Spotlight on Matt Sturm ‘13
By Reese Ramponi, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, May 11, 2012
As a biologically female, masculine-identifying transgender student, Matt Sturm ’13 cannot easily answer questions about sex, gender and personal identity. For him, masculinity at Dartmouth is a complex issue, combining his changing self-identification with the misunderstandings and judgments of those around him.
Sturm began experimenting with masculine identification during his sophomore spring after he realized that there was a possible solution for his constant discomfort in dressing as and being treated like a woman.
“Many people thought I was a guy on my [Foreign Study Program] in Beijing,” he said.
Because women dress in a more stereotypical feminine way in Beijing, Chinese locals assumed Sturm was male, and he began to realize that he felt more comfortable with this label. After returning to Dartmouth, Sturm began to explore the possibility of transitioning. As time passed, Sturm said he became increasingly sure of his choice to biologically remain a female. Although he does not plan on taking testosterone or having any genital surgical procedures, Sturm said he hopes to undergo “top surgery,” medically known as chest reconstruction, some time in the next six to 10 years.
Among his close friends, Dartmouth’s LGBT community and the student body overall, Sturm said he feels a general atmosphere of support. His initial struggles arose when he came out to his family members, who were “confused and uncomfortable” with his announcement about his sexuality. It was even more challenging for them to adapt to his new gender identity.
“They had gotten used to the idea that I was gay,” Sturm said, but the decision to identify as a male was met with strong opposition.
His family’s discomfort manifested itself as hostility as they created a “series of rules for what I could and couldn’t wear around them and their relatives,” Sturm said. Sturm still does not consider them fully supportive of his new lifestyle, but noted that they have become less actively reactionary over time.
To this day, however, they continue to struggle to understand his experience, but he said he appreciates their recent attempts to read about and consider transitioning in a more accepting manner.
On campus, Sturm has noticed a lack of sensitivity to and understanding of transgender issues. Being referred to as “a transgender” or mislabeled as a “tranny” or “transvestite” is dehumanizing and demoralizing, he said.
“I’m not ‘a transgender,’” Sturm added. “I’m a transgender person.”
Sturm is transitioning from feminine to masculine, which is not to be confused as female to male, he said. Many confuse the language between transsexual and transgender, but there is a distinct difference.
“Transsexual involves surgeries and hormones,” Sturm said. “Transgender is identity.”
Incorrect and insensitive use of the language involved in transitioning has been one of Sturm’s largest hurdles at Dartmouth. Strict binaries and a culture of heteronomativity cultivate the feeling that “if you don’t fall within the binary, you don’t exist,” he said. In class, most of Sturm’s professors have been accommodating and understanding, but some use inappropriate terminology and “backwards ideas of gender,” which he said makes him feel uncomfortable and alienated.
“I had a professor who split us into boys and girls for an activity, even after I explained my discomfort,” Sturm said. “I ended up walking out of class.”
In another incident, Sturm was nearly run down by an SUV of male Dartmouth students shouting offensive slurs. A lack of sensitivity and lack of understanding pervades campus, Sturm explained, and a dated idea of “the Dartmouth man” makes defining his identity even more difficult.
“At Dartmouth, masculinity is reinforced through drinking, callousness and displays of power through insensitivity,” Sturm said. One of the biggest struggles, according to Sturm, is having to constantly remind himself that his masculinity is not defined by these binaries. He said that his idea of what the “Dartmouth man” is expected to be is not a goal, but certainly makes him “hyper-conscious of things [he] wants to remember not to be.”
Definitions of masculinity tied to heavy drinking and displays of strength are not the attributes of masculinity he strives to embody, according to Sturm.
“Even if it means not being seen as a guy, I won’t participate in behavior I wouldn’t respect in myself,” he said. Sturm added that he tends to stay away from male-dominated social spaces on campus, as his past experiences have shown him that drunken male students tend to be the most vocally uncomfortable with him.
To Sturm, reaching his personal goals of masculinity at Dartmouth does not have to do with fitting into social constructs, but rather in finding an appropriate societal label to fit his concept of personal comfort.
“In an ideal world, I wouldn’t try to be read as a guy,” Sturm said. He explained that people interact more comfortably with others when they can label them, and that identifying as masculine allows him to be comfortable with his body and social interactions without needing to “constantly navigate people’s discomfort.”
Sturm identifies as “transgender, gender queer, masculine-presenting and female,” but stressed that people should not define transgender people by his experience because he is just one individual in the process of transitioning. There are many types of transgender, he said, but there is not a visible community of these students on campus. Assuming that Sturm’s experience represents the feelings of an entire minority only contributes to further the widespread misunderstanding of transgender people, he said.
While navigating others’ discomfort is difficult, Sturm’s biggest struggle, he said, is being comfortable with himself. His apprehension for the world after Dartmouth includes everything from searching for jobs to navigating airport security with a face that doesn’t match his 16-year-old ID photo. Additionally, there are very few role models for growing old in a transgender body.
Although his experience is unique and his journey complicated, Sturm maintains a contagious optimism.
“This is my experience, and I identify the way I do because this is my understanding of my truest self,” he said.