Originally published in The Hoya, Georgetown University’s Student Newspaper of Record, on Sept. 20, 2013
Trans* Students Share Their Stories
By Sarah Kaplan
Hoya Staff Writer
It’s Friday afternoon, and Lexi Dever (COL ’16) is hurrying to get ready for the evening. She’d received a new skirt in the mail and is eager for an excuse to wear it. Her eyeliner is missing, again, and she doesn’t have a ponytail holder to tie up her Teagan and Sara T-shirt.
She gets makeup advice from a friend via text, clips two flowers into her short dark hair and gives herself a final once-over in the mirror before heading out the door. The final effect is a good one, and Dever is more comfortable in her new outfit than she’s felt all day.
But as soon as she steps out into the LXR courtyard, her stomach begins to churn.
“I was like ‘crap crap crap,’ waiting for someone to call me out,” Dever said. “I was forcing myself to focus straight ahead and not look at people, because if you look at people you will notice them staring. And that hurts.”
As Dever walked through campus to the LGBTQ Resource Center’s weekly coffee hour, passersby wouldn’t have seen her as a woman, but as a man in girl’s clothing. Dever was born male, is known to most of campus as Matt and is in the process of transitioning into the body of a woman.
She is also part of a small but recently more vocal community of trans* students on campus. This year, for the first time in recent memory, Georgetown has two openly transgender students — Dever and Celeste Chisholm (COL ’15) — and one gender non-conforming student, who could not be reached for this article. And last week, GU Pride named Chisholm its first ever trans* representative.
“We are definitely on the right track,” Chisholm said of Georgetown’s readiness to accept trans* students. “At their very best, the people here will understand, and at the very least, people are respectful enough to know when not to say anything.”
But despite these gains, Chisholm and Dever feel the near-invisibility of trans* students on campus acutely.
“People aren’t as educated about it as they could be because they just don’t know anyone who is transgender,”Dever said.
Dever and Chisholm hope they can change that, first and foremost by increasing their own visibility. Dever, who still presents as male the majority of the time, says she aims to start dressing more often in women’s clothing this semester, even though she has not started hormone therapy and still has many physical attributes of a man. Chisholm, who began her transition before she transferred to Georgetown as a sophomore, says she will be more vocal about her transgender identity, rather than simply “passing” as a woman unnoticed.
“There’s an opportunity to make the best of my situation, to capitalize on the rarity of it and make the best example of myself that I can,” Chisholm said.
‘I just wanted to be a normal person’
For Dever and Chisholm, the realization that they had been born the wrong gender didn’t come easily. Until they were teenagers, neither realized that a concept like “transgender” even existed. Instead, they grappled with a sense that being who they were made the people around them unhappy.
“I learned very quickly that for some reason, and it didn’t really matter why, it was wrong to do … anything I wanted to do. To act like my sister. To act like my mom,” Chisholm said. “So I buried it pretty deeply.”
Dever said she had never been particularly feminine, though she shied away from more “boyish” activities like sports. During puberty, however, she began to realize how uncomfortable she felt in the body that was becoming more like a man’s.
“I would be jealous of girls for being girls a lot of the time. Like if a girl was walking down the street, I’d think, ‘I wish I were able to wear that. I wish I were able to look like that,’” she said. “It’s a very difficult sensation. Having to present in a way that doesn’t match who you feel you are.”
Dever began trying on her sisters’ clothes in the attic of her Florida home.
“But I was only trying to explore things that I could without my parents finding out,” she said. “I was petrified about them not being OK with it.”
Both women kept their gender identity a secret throughout high school, alternately fantasizing about life as a girl and trying to quash that hope entirely.
“I wanted to pretend it was a phase,” Chisholm said. “I wanted to be a girl, but I didn’t want to be a transgender girl, I wanted to be a real girl. I didn’t want to have to transition and still feel masculinity within me. I just wanted to be a normal person.”
“So much of my life was tragically focused on normality that I had completely checked out of the idea of transitioning,” she said. “So I waited and hoped that those feelings would go away.”
‘I felt longing’
By the time Chisholm and Dever were preparing to go to college, it had become clear that their feelings about their gender were not going away. Soon after arriving at school, Dever met Chisholm, who pushed her to examine her identity more fully.
“I was very confused about what I was feeling. It was really hellish, trying to figure out,” Dever said. “But Celeste became a great mentor to me. She gave me a lot of confidence.”
Chisholm asked Dever to imagine living the rest of her life as a woman.
“I felt longing. And that that was what kind of tipped the scales for me. Because thinking about the rest of my life living as male brought nothing but pain.”
Chisholm likewise relied on mentorship to help her come to terms with her gender. She’d spent her freshman year at the University of Hawaii, where even among LGBT activists she received stares and awkward questions when she tried to discuss her gender identity.
But the previous summer she had come across a YouTube video made by a transgender girl whom Chisholm described as one “of the prettiest girls I had ever talked to, period.”
Chisholm messaged the girl, who gave her advice and directed her to websites that could help with her transition.
“That kick in the right direction was by far was one of the most helpful interactions I’ve ever had,” Chisholm said. “It was what I needed to dissuade myself towards the tendency of thinking I was this amalgamation of things that didn’t go together. It was what I needed to realize this was something real and totally cool and valid.”
‘You’re fighting your body’
Data on the number of transgender people who transition during college is hard to come by, as is most data regarding transgender people. The National Center for Transgender Equality estimates that between 0.25 and 1 percent of the U.S. population is transgender, indicating that the trans* student population is likely similar.
And though data is fuzzy, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of trans* students at American colleges is increasing.
“Transgender acceptance nationally and at the college level has expanded tremendously over the last couple of years,” NCTE’s Director of Communications Vincent Villano wrote in an email. “More and more transgender people are coming out in college or even earlier.”
This fact is no surprise to Dever or Chisholm.
“Obviously, it’s better to transition as soon as possible, but college is much more ideal than later in life,” Dever said. “It’s a great time to experiment — you’re independent, you’re in a much safer space to do what you want. And then you can enter into the world as who you really are.”
Chisholm, motivated by conversations with her YouTube mentor, began undergoing hormone therapy while at the University of Hawaii. She also started wearing feminine clothes and practiced passing as female. But the process was fraught with anxiety.
“Every new person you meet who sees you’re transgender is a reaffirmation that you’re so different, that you’re the first person that’s been different to them,” she said.
Chisholm felt alienated from her friends during her transition, and decided to keep the process mostly behind closed doors. But the stress of transition didn’t just come from social stigma — the physical process was painful as well.
“The thing people don’t realize about transitioning is how much work it is. Not only are you fighting the flow of society, but you’re fighting your body.”
Ultimately, Chisholm gave up on transitioning while at school altogether. But the isolation that came from the process, in tandem with the fact that she felt she could not express her gender identity at the University of Hawaii, contributed to her decision to transfer to Georgetown.
When Chisholm returned home for the summer, her parents would no longer allow her back into their house. She ended up living at friend’s house while she continued her hormone therapy. By the time she set off for New Student Orientation that August, she was ready to abandon her male self entirely.
“I thought, if there’s any day to commit to a lifestyle like this, it would have to come before or on the first day of Georgetown,” she said. “So my first day at Georgetown was my first day as a female full time.”
The fact that her friends here didn’t witness her transition has made Chisholm much more comfortable at Georgetown. But she also feels guilty for having left that part of her life behind her.
“My friends so often like to tell me how brave they think I am, but I’ve always been like this to them, I’ve always been on this side of the tracks,” she said. “It’s hard even for me to fathom the courage it takes to transition so publicly and so immediately, in front of all your friends.”
Unlike Chisholm’s, Dever’s transition will likely happen in full view of her friends at Georgetown.
“After years of struggling to figure out my identity, I’d come to a conclusion,” she said. “Sure, I’m scared of all the potential consequences. But I am ready to follow along and to go for it.”
Dever started accumulating a wardrobe of women’s clothes, and this summer she looked into getting hormone therapy to help bring her outward appearance more in line with her chosen gender. She’d hoped to return to Georgetown this semester as a fully transitioned woman, just as Chisholm had, but problems with her insurance have prevented her from getting access to the hormones she needs. Now, she’s faced with the option of delaying her transition for another six months or beginning to present as a woman despite the fact that she has the physical appearance of a man. Neither option is very appealing.
“I’m very afraid of being rejected and thought poorly of, and that’s pretty hard to avoid when you’re not clearly passing as female but dressing as such. People are going to look at you and judge you,” Dever said. “But on the other hand, it feels more me. I’m much more comfortable, and that kind of helps quash the doubt.”
Dever’s answer to this dilemma has been to transition a little at a time. She’ll wear women’s clothes to GU Pride meetings but not to class, her internship or Pep Band practices. She still tries to wear at least one article of women’s clothing, even surreptitiously — “Even if no one can tell I’m wearing panties, I know that inside, and that makes me feel somewhat feminine,” she said.
Though for now, it’s “Matt,” not Lexi, who is most visible at Georgetown, Dever is working on ways to shift that balance.
“My current plan is I will gradually phase Lexi in, so by the end of the semester I’ll only be presenting as Matt for official things like classes and internship,” she said, before listing ways that she can speed the transition without hormones — adopting more female mannerisms and training her voice.
Listening to Chisholm and Dever speak about their transitions, it’s striking how unemotional they are about the process. If acquiring the body you’ve always wanted sounds like a romantic process, it’s not, Dever said. With so many logistics involved, trans* people can’t afford to be anything but pragmatic.
“You have to plan ahead while not planning ahead. You do have to think about, ‘Am I going to get this surgery or that surgery?’” she said. “I don’t have the luxury to be complacent about it.”
‘They haven’t let me down’
Despite the challenges posed by society and their own bodies, both Dever and Chisholm say that Georgetown has been surprisingly accepting of their gender identities.
“Georgetown has been a very good thing for me,” Chisholm said. “I never would have thought I would have been this out and about in the newspaper doing interviews, but being here for a year has already given me the confidence to do that.”
“Georgetown is a very friendly and open and helpful community,” Dever agreed. “When I’m thinking about coming out to people, I think, ‘These are my friends, I’ve known them for an entire year.’ I’m choosing to trust them, and they haven’t let me down.”
But that doesn’t mean Dever is happy with the status quo.
“It still kind of sucks to be trans* here — though really, it kind of sucks to be trans* anywhere,” she said.
But Shiva Subbaraman, director of the LGBTQ resource center, says that campus culture is far more embracing of trans* issues than it had been when she was hired five years ago. Before the center was established, Subbaraman had heard horror stories about the way Georgetown’s few trans* students were treated.
“I’ve heard one major difficult story from an alum who was in the process of transitioning, and her roommates set her clothes on fire,” she said. “I would hope that something like that wouldn’t happen now. … The culture is changed, and I think we are ready.”
But even if campus is physically safer for trans* students, the process of coming out can be culturally alienating.
“It’s a very conforming culture,” Subbaraman said. “You don’t see anyone who dresses different, looks different.”
Simply walking across Healy Lawn amid a crowd of cardigan-clad women and polo-shirted men can be difficult for students who don’t match the norm.
“I’ve gotten some weird looks,” Dever said. “When I walk in the street you don’t see a girl, you see a guy in a dress, and it’s gonna raise some eyebrows. And that’s a reflection of how strict we are about obeying a certain code.”
The solution, Chisholm says, is a combination of dialogue, education and policy changes. The creation of her new position — trans* representative for GU Pride — is intended to be the beginning of that process.
“Until the last couple years, LGBT basically meant LGB with the T stapled on,” Chisholm said. “So we’re trying to give a face and a voice to a population of people that is severely underrepresented.”
In addition to raising the profile of trans* students on campus, Chisholm and Dever want to create a support group for people who are trans* or questioning. Dever hopes that such a group would provide trans* students the confidence and mentorship that Chisholm gave her.
And some of the change will come down to simple education.
“People don’t even know what words to use,” Dever said. “Trans* is more than male to female and female to male. There are gender non-conforming people, there are agender, bigender. But people don’t realize that.”
Georgetown’s housing and healthcare policies are another point of contention for trans* students.
Both Chisholm and Dever have been allocated singles to accommodate their gender identities — Chisholm can also choose to room with other female students, but isn’t doing so because of her plans to study abroad.
Chisholm acknowledges that Georgetown’s position as a Catholic university means it will be difficult to push for the kinds of policies that have been implemented at other schools — The George Washington University’s gender-neutral housing or American University health insurance’s coverage of transition surgery, for example. But she aims to push back.
“As a private, Catholic university, I know that Georgetown can’t do anything we want,” Chisholm said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to fight as hard as I can for these things. Being Catholic doesn’t hold us back from being the people that we’re meant to be, from being the understanding Hoyas that we are, being the respectable and respectful community that we are.”