In this cradle of intellectual exploration, transgender people at Williams are on that most basic human quest–figuring out who they are.
By Martha Quillin
College is a chrysalis into which 3 million hopeful young freshmen enter each fall. Four years later, most emerge smarter, surer, more worldly—ready to spread their wings.
For some students, the metamorphosis is far more significant, and more fundamental, than deciding whether to major in anthropology or astrophysics.
They start college as one gender. They leave as another.
No one knows exactly what portion of the population is born feeling out of sync with their assigned sex. By any measure, the number at Williams is small. But so is the college. And for students making decisions about how they will present themselves to peers and strangers alike, Williams’ close-knit community can be intimidating even as it is comforting. While most people yearn for acceptance, trans people are also coming to accept themselves. And for some the only way to do that is to switch to the gender they feel they were meant to be.
At the same time that they’re delving into social psychology and linear algebra, trans students are beginning to understand why they’ve felt so uncomfortable in their own bodies and finding that it may be possible to correct the dissonance between the way they look and the way they feel.
This self-discovery complicates every aspect of campus life, from the gender boxes prospective students must select on their college applications to the names printed on graduating seniors’ diplomas. In between, they worry about housing assignments, physical education classes, and which bathrooms to use. They wonder if they’ll be able to find friends who support them, if they’ll find doctors and therapists if they need them, and if they’ll be able to pay the doctors if insurance won’t.
“Personal transitions are like wooden Russian dolls,” says Norman Spack ’65, an endocrinologist who has done pioneering work with transgender youth through Boston Children’s Hospital (work for which he received a Bicentennial Medal from the college in September). “Open the outermost,” he says, “and there’s another within. It’s equally shiny, often different, and hopefully pleasing to the eye.”
In this cradle of intellectual exploration, transgender people at Williams are on that most basic human quest. They’re figuring out who they are.
Growing up in Claremont, Calif., Aidyn Osgood ’15 “never felt right” about his sexuality, even after he came out as bisexual, then gay, around age 15. Near the end of his senior year in high school, he heard the term “genderqueer,” used to describe people who identify as neither entirely male nor entirely female.
“I thought, ‘That sounds like me,’” Osgood recalls. “None of the old categories fit for me. That one just kind of clicked.”
Osgood had to learn the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity, a distinction that can even confuse people in the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community. People who work in the field put it this way: Your sexual orientation has to do with whom you want to be with. Your gender identity is whom you want to be.
Although Osgood’s awareness of his sexual orientation was evolving, he thought his gender identity—he was a 6-foot-2-inch-tall young man—was immutable. It was a revelation to find that some people born as women live as men, some born as men live as women, and others live somewhere in between.
If there were ever an opportunity to redefine himself, Osgood figured, it would be in moving across the country to a small, liberal arts college where not one of the 2,000 students was from his high school.
“For many students, college is the first time they leave home,” says Jess McDonald, spokesperson for Campus Pride, a Charlotte, N.C.-based nonprofit that works to create safe college environments for LGBT students. “You’re making new friends and starting over.”
Osgood, who arrived at Williams in fall 2011, says, “I really wanted to hit the reset button.” He immediately hung a rainbow flag in the common room of his dorm. By December, he’d come out to friends as transgender. In June, he asked people to start calling him Aidyn instead of his given name, Perry.
Now an 18-year-old sophomore, Osgood has taken courses in the women’s, gender, and sexuality studies program, which has helped him to understand his own feelings and sensitized him to others’. He works as a campus tour guide, he’s active in Williams’ Queer Student Union, and he participates in Allies, a campus group that advocates for people who may be vulnerable to discrimination.
Outwardly, Osgood has embraced his male body and his more feminine traits, his desire to find acceptance, and his urge to shock.
He sometimes spends 90 minutes pulling together clothes and accessories, which recently included jeans and an asymmetrical T-shirt that bared one muscled bicep; a bead necklace; long, loopy earrings; eyeliner; and lip gloss. His hair is cut above the ears but long on top, with a broad streak of turquoise.
Personally, he’s come much farther than the 2,900 miles from Claremont to Williamstown, moving beyond his own angst and learning to be supportive of others.
“I still have a lot of body issues,” Osgood says. “But emotionally, I feel like I’ve figured out who I am.”
Once they make the upending decision to live as who they believe they are meant to be, many trans people solidify their new identities by choosing new names. Even before they begin the lengthy process of filing legal papers and getting new driver’s licenses and Social Security cards, they start by asking friends, relatives, professors, and co-workers to make the change and refer to them by what is now the correct pronoun.
Matt Kremer ’13 decided it would be easier to try out his new identity in a foreign country first. He came to Williams in 2009 from a high school in Boise, Idaho, where he says the line between male and female was clearly divided. “If you came out as anything other than straight,” he recalls, “you were ostracized.”
Known then as a girl, Kremer says he never felt—or even dressed—the part, shopping for clothing in the boys’ department from third grade on.
“I didn’t have a name to put to it,” he says, “but I knew I was inherently male. I never felt comfortable in social situations—ever.”
Kremer had male friends in high school but distanced himself from them if they showed any romantic interest. “I think it was because I didn’t like being treated like a girl,” he says.
Kremer began exploring the term “transgender” for the first time as a Williams sophomore. “As a science person,” says the biology major, “I tend to over-research things so I know what I’m getting myself into.”
By the end of that academic year, Kremer knew he had to live as a man.
Spack says the sense of urgency Kremer felt—to correct an error—is what sets transgender people apart from those who are experimenting with different sexual identities.
This wrenching but liberating change is a necessity, he says, not a desire.
Says Kremer, “I just needed to do it. There just wasn’t any way for me to continue living as a female.”
Kremer already planned to study in Japan for his junior year. His mother was born there, and he would spend part of the time with his grandmother and other extended family. But no one else there knew him. He cut his short hair a little shorter and moved abroad, living for the next year as Matt. It was relatively easy, he says, to pass for a young man in Japan.
Kremer was anxious about the prospects of coming out to his family while overseas and of coming back to Williams for his senior year.
For these and other issues, he had an invaluable resource on campus: justin adkins, a transgender man and assistant director of the Davis Center, formerly the Williams Multicultural Center. When adkins (who doesn’t capitalize his name) was hired part time five years ago as queer life coordinator, he knew of only one other transgender person on campus. There are a handful now, including some college employees, and many rely on adkins as a sounding board and “trans encyclopedia.” They ask his advice about how and when to come out to their families and how much to tell potential employers in job interviews.
“I thought it would be difficult to reintroduce myself as Matt,” says Kremer. But as he began to tell classmates and professors in group study sessions or office meetings, “They all said, ‘Oh, OK.’ They totally accepted it.”
Kremer, who also has the support of his parents and two sisters, doesn’t say what his given name was. He feels as though he has always been this person—this guy—Matt.
Before graduation next spring, he plans to change his name legally, so it will be correct on his diploma and passport. By then, he may have begun to look and sound more masculine as well.
Kremer worked full time on a Massachusetts dairy farm last summer to save money to pay for the next step in his journey: regular testosterone injections, which can run from $50 to $150 per month.
While the 21-year-old now feels comfortable at Williams, the school’s location makes the clinical aspect of transitioning more challenging than it would be if the school were in a big city. While he can get basic medical care on campus, he needs a therapist to sign off on his plans to take hormones, an endocrinologist familiar with transgender issues to administer them, and a way to get to their offices at least 30 minutes away, if he chooses a doctor in Pittsfield.
Kremer is currently working with his therapist to find a suitable endocrinologist and hopes to start taking the shots in a few months.
Emery Shriver knew how out of sorts he was with the female body he’d been living in for 34 years when, last fall, one of his dogs unintentionally bit him on the breast.
While many women would have been worried about the disfigurement of this most obsessed-over measure of femininity, Shriver had the opposite reaction: “I wished both breasts were gone.”
One of the ways Spack and other doctors at the Gender Management Service Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital diagnose transgender youth is by measuring the degree of revulsion with the body parts that identify their assigned sex. Experts say transgender children are more likely than other kids to feel depressed, anxious, and isolated. For girls, menstrual cycles are a monthly reminder of the misalignment they feel. Some children are so horrified by their body parts that they cut themselves.
According to a report last year by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality, 41 percent of 6,450 gender nonconforming study participants say they’ve tried to commit suicide.
Transgenderism is currently listed as a mental illness—“gender identity disorder”—in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV). Spack doesn’t believe trans people are mentally ill. “Rather,” he says, “their anxieties are caused by their sexual dysphoria.”
In fact, the term “gender dysphoria,” which comes from the Greek word for emotional distress, will replace “gender identity disorder” in the revised DSM-V, due out next year.
At the clinic, Spack gives transgender children hormone blockers to halt puberty and the development of secondary sexual characteristics—breasts, vocal pitch, facial hair, etc.—giving pre-adolescents time to decide if they want those changes to happen at all. It’s easier and less costly to prevent the changes in a child than try to override them in an adult.
Shriver came out as lesbian around age 31, “Pretty late, compared to most people,” he says. With that declaration came shorter hairstyles and more masculine, dark suits.
“I felt a lot more natural, more attractive,” Shriver says. “But I kept wishing I could grow sideburns or something, and I didn’t realize not everybody felt that way.”
Two years ago, Shriver took a dream job as a reference librarian at Williams, where he met adkins.
“Here is this person who is trans and happy and successful,” Shriver says. “I didn’t know this was possible.”
Last January, Shriver began asking people to use the pronoun “he” to refer to him. With the approval of a therapist, he began testosterone shots in May. The drugs can take up to four years to reach their full effect, but as Spack often sees with his patients, Shriver felt an instant sense of relief.
“It was this very relaxing, ‘Ah,’ moment,” Shriver says, exhaling as though letting go of a weight. “So far it feels really good.”
Eventually, Shriver’s voice will drop, and he’ll be able to grow sideburns. Those changes will be irreversible. Already, he’s noticed changes in emotional traits that, when he was a woman, he assumed were stereotypes. Among other things, he no longer feels the urge to cry.
Further changes would require surgical procedures, which can cost from $10,000 to $100,000 and are not regularly paid for by insurance. “Top surgery” includes breast removal for trans men and breast augmentation for trans women. “Bottom surgery” can include hysterectomy for trans men. And either sex can have existing organs modified to resemble those of the other gender.
Transitioning can be difficult on relationships. Parents sometimes lament losing a son or daughter when a child comes out as transgender. Romantic affiliations can be turned upside down. In gay or lesbian couples, the partner of the trans person suddenly appears to be in a relationship with the opposite sex. In a straight relationship, the partner now appears to the world to be homosexual.
“It complicates things,” Shriver says, in large part because the partner taking the hormones is going through another puberty.
In other words, for a while, Shriver will be a bit like a teenage boy.
For some transgender people, the past is painful. It can be tinged with memories of bullying or being shut out. At best, it’s colored by always feeling awkward. Transitioning feels to some transgender people like starting a new life.
But justin adkins says he doesn’t want to forget his old life. Growing up in Southern California as a girl named Jennifer, he was drawn from a young age to missionary work.
“I was no good at proselytizing, but I wanted to help people,” he recalls.
After high school, adkins worked in a series of youth-mission type jobs that were fun and exciting. “I turned 18 in India,” he says. “By then, I had already met Mother Teresa.” At the time, adkins identified as a lesbian but was living the abstinent life of a religious worker. Yet he fell in love with a man and followed him to Eugene, Ore. The relationship dissolved, but adkins stayed in Oregon for a time, working at a feminist bookstore. In a back corner of the shop was a small section on transgender issues.
“Until then, I thought transgender meant RuPaul with a feather boa,” adkins says.
At 23, adkins finally understood what it meant to be transgender. But he didn’t yet identify himself that way.
adkins began a relationship with a woman and in 2004 moved to Massachusetts, which had just legalized same-sex marriage. They tied the knot, but the marriage didn’t survive adkins’ eventual decision to transition to a man. The turning point came, he says, when he realized he could not visualize aging “into a little old lady. But I could see myself as a fabulous little old man. I thought, ‘I should just do this.’”
For a few years he identified as genderqueer, using male pronouns but seeing himself as neither completely male nor female. Then, at 29, adkins started taking testosterone. Now 34, he has a mid-range voice, a goatee, and no regrets.
adkins, who studied at Marlboro College, now speaks out on behalf of trans people at Williams, working to review policies and practices to ensure that they feel safe and supported at a pivotal time of their lives.
Though Williams isn’t there yet, he says, neither is the college pretending that all its students fit into simple types or boxes on a form. Trans people are different from one another, and they are different over time.
They have that in common with everyone else on campus. Says adkins: “All our students’ identities are shifting.”
Easing the Transition
As the assistant director for gender, sexuality, and activism at the Davis Center (formerly the Multicultural Center), justin adkins has been a tireless advocate on behalf of trans people at Williams. In the five years he’s been here, he says, “The climate has changed dramatically.”
In 2004, Williams began to include gender identity and gender expression in its non- discrimination policy—something Campus Pride, a national nonprofit working to create safe college environments for LGBT students, says only one in 10 colleges has done.
In 2011 adkins launched a trans discussion group called “Fabulous!” that meets on campus about once per month. He and one student attended the first meeting; now, five or six people show up regularly. In addition to discussing trans issues and sharing personal stories, the group is considering adding social activities to its ongoing efforts to create a sense of community.
At adkins’ urging, the college this year added an option for students to indicate their gender identity on housing forms, an important issue for students concerned about safety and privacy. About half the student housing at Williams consists of single rooms, making it easier for trans students to opt out of having a roommate.
Also this year, adkins is making sure each member of the faculty and staff gets copies of “Trans 101,” a short primer he crafted on what it means to be transgender.
Still, adkins says, there’s much to be done. On the Common Application for under- graduate college admission, used by Williams and nearly 500 colleges and universities across the country, prospective students must choose between “male” and “female” to indicate their gender, something adkins wants to see change.
He’s working on getting the locations of existing gender-neutral bathrooms added to the campus map; meanwhile, the administration has agreed that at least one such bathroom will be included in any new building project (including the new Sawyer Library, scheduled to open in 2014).
adkins also wants Williams to add insurance coverage for gender-confirming procedures and hormones for staff and faculty. The request was voted down by the benefits committee in 2010.
And, adkins says with a smile, “No one knows what to do about locker rooms.”
Which points to a larger issue—even the schools that tend to get the highest ratings from organizations like Campus Pride (which this year gave Williams a score of four out of five stars on its LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index) still don’t have it all figured out.
“A lot of our peer institutions are in the same place we are,” says adkins, who works as a consultant on trans issues and travels the country as a speaker. “We’re all chipping away, all progressing together.
“Maybe not all the policies are in place,” he says of Williams. “But in practice, we’re welcoming.”
–Martha Quillin is a writer based in North Carolina.