Coming Out Never Ends: An Ethnography of Transgendered Students
By Lindsay Korn '13
This paper was written for my Ethnographic Methods course. In the course students learn about the range of methods that anthropologists use to carry out research, from interviewing to participant observation. Early in the semester, students choose a sub-culture to document. I chose Lindsay’s paper for both its engaging personal writing style and its very interesting content. She documents the diverse challenges and dilemmas that transgendered students face, and she does so through a style of ethnographic writing that brings the reader into the lives of her informants.
I don’t communicate very often with friends from college when I’m at home for long breaks. So in the middle of last summer, I was pretty surprised when my best friend decided to give me a call. I’m sure we’ve all had those moments where someone you speak to rarely calls you and your stomach flops a little bit in concern. What if something bad had happened? I answered the phone, and she seemed a little flustered. She confirmed the deepness of our friendship and then managed to stutter, “I’m transgendered.” I was surprised, but not entirely surprised. She had come out as such early on in our history but then turned around and ran right back in the closet. But this time, she assured me, she was out for good. I would start referring to her by male pronouns from then on. That was just a few months ago, but ever since I have been desperately curious about everything that goes into being a transgendered person.
This ethnography focuses on the challenges that female to male transgendered students face when coming out on a college campus. It first explains a little bit about what being transgendered means, and then discusses the daily life of transgendered college students on and off campus. The ethnography explores what it means to ‘pass’ and different ways that female to male transgendered people go about this. It also examines what colleges are doing to support transgendered students. All of these aspects are given with examples from my two informants based on their challenges and experiences. Finally, the concept of identity is an overriding theme of the ethnography, and I explain how all of these factors shape the transgendered identity of my informants.
For this study I gained the cooperation of two female to male students at a small private college in a small Midwest town. Recruiting them was pretty easy because they are both very good friends of mine. There are some challenges with having close friends as informants. Because I knew them so well, the sorts of conversations that would need to transpire for my research were the sorts of conversations we had naturally and almost daily. I could tell right away it would be hard to pick out the important parts. In order to maintain the privacy of my informants, I keep places anonymous, and I will refer to my two informants by the pseudonyms Jude and Tristan. I gathered most of my information by having unstructured interviews, which looked similar to daily conversations in my case. I would ask them a broad question and we would have a normal conversation about it. Occasionally other people were involved in our conversations, such as other friends or peers, but I made sure that I did have some private interviews as well.
I also did a lot of participant observation. Again, since they were close friends of mine, this looked mostly like just hanging out. I would go out with my friends into public, either around campus, town, or elsewhere. The only difference from typical days together was that I took detailed notes on their interactions and other things that I thought were important to my research. I also used my memories of past interactions for my research as well. I have known both of my informants for at least two years, so some of the stuff happened before my research on this project began. Tristan came out almost immediately after I met him, while Jude, the friend mentioned in my introduction, only came out to me this year. Regardless, there were still lots of hints and moments that I noticed prior to that phone call that I have used for research in this paper.
Definition of Transgender
A transgendered person is someone who identifies with a gender that is different from the one usually assigned to the sex they have at birth. Typically when we think of being transgendered we think of a person born male identifying more as a woman or a born female identifying as a man. There are other types that don’t fit within the gender binary that is typical of Western culture. For the sake of this paper, however, I will be focusing primarily on female to male transgendered people, otherwise known as FTM’s or transmen. I will use these terms frequently and interchangeably throughout the paper.
Transgendered people, like all minorities, are not new to the world. But the majority of people treat them as such. Even in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered) community, they are the minority that is often over looked. I have met some strong activist LGB people (I mean this word as encompassing of any sexual orientation other than heterosexual or transgendered) who were transphobic. Out gay and lesbian people are becoming more and more common and our society is adapting rather quickly to them. However, I think the road for transgendered people to be accepted in our nation is still very long.
Coming out is the act of telling a person who did not previously know that you identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or something else that is not heterosexual or cisgendered (a term for people who identify with what society deems as a ‘normal’ gender identity based on their biological sex). This section of the ethnography will focus on what it means when I say that transgendered people have to come out twice, as well as the personal experiences of coming out for my two informants.
Probably one of the defining moments in any LGBT person’s life is their coming out story. When one realizes that they are gay or lesbian, they have to decide who they are going to tell and when they are going to tell them. For some people, it’s safer just to stay in the closet, which is a folk phrase of the LGBT community that means they don’t come out to anyone and they keep it to themselves, or even deny it. Not all coming out stories end well. Many teens in our nation are kicked out of their homes or abused at school for coming out. It’s hard work, and it’s always scary. Despite this, there’s a saying in the LGBT community that goes, “Coming Out Never Ends.” This expresses the idea that an LGBT person will always have new people coming into their lives that will leave them facing the question, “Do I tell them or do I not?” They are going to get new jobs, meet new family members, and maybe even new potential life partners.
For most transpeople, coming out may have to occur twice. Not all transgendered people have to do this. I’ve heard of some cases where people realize they’re transgendered before anything else. However, both of my informants came out as lesbians before they realized they were transgendered. For everyone that they had already come out to as a lesbian, they had to decide if they wanted to come out as transgendered as well. My two informants received completely different reactions.
Jude kind of had it easy. His family was pretty accepting the first time around, and they were pretty accepting the second time around too. One of the common responses a lot of LGBT people get when coming out to people who are affirming is, “Oh I know” or “I kind of figured.” He got one of those from his dad when he came out as transgendered. The only thing that really stuck out to me about his re-telling of the story was a comment his step-mother made about his voice lowering. She made a joke in the form of imitation, and he giggled at the memory. I was with Jude through the whole process leading up to the big day when he came out to his family. He put it off for at least two weeks after he said he was going to do it. I dedicated one afternoon to sitting at a computer lab with him looking through pamphlets and explanations on anything they might have questions about. As far as I know, his parents used none of the resources we printed off that day. Jude still has yet to come out to his younger brother, even though it’s pretty certain that he will treat it the same way Jude’s parents did. Jude even suspects that his brother already knows. It wasn’t just his parents that Jude had trouble coming out as transgendered. He was nervous about coming out to me, and I’m his best friend. I mentioned earlier in the paper that Tristan came out right around the time I met him. Jude and I were freshmen in college and Tristan was a sophomore. They knew each other before school had started and were already close friends. When Tristan came out, it sparked something in Jude’s mind, kind of along the idea, “That’s possible?” Over the next couple weeks, he kind of experimented with the idea, but whenever I would ask, “Would you like me to start using male pronouns?” he always responded with, “Nah, it still feels kind of weird.” Within a month, the issue was dropped and we went on with our lives. And when he called me this summer, if you will recall, he was still pretty nervous even though I clearly had no problem with it and, as a matter of fact, was overjoyed that he was finally going to be true to his gender identity. But fortunately for him, I’m relatively new in his life. Changing pronouns and names is a hard thing to do and I managed to get it down in about a month. Jude has a friend that he has known for many years, however, and she still struggles with it. From what I can tell, she doesn’t have an issue with him being transgendered so much as she just has trouble changing the way she talks. Her biggest issue is pronouns, and referring to him by his full female birth name. She often won’t correct herself. That’s one of the challenges of being close to someone who identifies as transgendered. We use pronouns and names instinctively after we meet a person, and changing instincts can be extremely difficult.
Granted, LGBT people may find themselves in situations in which coming out is not the best option for ensuring their safety and comfort. Over fall break this year, Jude had the opportunity to go on a mission trip with campus ministries. He was not happy when he got back. He spent a whole weekend being referred to by female pronouns and feeling generally shunned by the group. He was afraid of rejection, but most of all abuse or ridicule. So he chose not to come out to that particular group of people. When he got back to campus and the opportunity arose to join a weekly bible study group that the people from the trip started, he turned down their offers. Any prolonged interaction with a group of people would either require him to come out as a man or suffer through the pain of friends using female pronouns. An important thing to note is that it’s not safe to come out in all circumstances.
Gay media tends to strongly advocate that people ‘come out of the closet.’ The LGBT community has an entire month dedicated to this notion. Coming out is supposed to make a person feel free and less stressed about the world. When you’re out to people, it’s easier to be yourself and have a happier life. However, there are some instances where coming out simply puts the marginalized person in jeopardy. There is no shame in hiding in the closet in these circumstances.
Tristan’s coming out was not as smooth as Jude’s, in terms of his family. Fortunately at school, Tristan passes pretty well. Most people just assume he’s a guy, and because of this he doesn’t have to come out very often. But his home life is a completely different story. His family was not accepting when he came out as a lesbian, and they rejected the idea of him being transgendered almost entirely. When he came out as gay, his mother was very upset and turned to heavy drinking. This first coming out was so scary for Tristan that he was very hesitant about coming out a second time around.
Earlier this year my school hosted a panel that featured LGBT people from our college community. Tristan ended up recounting his entire coming out story which I had heard before, but it refreshed my memory. He recounted a time when he was really little and people would ask him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” to which he would always respond, “A boy.” Instead of laughing at the ‘darndest things kids say these days’, his mother, in his own words, “flipped out.” For many years following this, she forced girly items into his life. Tristan will shrug at this memory and then add, tentatively, “And I don’t know if it had anything to do with it, but I was in ballet within the week.” Despite all that, he grew up a ‘tomboy.’ He talked about how he used to wrestle with his male cousins and how he always wanted to do what his dad would do rather than his mom. When he finally decided, as an adult in college, to come out as transgendered, he didn’t go see his mom in person or even call her on the phone. He sent her a letter in the mail. She responded with a simple, “I love you.” His grandma, at first, seemed to respond a little better. She sent him a card that was addressed with just his first initial instead of the customary use of his full female birth name. When he got that card he smiled and said, “I think that’s progress.” When he actually came out to her in person, however, his experience was very different. Without even touching upon the subject of him being transgendered, she launched into this long-winded discussion about how Tristan’s father may not be his real dad. Tristan was really offended that his own grandmother would try to distance herself from him in that way.
Things have not gotten much better. When he went home for Thanksgiving break this year, despite being out to his entire family, he suffered through a weekend of female pronouns and everyone using his full female birth name. He expressed concern that some of it had to be on purpose. His mother usually called him by a shortened androgynous version of his birth name, but not during Thanksgiving. She also referred to him as “Sissy” a lot, which is what his sister calls him. When we returned from break and began to share stories, he started sarcastically by asking, “Wanna talk about how I went home just to be ignored for hours on end?”
I have discovered that sometimes Jude and Tristan’s coming out process also extends to me. There was a weekend during the semester when my parents came to visit and I faced an entire weekend of my mother referring to Jude as a ‘she.’ I am not the one who is transgendered, but I still would have had to ‘come-out’ in a way to my family about the matter because Jude is such a big part of my life. I haven’t yet. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. My personal coming out story, when I came out as bisexual, was pretty boring and easy. My mother is pretty accepting, with a few weird moments thrown into the mix. I will have to do it eventually on behalf of Jude since she has met him before he was using male pronouns. But I may never have to do it with regards to Tristan. This is because my mother never met Tristan as a woman, and he passes very well.
Passing: The Ultimate Goal of Being Transgendered
‘Passing’ is the attempt that transgendered people make at presenting themselves as members of their new gender. If a transgendered person is ‘passing’ it simply means that a stranger could walk by them and, without thinking it, would perceive them as their gender. This is the ultimate goal of most transgendered people. If they are passing, they don’t actually have to come out to most people. It saves a lot of stress and grief. There are several ways of doing this.
Simple things like body-building and haircuts are considered methods of passing. Not every guy will start lifting weights when he comes out, but a good majority do. Gaining muscle mass is important to transmen. It makes them feel more manly and empowered. Boy style haircuts are pretty common too. In my experiences, a lot of transgendered people have had their hair cut short in the past before they realized they were transgendered. This isn’t always the case, but it was true of Jude. One day while looking through photos we found it almost impossible to find a picture of him as a kid with long hair because he’s kept it short for most of his childhood. So one big milestone in his trans-coming out story was the day he decided to shave his head bald. This was in the period of time that I mentioned where he came out a little bit before regressing right back into the closet. There was a charity that a few people at our college were participating in where people would raise money for cancer and then shave their heads at the end of the fundraiser if they met their goals. Jude signed up and never raised any money. However, he still very eagerly shaved his head bald within two weeks. He just recently decided to go back to that haircut.
Other than haircuts, binding is perhaps the most common method used by transmen to pass. It’s perhaps the easiest method and the results are instantaneous. Binding is simply the manner of tightening your chest to make it appear flat. Binding is different for everyone because everyone comes in different shapes and sizes. Both of my informants use binding. When Tristan binds, he is completely flat chested. He has small breasts so they are easy to flatten. Jude has a harder time making his torso completely flat because he has bigger breasts. A month ago, he ordered a special new binder that he was really excited about. Binding can be really painful, especially if it’s not done right. It’s tight around one of the most crucial parts of your body and people have passed out before from binding too tightly and restricting their breathing. Jude got a binder that fits him better and doesn’t pinch his sides as much. He’s much more comfortable in it and binds a lot more now that he has it. At the beginning of the semester, I had a long unstructured interview with Jude in which he said he did not bind. This wasn’t entirely true, he just didn’t like it very much because of the method he was using. Now, I rarely see him without it.
Another important method of passing for FTM’s is packing. Packing is when a person puts an item in their pants to give the illusion of a penis. Some people make packers at home just by stuffing socks in their underwear. Jude skipped this option and went right to buying a prosthetic penis off the internet. It’s completely life-like and it’s used for purposes like this only. There was an explicit warning with the item stating that it was not to be used for sexual pleasure. Jude went out and bought some boxer-briefs to replace his plethora of boxers so that it would fit better, and he’s been wearing it ever since. I can’t tell if he wears it every day. It’s not as obvious of a change to me as binding is. But it still gives him that confidence he needs to feel more like a man. When he first got it, I remember him standing in my door way with a proud smirk asking me, “Notice anything different about me?” I guessed a few things that weren’t actually different at all. And even after he pointed it out, I still couldn’t quite see it. It mostly just looked like a crease in his jeans to me. There is clearly an element of personal comfort and confidence rather than outward appearance that is gained from packing.
Along with simple packers that are purely for aesthetics, there are other methods of temporary lower body changes that a lot of transgendered people use. My favorite one, and one that I think is quite an ingenious device, is called a ‘Stand To Pee’ or STP for short. STP’s are basically just packers with a tube that runs through them that enable a female to pee while standing up. They are very convincing and life-like so as to give their users the ability to walk right into a crowed men’s room and use the urinal without any suspicion. Most transgendered people, however, won’t start using things like STP’s until they pass well enough to get into a men’s room in the first place.
Probably the most important aspect of passing right now for both of my informants is the issue of hormone therapy. For transmen this involves testosterone injections on a regular basis. It requires a doctor’s prescription, and, in some circumstances, referral from a counselor or therapist. Tristan is currently in the process of therapy and Jude is not. When I saw Tristan for the first time this semester, after three months of summer when he started, I was shocked by how seemingly rapid the effects had been. Granted, I hadn’t seen him in three months, but it was still remarkable. His face is a little different as his jaw-line has shifted. He has some light-colored peach fuzz that grows on his chin. His voice has gotten significantly deeper.
Jude has been seeing a counselor since he came out as transgendered for the purpose of getting a recommendation letter to take to a doctor. He is anxious to start on hormone therapy himself. He doesn’t feel as though he passes very well and getting on testosterone, known as ‘T’ in the transgendered community, will change that significantly. He has been butting heads lately with some of the higher ups in residence life because of housing situations and how starting hormone therapy will co-exist with that.
The next step for a lot of transgendered people is the dream of getting top surgery. This is just the act of surgically removing breasts. There are two common methods that most transgendered people use. For smaller busts, there is key-hole surgery. It doesn’t leave a very big scar, but can only be used for smaller females. Most transmen who have the surgery have a double-incision surgery. This is the surgery that Tristan is looking at getting, despite having no more than A-cup in bust size. After top surgery, the transgendered person can stop binding and can go out in public without a shirt on, which is a typical male activity. This includes fun things like being able to go to the beach or a pool. I have seen post-operation transmen and it’s very convincing. The only thing that gives them away as females are the two scars left on their chest, and even those vanish over time.
If a transman wants to continue his transition past top surgery, he can look into the option of bottom surgery. Unfortunately, the technology and science behind female to male bottom surgery is not perfect. There is a saying that is quite popular in the transgendered community that is used to draw a line between the differences in surgery for FTM’s and MTF’s (male to female). “It’s easier to dig a hole than build a pole.” Neither of my informants are sure whether or not they will ever pursue bottom surgery. One significant attraction of having such an imperfect surgery done is that it’s one of the only ways for women to legally change their gender.
Life of a Transgendered Student on a College Campus: Perceptions and Treatment
Anytime my informants start a new class, they face the impending question: do I come out or don’t I come out? Not doing so would result in an entire semester of being referred to with female pronouns or even that dreaded female birth name. But coming out could lead to some negative consequences if the teacher was not accepting. I have a class with Jude and at the beginning of the year, the professor had us fill out a get-to-know-you sheet that he would read in order to get a better understanding of his students. The last question on the page was, “Is there anything else I should know?” Jude struggled with it for a few minutes but at the end of class he came up to me with a worried look. “I did it.” “Did what?” I asked. “I came out as trans on that sheet.” The professor himself was probably a very accepting and understanding man, but Jude requested that he not use male pronouns in the classroom setting so as to not confuse his fellow classmates. The fear is that the students will become so confused with the concept that class discussion might stray from academics into something rather irrelevant to their studies. Still, some moments felt a little off. One time we were in a small group with three other girls and the professor made a comment about how girls all seem to group together. I reminded Jude about this recently while reflecting on how he was treated by professors. He either hadn’t been paying much attention or didn’t remember the incident, but he wasn’t bothered by it at all. I felt differently about the manner, but my opinions were largely irrelevant. If Jude felt comfortable, and he did, then the professor was doing something right.
But that wasn’t the only class Jude took this semester. He had some trouble at the beginning of the year deciding whether or not he should come out to his Spanish teacher. Spanish, unlike English, is a very gender-heavy language. Every time Jude refers to himself or uses an adjective to describe himself, he has to put a gender to it. His teacher actually corrected him once when referred to himself in class using an ‘o’ instead of an ‘a’ at the end of an adjective. This is not the professor’s fault. She could have no way of knowing how Jude preferred to be called because he wouldn’t come out to her. I encouraged him to come out for a few weeks. I thought it would reduce his stress and boost his confidence if he could refer to himself how he wanted to, even if it was in another language. He never did.
What Colleges Across the Nation are Doing
College life for a transgendered student is a vastly different experience from both that of a cisgendered college student and a non-student transgendered person. There are all kinds of policies in the college system that, if the needs of transgendered students are not being carefully considered, can make college life difficult or uncomfortable for them. There are lots of colleges across the nation that are doing their best to help gender transitions, but some colleges are ahead of others.
The University of Vermont, for example, has software in place that allows students to choose the name and gender that they would prefer to be on their course rosters before the class starts (Tilsley 2010). What Vermont is doing is wonderful because it lets the teachers know the preferred gender of transgendered students without forcing them to go through the coming out process. It makes the classroom life much more comfortable for these students. The college still keeps records of their birth names for administrative purposes (Tilsley 2010). It has also been proposed that colleges change their administrative documents so as to include more choices for gender other than just ‘Male’ or ‘Female’ (Schnetzler 2009). Students have to fill out documents like this all the time and having at least one more option would make transgendered students feel more comfortable and less restricted to their birth sex.
To make students feel more comfortable with their professors and fellow peers, a lot of colleges have implemented forms of diversity training (Schnetzler 2009). In my experience, although most programs are inclusive of the entire LGBT community, they only briefly highlight the needs of the transgendered. The college my informants attend has an optional diversity training program. Participants are offered a card after training that they can put on their office or dorm room door to let others know that they are open and affirming.
Along with diversity training, colleges should also have an array of resources that students can access at any time. This can be anything from pamphlets, to videos, to a list of hotlines they can call for help. A lot of colleges are even compiling ‘out-lists.’ An out-list is a list of faculty and students who are out and volunteer to have their contact information publicly announced to the student body and other faculty members. These are usually web-based for easy access (Schnetzler 2009). The idea behind an out-list is that if a student or faculty member is struggling in relation to something about their gender identity they can contact a person on this list to talk about their experience.
One of the most important things a college can do to make life for transgendered students simpler, is to provide unisex bathrooms throughout campus (Schnetzler 2009), While transitioning, or even before any measures of transition have been taken, many transgendered people feel awkward using public restrooms. As Jude put it to me: he feels far too manly to use a female restroom, but he looks far too feminine to use a male restroom. Plus, many of the students on campus know him. If they saw him going into a male restroom, they might call him out on it. And there is a risk of losing some gender-based self-confidence when being forced to use a female restroom. Until a student is comfortable enough to use their preferred gender’s restroom, having single-occupant restrooms can solve the problem. It’s simple and it’s very effective. The college I studied has unisex bathrooms in all the dorms and a few of the academic buildings. My informants would like to see more, especially in the main student community building. Tristan won’t use public restrooms at all on campus. Jude will map his way to and from class so that he goes specifically through buildings that have unisex bathrooms, even if they are way out of his way.
Another effective measure colleges can make to accommodate transgendered students is to provide gender neutral housing. Most student housing at most colleges is segregated by gender, and this is true for the college my informants attend. You have a roommate who is the same sex as you. There are two co-ed dorms, but they are gendered by floor. Tristan has been lucky enough the past two years to live in the small house that the LGBT alliance is based in on campus. He’s been able to surround himself with people who are affirming. Jude, on the other hand, has lived in the all-female dorm his entire college career. This has brought some interesting and often times uncomfortable situations.
Connecticut College and Northeastern University both have gender neutral options for housing. Most colleges just have a hallway or wing that is specifically designated as gender neutral, or they have random gender-neutral rooms spread throughout their campus (Tilsley 2010). It can be as simple as that. Gender neutral housing is the one thing my two informants, especially Jude, would most like to see at their college. Jude plans on moving into the house that Tristan is in now when Tristan graduates, but this semester he came into a situation where he wanted to move or find a new roommate and the options were very limited. On top of that, he wants to start testosterone soon. He doesn’t have his letter of recommendation yet, but if he got it and wanted to start next semester, he’d still be living in the all-girls dorm. There was some push from residence life against this. They didn’t want him to start T if he was going continue living with girls as it may jeopardize the comfort of his peers living around him. This made Jude feel uncomfortable and as if his options were severely limited. These included things like moving into a co-ed dorm, where he is certain he will not be treated with respect. Both of my informants expressed belief that the lack of gender-neutral housing is likely preventing other transgendered students on campus from coming out.
Coming out is one of the most challenging experiences for an LGBT person, and transgendered people often have to go through it twice. The act of coming out itself is not the only challenging thing about it. Other challenges arise and continue to follow the person through their journey. In particular, transgendered people face problems related to passing; what their college does to support them; and how their family, friends, peers and professors treat them. Their identity as transgendered people is shaped through these experiences, both negatively and positively. After three months of research, my ethnography stops here. However, the lives of my two informants and the lives of transgendered students across the nation continue on. They are going to have to keep coming out to people and they are going to continually face struggles in their life that sprout from this portion of their identity. But I have faith that colleges and people’s minds and attitudes are developing and changing, and that a different, more accepting world is just around the corner.
Schnetzler, G. W., & Conant, G. (2009). Changing Genders, Changing Policies. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 56(8), B30-B32.
Tilsley, A. (2010). New Policies Accommodate Transgender Students. Chronicle Of Higher Education, 56(39), A19-A20.