  high school, and prefers the term “non-binary” to “genderqueer.”  They told us, “I'm attached to the label 'non-binary', rather than 'genderqueer'. It feels like I'm queer but in a gender way. It just doesn't feel as assertive. At the same time, I don't want to be a negation.” Barrick  highlighted the tendency of the SLC community to be sensitive to those who are outside of gender norms, stating, “Not everyone knew how to use non-normative pronouns, but when they were scared to mess things up, I appreciated it.” 

When asked what might account for the growth of the trans population at SLC, Barrick responded “More young people are exploring their gender identities at a rate that has never been matched in history. Media representation can sometimes help you figure out who you are and how you feel.” When asked about the main problem facing trans people in our society at large, Barrick told us, “The main problem that society has with regards to trans-folks is really just misogyny. Because if you see femininity as inherently weak, any deviation is seen as a threat. If that was let go of, people could be free to explore their gender identity without violence or whiplash […] ending misogyny is how to improve the lives of everyone and, by extension, the lives of trans folks.” 

The most notable change in the trans community is perhaps the great number of non-binary and genderqueer individuals. Miranda Stewart ('18) identifies as “non-binary” as opposed to “genderqueer”. They told us, “A few people have trouble remembering how to use my pronouns, but I don't think it was always intentional. A lot of people haven't mentioned it that much, because I tend not to unless it comes up. But when I have, people haven't been hostile or anything.” But sometimes it isn't easy expressing oneself as it might seem. Stewart also told us, “Sometimes I think it would be easier if professors asked for people's pronouns, so that I wouldn't have to say my pronoun, because sometimes I just can't do that.”

Deane Silsby ('17) is also co-chair of Transaction. He spoke of coming out at SLC, telling us, “I knew that I wasn't cis so it took a while to come out, but I felt I was in a community to do that in.” He too finds that this school can serve as a safer place than most for trans-folks. Silsby noted, “Here, when people mis-pronoun me, they aren't doing it to be malicious. I have that suspicion outside of school.” Exposure to others who are trans, Silsby tells us, was a crucial point in his awareness of his own identity, as well as the larger trans community: “The first trans person I met, I met here. My perspective changed from 'trans people exist' to 'trans people exist in my life'. It made me feel a comfortablity to explore my gender that I didn't have before.” 

When asked how to improve the world trans people live in, Silsby told us, “Educating cis people, because cis people can be very isolated in their own communities from learning about trans people. There is basically no representation in the media; many [cis people] have not met a trans person. They don't have an avenue to learn through.” 

And indeed, being educated can go a long way in setting the trans-friendly scene here at SLC. Jay Pulitano ('15), told us that, when he first came to SLC, students were more savvy than usual. They assumed he identified as male without him having to explain. The first people he met were those on the swim team, in which he competes regularly. Jay told us that they referred to him as “he” right away. Jay also told us, however, that there are times that he doesn't feel comfortable being seen as “just another guy.” He said he feels a certain level of gender-queerness, and questioned too the dichotomy of “women's teams” and “men's teams” in sports. 

And perhaps the female and feminine contingent of the trans community could be bigger too, despite the fact that it has grown rapidly as well. Furthermore, a queer community does not exactly mean a community automatically accepting of trans people. Jaylen Rainnes ('18), told us that the queer community was “explicitly transphobic” where she is from, as opposed to at SLC. When asked if she has faced discrimination for being trans, Rainnes replied, “When I was younger, yes. When I was older, the school started to become more gay-friendly. People would say explicitly transphobic things, but they didn't usually think I was trans, so I didn't have to deal with that.” 

I pointed out how this school is mostly female and yet there are proportionally fewer trans women than trans men. I mentioned how this had always been a difficult pill to swallow for me, I asked Rainnes if she felt the same as a trans woman. She told me, “There are five of us now. And that's a lot...for me. Because I didn't know any trans women, or I did know them but they weren't out as trans.” When asked if she identified as a woman, Rainnes replied, “At least in practice. Personal identity is not something I'm thinking about right now.” 

For others, personal identity proved something that required a lot of research, as well as internal speculation. Having come out as trans just this summer, Nynaeve Sebastien ('18) told us, “I was on Tumblr, researching. Looking at different identities –  like what fits me best. This was a few weeks before I came out. I just intensely researched everything I could.” When asked how the Internet helped her find ways to come out, she said “I hear about older trans women who didn't have the Internet, they didn't have resources and I think that if I didn't have that it would have been almost impossible. I wouldn't have found out my identity the same way; it would have taken much longer. Without those resources it would have been easier for other people to poke holes in my identity.” 

Sebastien chose SLC before she identified as trans, but what she liked about the school may speak to why SLC is more accepting than other campuses when it comes to non-binary and genderqueer individuals. She liked that “ No one student was the same...everyone was very non-conforming...everything about this school was just non-traditional.” Sebastien also told us that although she initially came out as a trans woman, she currently identifies as trans feminine. When asked what advice she would give young trans people, she said, “ Just read. Go on the Internet and read other people's accounts. Expand and try to talk to other trans folks online.” 

By Aviya Eschenazi '15

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SLC Phoenix

The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.