There’s a sudden surge of trans students coming out at my college … and I’m scared to talk about it

by Emily Williams

Emily is a 20-year old college junior at a selective liberal arts university in the US. She is using a pseudonym for obvious reasons. All respectful commenters welcome, as always, but if you’re also a college/university student, we’d especially like to hear from you.


I have always been empathetic and sensitive to suffering. From a young age, I remember worrying about families who lost their health insurance, the exploitation of women, and the huge discrepancies of wealth in the world. So when I first heard stories about transgender teens, I was very troubled.

emily college silencedI got my Instagram account when I started high school six years ago. That’s when I started learning about the transgender community. I stumbled across their images without even trying. Most were young, 14 or 15, and laid a tragic narrative of being sickeningly confined to breasts and intolerant parents. Many of these internet strangers used the Instagram platform to connect with other trans youth, share their progress and unhealthy coping mechanisms, and discuss their comorbid mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, and the fallout from sexual abuse. I did not interact with their posts, but read them out of curiosity and an attempt to understand.

That same year, I met my first real-life transgender person — the first of many. When I started high school, she went by her given name, Ingrid. She had buzzed hair, long winged eyeliner, combat boots, and lots of mini skirts. Clearly aiming to be different and cool. She was a senior, and spent most of her time painting in the art studio. Her look did not change throughout the year, but her name and pronouns did — at some point I began to hear people referring to someone named Diego. Before Diego/Ingrid graduated, s/he gave a presentation on “the transgender experience,” at which s/he defined what it feels like to have gender dysphoria, cited the suicide rate of trans people, and, most memorably, taught us trans etiquette: how to refer to trans people, use pronouns, and to never assume another person’s gender.

Throughout the rest of high school I came across this phenomenon several more times. Many more people I knew by association came out as trans. I heard more and more about trans people in the media (including celebrities like Laverne Cox and Caitlin Jenner), and began to hear LGBT or LGBTQ thrown around a bit more in a political context. I remained empathetic towards those who came out as trans, and tried to remember the politically correct language as best I could, often at the cost of what I had learned to be grammatically correct in my AP English Language class. While I still did not really understand how being or feeling transgender could work, I did not hear anyone else questioning it and felt I could not without offending or being insensitive.

emily college pullquote
But I was not ready for the culture shock of university, a small, selective liberal arts college. On the first day of orientation after moving into my new dorm, we had a floor meeting in which we introduced ourselves by name, location, fun fact, and preferred pronouns. “Remember, you cannot assume ANYONE’S gender identity!”  I felt silly having to tell a room of 40+ people that I prefer she/her pronouns, yet many people, at least five or six, who looked obviously male or female announced that they preferred the opposite pronouns. No one flinched or stuttered or acted like this activity was superfluous–though one international student asked me later, privately, why we had to do that. One person even announced that “some days” she would prefer to be called she, but other days would be going by he. Everyone nodded along, as if, of course, this makes sense.

By one month into my freshman year, the number of trans people I knew personally or by association was growing steadily. The school is small enough that even if you don’t know someone by name, you’ve probably seen them around. There were many boys wearing eyeliner but those were boys. There were girls wearing eyeliner that were also boys. Boys with small beards that were actually girls. And everything in between. One of my roommates started dating a “cis-passing” trans boy. Someone I met at the beginning of the year whose name was Tim would now like me to relearn that name as Rebecca. Someone else who started school with hair to her waist cut it all off and became Andrew. If you can’t determine gender by someone’s appearance, why have gender at all? Why not just call each other by our biology, whether we are happy with it or not, if only for consistency and clarity’s sake? I was trying to be empathetic but it was not easy, and confusing at best. No one said anything skeptical, and neither did I.

Two months into my freshman year, the signs on the bathrooms in an academic building were changed. Rather than being marked for men/women, both bathrooms were now “multi-stall.” The only indication that one was for men was the small print “with urinals,” vs “without urinals.” …

emily college pullquote 2It seemed that most of the students who were suddenly transitioning were biological females who were smart but socially awkward. They revealed their identities as trans men, usually through a haircut and new wardrobe, followed by a Facebook post alerting associates to a name and pronoun change. They would soon take to social media, student forums, and classroom discussions to rant about “cis privilege,” how oppressed they are because they get stared at by strangers, how they want to assault people who misgender them, and how in love with their “queer” identities they are.

A few weeks ago, a research paper was published suggesting that the recent increase in transgender identification among young people is the result of social contagion. This seems obvious to me. Yet officials at Brown University censored this paper. I shouldn’t be surprised. This is a topic that we can’t discuss on my college campus, either.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a social contagion among college students. At my school, it is trendy to be transgender, and to people who feel like they don’t fit in, particularly with other people of their biological sex, choosing to transition to the opposite sex, and become a member of the opposite sex, may certainly seem like a more viable option than continuing to feel rejected while trying to fit in. But a lot of this culture surrounding trans teens and college students is aggressively narcissistic and cutesy — selfies captioned “i love being nonbinary,” “you’re gay no matter who you date,” and “baby’s first binder!” At best these random, new identities are invented to fit an aesthetic. At worst they are aggressively anti “straight white men,” apparently the worst species on earth and the ones responsible for all hardship, as they threaten professors and other students who dare to hint at an observation that doesn’t sound affirmative of transgender identities.

urinal dressWithin the past year, my second year at this college, I have had girlfriends who had to share a room with a biological male who decided, within the year, to change his name to Valerie. My two friends felt bad for Val, who was clearly socially awkward, had very low self confidence, and was always asking for their approval, (“do you think I look pretty?”). When they said yes of course, to validate Val, Val would reply with “I don’t think so.”

The odd part is that when we apply for housing we are able to select sex segregated or non-gender-based housing. If you select sex segregated as a female, you are paired with females, but if you select non-gender-based housing, you are paired with other people who selected non-gender-based housing, regardless of gender. These two girl friends of mine signed up for sex segregated housing, expecting to be roommates with only other females. Val signed up for non-gendered housing, yet it seems they did not have anyone to pair Val with, and thus decided it would be better to pair a biological male with two girls than two boys.

This is concerning for me, as a feminist. There is a reason why sex-segregated housing exists, and it is not for sexist reasons. Many, even most, women and college-aged girls are not comfortable sharing a room with a man they have never met. While sexual assault can happen in a number of circumstances, forcing women to room with men seems an easy way to increase the possibility. It has been important, historically, that women have spaces that are not open to men, for their own safety.

college piece flagSimilarly, this past year, on the “trans day of visibility,” all of the bathroom signs throughout school were replaced with paper signs that made all of the bathrooms gender neutral. This was done by the campus LGBT club, in order to make straight people get “what it feels like to decide which bathroom to use as a trans person.” I doubt this was accurate though, because I was still caught trying to decide which bathroom would not have men in it. I opted for the bathroom I remembered had been the women’s room, as did most women. One of my directionally challenged girl friends forgot which one it was and picked the men’s. She was immediately embarrassed and confused and went to hunt for the single stall a couple floors up. If our bathrooms were more European-style bathrooms, with floor to ceiling private doors, I would probably mind very little. However, these are cheap stalls that come up to your knees, and in the men’s room of course the urinals are open to all to see. One girl shared with me that she walked into the “women’s” gender neutral bathroom to find one of our younger male professors. She was overwhelmed and went to a different bathroom. She admitted to feeling bad, as she gets the point of gender neutral bathrooms and believes that trans people should be able to use any bathroom, but she just couldn’t bring herself to pee in front of our professor. Understandably.

What has been even more upsetting is to see is how quickly these new identities are accompanied by medical changes. I know several young women who were able to easily access testosterone soon after deciding they were trans. I know four who have had mastectomies. One is currently raising funds for her breast removal as part of  a GoFundMe campaign.

While I have tried my best, and initially succeeded, in believing the narratives of the transgender experience, it struck me at college that this phenomenon is so widespread, so political, and so trendy, that I am now completely dubious. I am not allowed to speak honestly and openly on this subject without being defamed as a conservative, a transphobe, intolerant, and anti-feminist. As someone who is not trans, I am not allowed to think or talk about trans issues unless I am agreeing with a trans person. Because I can’t know what it’s like to feel born in the wrong body.

At the present time, I now know about 30 trans people personally, and another 20 by name. Given that I attend such a small school, this is a very high percentage. Even the RA of my freshman year floor, who introduced herself two years ago with she/her pronouns, now goes by he/him and identifies as a boy.

This issue became personal when my childhood friend announced she is transgender, We played with Barbies and dressed as Disney princesses when we were young. We talked about our crushes on boys, and experimented with makeup and fashion when we were teens. I can’t believe that she really thinks she is a man. She plans to medically transition. I am scared for her.  But I am afraid to say anything.

I find it biologically and statistically improbable that all of these people, born at around the same time, were actually “born in the wrong body.” I find it strange that they think they need hormones and surgery that will sterilize them permanently. What seems obvious to me is that they are uncomfortable with their bodies, suffer from other issues like anxiety and depression,  and see the attention and attractiveness of transition as a way out.

What I don’t understand is why all of my friends act like this is normal. Am I really the only one who has concerns? Or is everyone as scared as I am to say something?

Are you sending or losing your teen to college?

The following piece is a collaborative effort by a group of parents whose offspring began “gender transition” at university. They will be responding in the comments section under the username “POSTS”: Parents Of Sudden Transgender Students.


What if you sent your kid off to the Ivory Tower and you never saw her or him again–at least, you never saw a recognizable facsimile of the person you knew and loved for 18 years?

College is a time to “find oneself,” to try on different hats. How about transgender, genderqueer, non-binary? Some teens start to explore a transgender identity in high school, often via the Internet. Others may not have previously considered or even imagined a transgender identity before stepping onto a college campus.

If it were all just identity exploration, it would be one thing; but many college students are quickly advancing into medical treatments–often with the financial support of the university. Diagnostic testing or even basic counseling are no longer necessary, and college-bound teens have quickly figured this out. “Coming out” as transgender is now treated pretty much the same as a gay or lesbian coming out, not as the gender identity disorder it was considered to be only a short time ago.

And colleges compete to show how inclusive they can be of a myriad of transgender identities. The college end game is to be and stay highly ranked.

chronicle of higher ed


For a high school student questioning their identity, there is much advice available to help them select a trans-friendly campus. Your soon-to-be-away-from-home child may click away on the new wealth of information that could feed into their choice of college, as in campus pride, more pride, a pride guide to transforming your body.

There are even scholarship opportunities available for those considering a transgender identity. If one can commit to a new identity (and possibly a new body), the money is waiting. The Internet is full of transgender opportunities that institutions of higher learning offer before and during those formative college years. If we provided an inclusive list, it would all run together into a confusing (to parents) alphabet soup of acronyms. These acronyms and micro-identities are an easy sell to today’s gender-questioning students.

Campus pride student health clinic

Some students never question their gender identity until after being immersed in college life. Perhaps they take an elective course in Queer Theory in the Gender Studies Department, opening their eyes to viewpoints they didn’t know existed. Ok, isn’t that what an education is all about? But the medicalization of a newfound queer or trans identity can happen astonishingly quickly now.

Many young-adults-in-formation who suddenly announce a trans identity have a history of anxiety; are brilliant misfits with few friends; are gay or lesbian (and thus in no need of medical intervention); are a tad nerdy with possible autism spectrum traits–or perhaps all the above. Your daughter or son may lack a strong identity–in fact, the list gets so long that we could shorten it to “your child, any child.” Any kid who feels a great need to belong somewhere.

Once a transgender identity decision is made, instructions for what to do next are only a click away, such as at Carleton College in Minnesota:

carleton

In the National Geographic special, Gender Revolution, Katie Couric interviewed Tamar Szabo Gendler, Dean of Arts and Sciences at Yale. Dean Gendler is pleased that Yale is at the forefront of the gender revolution:

Universities are places that thrive on new discovery and I think that universities find it thrilling to feel like in the face of new knowledge we are able to figure out how to transform society as a consequence.

Some colleges cover trans medical treatments under the student health insurance plan.  According to Campus Pride, a whopping 86 US institutions cover hormones and surgeries, while another 22 will pay for hormones only. In a story in the New York Times on February 12, 2013, the author notes that no university covered such treatment as recently as 2007, but now exclusive universities like Stanford are onboard.

ny times

“No one knows how many” indeed–though we know that number has grown since the article was written four years ago.  Where once universities provided birth control and routine care on their health plans, now many (like the University of Massachusetts, Amherst) offer the full gamut of major, irreversible sex-reassignment procedures–including phalloplasty and vaginoplasty.

umass amherst

And while it may be hard to imagine how a student could take time out of their busy schedule to have sex reassignment surgery, the coverage of cross-sex hormones on so many student health plans might catch the eye of a gender-defying high school student; especially now that they’re away from the prying eyes of their parents.

Washington State University, in rural Pullman, scores a solid five stars from the CampusPride Index. Why? Trans health care, including (starting fall semester 2017) cross-sex hormones, is available via the student clinic. And as WSU explains, they are continually making changes to meet the needs demanded by their students:

WSU hormone treatment

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, the Queer Center provides a page chock-full of resources, including lists of sex reassignment surgeons, affirmative therapists, and how to get legal name changes on campus and state ID documents.

ucsc

Many colleges embrace the WPATH (World Professional Association for Transgender Health) guidelines:

A mental health screening and/or assessment as outlined above is needed for referral to hormonal and surgical treatments for gender dysphoria. In contrast, psychotherapy – although highly recommended – is not a requirement.

But informed consent gender clinics do not require mental health screenings by licensed therapists, and access to these clinics has been growing in recent years. Under this model, cross-sex hormones can be available even for a “non-binary” presentation; it is the individual’s choice what their goal and treatment protocol is.

Yale has provided gender surgeries on the student health plan since 2013; more recently, gender fluid and nonbinary Yale students have begun agitating for their right to treatment on demand.yale enbies

 

“The medical establishment is prejudiced against nonbinary people, ignoring the fact that gender fluidity exists,” Amend said. “Doctors can propagate a notion of ‘not being trans enough,’ which is toxic to the mental health of patients.”

Amend added that there is a community of nonbinary or gender fluid students at Yale, and that he knows of students who have had to tell psychiatrists that they are “more trans” than they feel, out of a fear that the doctors will withhold treatment if they appear more gender fluid.


Affirmative Care in the Student Counseling and Health Centers

How does this all happen so fast….a teen learning about transgender in high school, and starting cross-sex hormone injections in college?

Every day, young fresh faces, some not looking so fresh anymore, crowd the waiting rooms of student counseling centers all over Campus Country. Being a counselor in a college setting makes for job security: the 18-25-year-old cohort has the highest rate of mental health issues and the waiting list can be long.

Students have many stressors: a new environment, roommates, academic pressures, sexual shenanigans/hook-up culture, social pressures of every kind. Some of these students arrive burned-out by an intense college prep course in high school. Some have pre-existing mental health woes. They are strongly encouraged to use their student mental health center if any issues arise. That’s generally a good thing; we all want our kids to thrive and be healthy. But it can also be a less-positive thing, when the clinic is known as Affirmative Care.

What is Affirmative Care? In the mental health world pertaining to LGBTQetc it means that whatever narrative you bring to the table, you will receive an amen, a yes, a suspension of disbelief from the therapist. A student can make a transgender proclamation, whether this  is sudden, whether it makes any sense in the ongoing narrative of his or her life, and it will be accepted without question by the affirmative therapist. If one brings a tangible mental health diagnosis to the affirming counselor, whether it is mild depression, anxiety, bipolar, psychosis, no problem. Because if you have a mental health concern, it must be because you have not been affirmed and celebrated for identifying differently from your “assigned birth sex”. A life out of line with your gender identity explains all other mental health issues….or so the argument goes.


 Safe Places

Concerned about what your student is doing on campus, suddenly transitioning socially and via hormone use? If over 18 (as most are), they are considered to be adults now, and they can be safe on campus, even from parents, in “Safe Places.” Recently, the proliferation of “Safe Places” on college campuses have received a lot of attention, mirth, and critiques. Some argue that Safe Places magnify victimhood narratives and curtail freedom of speech and thought on college campuses. But the organized Safe Place coalitions do serve a valuable function. There are many people who need shelter and protection: domestic abuse victims, sexual assault/sex trafficked victims, run-away teens, individuals in groups that are marginalized, including LGBTQ people. None of us should tolerate violence or bullying.

If your child claims to be transgender, on most campuses they will be treated as a protected class against anyone who might question this new identity. A young adult caught up in the transgender warp will often say or do anything to have their way, to claim victimhood status. Doubting parents could even be hit by a  Do-notContact Order if they express dismay that their child is using cross-sex hormones via the student (or off-campus) health clinic—after all, the benign and kindly college administrators serve as in loci parentis. So the college clinic that injects students with cross-sex hormones, which cause permanent harm and morphed bodies, is just another “safe place.”

The subject of gender identity and safe spaces is a moving target, with the defining happening on college campuses. From the Los Angeles Times:

The meaning of a “safe space” has shifted dramatically on college campuses. Until about two years ago, a safe space referred to a room where people — often gay and transgender students — could discuss problems they shared in a forum where they were sheltered from epithets and other attacks.

Then temporary meeting spaces morphed into permanent ones. More recently, some advocates have turned their attention to student housing, which they want to turn into safe spaces by segregating student living quarters. Who would have imagined that the original safe space motive — to explore issues in an inclusive environment — would so quickly give way to the impulse to quarantine oneself and create de facto cultural segregation?

Safe space activism stems primarily from the separatist impulses associated with the politics of identity, already rampant on campus. For some individuals, the attraction of a safe space is that it insulates them from not just hostility, but the views of people who are not like them. Students’ frequent demand for protection from uncomfortable ideas on campus — such as so-called trigger warnings — is now paralleled by calls to be physically separated too. Groups contend that their well-being depends on living with their own kind.


In preparing this piece, we talked to several parents whose young adult offspring transitioned while at university. Here are a few of their comments:

 She did have some troubles in high school with anxiety, cutting and anorexia

From three mothers of sons who suddenly decided at university they were trans: all are very bright, nerdy and on the ASD spectrum

She asked us not to come to the Family Weekend at the end of October, she told us she was invited elsewhere for Thanksgiving

He had a romantic rejection, he attended a talk about trans at his university, he spent a lot of time online and developed dissociative disorder, then said he believed if he transitioned he would be more present in his body

We were met at the airport by a stranger: her skin was coarsened with acne, she had noticeable facial hair, her hair was chopped into a severe cut

The trans woman announcement came when my son was depressed and struggling with the complexity of social and romantic life at the university

She said she was lesbian in high school, but next spring in her first year in college there was a shock: a health insurance claim for testosterone

Several months later, it became apparent by both her appearance and mysterious medical bills, that our daughter was receiving testosterone in the college health clinic

His personality changed and he appeared terrified by everything; he told me that his friends thought the university failed to recognize mental illness

It was all hidden from us.

It was all hidden from us.  Until the body morphing started.