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In Thailand, they are called Kateoy or “Ladyboys.” In Burma, they are the Hijra and have the power to bless a child with fertility or curse it with impotence. In America, they are called transgendered, but the definition of the word is hard to pin down.
“There are as many ways to be trans as there are trans people,” said Michael*, a 21-year-old Newton resident to Northeastern University’s bisexual, lesbian, gay, straight, transgendered, queer and questioning alliance (NuBiLAGA) meeting on Nov. 18.
But Michael, who was born a female but now lives as a male, has his own definition.
“A transgendered person is someone who does not fit with or identify with the gender identity or gender roles assigned at birth,” Michael said.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines transgender as “Appearing as, wishing to be considered as, or having undergone surgery to become a member the opposite sex.”
While often confused with cross-dressers who masquerade as the opposite sex on occasion, transgendered persons wish to permanently live as the opposite gender. Some opt to have surgery to match their anatomy with their lifestyle, some do not and just adopt the mannerism of the opposite gender.
Scientific statistics and studies on transgendered persons border on non-existent. Since transgendered people often identify simply as male or female, it is difficult to get an accurate count of the trans population using official censuses which don’t denote “biological male/female” or “cultural male/female.”
Transgendered people also cannot be included in counts of the gay and lesbian population, because if a person was biologically female, but identifies as a male and is attracted to females, they would consider themselves heterosexual and not a lesbian.
As Michael addressed the group, his partner, Bailey*, a 21-year-old female to male transgendered resident of Jamaica Plains, drew four parallel lines on the dry erase board. One by one, Michael explained the significance of each line: sex, gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation. The visual is what Michael uses to distinguish to people the differences between the terms and how each can function mutually exclusive from the others.
He explained to the group that sex is dictated by chromosomes and genitalia. On one end of the spectrum is male, on the other is female and in the middle is intersex, commonly referred to hermaphrodite. On the gender expression line, Michael and Bailey created a spectrum from masculine to feminine, with androgynous or gender neutral in the middle; sexual orientation often divided between attraction to men or women.
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But on the gender identity line, Michael and Bailey split the spectrum between man and woman with “gender queer/transgender.”
While Michael, Bailey and a third female-to-male transgendered speaker, Frank**, 22, spoke of their own experiences, it became clear that for a college-aged transgendered youth, the future is as unclear as the terms they use to describe themselves.
Campuses across the country are now being confronted with the need to adapt policies to accommodate this emerging population of transgendered youth.
Smith College, an all-girl school in Northampton, Ma., for example, voted in 2003 to take out the word “she” from their constitution to accommodate their students who identify as male.
Support groups for transgendered youth are also emerging. In the Boston area, BAGLY (Boston Alliance for Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Youth) is one of the most prominent groups to provide support for trans people. Northeastern also offers NUBiLAGA for information and support.
A Declaration of Independence
In July, 2002, three weeks before his University of Vermont tuition was due, Bailey, who was born female decided it was time to tell his parents he was transgendered.
“It was time to tell them since they were so sure I was lying to them anyway,” Bailey said. “I needed to know if they were going to be helping me. My father had threatened that if I didn’t start being a better member of the family, they would stop supporting me.”
As a liberal arts student, Bailey dreamed of working with special needs children. He already taught Tae Kwon Do classes to children with special needs and had worked extensively with his younger sibling who also had special needs.
At school after dinner, Bailey sat down and wrote his parents an e-mail telling them what he had been hiding: he would leave his female life behind and begin living as a man. He said writing the message had been easy, but he hesitated before sending it.
“Once I sent it, once they got it, I couldn’t take it back,” Bailey said.
So, Bailey closed his eyes and hit the send button.
Six days later, Bailey called his parents to see if they had received his confession. To his surprise, due to a broken computer, they hadn’t. So, Bailey printed out his e-mail and mailed it, and waited once more.
When his parents received the letter, they called him on and asked him to come back to their house 45 minutes north of Burlington, Vt. the next day. Bailey was sick to his stomach.
About two weeks since he had sat down after dinner to write his parents the first e-mail, Bailey sat in one chair in the den, his parents sat on the couch; he was on one side, they were on the other.
There was no yelling or screaming. Just a lot of accusations and one final ultimatum: do what he wanted and be cut off, or grow out his hair, wear women’s clothes and continue his life as a woman.
"There was no hesitation,” Bailey said. “I would make it on my own, I would not make myself miserable for them.”
Determined to keep himself in school, Bailey worked to declare himself an independent student. After submitting a series of letter of recommendation as well as a deeply personal letter explaining his situation, UVM awarded Bailey enough scholarship and state grants to cover his tuition and books.
Similar to the process at UVM, financial aid counselor at Northeastern University Kimberly Huse said Northeastern also requires three letters to declare independent student status: one from the student, one from a third party including relatives and friends and one professional letter from a lawyer or pastor.
Huse said, depending on how long it takes for the student to get the letters in, the process takes about a week.
Declaring independence at Northeastern can easily be kept confidential and doesn’t require any contact with the student’s parents.
“If a student is declaring independent status, it’s because they can’t contact their parents,” Huse said. “It wouldn’t make sense to call them asking about the student.”
Huse said that while cases have come up where students declared independent status because of sexuality issues in the past, she would not call it common.
In the spring of 2003, Frank, a student at Northeastern University, was concerned about receiving university housing, and especially with whom he would be cohabitating with.
Frank had just been approved by doctors, after counseling and living as a man over a period of time, to begin the hormone therapy that would help transition him from his female past to his male life. The idea of going through puberty again, this time as a man, in the same small space as several females, did not seem like his best solution.
“Basically, [Northeastern doesn’t] have a policy,” Frank said. “Some people lived in their housing of choice in a single or with men or women, but it’s been different from person to person.”
After a lengthy battle with Northeastern’s Residential Life, Frank was offered a single apartment for a price that he could not afford. So, he gave up his fight for gender neutral housing and moved off campus.
Recently, gender neutral housing has become an issue on campus across the country.
This fall, Wesleyan University in Middleton, Ct. introduced a gender blind housing option, where students would not have to specify if they were male or female. The hall consisted of 12 rooms composed of singles and two-room doubles.
Associate Dean of Housing Services Marina Iannalfo said that there is no policy at Northeastern that clearly rules out the possibility for gender blind housing. Currently, she said, each case is handled on an individual basis to determine the best housing assignment for that particular student, but commonly the main issues revolve around sharing a bathroom with suitemates or community bathrooms in freshman residence halls.
Frank, now a junior at Northeastern, says he doubts the university will adopt a gender neutral housing policy during his tenure there.
Tune that Name
On March 28, 2000, Michael’s 18th birthday, he went to the Middlesex County Change of Name Department to legally start his life as Michael.
“All my life, I was called a name I didn’t identify with,” said Michael.
The process, which he called fairly easy, involved filling out a simple form, paying a filing fee and submitting a certified copy of his birth certificate. Although Michael listed transgendered on his form as to why he requested a name change, he said both the judge and the clerk he dealt with were very respectful.
After mailing in the paperwork, Michael was sent a postcard with dates and times that a judge would be available to finalize his name request.
There were no lawyers. There were no courtrooms. Just a judge in a cubicle who stamped Michael’s form and freed him from his former life.
Luckily, Michael was fortunate enough to have his name changed before his high school graduation. Before 500 students and thousands of relatives, he walked across the stage and received his diploma which, to his delight, read “Michael.”
He still gets overwhelmed when describing the situation.
“To have it acknowledged over the loud speaker, to walk in front of all those people recognizing me, to feel supported by my school, acknowledged by students and faculty and have to have my name changed in time was just a very public affirmation.”
However, Michael’s grandparents did not know about Michael’s recent name change at graduation. But after hearing it over the loud speaker, his grandmother apologized and asked, “Do I have to change your name on the check?”
Michael was lucky. He had the support of his family to help him navigate the name changing process.
In Suffolk County, the name change process jut requires a simple form, a copy of one’s birth certificate and a processing fee.
Once the name is legally changed, Northeastern University’s registrar only requires one more additional form to file to change the name on all university records.
*Last name withheld at person’s request.
**Name changed at person’s request.