A Tale of Two Genders: Transitions caters to ‘gender non-conforming’ community members

By Chelsey Boutan

When professors first called his name for attendance, Sam Barrons dreaded being referred to as “she” or by his legal name.

As a transsexual man, Barrons doesn’t like to be called by his female-gendered legal name. Explaining his gender identity to professors is a frustrating process, the senior family and individual development major said.

“It’s kind of awkward having to tell your whole life story so people don’t think you’re crazy,” Barrons said.

For this reason, Barrons joined a new student group for transgender individuals called Transitions. Barrons said the group serves as an outlet for “gender non-conforming people” to be a part of a community where they don’t have to explain themselves or be judged.

Stepping forward

Bethany Hill, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Resource Center intern, formed Transitions this semester because she believes NIU is making significant steps forward in gender identity protections and openness.

Molly Holmes, LGBT Resource Center director, said it is important for the center to “walk the talk” by having programs and services that support NIU’s non-discrimination policy, which now includes gender identity and gender expression.

“Transitions aligns with our mission because there is so much diversity between the L, the B, the G and the T,” Holmes said. “We always have to ask ourselves if we are doing the best we can for students in that spectrum.”

Transitions is a social group and safe space away from the broader campus community for transgender individuals to be themselves and to have fun with people who are similarly identified, Hill said.

Holmes said it is important to have a student group specifically for transgender individuals because gender identity is different from sexual orientation.

“A trans-identified person may identify as a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian,” Holmes said. “Some trans people don’t feel comfortable being lumped in with the LGB community because they have a different process and experience in coming out.”

Transgender, transsexual, gender queer

Hill said there are several terms to describe trans-identifying individuals.

Transgender is an umbrella term that refers to anyone that doesn’t entirely identify with the gender they were assigned at birth, she said. This includes transsexuals and gender queers.

Transsexuals want to be seen full-time as the opposite gender they were assigned at birth and may seek hormones or surgery, Hill said.

Barrons started taking hormones last spring because he wanted to have male characteristics like a deepened voice and facial hair. He eventually wants to have sex reassignment surgery, but that is a costly process; right now, he is content with taking hormones.

Individuals who don’t identify with the terms male or female may refer to themselves as gender queer, Hill said.

Hill said an individual who doesn’t feel a disconnect with the gender he or she was assigned at birth is called a cisgender.

“This term exists because saying somebody is non-transgender makes transgender the weird category,” she said.

Facing misconceptions and stereotypes

Both Barrons and Hill agree transgender individuals, like themselves, deal with misconceptions and stereotypes regarding their gender identity.

“I actually get stereotyped a lot as a butch lesbian,” Barrons said. “Which I’m not because I don’t identify as female.”

Barrons said one common misconception people have is they perceive transgender individuals as different when, in fact, they are just like everybody else.

Sometimes people may have misconceptions surrounding what a transgender person looks like, Hill said.

“Just like the phrase, ‘That’s so gay.’ You also occasionally hear, ‘Oh, she looks like a tranny,'” Hill said. When an instructor tells the class that a transgender individual will speak, students already have a picture in their mind about how the person will look and act, Hill said.

“In general, the transgender community is as varied as the cisgender community both in looks, attitudes, voices and so on,” Hill said.

Legal obstacles

Using his female gendered name with the university is very frustrating, but Barrons doesn’t have the time or money to get his name legally changed.

A name change costs $300, but since Barrons can’t afford that, he would have to fill out a waiver. Barrons knows people who have gone through the court system for seven months to get their name changed.

“It’s just because, you know, they went from Jack to Jill and the judge didn’t like it,” Barrons said. “So it’s a little frustrating. That’s why I don’t want to tackle it until this summer. I’ve got enough stress right now.”

Why it’s hard for some to understand

“It’s easier for people to identify with what a gay, lesbian or bisexual individual feels because people understand what sexual attraction is and can apply it to their own lives,” Hill said.

People find it more difficult to understand transgender individuals because it’s a harder-to-describe set of emotions, thoughts and identity in terms that people can relate to, Hill said.

“If someone has a traditional male body and was assigned gender male, we don’t understand how that person could not identify as being male,” Hill said. “[Transgender people] are definitely less understood at this point but are becoming more understood over time.”