Josie Elias is going through puberty. Just after his twenty–second birthday, the College senior is sprouting his first chin hairs, his first swaths of forehead acne and his voice is cracking like a twelve year old’s.
With just a few months until graduation, most of Josie’s peers are swept up in the soon–to–come transition from college to the real world. But Josie is in the midst of another transition: changing his body from the one he was born in to the one in which he’s always felt he belonged.
Josie identifies as transgender, meaning his self–identified gender doesn’t align with the one he was assigned at birth. And he’s not the only one. For the dozens of transgender students at Penn, everything from housing to healthcare is complicated by gender. While the rest of us desperately hunt for a bathroom during Fling, some trans students are forced to hunt daily just to find a bathroom where they feel safe.
For Josie, it’s a mismatch he’s been aware of his whole life. He couldn’t understand why everyone insisted they knew his identity better than he did, or why his parents dressed him in frills as a child, offering no other justification than: “You’re a girl, so this is what you wear.”
Still, it wasn’t until February 2013, during his junior year at Penn, that he began actively changing his body to reflect his gender identity with weekly injections of testosterone that kickstarted his second–puberty.
No one knows for sure how many people identify as transgender, but estimates range from one in 10,000 to one in 1,000. At Penn, the percentage might be higher. According to Erin Cross, the Associate Director of Penn’s LGBT Center, “the numbers have increased steadily over the years, especially since Penn added ‘gender identity’ to its non–discrimination policy in 2003 and then approved transgender health benefits for students in 2010.”
Although Penn has made efforts toward trans–inclusive policies, gender–transitioning during college poses its own challenges.
When Josie arrived at Penn freshman year, he was paired with a female roommate in Stouffer College House and his PennCard used his full name: Jocelyn Elias. His professors and classmates referred to him with feminine pronouns, but never without slight hesitancy.
Once, in a friend’s dorm room freshman year, Josie and his friends started playing a drinking game called “Who Am I?” where they tried to guess the identity written on a post–it stuck to their foreheads. When it was Josie’s turn, he began guessing his post–it person the conventional way: “Am I a man or a woman?” There was a marked silence before Josie collapsed into laughter.
“If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me that.”
Gender questioning is rarely so lighthearted. When engineering sophomore Gary* came to Penn, he was also assigned to live with a female roommate in Kings Court College House. The day roommate decisions came out, he found her on Facebook and sent a message explaining that he considered himself a trans man, since he felt that he owed her the disclosure.
Still, he wasn’t as forthright with his peers freshman year, fearing that he would lose their friendships if they knew about his trans identity. He spent the second half of his freshman year deeply depressed and withdrawn.
When he slowly began to tell his peers that he identified as a man, he was relieved to find that they were accepting, and he was emboldened to make the switch to male pronouns, along with a newly christened male name. He changed his gender on Penn InTouch to read “male.” He confided in his GA about his discomfort in living with a girl, and with the help of the House Dean, secured a single in King’s Court for the following year.
Frustrated with the daily process of binding his breasts, Gary began taking testosterone in January, which he obtained through a quick informed–consent process at Student Health Services, and is covered by Penn’s Student Insurance Plan.
For students like Gary, who felt tortured by his trans identity prior to coming to Penn, college proved to be the right environment to come out.
“When students arrive at Penn, they are part of a community that is actively working toward inclusivity and validation of the entire spectrum of gender identities,” explains Cyndy Boyd, the Director of Training at CAPS. “Penn has worked hard to create medical, social, psychological and community resources for trans students, and it’s often a great relief for students who have perhaps not experienced a welcoming environment to this point in their lives.”
Gary’s relief is largely owed to his social support system at Penn. During his freshman year, he stumbled upon a Facebook post for queer students in the Class of 2016, asking if anyone was interested in starting a group focusing on trans issues (at that point, among dozens of LGBT groups on campus, none targeted trans–identified students). He replied yes and, suddenly, he wasn’t so alone.
The post he saw was written by Kate Campbell, a College sophomore, who identifies as agender and uses the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Kate never experienced the “trapped in the wrong body” feeling, but never felt a connection to being a woman or a man, either.
Along with seven other members of the Class of 2016, Kate co–founded Penn Non–Cis two years ago. (“Cisgender” refers to people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, ergo not transgender.) Since then, the group has met every Sunday, providing a space for students like Kate and Gary to open up about their struggles with gender.
“I have a lot of internalized anxiety about gender stuff,” Kate says, citing the fear that their agender identity is not “legitimately” trans. They have faced criticism from both the cis and trans communities that their identity is made up, or somehow weakens the advances of transgender individuals who fit within the gender binary.
One of the resounding goals of Penn Non–Cis, accordingly, is to legitimize non–binary identities, as well as to encourage people to rethink the two–pronged conception of gender.
“I think that if everyone in the world were made to critically examine their relationship with gender identity, a lot of people would place themselves [outside of the gender binary] as well,” says Kate.
College freshman Amy Sollitti, who is also part of Penn Non–Cis, identifies as genderqueer and uses the neutral pronouns ze and hir. Like Kate, Amy has faced criticisms that the way ze identifies is simply “for attention” or that ze is “really a girl.”
Since ze identifies neither as male nor female, Amy struggles to find gender–neutral bathrooms on campus. Similarly, when ze asks professors to employ hir preferred pronouns, ze often receives wary glances about the words “ze” and “hir,” “as if all the words in the English language were made up by Webster at the time of the first dictionary and there have been no new words since.”
Once, during an appointment at CAPS, Amy described hir gender as “non–binary” on the patient form. Noting this, the therapist asked, “So, are you a trans man or a trans woman?” When Amy explained that ze identified as neither, the therapist nodded. “Oh, so you’re a girl.”
Erin from the LGBT Center emphasizes that while adopting unfamiliar pronouns or identities may be uncomfortable, “Everybody has a gender. Everybody has preferred pronouns.”
Still, even among those who should know better, and even at a place like Penn that strives to be trans–inclusive, transgender identities are widely misunderstood. Many students don’t even realize that transitioning between genders, or rejecting the gender binary, are options at all.
When College sophomore Xeno Washburne arrived at Penn, he had never heard the phrase “non–binary.” When he discovered it, on a flier for an event at the LGBT Center during his freshman year, something clicked. He had never felt an affinity to being a girl, but he wasn’t sure he was a boy, either.
“I just started Googling it, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh! This is an option.’”
Since then, Xeno began using male pronouns and changed his Penn–recognized gender to “male,” an option that Penn allows for students who are transitioning but have not yet changed their gender legally.
He prefers to describe his identity as one in “gender flux” rather than being a trans man.
When Xeno came out to his parents last August, they called his gender–questioning a “college phase,” since he hadn’t displayed the classic symptoms of gender dysphoria as a child. Rather than seeking to understand his identity, his parents brought him to a therapist who specialized in personality disorders and threatened to cut financial support if he began hormone therapy. Since he couldn’t afford the hormones on his own, Xeno sought help from the Mazzoni Center, an LGBT health center downtown that offers subsidized trans healthcare, where he pays $40 without insurance for a multi–month supply of testosterone.
Xeno’s experience is not uncommon. Without the support of parents, attaining gender–affirming treatments can be challenging and confusing. And while Penn insurance covers both hormone therapy and gender–affirming surgeries (as of August 2010 for students), dealing with insurance providers can be nightmarish.
Josie has been pursuing chest masculinization, or “top surgery,” since September, which he describes as “seven months of legwork, fruitless searches, and banging my head into walls.”
Although Aetna will cover up to $50,000 toward gender–affirming surgeries, Josie found it nearly impossible to find an in–network surgeon who performs trans–health operations, and when he finally did, Aetna refused to cover the procedure, counting it as “cosmetic surgery.”
After months of persistence, Josie—with the help of Rebecca Schept, the LGBT Center’s Program Coordinator—finally got Aetna to cave. However, he still has to meet all of the pre–certification requirements for the procedure, which include letters from mental health professionals to confirm that he has certifiable “gender dysphoria.”
In 2013, the term “gender dysphoria” replaced “gender identity disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, acknowledging that identifying with another gender isn’t a mental illness. It’s only the related distress, or the dysphoria, that’s problematic.
For trans students at Penn, much of that distress comes from the fear that their peers won’t understand or accept their identities, will neglect to use their preferred pronouns or will gawk at them in their preferred bathroom. Every day can be a struggle for acceptance—but we can all do our part to make it easier.
“Before I acknowledged that I was trans, gender was a very big part of what I thought about every single day,” says Gary. “But the thing is, it gets better—not because your gender identity ever changes, but because you stop thinking about it so much and then your life gains other meaning.”
Arielle Pardes is a senior from San Diego, CA majoring in Gender Sexuality and Women's Studies. She is an opinion columnist for the Daily Pennsylvanian. Her preferred pronouns are she, her and hers.
*Gary asked to remain anonymous in this article since many of his peers do not know that he is transgender.
Read a response to this article in this week's Letter To The Editor