Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the experiences of transgender students at Dartmouth. Today’s article explains their desire to be understood.
Sasha Bright ’09 keeps her head bowed, eyes on her shoes as she hands off her Dartmouth ID card. She avoids the DDS cashier’s eyes, which shift from the card to Bright and back again. Bright’s long, straight hair does not match the cropped cut in the photo. The T-shirt fitted over her feminine torso is a far cry from the baggy shirt featured on the card. The student standing in the dining hall, whose apparent anxiety masks her courage, does not match the masculine name printed to the right of the photograph.
The worker, noting opposing presentations, laughs. Bright didn’t “pass.”
“He gave me my ID. He laughed, and said have a nice night. I was so hurt. I just wanted to, if I could, put that guy in my life for one day,” Bright said.
Bright, like a handful of other students at Dartmouth, identifies as transgender, a term used to describe a person whose internal gender identification differs from his or her biological sex. According to Bright, who is still biologically male, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to conform and present as a single identifiable gender congruous with sex.
“People try to ascertain, especially when I dress androgynously, what I am, because people have to know. It’s like a psychological thing,” Bright said. “They’re like ‘woah,’ like I dropped out of Mars. The looks are amazing.”
The inability of others to understand or accept the identity a transgender student presents — which Bright calls being “read” — triggers anxiety and dejection, she said. Bright said that looks and perceived judgment prevent her from socializing normally, and she often opts to spend time in the safety of her room.
“I’ll even not go to the dining halls and [be] starving all day because I don’t like to deal with other people giving me these looks, the degradation. Just because I wasn’t born with another X [chromosome], they treat me awfully,” Bright said. “I would not wish this on my worst enemy.”
Kris Gebhard ’09, who is transitioning from female to male, said that references to him as female reinforce his struggle and remind him that he cannot yet pass as a male. Gebhard said he understands that it may just take time for those who knew him as female to get used to his new identity, so he does not outwardly express his discomfort with such references.
“Internally it’s annoying. I’m always very, very sensitive to pronouns and also to when people call me Kristina,” he said. “It’s just a constant reminder of how people in general perceive me or interact with me.”
Gebhard said that he does not mind androgynous references, but prefers masculine associations.
“There’s a lot of empowerment that comes with using masculine pronouns. That’s a reminder in the other direction — it really allows me to more fully embrace my gender identity,” he said. “There’s a lot more freedom in that, freedom to express myself in a way that I’ve been, in some ways, repressing for a long time. So it can really be small and simple, but it all adds up.”
Tiger Rahman ’09, who began transitioning from female to male last September, explained his new outward identity to his screen-writing class this spring in an e-mail.
“Yes, my gender presentation/identity may be kind of ambiguous, annoying, confusing or just irrelevant. However you see it, I prefer the usage of male pronouns/honorifics in reference to myself,” Rahman wrote in the e-mail.
Film professor Bill Phillips did not reply to Rahman’s e-mail until an interview with the Dartmouth a few weeks later made him aware of his continued use of feminine pronouns in reference to Rahman despite Rahman’s request.
“It’s really irritating because it seems [like I should be] stopping in the middle of class and being like, ‘Dude, did you not read the e-mail I sent?” Rahman said.
After the interview, Phillips apologized to Rahman over e-mail.
“I realized that I probably had not ingested the content of your e-mail enough. I certainly meant no slight,” Phillips wrote. “I totally support whatever choices you make, and although that is not a high priority in my screenwriting class, I never want to do anything that will make you (or anyone) feel uncomfortable. So if I slip up in the future, it’s just habit … but I’ll try.”
Rahman said that since then, Phillips has not “slipped up” again.
According to Pam Misener, the adviser to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, increased awareness of gender identity can come through education of the campus community.
“I think understanding trans-experiences is, like a lot of other things, skill- and practice-based,” Misener said. “The more skill you have around it and the more practice you get applying those skills, the easier it is to understand that as a life experience.”
Misener said that the learned skills include vocabulary around gender identity, which can be practiced and incorporated into everyday vocabulary.
In an effort to educate the community about transgender issues, Rahman sent an e-mail through the Dartmouth Rainbow Alliance BlitzMail account about “trans-etiquette,” explaining ways to learn about gender identity.
“We realize we shouldn’t expect everyone to be on the same page about trans-etiquette if there’s been no real message about what that means. We thought we’d throw out a couple of guidelines that we should all be aware of when dealing with anyone really, but can be especially injurious to trans-folk in earliest stages of transitioning,” Rahman wrote.
Rahman said that students shouldn’t be afraid to ask someone which gender he or she identifies as, but to shy away from the question “are you male or female?” This question, he wrote, “tends to come off as kind of objectifying.”
“Just phrase questions gently and be aware of the fact that even though the problem is very personal, it’s something that has to be dealt with on a public level,” Rahman wrote. “Silence doesn’t help anyone.”