LSA junior Emily Kaufman jokingly refers to herself as a “trans-mama,” a guide of sorts to other women at the University of Michigan who are navigating what it means to be a transgender woman on campus.
“When I first came to this University I knew I was a woman but I didn’t look like a woman,” Kaufman said. “I started transitioning between the fall of ’14 and winter ’15 my freshman year. There was only one other trans girl I knew about in the entire undergraduate class early on.”
In October 2016, Kaufman gained national attention when Cosmopolitan magazine published a profile of her decision to rush a sorority on campus, under the headline “Can Trans Girls Be Sorority Girls?”
Candid and witty during our interview at the State Street Espresso Royale, she described the growth of the population of trans women on campus as slow but gradual.
“A few more came in, a few more came out,” Kaufman said.
Gender identity refers to an individual’s internal self-perceived gender — this self-identification could be male or female, but also may fall outside the conventional binary. The manner in which people externally present their gender — commonly through appearance, dress and behavior — is referred to as gender expression.
Those who are born with a biological sex that matches their gender identity and expression are categorized as cisgender, while transgender generally describes those whose biological sex, gender identity and gender expression do not align. An estimated 0.6 percent of the U.S. adult population identifies as transgender, according to a University of California-Los Angeles Law School study.
Her freshman year, Kaufman lived in the Gender Inclusive Living Experience, housed in East Quad and established in 2013. The housing community supports students who identify as transgender or gender-nonconforming.
In her first semesters on campus, professors would frequently mis-identify her as a male — unaware of her gender transition — which Kaufman accepted with an air of inevitability.
“That’s sort of the way it goes,” she said. “Unless you’re blessed with a feminine heart-shaped face and bombed with makeup.”
As an active member of the campus LGBTQ community, Kaufman hopes to educate peers and faculty on how to better understand transgender identity and avoid the misunderstandings she finds prevalent on campus.
“The biggest problems that I’ve had at this University are with professors … they are for the most part ignorant on trans issues,” Kaufman said, citing an incident in which one of her professors referred to Caitlyn Jenner as transsexual, an outdated term many people find overly clinical. “It’s not OK that they are teaching people who maybe aren’t experienced with trans stuff false information. I am not cool with that.”
However, Kaufman acknowledged many of these misunderstandings result not from malice, but a lack of information.
“Expecting everyone to have this knowledge is problematic,” Kaufman said. “They don’t have access to this knowledge, they don’t know. There’s some things you’re not going to find on Google. There are some things you can only learn from another trans person.”
For instance, someone may not realize that asking a trans person for his or her pre-transition name can be offensive and hurtful, she said.
On Oct. 5, 2016 University President Mark Schlissel announced the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion initiative, aimed at promoting an inclusive and diverse campus environment through the implementation of individual strategic plans within each of the University’s 19 schools and colleges, administrative units, athletics and its health system.
Recently, the University’s administration has taken steps to assist transgender students amid the rollout of the campus-wide Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Plan.
For instance, a newly implemented preferred pronoun policy — adopted in October 2016 — allows students to choose the pronouns they self-identify with on Wolverine Access to avoid misidentification by professors.
The policy was met with some backlash from some segments of the University community. LSA junior Grant Strobl, national chairman of the conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom, drew national attention when he changed his pronouns on Wolverine Access to “His Majesty,” mocking the new policy.
The Spectrum Center, located in the Michigan Union, is a resource for members of the LGBTQ campus community. Founded in 1970, the Center was the first space of its kind at an American college, and worked to promote policy that would bar University discrimination against students based on sexual orientation. In 1995, the Center expanded to provide resources for transgender students and professionals on campus, and it has since fought to educate and activate the University community to promote inclusion and support for LBGTQ students.
Will Sherry, director of the Spectrum Center, said the Center functions not only to promote and pursue policy change, but also to ensure these practices remain in place beyond their initial implementation.
The Spectrum Center makes space for LGBTQ student leadership, employing students part-time to serve in various education and advocacy capacities. The center’s student Advocacy Board — which Kaufman sits on — provides training and workshops on inclusivity to different student organizations and departments.
“One of the biggest obstacles is always just education, lack of information, getting information out to people in a way that they can grapple with that if that is something that is new for them and that is a big goal of our center,” Sherry said. “I don’t think that should be on every person who holds that identity (to educate others), and so it’s really important to have structures like our center in place.”
Sherry stressed the most important role of the Center is not simply to introduce new rules — like the preferred pronoun policy — but also to fundamentally shift how the campus community approaches gender and sexuality.
“(The preferred pronoun policy) was a system, a tool that was put into place this semester … it feels new, in that way, but the practice is something that we would have expected of people before the system was in place,” Sherry said. “I have talked to many students who have greatly benefitted from being able to assert who they are without having multiple conversations and have had their gender respected in the classroom in ways that felt really good for them.”
One Kinesiology senior, who asked to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, said they experienced insensitive comments, jokes and dismissive language from professors regarding their gender identification, an issue they attribute in part to a lack of diversity and dialogue within STEM fields.
They attribute the alienation not as the fault of any organization or individual, but of a systemic lack of dialogue on gender identity.
There is ageism at play too, they suggested: “Sometimes people say, ‘my professor’s old, they won’t get it.’ ”
Their academic department is small, which they said limits their anonymity.
“I feel like if I do say something I am automatically outed to the whole department and it would just get really uncomfortable,” they said. “If I started insisting in my program of 12 people that they use my pronouns, it would be followed with: ‘what is that?’ ”
They additionally addressed feelings of isolation they face as a transgender person in a same-sex relationship. They described their gender identity as subtle, and therefore something that is often overlooked and coped with internally.
“I’ve felt sometimes like I can’t go to a meeting for other trans or non-binary students because I look the way I do, like I shouldn’t be allowed to get upset when my pronouns are misused,” they said. “I’m sure other people feel this way too.”
Overall, they expressed disappointment with the University’s resources for transgender students, saying they would have liked to have had access to more LBGTQ resources and support organizations earlier in their academic career. They was also skeptical of the University’s DEI initiative, suggesting the efforts are more cosmetic than substantive, “using people’s identities to have them speak and do all this emotional labor, but for what?”
However, they has found a place beyond campus. As a member of the Inter-Cooperative Council, they found an educational community they were comfortable in.
“(The ICC) has provided not only resources, but people I could engage in conversation with about identity without seeming like I was complaining or something that was only relevant to me,” they said.
LSA junior Reena Pang, a member of the Residential College, came out as trans last year. Living in East Quad has provided her with a supportive and open environment, she says. That being said, there are still challenges to being a trans woman at the University.
Systems in place at the University to accommodate trans people, such as gender-inclusive bathrooms and resources available through the Spectrum Center and Counseling and Psychological Services, were reassuring to her.
Even with the new pronoun policy, Pang said professors have misidentified her gender twice already.
“There’s just a feeling of mild anxiety when people misgender you, especially when professors are doing it,” Pang said, harkening back to the mentions of discomfort and power dynamics made by Kaufman and Augustaitus.
She also discussed the infrastructures in place for helping students transition.
“The University is actually putting out a system through (the University Health Service) where people can actually start hormones because they are training and bringing in endocrinologists to basically start hormone replacement therapy for people who need it,” Pang said.
However, there is only one endocrinologist currently at UHS, with a long waiting list. Additionally, UHS is able to provide blood tests and continuing hormones, but not necessarily start the hormone replacement therapy. As Sherry mentioned as a common theme, the resources are often there, but the access to them is in many cases, very limited.
“As much as I trust students to be able to understand things on their own,” Sherry said. “There is a lot of value in being able to explore identities and talk about them in a class.”
In saying this he showed hope, at least, for the University community to learn and grow, even as policies limit access to resources individuals need.