Trans Women in Women’s Spaces: A Reflection on the Transition of Privilege and Belonging

Autumn is a junior Meyerhoff Scholar (M29), pursuing a BS in Chemistry and a BA in Gender, Women and  Sexuality Studies dual degree, and currently a student intern at the Women’s Center.

Content Note: The content of this blog may be triggering. Topics addressed by this blog include transphobia, menstruation, pregnancy, dysphoria, and gender-confirmation surgery.

When I first received an offer to intern at the Women’s Center, I was very excited. Throughout my years at UMBC, the Women’s Center quickly became my home away from home and was a place to feel safe, included, and accepted. I participated in as many events as possible and volunteered whenever I had the time. I even had the privilege of being able to facilitate Spectrum meetings for a semester before formally joining the staff. By working in the Women’s Center, I thought I would be able to help create an even better space for the people I shared the space with and new community members alike. 

However, even while writing this blog post, I experience imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is “the idea that you’ve only succeeded due to luck, and not because of your talent or qualifications—was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.” I think that the sheer complexity of how this imposter syndrome is taking effect for me (and people like me with a pretty fraught, tenuous and ever-changing relationship with womanhood) is demonstrated in the carefulness of the words that I am using in this blog. This is a really multifaceted issue that deals with dysphoria, internalized transphobia, the differences of experiences between marginalized identities and intersectionality. 

Vaginas!? 

When I was born, the doctor looked at my genitals and proclaimed to the world and the government that “It’s a boy.” For those who know me, it is somewhat obvious that this label did not stick for the “normal” amount of time (read: the entire lifespan). If you’ve not caught on yet, I’m very much not a boy anymore and I identify as a nonbinary trans woman (I know its a bit of an oxymoron; gender is FUNKY).

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I experience marginalization and oppression, but I also have privilege in this identity. I struggle with the privilege I have by being a trans feminine person that was able to come out early on in my life and that I was able to start my medical transition when I still was in high school. 

Even so, working in the Women’s Center at UMBC as a nonbinary, transgender woman is peculiar. Because of my experiences with transness and my body, I am not the best equipped to assist with issues that students may come to the Women’s Center to address. For example, I don’t have a vagina (YET!), and I didn’t grow up with one, therefore I don’t have the first-hand knowledge that comes with menstruating, pregnancy, or growing up as an AFAB person in a heterosexist and misogynistic society. 

This has made interactions with some community members weird when they ask for help with things I don’t have experience with. I’m deathly afraid of giving the wrong advice or having an interaction that makes someone uncomfortable. If a community member comes into the Center and asks about internal condoms or pregnancy tests (while I’m not uneducated on the subjects) I cannot give as good of an answer as someone with experience.  Even when I am pointing out the tampons and pads that the Women’s Center offers to the community for free, I deal with that fear and alienation. 

As a transfeminine person, I am acutely aware of how “womanhood,” as the greater society knows it, is defined in bioessentialist definitions. When doing the work that involves vaginas and helping people with vaginas, I am always reminded of the “essential” difference of my body and that I am not fully “them.”

I am wondering how much this anxiety stems from internalized transphobia that I have surrounding transgender women, including myself, not really being “full” women or that I don’t truly belong in a women’s space. Throughout my life, the topic of periods, reproduction and menstrual products have always been a sticking point for me and my experience: a constant trigger for my dysphoria. It’s a common trigger for a lot of trans women, not just because of the consistent TERF bioessentialist dog whistles, but because we as trans women lack the thing that is worshiped as a pillar of western societal femininity: the ability to reproduce. Of course, I want to acknowledge that this is a completely bogus measure of femininity because the ability to reproduce is completely disconnected to femininity. Femininity and reproduction are two distinct aspects of humanity that are conflated in a way that serves to not only enforce exclusion but to oppress those who do not fit the societal standards. To some extent, I believe that I’m invading a space that I really do not have the right to inhabit. 

Privileged Transitions

In terms of my transition, I am exceptionally privileged. I was born to an accepting family who supported me when I came out after my freshman (literally “man”) year of high school. Me coming out to them was a bit of an accident even, but it went well. I was able to access hormones soon after and I just scheduled bottom surgery for after I graduate from UMBC. I’m white and I pass as a cis woman reasonably well, and I have the resources to access my endocrinologist regularly and I am able to afford my medical treatment. I also have the privilege of growing up as someone who was assigned male at birth in a society that greatly values maleness, especially in science and in leadership. Because of my socialization, I am allowed a higher level of confidence and ownership in science and leadership than someone who was reared as a woman in the same fields.

All of these compounding areas of privilege greatly influence how I can exist in a space, and how much space I take up, especially at a women’s center. As someone who was reared as a male in our society, it sometimes feels really weird to go to events that specifically cater to women.

I also see my own experience paralleled in a previous Women’s Center staff member Daniel, as they had to grapple with the realities of being a trans man when working in the Women’s Center. In their blog post about male privilege, Daniel discusses how they strive to be cognizant of the space they take up within the Women’s Center because Dan’s privilege is not as cut and dry as one might see between a cis man and a cis woman. Their blog posts detailed how they saw themselves within the Women’s Center as a “white, medically transitioning, ‘passing’ man,” and how that influenced Dan’s participation. Even though they have the privileges afforded to white men, because of their transness, Daniel is precariously perched on the Glass Elevator and experiences marginalization at the hands of a heterocissexist society. Although the experiences of all trans people are not the same, I can deeply relate to Dan’s experiences as a student staff member at the Women’s Center.

Privilege aside, there is a level of marginalization that I experience in entering and being a part of the Women’s Center. Cis women come into this space and feel entitled to it. Me? I do… and I also pause. I enter the space tentatively because my sense of belonging is not always assured. 

Existing Within the Bounds of My Triggers

Throughout my transition, my dysphoria, anxiety, and depression has been pretty intensely triggered by the topics of menstruation, reproduction, and topics around cis-women bodies. 

I was really, really worried about this when I started at the Women’s Center because I imagined that it would be very hard for me to remove myself from potentially triggering situations when I’m working (such as a community member needing assistance with something). I still really struggle with this even as I am halfway through my internship. However, I’ve been a lot less triggered by these situations than I thought I would initially.

I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I feel like this ease comes in part from the ability to put boundaries between my own sense of self and my sense of representing the Women’s Center. Regardless of what this means about my self-esteem and coping, boundaries allow me to exist and operate in this work.

Ultimately, I think that it is okay and normal to be uncomfortable in some spaces. This discomfort is good. The oppressive nature of the gender binary and the heterocissexist society is diametrically opposed to the reality that trans people live so discomfort is inevitable. But when dealing with big, overarching systems of power that influence our lives, sometimes identifying that there even is a problem is the first step of trying to challenge the norms. In other words, without identifying the problem, it is impossible to generate a solution. It may seem like the big, overall problem is the Gender Binary™, but I think there is a smaller, more pervasive issue when thinking and talking about how transgender people fit within the model of a women’s center. 

I think that the problem isn’t that transgender people do not fit into the current framework of mainstream feminism. The real problem is with those who either knowingly or unknowingly perpetuate systems of oppression (read: most everyone), and don’t use their power or privilege toward the radical but simple process of affirming transgender identities. In spaces like the Women’s Center, trans people should not only feel welcome but also a sense of home and belonging–and it’s cis people’s prerogative to either build those bridges with intentionality and care or continue a system that oppresses everyone: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

My transness is an integral part of my identity, and I’m exceptionally proud of it. However, I know that my belonging in the Women’s Center is not just tied to my identity as a nonbinary trans woman. In the Women’s Center, I am surrounded by people who support and care for me and it is in that where the promise of real and actionable liberatory justice resides.

Inclusive Excellence Means Inclusive Access: A Treatise on All-Gender Restrooms at UMBC (and Beyond)

Written by Women’s Center Coordinator Amelia Meman, ’15.

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With the recent opening of UMBC’s first ever multi-user/stall all-gender restroom, I have become incensed to finally publish this very argumentative blog on all-gender restrooms. In this piece, I’m trying to deconstruct all of the myths, misgivings, and misinformation surrounding all-gender restrooms, and offer some ways of seeing (and potentially peeing) differently.

The MYTH of All-Gender Restrooms: Creating all-gender restrooms is dangerous because it provides an opportunity for sexual predators to attack vulnerable populations (women and children).

The REALITY of All-Gender Restrooms: They exist and have existed for a while through anti-discrimination protections and there is literally no evidence that these policies and the creation of all-gender restrooms lead to more attacks on anyone.

The REALITY of All-Gender Restrooms, Pt. 2: In creating and actualizing discriminatory policies that relegate particular people to particular bathrooms, we increase the likelihood of violence against vulnerable populations–in this case, trans and gender non-conforming folks.

We’re a STEM-heavy school, so let me put it this way: there is absolutely no empirical evidence that would support the hypothesis that increasing access to all-gender restrooms also increases violence against vulnerable populations like women and children.

Fine, done, end of blog.

Just kidding.

I want to continue deconstructing this myth and how damaging it is to the transgender folks in our world—and subsequently, how the perpetuation of this myth is totally antithetical to UMBC’s values of inclusive excellence, diversity, and social justice. So let’s dive in:

The myth of all-gender bathroom bills promoting violence against women and children implies two other dangerous notions that need be dispelled:

  1. Trans people = sexual predators
  2. Transgender people do not have the “correct genitalia” to use with their respective gender’s restroom (“if you have a penis, you need to use the men’s restroom”)

First: Who are the “sexual predators” we keep referring to?

Let’s take this first one apart, “trans people = sexual predators.” This line of thinking stems from the (not so distant) historical pathologization of people who don’t conform to socially constructed gender roles; AKA “trans people are crazy and dangerous.”

Not to totally historicize this issue because it is still a present challenge, but in the past, any and all people with non-heterosexual, non-traditional gender conforming identities were considered sexual deviants. In the early 20th century, a sexual revolution in Europe was pushing the boundaries of the way these “sexual deviants” were understood, especially through a medicalized and scientific lens. A cure to deviancy was no longer about keeping problematic individuals away from the public, but around diagnosis and treatment.  

Time rolls on and we move through many sexual revolutions, progress, trans and LGB icons, marches, revolutions, etc.. If you were transgender in this time, then you had “gender identity disorder,” a mental illness through all of the American Psychological Association’s (APA) editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders through the Fourth Edition (DSM-IV; AKA the Bible of psychiatry and other mental health practitioners). Thus, the idea of transgender people as those who are mentally ill is cemented by The Experts.

Fast forward to 2013: the DSM-V (the fifth edition of the DSM published by the APA in 2013) now uses the term “gender dysphoria” to describe the distress associated with not being able to be the gender we are. The difference here is very nuanced but important. To quote the APA, “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder. The critical element of gender dysphoria is the presence of clinically significant distress associated with the condition.” In other words, it’s not that being trans or non-binary is crazy. It’s that not being able to be the gender you are (and the barriers society constantly throws up) results in gender dysphoria.

We need to dislodge the synonymity between “transgender” and “problem,” because people are not problems; gender is not a problem. The barriers that we have put up between people accessing (or even just experimenting with being) our truest selves, is the problem.

A group of people hold signs at a protest against military ban on transgender people. Two signs in focus read

Second: “But what if a man in a dress uses a women’s restroom”

This is the token visual that opponents of all-gender restrooms look towards. We’ve all seen and experienced this joke: a big burly masculine man is in a hyper-feminine outfit. We’re made to laugh at how these two things don’t go together—but this “joke” is founded on the idea that people who look particular ways have to also act and present themselves in a way that matches our assumptions. This is what we like to call “gender essentialism.”

Gender essentialism/biological essentialism is the idea that there is a particular set of female or male genitalia that indicates your gender (e.g. penis = man; vagina = woman), and therefore should be the criteria by which people act, dress, use a bathroom, etc. The insistence that people with certain biological criteria or physical characteristics are particular genders is an essentialist way of thinking–and it’s also a restrictive way of thinking.

Most of us grow up learning to think as biological essentialists. We’re often taught about sex/gender binaries in our health class or with our parents, right? We’re taught that women, girls, females have vaginas, breasts, hips, higher voices, XX chromosomes; men, boys, males have penises, testes, facial hair, lower voices, XY chromosomes.

Biological essentialism rules the rhetorical roost of how we think about gender and sex; however, a different way of seeing gender and sex is to understand both as “socially constructed.” This is not to say that gender or sex is something we, as a society, have made up; rather, the meanings we ascribe to each of these things has been made through social patterns, behavior, etc. that are continually repeated until they read as fact. Fact becomes synonymous with objectivity and truth. I’m not trying to get into a philosophical discussion of what social constructionism is and how we should unlearn the meanings we learned about in school (if you want to get into that, see my office hours), but what I’m trying to get to is that biological essentialism is not the only way of seeing the world. We can see through a lens of social constructionism which enables us to do more questioning about the conclusions that we come to.

A line of 8 people icons, each a different color with different male, female, transgender symbols overlaid on their faces.A conclusion you could (should) question (always) is how we police gender and sex by creating rules around what each of these is defined as. Not every woman has a vagina. Not every person with a penis is male. People with XY chromosomes can be any gender in their lifetime. People can have a variety of different biological sex characteristics that do not align with the sex or gender they were prescribed at birth.

To go all the way back to that initial worry that a “man in a dress” will pee next to your daughter or your grandma or you, we can use a more inclusive lens for thinking about this scenario: three people have to pee. There are three private stalls in which they can do their business. These three people pee however it is they do so, and they simultaneously respect each other’s privacy. These three people might look all different sorts of ways, but it doesn’t matter because they came into the bathroom with the same goals–and having completed those goals, wash their hands, and exit in peace and respect.

My final word on this (as if I haven’t had enough already): If you dream of world peace, consider also dreaming of world where all people pee in peace. 

Fact Sharing

Okay, so I hope my mythbusting was validating, revelatory, or rote for you. Either way, here’s a fact that I want to share to displace the ugliness above that many opponents like to spread.

FACT: All-gender restrooms are an issue of discrimination and access.

Let’s break this down the same way we did the myth:

First: All gender-restrooms undoing discrimination

When we tell particular people that they are too different to use the bathroom they feel comfortable using, we are ultimately telling people that they are not, in some way, worthy of being in the space they deserve. This is discrimination.

Some folks in this world believe that by pressing for progress in trans rights, we are, among other misguided notions, setting a bad example for our children. But here’s the thing—the more we repress gender fluidity and multiple ways of being, the more undue violence we are perpetrating against children as they understand themselves as individuals. The tangible effects of discrimination do not come in the form of less trans people; rather, trans people will always exist, have always existed, but they will continue to meet a negative message that causes mental, psychological, and social distress. Not allowing transgender children to live their gender identity is harmful and potentially deadly. When you’re constantly met with the message that you’re too different to belong, you begin to face the alternative of belonging… which is shame and isolation.

We combat discrimination and its effects through inclusive access and affirming care. Hence, the importance of all-gender restrooms and ensuring their creation.

Second: All-gender restrooms as practical solutions to access issues

I want to bring this back to UMBC for a second with a little test: Do you know where the closest all gender restroom is?

If you do, congratulations. If you don’t, you’re not alone.

In total, there are almost 60 all-gender restrooms on our campus.

In the Commons? Two.

In the University Center? One.

And these are all just single-use restrooms.

Regardless of what you think in terms of trans rights or issues of identity, it’s a fact that UMBC is home to folks who live outside of the binary and those who are not cisgender. Whether they identify as trans, nonbinary, genderqueer, etc., they should be able to use a bathroom without having to search an entire building for the one restroom that exists.

The Williams Institute performed research on how transgender students with limited public restroom access were impacted by these restrictions. In their study, they found that those who experience problems accessing restrooms consistent with their gender identity report greater absenteeism, poorer school performance, withdrawing from public spaces and events, physical and mental health impacts (such as bladder infections, discomfort, and anxiety), having to change schools, or dropping out.

Wrapping Up

Did you read Everyone Poops? Truly a seminal piece of children’s literature, the message rings true even in today’s modern world. Everyone poops. Everyone needs bathrooms. As teachers, workers, students, people living in this world in the soft fleshy body we call Homo sapien—we need to have an efficient, clean, accessible method for disposing of our waste. We have actually found the key in publicly available toilets and bathrooms. As a frequent user, I endorse that they’re pretty fantastic in a pinch, even if they’re stinky or crowded or awkward.

The cover of the book Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi.

If I’m dreaming, I believe that one day, maybe we will find the technology that allows all people on this earth to shirk public restrooms, but until that day… please just let people use the toilet in peace—and if you’re feeling fired up about ensuring other people’s access, see the resources below for ways you can help out.

Finally, if you don’t like all-gender restrooms, you don’t have to use them. But as our campus and many other places progress in ensuring broader access to all-gender restrooms, it might be a nice experiment in perspective building to go in search for that rare one gender bathroom all the way across campus that affirms your identity, that you feel totally safe in, and in which you can use the bathroom however you need to.

See what I did there?

Student leader, Autumn, standing with a balloon arch we made to celebrate the opening of UMBC's first multi-user all-gender restroom.

Student leader, Autumn, standing with a balloon arch we made to celebrate the opening of UMBC’s first multi-user all-gender restroom.

Resources and further reading:

UMBC All-Gender Restroom Map (2019)

UMBC Community News Message on All-Gender Restrooms from President Hrabowski and Provost Rous

GLAAD Report: Debunking the Bathroom Bill Myth (2017) 

Williams Institute Study – Gender Identity Nondiscrimination Laws in Public Accommodations: a Review of Evidence Regarding Safety and Privacy in Public Restrooms, Locker Rooms, and Changing Rooms

Transgender Rights: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Breakdown of Transgender bathroom laws in the United States

Whats your queer click moment?

Maybe you’ve heard of a feminist click moment, but do you remember what your queer click moment was? Kayla Smith, Women’s Center student staff member, collected queer click moment stories for the blog. Thanks to those who contributed!

That moment when the lightbulb went off in your head and a little (or loud) voice said “Holy crap! I’m not straight!”

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Maybe you had a “girl crush” on a classmate? Or found yourself getting REALLY into L Word? The Women’s Center staff and community members share their queer click Moments!

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Bi AND badass. Thanks Callie!

“When I was 19, I was completely infatuated with my Women’s Studies professor. She was
brilliant and beautiful, and I worked so hard in that class to try to impress her. I soon realized that it wasn’t a “girl crush” – it was an actual crush.” – Megan Tagle Adams, Women’s Center Assistant Director

 

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First Shira, and then Willow. Everyone is gay

 

 

“I was in middle school, sitting next to this person who had identified as a lesbian at the time. I remember daydreaming in math, and suddenly an image of us married to each other, laying in bed and cuddling ( super scandalous for a 12 year- old, I know!). I quickly repressed that thought and never seriously revisited my queerness until college – though I still had a crush on this person all the way through High School.” – Shira Devora, Women’s Center student staff member

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Shane putting the connections together!

“The moment is so vivid for me. At 24 years old, I was alone in my apartment watching L Word on DVD for the first time. I remember sitting on this green couch and feeling totally excited by what was happening on my tv (women hooking up with women – gasp!) followed by this realization that the stereotypes fed to me of what and who lesbians were was totally wrong. In that moment, my world opened up to the possibility there was another way of being for me… the rest, my friends, is history. This late bloomer, thanks you, L Word.” – Jess Myers, Women’s Center Director

“When I was a child, my favorite movie was The Sound of Music. My queer click moment, was when I saw Liesel (you know, ’16 going on 17′) do her musical number with Rolph (the bad guy who later ends up being a Nazi)! I wanted to be Rolph (but not a bad guy). Wow, this is embarrassing!” – Michael Jalloh-Jamboria, Women’s Center Student Staff member

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Liesel seducing a young Michael.

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Look at her cute gay overalls.

“I used to watch Power Rangers at my cousins house when I was little and I found myself really drawn to the Pink Ranger – Kimberly. I really liked Trini, the yellow ranger, and I knew I wanted to BE the yellow ranger….but something about the pink ranger and her little skirt? Yep. Definitely a queer.” – Kayla Smith, Women’s Center Student Staff member

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“A friend of mine sent me a cool looking picture of a fantasy theme featuring a particularly attractive girl. We got into a conversation about female aesthetics which led to a rather non-PG13 discussion resulting in my friend telling me “you know that means you’re at least bi, right?”. My response was, “Wait what? Nooo…. wait. Hold on… huh. Aaaactually? THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE!” Click.” – Anonymous

“I slowly started realizing I was bisexual late freshman year. I had just gotten a tumblr, Ooyu49hand one of the first blogs I followed was literally just selfies of “androgynous girls” (just gals admiring gals, right?) It finally hit me sophomore year when I got really into the band Halestorm. Their singer’s leather pants, her bright red lipstick… it was all too much for my baby bi heart.” – Anonymous

 

“I suspected I was rainbow-tinged from an early age. When I was 5, I kissed a girl in kindergarten and thought it was gross (because let’s face it, out of context, kissing is weird). But when I went into elementary school and then middle school, all of my best friends were girls and I thought they were the most beautiful people ever. I would seriously stare at them in disbelief that people so beautiful could ever exist. Ladies were like otherworldly goddesses to me, a small unworthy frog-girl. Meanwhile, I was also heavily interested in the idea of Jesse Bradford (specifically as Cliff in Bring it On) putting his smirk on my face. I didn’t really put all the pieces together of being queer, until I kissed a girl and I liked it. And then I kissed a boy and I liked that, too.” – Amelia Meman, Women’s Center Special Projects Coordinator

Do you remember what your queer click moment was? Join us at Between Women on Thursdays (☞゚ヮ゚)☞ bi-weekly in the Women’s Center lounge. Between Women is a discussion-based program that centers the experiences of women students who identify themselves on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

We can’t wait to see you in the center!

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Our Mothers

Today is Transgender Day of Remembrance. Today we mourn the loss of our trans siblings to violence and celebrate their lives, bravery, and accomplishments. Today we honor our elders and those who paved the way before us. Today we use our mouths to speak the voices that have been silenced.

Below is a collection of art created by Amelia Meman for Women’s History Month 2015. These women, some alive and some not, are some examples of the amazing abilities, resistance, and resilience found in our community. This art has been compiled in zine format, available in print at the Women’s Center and in PDF form here.

Dedicated to Viv. We miss you.

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cece mcdonald was arrested on june 5, 2011 for the death of dean shmitz after shmitz’s girlfriend threw a glass in her face. shmitz and a group of friends harassed mcdonald and her friends outside a bar, shouting transphobic and racist slurs and comments at the group. when cece confronted the group, shmitz’s girlfriend threw the glass and a fight ensued. cece was charged with second degree murder and plead guilty to a charge of second degree manslaughter on june 4 of 2012. she was released on jan 13, 2014 after 19 months in men’s prison. activists raised a cry against anti-trans violence with shouts of “free cece” during her trial and prison sentence. since her release, cece has become an activist herself, working and speaking against the prison system and anti-trans violence and she has received the bayard rustin civil rights award from the harvey milk lgbt democratic club. a documentary titled free cece, directed by laverne cox and jac gares, is expected to be released in 2016

Continue reading

Healing My Community

Daniel Willey A reflection by Women’s Center staff member Daniel

Trigger warning for suicide mention; resources at the bottom of the post

My community experienced a tragedy early this October, and the ripples from the impact are still cascading across campus and beyond. I woke up that morning to several messages from friends and coworkers telling me what I already knew: a dear friend had passed from suicide.

This friend was a very private person whose spouse has also asked for privacy. In order to respect their wishes, this blog post isn’t about her. That said, I’m incredibly sad about her passing and I miss her every day and I certainly don’t want anybody to forget her. Ever. She was insatiably curious and incredibly smart. She cared deeply for her community and the students she encountered. And now she’s gone.

My friend was a trans woman and she was active in the community of queer and trans students on campus. Her death had an enormous impact on that community, and we continue to be impacted by it for many reasons. Many, and in fact most, of us in the queer and trans community live with mental illness, neurodiversity, or both, and to see it overtake someone who tried so hard for so long is discouraging at best. Mostly, it’s frightening. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey Report on health and health care, 41% of trans people attempt suicide in their lifetime. In the face of all of this, it’s been so hard for my community to see the light.

But also in the face of all of this, I’ve seen some incredible coming together. We are a community who has had to learn how to take care of each other. It can be difficult because sometimes we can’t even take care of ourselves, but when shit really hits the fan I know I have people I can be with. There are people with whom I can cry and talk frankly about how fucking bad it feels. And then we hold each other and support one another and even though we’re all having a hard time, we’re doing it together.  Continue reading