Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Increasing recognition

MSU continues process to make university more accessible to transgender students

March 15, 2010

Psychology freshman Kylie Werschler, left, hangs out with her two friends, psychology junior Ali Panek and Residential College in the Arts and Humanities freshman Shane Luke on the Friday before spring break. Werschler is a transgender student, and said she’s had a positive experience on campus and has met supportive friends such as Panek and Luke.

Photo by Lauren Wood | The State News

Growing up in Lake Orion, Kylie Werschler dressed in her mom’s clothes. Her favorite shows were Sailor Moon and Rainbow Bright. At preschool, she watched the girls in pigtails and dresses flounce by with a pang of jealousy. She wanted to look like them, dress like them, be one of them.

But in her preschool classroom, on her birth certificate and driver’s license, and in the eyes of everyone around her for the next 12 years, Kylie wasn’t a girl. She was he.

“In preschool, I didn’t know what I was, but I was really jeaous of girls,” Werschler said. “I’d be angry at myself, angry at the world.”

Werschler, a psychology freshman, is one member of MSU’s trans community. It’s a group that hasn’t received much attention, said social relations senior Nick Pfost, vice president of PRISM, South Neighborhood’s LGBTA Caucus.

“PRISM has never purposefully neglected transgender-related programming,” Pfost said in an e-mail. “However, the fact that it has been largely absent from our calendar for at least the last three years serves as an example of the marginalization of transgender people within the queer community all across the United States.”

The definition of a transgendered person is not clearly defined. Transsexual refers to someone who has received gender-changing surgery, but not everyone who feels their internal gender does not match their birth gender decides to have surgery.

“Some students on campus’ experience of gender is a combination of male and female gender identity or a gender identity outside of a traditional gender identity,” said Brent Bilodeau, the director of the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transgender, or LBGT, Resource Center.

It is hard to know the exact number of MSU students who identify as being transgender at MSU as there is no place for them to state their legal change of gender. But the group does exist. And the attention given to them is slowly growing.

A daily struggle

In the fifth grade, Daniel was faced with an ultimatum. Wear a dress, or fail the grade.

It was one of several strategies forced upon the now transsexual male in an attempt to “correct” his gender identity.

“A lot of it was being told I belonged with the girls’ line or when the girls did a certain project, I had to participate with them in it,” said Daniel, a social relations and policy senior who withheld his last name for privacy reasons.

Werschler’s middle school memories contain painful recollections of her struggle with sexuality.

“That was the hardest time in my life. Everything that was happening to me was kinda like a nightmare,” Werschler said. “I had points where I was in complete despair. I would be crying in my bed for days at a time and wanting to die.”

Werschler tried to cope with her situation by trying to act like the body she was born with. She played football and dated girls. By her junior year, it had built up to the point she couldn’t handle it anymore. She turned to her school counselor.

“I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth,” Werschler said. “I was shaking really bad.”

MSU’s community

In 2006, the Advocate College Guide listed MSU as one of the best LBGT friendly campuses. Since then, MSU’s Residence Life and Campus Living Services have started working with transgendered students to ensure they receive proper housing. Last spring, a group was formed between Olin Health Center, MSU Counseling Center and the LBGT Resource Center to ensure the trans community at MSU receives the best possible physical and mental care.

Gender identity has been added to MSU’s Indiscrimination and Non-Harassment Policy, after a report was presented to Academic Council in 2007 advocating for more accommodations on campus for the trans community.

Despite gender identity being added to the university’s discrimination policy, the report included various other suggestions yet to be fully realized.

“Not a lot has happened since then,” said Michael Craw, a professor of social relations and policy at James Madison College and a member of the committee.

Craw said the university needs to focus on facilities, particularly unisex bathrooms.

Jen Grzegorek, a psychologist at MSU Counseling Center, said bathrooms can put transgender students in a bad position.

“University policy states students must go into the bathroom of their biogender,” she said. “If they’re trying to pass as a different gender, they may feel very exposed going into a bathroom with people who don’t dress or look like them.”

The same report presented to Academic Council three years ago states that although unisex bathrooms are present on campus, they are “notably absent from many heavily-trafficked buildings, such as the Hannah Administration Building, the Main Library and the MSU Union.”

Paulette Granberry Russell, senior adviser to the president for diversity and director of the Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives, said although change is coming, it will take time.

She voiced concern for students who would be uncomfortable using a unisex bathroom.

“You have to balance all these interests that are here and recognize the vast diversity at MSU,” she said.

A growing community

When Werschler came out two years ago she was prepared to lose everyone who loved her.

Instead, her family threw her a party, buying her new girl clothes for presents.

“I knew I had a family before, but they knew me as a person that I wasn’t,” Werschler said.

Werschler’s transition to MSU has been positive. She is active in TRANSaction, a group for transsexual students and their allies, which is making a comeback after being dormant for several years.

The size of the community is increasing as well.

“When I first came to MSU I had maybe one or two students who identified as transgender,” Grzegorek said, “Now about 30 to 50 percent of my case load is transgendered students.”

But despite her positive experience at MSU, Werschler still faces challenges. Her father has yet to accept her lifestyle change.

He has taken her to see genetics counselors and therapists. Both confirmed Werschler is healthy and normal, but the tensions linger.

“I just hope one day he’ll actually call me his daughter,” she said.

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