Monday, December 5, 2022

COLUMN: The transgender experience in East Lansing

October 27, 2022
Photo by Olivia Hans | The State News

East Lansing is known as one of the most LGBTQ+ friendly cities in Michigan. With extravagant pride parades during pride month, antidiscrimination laws protecting queer identities and the occasional pride flag around town, it’s not hard to believe this to be true.

However, is that really the case?

I have lived in the Lansing area for practically my whole life. I’ve identified as transgender for as long as I can remember, dating my first online declaration of my identity all the way back to when I was 11 years old. By the time I reached middle school, I’d already started telling my teachers I went by a different name and pronouns.

That’s all to say that I have experience being openly transgender in Lansing. Having lived in East Lansing for the past two years, I also have a substantial amount of experience being openly queer in the area. I wear Pride pins on my bag and I fit the stereotypical “queer fashion” you can spot a mile away — in short, I am, essentially, a walking Pride flag.

This means I meet a lot of other queer-aligned people during my rare outings; I’ve had children stare at me and whisper to their parents. 

“Is that a girl or a boy?” they ask, and their parents simply shush them and say it’s rude to ask. 

High school kids have come up to me while I grocery shop and tell me they like my hair, eyes glimmering with excitement as they see their future selves living proudly. 

“You look so cool,” they say. I give them a knowing smile and thank them.

I also meet a lot of cisgender and heterosexual people. I’ve been followed in stores, honked at by passing cars, shouted at from across the street because of my Pride pins. Religious preachers that stand outside of campus buildings go quiet when they see me, deeming me somehow unsaveable once they see my bright hair and various piercings. 

Sometimes, they feel more determined, and they approach me to talk about their religion. They can save me, they say, but I just walk away. I hear a variety of offensive slurs after I deny their advances.

Michigan State University provides a variety of protective measures for LGBTQ+ students on campus. Its bathroom policy, for example, allows all students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with regardless of outside appearance. 

For a pre-transition me, this was a terrifying idea — I had been given permission to use the mens bathroom it seemed, and yet I did not feel even a little more comfortable walking through that door. I’ve had too many experiences of cisgender men cornering me, staring at me uncomfortably as I live my life. The idea of being in a closed space and vulnerable to a person who could so easily harm me was enough to keep me away.

MSU also advises its faculty to respect the identities of LGBTQ+ students. Names and pronouns students identify with are to be used without exception. I never felt disrespected or unsafe because of any faculty members. However, I've had plenty of experiences with classmates where I felt targeted.

“Before coming to MSU, I was super homophobic and transphobic!” I've been told. “I can’t believe that I used to be like that!” I just smile and nod. I try not to think about how that person would have treated me a year ago.

East Lansing has decent laws and regulations that protect LGBTQ+ people from discrimination and unfair treatment. It will never protect us from microaggressions and the opinions of our opposition. I experience more negative interaction because of my queerness than I experience positive — more impactful, I’d argue, is the amount of neutrality I experience. 

I can walk to the store and get my groceries without being followed, without having anyone staring at me from a mile away. The cashier sees me and my pride. They just smile and ask if I’d prefer paper or plastic bags. I bring my own bags, but that’s got nothing to do with my queerness. I just like sustainable shopping.

So, to answer the question: Is East Lansing an LGBTQ+ friendly place?

My parents asked me the same thing when I recently told them my plans for furthering my transition. The only answer I could give them was yes, it is, but only because I have a good support system. I sought out organizations on campus for transgender students and I quickly made myself some friends. My friends are all queer; without even trying, I do not have a single cisheterosexual friend in my social circle.

There will be negativity everywhere. It’s the unfortunate reality that we face. There will also be positivity. There will be young queer kids that will look up to you and find hope in your presence. There will be toddlers who are fascinated with your androgyny and will remember how cool you looked. 

There will always, no matter what, be someone who values your presence.

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