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In face of serious misconceptions, transgender community perseveres to find a voice

At Tufts and beyond, a welcoming and supportive environment is a must

Published: Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 17:04


Dilys Ong / Tufts Daily

Though the trangender identity is frequently bundled with lesbian, gay and bisexual identities, advocates say it is often more complicated.

In the wake of last fall's prominent lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) suicides, University President Lawrence Bacow sent an email to the Tufts community urging them to proudly support all of its LGBT members and to "model the behavior we would hope to see in the rest of the world, and that is of a community that is supportive and welcoming to all."

In a world increasingly threatened by sexual intolerance, using this campus to create the kind of accepting and inclusive community described by President Bacow is now being brought to the forefront by several student organizations at Tufts.

Students Acting for Gender Equality (SAGE) is a student−run affiliate of the Tufts Women's Center working to create a safe and supportive environment on campus for students of all genders. After Bacow sent his letter, the LGBT community was asked what could be done to encourage this kind of environment on the Tufts campus. SAGE put together a proposal for gender−neutral housing options at Tufts, which it submitted to the administration in February.

This document, titled "Recommendations for Gender Neutral Housing at Tufts," outlined a series of suggestions for how gender−neutral housing, an "option in which two or more students may share a multiple−occupancy bedroom, in mutual agreement, regardless of the students' sex or gender," could be implemented on campus. It emphasized that gender−neutral options would provide housing choices for transgender students or students questioning their gender identity and cited schools best exemplifying these practices, such as Brandeis University and Connecticut College.

Although initially asked to provide suggestions for how to create a more inclusive campus for all of the LGBT community, SAGE submitted a proposal that seems to focus on an often overlooked letter in LGBT: the "T," a community of people defined by their expression of gender rather than their sexual orientation and by their defiance of the social norms that tell them how they must express their gender.

For the transgender community, gender is a continuum, not a concrete either−or, man−woman construction. The gender of those in the community, and how they choose to express it, does not align with their biologically determined sex. This is a concept neither easily nor widely understood, according to Tom Bourdon, director of Tufts' LGBT Center.

"In our country, there's very little trans visibility and very little understanding of trans people and who they are and what they go through," Bourdon said.

In fact, Bourdon said, the public has long been more amenable to outwardly gay identities than outwardly trans identities.

"I think it's fair to say that historically speaking, it's unfortunately been ‘us first, then you,' because the assumption has been that the world is going to be ready to accept a gay identity before it's ready to accept a trans identity."

Yet while LGB and T communities have often been seen as separate, sophomore Maya Grodman, a member of Team Q, an LGBT peer−education group on campus, said that there are certain shared experiences and discriminations that seem to form an inevitable bond between the two.

"I think it's marginalization that they all have in common. Even if they're different groups, they're still the ‘other,'" she said. Grodman went on to explain that this marginalization is a result of the LGBT community defying the gender and sexuality norms set forth by society.

"They are sort of united in that in a heteronormative society, you either are a man or a woman, and you're heterosexual," she said, implying that the LGBT community hardly fits into such neat boxes.

Besides often feeling like societal outsiders, there is a fundamental similarity bonding the two groups together, according to senior Ryan Heman, a former Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) co−coordinator and former LGBT community representative.

"The main reason ‘T' individuals are in the same community [as LGB individuals is that] the basic concept underlying these two things is a radical deconstruction of gender," he said. This deconstruction again refers to the LGBT community's refusal to fill the mold that society presents them with, and that refusal to conform has shaped all of the struggles and stereotypes that the transgender community in particular faces.

The psychiatric community has long viewed transexuality as a disorder requiring treatment. Gender identity disorder (GID) is defined as "a strong and persistent cross−gender identification" by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM−IV).

"I guess it's a disorder because it creates distress," Professor of Psychology David Harder said. Harder explained that being transgender creates both personal distress — not being at home in one's own body — and social distress in trans people's surrounding environments.

"If they're expected to function as a gendered male, [but they feel] like a woman, [they] can't function as a socially accepted gendered male," Harder said.

The status of GID also presents a double−edged sword for trans−identifying people who wish to get a sexual reassignment operation. Accepting a diagnosis may mean accepting the stigma that goes along with it, but it may also mean the chance for surgery.

"Generally, to get any surgery you need a diagnosis," Harder said. In that sense, the problem then becomes whether it's more beneficial to transgender individuals to maintain the current status of gender identity disorder or to work to have it — and some of the associated stigma — removed from the DSM.

Bourdon expressed support for a re−evaluation of the DSM.

"In my opinion, it is important to get [GID] removed from the DSM, but for that to happen, a lot of other things need to fall into place so that trans people can still have access to any services and medical care they might need," Bourdon said. Director of the Tufts Women's Center Steph Gauchel agreed that proper medical care is an issue that the trans community must struggle against.

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