Transgender students face challenges

Slide1 copy
Left, Emery’s driver’s license photo at at age 18. Right, a photo of Emery at age 21

Students at Truman State who struggle with gender identity lack adequate resources on campus to help with emotional and psychological problems. The transgender community and their interests often are overlooked or forgotten.

Lack of Understanding

Transgender individuals feel that their genders do not match their biological sexes and are a gender and sexual minority, this group is at a higher risk of facing discrimination, harassment and sometimes violence. This is because people tend not to have much awareness of the transgender community, lack understanding or do not approve of the lifestyle.

“People don’t just go into it lightly,” psychology professor Sherri Palmer says. “Nobody is going to say ‘I’m going to be trans for a while! I want everyone to misunderstand me.’ It’s so not a choice. That’s absurd.”

Palmer says many transgender people are asked very personal and uncomfortable questions simply because the general population tends to be uneducated about the transgender community. While some may want to talk about their experiences, Palmer says most transgender individuals tend to feel that their gender identity is not the most important aspect of who they are.

“People think that transgender people are just confused, that it’s a phase, that it’s not real or not believable,” Palmer says. “Some may think ‘How do they know?’”

Palmer continues by explaining the seemingly little things can pose a big problem for transgender students. She says professors and friends using the wrong name or pronoun can be very insulting and hurtful. Connecting gender and sexual orientation can also cause misunderstanding, she explains, because people tend to make assumptions about those separate aspects. Gender refers to who a person is, whereas sexual orientation refers to whom a person finds attractive.

Lack of Resources

The counseling and informational resources available to transgender students at Truman are limited. While the University Counseling Services can provide some guidance, the staff has not had access to training specific to the transgender community. The staff would need time and funding to receive gender counseling training in larger cities. Additionally, the gay-straight alliance group on campus, PRISM, can provide essential social support as a group of open-minded people willing to listen. However, Palmer says she thinks the gender and sexual minority groups on campus need a center to serve as a hub of information and a safe place for people to talk, similar to centers available at larger universities.

Seth’s Story

One transman on campus, sophomore Seth Emery, says he has experienced a range of attitudes regarding his transition. Born biologically female, Emery has overcome obstacles in both his family and social lives since his transition began. He says his high school friends became uncomfortable talking with him and often did not know what to say, essentially causing him to drop out of the social sphere. However, the support network he found at Truman was vital to his successful adjustment to college life and living as a man.

“My acceptance really came through seeing that other people were okay with this and seeing that nothing is wrong with me,” Emery says.

Beginning during July 2012, Emery began taking weekly testosterone shots prescribed by an endocrinologist. The effect of these shots has been similar to what happens when boys go through puberty.

Trans Infographic - Atwell
Infographic by Amanda Atwell

In addition to body hair, muscle changes, masculine body odor, and changes in the sound of his voice, Emery has experienced emotional and behavioral changes as well. Since the mental changes have happened so gradually over the course of the testosterone shot regimen, Emery had not noticed the differences until his girlfriend, senior Sarah Bussen, pointed them out. While Emery had not been expecting his moods to be different, he says he is not nearly as emotional as before and he tends to feel a bit more aggressive and protective than when he began taking testosterone shots. Bussen says Emery also has taken on minute masculine characteristics.

“His appetite changed a lot since it started,” Bussen says. “He also snores a lot more now. He’s also less into talking than before.”

Bussen also describes how interested she’s been in watching the emotional changes develop over time, especially with her background studying psychology at Truman. She says she has had trouble noticing the physical changes since they happen so gradually, but the differences become obvious when she looks at old pictures.

Many people make assumptions about their relationship because of Emery’s transition, but Bussen says their relationship has not really been affected by it. She explains that their relationship grew out of their friendship, and the people involved are more important than physical attributes. Gender identity and sexual orientation are separate aspects, but Bussen says attraction tends to be more fluid in her experience, so strict sexual orientation labels have not applied to their relationship.

Bussen says the main problem she faces is when strangers ask personal or invasive questions. She says the best way to go about asking questions is for people to try to educate themselves first and approach with curiosity and open-mindedness. Emery and Bussen say they have noticed there seems to be much more understanding throughout the campus community during the last few years. However, the available resources at Truman have not improved much since Emery’s transition began, despite efforts by a small number of students and faculty.

Palmer says while University President Troy Paino supports non-discrimination, nothing has been enacted at Truman yet. She says transgender students need a physical space they can go to, but it “would take some creative thinking to impose.” Palmer says she is, however, working on creating a website for counselors to help better support and understand the LGBT community.