Street: Tell me about what led you to co-found Penn Non-Cis.
Roderick Cook: It started with a conversation in an online LGBT Penn Facebook group. People who were questioning their gender identity wanted to meet and talk. A lot of students who were involved have come into identifying as trans through that group. It just sort of started because of noticing a lack of explicitly trans spaces at Penn.
Street: Do you identify as transgender?
RC: Yeah. I mostly just use trans. It’s just a preference of a term. I use they and them pronouns. Coming to college I was like, "I’m going to get involved in the LGBT community, because I’m a gay guy and I’m finally going to meet other gay people." But when I came here I was like, "I think there’s something else." And it's that gender element that really didn’t click. Coming to college was the first time I met other trans people that were out. And then it was like, "This makes sense for me. Totally that’s how I identify, I don’t feel like a man at all." Because all I knew was that being trans meant you had to transition, whereas for me it’s more of a process and a way of thinking about myself.
Street: Can you talk about your experience writing for the DP?
RC: That was really eye–opening. It was fine because it was an opinion column and I got to express myself, but over time I realized that a lot of the backlash I was getting was because people didn’t want to hear the things I had to say. And oftentimes I feel like certain issues that I’m seen as supposed to be speaking on are okay. People are like, "Okay, I’m learning about transgender stuff, I’m learning about LGBT stuff." But if I were to write something about Palestine, if I were to write something about frats or senior societies, then people are kind of like, "You should stay in your lane and just talk about gender because that’s your thing."
Street: Do you want to share your thoughts on frats?
RC: I’ve been very vocal about this. I understand that good people are in frats, and I always have to give that as a caveat. And people are trying to do some things to make frats better spaces, like MARS (Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault.) But the fact that you need a group to combat that is showing that there are patriarchal dynamics. Again, I’m not a man so I don’t know what it’s like to want camaraderie with other men, but I feel like there’s something inherently kind of off about wanting a space that’s just for men, like a boy's club that women aren’t allowed into.
Street: Do you feel similarly about sororities?
RC: I feel like sororities were created with different goals in mind. Sororities I think were created in response to frats. But I do think again that it’s just re–creating the same gender dynamics. It’s not a welcoming space for trans people. It’s kind of that same problem, but without that oppressive aspect of being all men.
Street: What about senior societies?
RC: It’s not nearly as bad as I think about frats. I think that it creates unnecessary drama and self–congratulation. What I like about student groups at Penn is that largely anybody can join them and be a part of something cool, whereas the point of senior societies is to recognize certain types of accomplishments that are often achieved by the people who are most in the spotlight or the people who are good at a certain kind of socializing. And I think that there are people that do much better stuff on campus than the people who get into senior societies. I got tapped for two senior societies and I was just like "I’m not interested in these spaces" so I just didn’t go into them. I think it would just be better to celebrate people’s accomplishments in different ways.
Street: Why do you think it’s so important for people to be aware of using correct pronouns?
RC: First and foremost, it’s about respecting people’s choices with themselves. It’s about respecting who somebody is rather than who you think they are. Changing one's pronouns is such a difficult thing for trans people to do. I know it was very difficult for me. But it’s also such a powerful and beautiful thing to do. It’s a really great moment of owning yourself and your identity in a way that goes against what you were told your whole life you were supposed to be. So then to go about my day and have somebody use "he" and "him" makes me feel so bad. I’m just thinking about my body and my appearance and it just refocuses everything on what I look like, rather than who I know I am inside. It’s such a small thing for the people that are saying the pronouns, but for the people that are hearing it about themselves it can be really gut–wrenching.
Street: What do you think is the biggest misconception that people have about being trans?
RC: It’s that trans visibility is always a good thing. Because visibility doesn’t always translate to rights and justice for trans people. Oftentimes, trans people being visible can make them more open to violence and more prone to getting policed. What needs to happen is actual justice and changes to the system that are going to make it easier for trans people to survive, rather than just saying, "Oh trans people are on TV now, we’re good."
Street: What’s your reaction to people that say that they feel shut out by trans conversations because they don’t know enough?
RC: I’ve been in that position too with other communities that I’m not a part of. So I understand it, but you really just have to learn that when people of a certain community are feeling angry, they’re probably feeling a lot more pain and difficulty than you are in feeling awkward or shut out in that moment. Because it’s nobody’s job to really sit down and calmly educate people on issues about their lives and them being a human. What people often don’t think about is when you’re asking these questions, that person may have already been asked that question two or three times that day. Being able to understand why someone might be angry with you is a really liberating and helpful experience. You have to learn what things you don’t understand and why people might be mad at you in order for you to move on and do better at how you ask questions.
Street: What do you love the least about Penn?
RC: The fact that it’s such a huge money–making institution and business. Because it’s been around for so long, it has its hand in so many different things. People don’t realize how much Penn is not just an educational institution, but because it has so much money it’s a business as well.
Street: What are some of your favorite spots outside of Penn’s campus?
RC: I love South Street. There’s this great restaurant called Vegan Tree.
Street: Are you a vegan?
RC: Yeah. I’m not a proud vegan, because I’ve been vegan for eight years. I’m not as passionate about it. I used to be a super militant animal rights activist. And then I realized that the food systems for everything we eat are so fucked up. So I guess I’ve become disillusioned with the moral parts of veganism. There has to be that full engagement with what I'm buying. There are a lot of self–righteous vegans out there that are like "I’m vegan so I’m better than everyone. I’m morally superior." Which is very frustrating. Because often, it’s very hard to go vegan for some people because of the environment that they’re in.
Street: If you were going to be infamous for something what would it be for?
RC: I would love to be one of those celebrities that is a nightmare for their publicist because they just post rants on Twitter. I would love to have multiple falling outs with other celebrities and be somebody that calls out shit on Twitter and cannot be tamed.
Street: What was your first AIM screen name?
RC: Rodseviltwin. I was just so amazed and impressed that I didn’t have to add any numbers, like nobody had taken it before. But then I was like probably nobody took it because it’s ridiculous and not that funny.
Street: What’s your spirit animal?
RC: I don’t actually like that term, because that’s a Native American indigenous term that often gets appropriated. I’m being ‘that person’ right now. I know people often use Patronus instead, from Harry Potter.
Street: What’s your patronus?
RC: I feel like an elephant because they’re my favorite animal and also just the idea of an elephant patronus taking up so much space and being so awkward while everybody has these deer and bunnies is very me.
Street: There are two types of people at Penn…
RC: Straight people and interesting people.
Street: If you could have any superpower what would it be?
RC: Definitely body transformation because that encompasses a lot of things. I could turn into any animal that I want to. And I can also change very easily my gender characteristics on my body. It would change the game for being trans. It would be fun to have because there would be political implications, but also it would just be fun to be an animal. I probably wouldn’t try and change into different people. I would just be a slug for a little while.
Street: Who was your first celebrity crush?
RC: Gordo from Lizzie McGuire. That was when I first found out that I was interested in guys. And he was so dorky. I identify with Lizzie McGuire so much and I loved her so I feel like I just projected that onto her.
Street: Kill, fuck, marry: Amy Gutmann, the Quaker mascot and Kweder
RC: I’ve never been to Smokes. I feel like the very quintessential Penn things that people like are very straight a lot of the time. So I don’t know who Kweder is. We can kill the mascot because that’s the most ethical. Kweder I’ll fuck because…he’s a guy, right? So that’s one thing. I also don’t know him so that’ll be a nice quick way to get to know him with no commitment. Whereas Amy Gutmann I feel like if I marry her I can influence where the money goes at Penn and redistribute some funds.
Street: Describe yourself in 3 words.
RC: Nostalgic, Libra, mess.
Street: What did we forget to ask you?
RC: You forgot to ask me about my thoughts on Caitlyn Jenner, which is a great thing. And I’m happy that you didn’t ask me that. Whenever anybody’s like "Oh I want to talk to you about trans stuff!" it’s always "What do you think of Caitlyn Jenner?" And I’m like "Oh my god, I don’t care."