Brave new world

    Steph, a Northwestern graduate student, began transitioning last summer. Photo by John Meguerian / North by Northwestern

    She slips a satiny, rose-hued dress from a modest rack of women’s clothing in her closet, ignoring the thick line of cotton-striped men’s polos hanging in the corner. A light coating of dust outlines the broad shoulders of men’s pressed dress shirts.

    A light coating of dust outlines the broad shoulders of men’s pressed dress shirts.

    “I remember when I was really young, I would scour, you know, in the middle of the night. I would sneak out of my bedroom and try to find clothes I could wear,” Steph says animatedly.

    The dress limply folded across her arm sways gently with a gesture.               

    “So, I was just like, ‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’ I try it on. I’m wearing it, oh my god, how amazing,” she raises her voice in false excitement, holding the dress by the pinched, hourglass waist up to her body. She rocks back-and-forth, as if to dance, entangled in the memory.

    But the dreamy recollection soon fades to a sharp reality.

    Steph tilts her head to the side and lowers her voice for dark, comedic effect. “Of course, I was caught a few times with it.”

    In an uneasy tone, she adds, “I was kind of chided for it, a little bit.” After multiple secret dress-ups, costumes plucked out of her mother’s wardrobe, the reaction intensified.

    “I remember one time she called me a pervert,” Steph says, recalling that she cried at the harsh accusation.

    Steph wasn’t born with the body of a woman, but she’s chosen the name “Steph” to replace her birth name of “Stephen.” The pronoun “he” is now foreign to her as she strives to be gendered as a female by her Northwestern peers.

    Most won’t ever encounter a transgender student here. They are poorly represented in campus culture and university policy and programming, and according to the LGBT Resource Center at Northwestern, there are only five to 10 trans students at the university during any given year. Student health insurance explicitly bars coverage for trans-related procedures, and many struggle for comfortable campus housing and appropriate bathroom accommodations.

    For students who undergo a gender transition during college, these complications come in the face of equally turbulent and exciting emotional, and many times physical, territory.

    Steph picks some ruffled, pink sleeve fabric off a shelf and holds it up to the now seemingly plain armholes of the dress. Her routine forays into cross-dressing as a kid left scars on the delicate vintage silk straps. Frayed threads remain where the ruffled sleeves were once connected to the dress. She hopes to sew them back on as a coming-out present to her grandparents in a week. It’s the next step after telling her mother and father at the beginning of this summer, when she began to publicly dress as a female.

    But adequately playing tailor may be the least of her worries.

    “The reason I’m most concerned about coming out to my grandfather is that the one time he did catch me wearing that [dress], he just didn’t want to believe.”

    Having completed her undergraduate degree in mathematics at Cornell University, and continuing onto Northwestern as a graduate student, at 23 years old Steph was the first in her family to attend and excel at not one, but two prestigious universities.

    “I’m his like star child,” she says of her grandfather’s opinion. “He just kind of was in denial about it.”

    Steph retakes her place on the couch in her bedroom, littered with the sleeves of classic rock albums and glossy fashion magazines. She swigs from a murky brown bottle of a friend’s home-brewed beer from the co-op where she lives, swallowing it briskly.

    “This is very much a limbo for me. It’s confusing as fuck. I haven’t even gotten the hormones yet, and I’m dressing like a girl every day. I don’t know how people will read me that way,” she admits bluntly with a characteristic peppering of profanity, adding that “at times it can feel a little distressing. Like, how do I look? And how do people interpret me? Am I bothering people with whatever?”

    She pauses for a moment and raises her chin as if about to announce a royal decree.

    “And you know, I shouldn’t worry about that because I gotta be who I am.”


    Since coming out, Steph has made friends in the trans community at Northwestern. One of them is Mym Johnson, a graduate student who began transitioning nearly a year ago.

    The process began during her seventh year of grad school, though she began transitioning socially the year before. Though she had hoped to begin earlier, when her father died in 2004 — the year she entered Northwestern to study nuclear physics — his passing stalled any hope of a transition. Suffering the loss of a parent and waffling on whether or not to undergo the massive physical and social change a gender switch entails, she sunk into depression.

    After seeing a therapist and starting to take Lexapro, an antidepressant, Mym says she began to “feel like I was really in my body, instead of piloting around this meat puppet,” practically spitting out the last two words as if they were a rotten taste in her mouth.

    Mym overcame the hurdle and was able to begin transitioning, but telling her family about it was an entirely different challenge.

    “I came out to my mom and my sister about a year ago, about the same time I started [estrogen] hormones. In an email. It took me like two or three months to write it,” she confesses, letting out a vaguely embarrassed quiet laugh at the thought.

    Though coming out would perhaps prove to be easier than dealing with the cutting comments and slip-ups that followed. In the beginning of her use of doctor-prescribed estrogen hormones, tensions arose between Mym and her mother.

    “Another time she said she was relieved that I didn’t look like a girl, but that I looked like a boy in a dress. Which was upsetting, really upsetting. Um, so after that [my family] did not get to know anything,” she says, letting the wounded words hang in the silence that followed. She nimbly tucks a wayward strand of long brown hair behind her pierced ears and fiddles with the metal and rainbow chain-link bracelet she crafted encircling her wrist.

    Even the basics were difficult for Mym and her family. Getting her mother to use “she” instead of “he” was a battle in and of itself. “For whatever reason, people switch names easier than pronouns, it seems. But yeah, when I get mis-pronoun-ed by someone who ought to know better, it’s like you’re stuffing me back in this box that I’ve tried so hard to get out of,” she says.

    Shaking her hands in frustration, she waves her arms, delicately coated with a thin layer of fine blondish brown hairs, before regaining composure in her seat. Her face returns to its normal state of calm collection, betraying no emotion. After months of hormone therapy, Mym’s small features and rounded chin leave no hint of her previous masculinity.

    “I have the privilege of not [looking obviously transgender], but I want to be open,” she says, adding emphatically, “I really don’t want to be stealth. That’s because of my politics.”


    The politics take place in a small conference room with a floor to ceiling window, flooded with mid-afternoon sunlight on a Wednesday in September before the start of the school year. Mym is attending the first of this year’s LGBTQA Campus Advisory Network (CAN) meetings that will be sprinkled throughout the quarter.

    The meeting is led by Doris Dirks, who has been the coordinator of Student Organizations for Social Justice and the LGBT Resource Center for five years. The hour-long discussion with staff from different departments, like the Study Abroad Office and Health Promotion & Wellness, centers around their current initiative for expanding the number of gender-neutral bathrooms, specifically in the Technological Institute building, beyond the few underpublicized stalls scattered around campus.

    But there have been some obstacles to enacting the initiative. Dirks leads the meeting with impassioned energy, her laughs and frustrations about the issues echoing loudly, all comments seemingly bubbling from the bottom of her stomach.

    “I think some of the people who are at the levels below [President Schapiro] have not been educated on the topic — need to be educated on the topic — and therefore may be resistant to what I feel like are pretty simple changes that can be made without having a long conversation about bathroom facility laws,” she says exasperatedly. But she makes a point to mention that Schapiro has been incredibly supportive himself, even attending a Safe Space Ally Training session to learn about LGBT campus concerns and experiences.

    Though handicap bathrooms around campus can be used by either gender, there are few gender-neutral stalls, such as the one open to students and staff at the Women’s Center on the corner of Sheridan Road and Foster Street. An active LGBT Resource Center ally, they participate in Safe Space programming and see themselves as a common organization that battles oppression and discrimination along with the center, according to Cara Tuttle Bell, director of programs for the past two years.

    “You don’t want students feeling like they can’t even use the restroom throughout the day without facing hostility. You don’t want students holding it all day, that’s not healthy. It can lead to urinary tract infections, kidney infections, not to mention just being uncomfortable where you’re trying to learn. That’s not an equal experience,” she asserts.

    Beyond that, some feel that the lack of housing options for transgender students is a second element of structural inequality at Northwestern. This fall, a student group called the Gender Protection Initiative (GPI), run by Medill junior Zach Wichter, ran their pilot program for gender-open housing for the second year. After a couple of rocky years trying to persuade the administration of the need for gender-open housing on campus, they were granted two mixed-gender suites in 1835 Hinman in 2010. They propose that more housing options could ease the process of transitioning and make students who refuse being categorized as female or male more comfortable.

    This year, the Gender Protection Initiative was granted 20 rooms, all filled, in Foster-Walker Complex. A promising achievement considering that there were only six students in the first year’s suites, says Wichter. But since freshmen aren’t eligible to live in that section of Foster-Walker, he feels the initiative is missing out on the largest group of students that typically live on campus.

    Additionally, the rooms available are all singles. This raises issues concerning cost, considering that single rooms are more expensive than doubles. But perhaps more troubling, says Wichter, is the message it sends to the Northwestern community. With no roommate option, students who don’t fit the typical gender and sexuality binary remain isolated, as opposed to integrated and accepted.

    “There are a lot of people who do prefer to have roommates,” says Wichter, who is also a co-president of Rainbow Alliance, an LGBTQ student group. “I think that an important part of having a truly successful gender-open housing program are having options open to whoever wants to live there, not making people who might want to live there fit into the category of room that we have available to them.”

    Regardless of the challenges Gender Protection Initiative is having with their work-in-progress housing, the option would have been immensely helpful for transgender students like Anakin Morris, a 22-year-old who completed his undergraduate degree in performance studies in winter 2011. He transitioned genders during his freshman year.

    Anakin speaks ecstatically about his former residence, the infamously theatre-centric haunt of Jones Residential College. But despite the liberal, artsy atmosphere that welcomed him socially, it was a different story behind the closed doors of his room.

    “I struggled a lot with having to live in, you know, women’s housing. I had female roommates freshman and sophomore year. Which was…its own adventure,” he says sarcastically. He flashes a quick grin at his girlfriend Sharon Friedenbach fiddling on her phone next to him, as if he’s still in disbelief at the awkward predicament that permeated two years of his college experience.

    “My freshman year roommate had more issues. I mean she signed up to live with a girl, and then I stopped being that. And it wasn’t her fault, and it wasn’t my fault, but it sucked, for her and for me, and for everyone,” he says.

    As the transgender student community and their allies like the Gender Protection Initiative and the LGBT Resource Center become more vocal about housing needs, Wichter is hoping that experiences like Anakin’s won’t repeat themselves, but instead will pressure the administration to formalize their gender-open housing and let them expand. “Because there aren’t really any drawbacks,” he argues. “Whereas, if you’re behind the times and people are asking for it and you don’t have it, it ends up looking kind of bad and sort of like you didn’t have the foresight to see this coming.”

    Northwestern’s infrastructure isn’t the only part of campus life charged with being ill-equipped for transgender students by students and resource groups.

    One thorn in the side of transgender students seeking medical treatment is page 33 of Northwestern’s student health insurance policy, a plan purchased from insurance provider Aetna, which services universities throughout the nation. It states under No. 41 in a list of exclusions to coverage “expenses incurred for, or related to, sex change surgery, or to any treatment of gender identity disorder.”

    Gender Identity Disorder (GID), as defined by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is “a conflict between a person’s actual physical gender and the gender that person identifies himself or herself as,” and it’s how people who identify as transgender are diagnosed within the medical community. Despite recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorder’s IV-TR (DSM), transgender students diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder are currently unable to receive coverage for estrogen or testosterone hormones and/or sex reassignment surgery in order to make a physical gender transition.

    But medically defining transgender people as having a disorder is controversial in and of itself, according to the American Medical Student Association. They, along with groups like GID Reform Advocates, stress that a social stigma is associated with medical terminology like “disorder” in relation to a person’s identity.

    Chris Johnson, the director of the Department of Risk Management, which administers student health insurance policy at Northwestern, says that their policy agreement with Aetna was designed by a student committee years ago, and that in the past few years holding his position, he’s heard no requests or complaints by students in regards to the trans-exclusion within the policy. Hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgeries are still considered not medically necessary and therefore remain uncovered, Johnson explains.

    But some people feel otherwise, whether or not the university or Aetna acknowledges that it’s a “necessity.” Namely, many transgender students find that hormone therapy and surgery are integral to feeling comfortable and self-fulfilled in their gender and life in general.


    Anakin and Sharon casually slide a thick glass mug of a caramel-colored coffee between them over a small marble table at Unicorn Café. His arm rests comfortably around the back of Sharon’s seat as she relates how taking hormones regularly to get the full gender transitional effects is key to mental health for people, like her boyfriend, with Gender Identity Disorder. With a transgender brother and having had multiple relationships with pre and post-transition peers in her own time at Northwestern, she speaks with confidence on the topic.

    “You wouldn’t put someone through undue psychological stress, make them function without their anti-depressants or without their psych meds,” she says, comparing the importance of commonly accepted and covered treatments to hormone therapy.

    Anakin breaks the jovial mask he’s been wearing throughout the interview. He cuts off Sharon mid-thought, as opposed to happily finishing her sentences.

    “But I’d sure be depressed as hell if I wasn’t [taking hormones],” he admits.

    Depression can be a major prompt for re-evaluation of whether or not to transition. For Steph, she even decided to take off her second year of academically rigorous grad school to focus on changing dress and name and beginning hormonal treatment in late October.

    “I mean, it’s a risk I’m taking. I’m not sure if [transitioning is] more important. Maybe it’s not. But like, this is something I’ve been struggling with most of my life. I’ve clearly been depressed for the past, like, year or so, and struggling with gender issues in the privacy of my own home: staying at home, cross-dressing, or whatever, just trying to make myself feel better,” she says, shaking a head of shoulder-length red-blonde curls she’s in the process of growing out.                

    She describes her first year here as a troubling time, desperately trying but ultimately failing to regain a focus on the math work she loved as an undergrad, instead secluding herself to play video games in her room as a distraction.


    Studies about the medical risks of prolonged hormone therapy are sparse, but Ohio University’s LGBT Center gives an overview of the possible health complications that could result. Blood clots, mood swings, acne outbreaks, weight gain, breast cancer, diabetes and sterility are all conditions that have been identified through current research of patients undergoing prolonged treatment, though it depends whether or not testosterone or estrogen are taken.

    Steph wouldn’t discuss her method of insurance coverage for hormonal treatment, but Johnson says Northwestern is willing to appeal to Aetna “if it’s determined that the absence of hormonal therapy may be medically detrimental to the student,” and that all it takes is a simple phone call.

    However, Johnson claims no knowledge of any university insurance policy that covers hormonal therapy and sexual reassignment surgeries for transgender people.

    But they exist. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Genny Beemyn directs the Stonewall Center: Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender Educational Resource Center.  Because of  the center’s vehement persuasion, the school changed their insurance policy with Aetna for this school year.

    Beemyn, who prefers the gender-neutral pronoun “ze” (pronounced “zee”), says proudly that UMass Amherst has “been at the forefront of having policies that support transgender students. So we will [help to] change names, change genders, offer hormones, offer surgeries, have gender neutral housing available, have [gender neutral] bathrooms in all the [newly constructed] buildings.”

    Making the change required stressing the need for coverage to the University of Massachusetts Amherst administration before the next round of negotiations between Aetna and their school. Additionally, with a few students a year taking advantage of this trans coverage, Beemyn assumes, there would be minimal cost.

    This fall, a transgender student was able to get a mastectomy with Aetna covering his transition surgery. 

    “He was thrilled, although, I have to say … we had to keep calling saying … ‘yes, this is covered under our policy,’” Beemyn recounts, explaining that Aetna wasn’t handling the change in policy well. “I just saw him a couple days ago, in the end it worked out fine and with no problems. But he was panicked up until the last minute that it wasn’t going to be paid for.”

    For schools that have not updated transgender student coverage in their insurance policy, a major medical loophole exists, though the extent to which it was and is used is unknown. Beemyn admits that prior to this negotiation, they were providing hormone therapy to students on the sly — and so were others. “Institutionally — like what they did in Ohio State for years — was someone who wanted hormones who was transitioning would be coded as having an endocrine deficiency. And in that way it would be covered by insurance, because Ohio State at that time had an exclusion for people who were transitioning.” The endocrine system controls glands throughout the body that secrete different hormones, including estrogen and testosterone.

    At Northwestern, the LGBT Campus Advisory Network, comprised completely of volunteer staff and students, sees altering our health insurance policy as a key initiative to creating a comfortable and equal environment for transgender students. Mym is working to lead this reform, trying to pay forward what she’s learned in the process of transitioning and becoming informed on trans issues, she says, which is a change for her.

    “I’m just really glad to be involved on the activist side of it, which, I hadn’t really done anything before so that kind of surprised me. But it’s kind of fulfilling. Also, my friend just told me that if I get this done, he’ll buy me an entire case of beer,” Mym chuckles, trying to make light of the exasperating situation.

    After a beat, she adds in a grave voice, “Yeah, I don’t think it’s going to happen in time for me,” referring to university coverage. However, Mym was aided by Chicago’s Howard Brown Health Center, an LGBTQ-friendly resource center that works with insurance plans to help arrange for hormone therapy, among other treatments for Gender Identity Disorder.

    Northwestern’s own LGBT Resource Center is searching for more support for their educational initiatives, funding and staff. Created in 2004, they remain under the labyrinth of the network of the Division of Student Affairs, and have two staff members including Dirks, who only works there part-time. Dirks says the $9,700 they receive in funding per year isn’t enough to bring in any notable speakers, host events and give Safe Space trainings, though these have risen from once per quarter to eight times per quarter.

    “I think we’re doing pretty well given the amount of time and resources we have -— which we’re pretty new and it’s not a lot. I think we’re in a good position but we have a ways to go,” she says firmly, her striking blue eyes narrowing behind the clear plastic frames of her stylized glasses.

    Working at one of the 175 LGBT resource centers in a nation of around 3,000 accredited universities, Dirks says they are always looking to other schools, such as Emory, as models for inspiration in their work.

    “They got a five-star rating,” she nearly whispers in admiration with a trace of jealously, referring to the national ratings of a campus climate measurement tool for LGBTQ-friendly campuses. Our score is low, she says, because of the lack of gender-neutral facilities, no simple name changing process on diplomas and transcripts, and most importantly because there is no bias-incident response team for incidents of discrimination, violence and harassment on campus.

    The Women’s Center, a better-funded and more established group, tries to pick up where the LGBT Resource Center leaves off. It offers benefits to students including up to 52 free counseling sessions with professionals trained in issues of sexuality and gender, which have been used by transgender students dealing with Gender Identity Disorder and considering transition, says Tuttle Bell, their director, who urges students to call, email or even send her a message on Facebook to set up an appointment. For them, it’s about fostering community between campus tools to dismantle any kind of discrimination or injustice, regardless of gender association.

    Steph has taken a lot of solace in the support of her open-minded housing community at the co-op for the past year and during the transitional months of this summer, she says while preparing dinner with housemates.

    Taking a break from spreading sticky, golden tamale dough across corn husks and slathering them with various spicy avocado fillings, Steph hangs out with a fellow math major in her room, catching up as the others zip about the house to taste dipping sauces and stir pots of boiling beans. He’s talking about upcoming classes that Steph won’t be attending this quarter and inquiring about her plans for the year when “Steve” slips out of his mouth.

    “It’s Steph,” she says quickly, slightly cutting into the casual quality of the conversation.

    “Sorry, it’s just hard sometimes,” he replies gently, looking down at his hands fiddling in his cross-legged lap. They resume talking normally, and Steph admits later, “It’s not a big deal, it takes time for people to get used to. And I know that I don’t currently present very femininely. Like I still have very masculine mannerisms, which I think will take some time to erase, but I’m not trying to erase who I am.”

    She continues after a pause for reflection between sips of her beer, “I think it’s probably going to be character-building in the long run, as cliché as that sounds ... Like I’m gonna make mistakes, I’m gonna screw up, and that’s fine. That’s just a part of life.”


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