We’re sprawled on the floor in the living room, sweating out the end-of-September Orange County heat. I’ve arrived late on a Sunday night after the roommates’ first house meeting, nearly a month into Chapman’s fall term, and I’m told it’s a rare thing for all four students to be home at the same time. Everyone is busy, involved.
Addison Vincent ’15, a peace and conflict studies graduate, works as an entertainment host at Disneyland while continuing to advocate for transgender and queer individuals. Vincent identifies as transfeminine genderqueer, and like many who find themselves represented inauthentically by the gender binary, uses they/them pronouns.
- Transgender: People whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth. “Trans” for short.
- Transfeminine: Transgender people who were assigned male at birth but identify with femininity more than masculinity.
- Genderqueer: Individuals who identify as neither male nor female.
- He/She/They: Many transgender individuals identify with “they” even in singular references because the pronoun is gender-neutral.
- Queer: Lesbian, gay, bisexual and often also transgender people. Many have sought to reclaim the term that was once widely used to deride.
- Genderfluid: Having different gender identities at different times.
- Cisgender: People who are not transgender.
- Gender Dysphoria: Psychiatric term replacing the outdated “gender identity disorder.”
“You should try a
bun,” Vincent says, imitating the low voice of someone who had approached them earlier that day at Disneyland. We lean in to hear the anticipated response.
“I say, ‘First of all, I’m not a man.’ He goes, ‘Oh, sh**.’” Vincent flips their hair over their shoulder and we all laugh, but Vincent’s drama is without attitude. Instead, their closing comment to the stranger is educational, straightforward: “I’m not a woman either.”
Though less than 1 percent of Chapman students identify as transgender or otherwise outside the gender binary, that minority community is strong. When I sat down with Vincent earlier in the week, they were adamant that this article should not focus solely on their own personal journey. Tonight, Vincent introduces me to Alex (not their real name), Luis (they ask that their last names not be used) and Julia White – all members of the Class of ’16 who are involved with on-campus diversity initiatives. All of them also happen to share a home with Vincent. As Chapman students, these four have come together naturally to build a home environment that supports their growth. Except for White, the roommates all identify on the transgender spectrum.
It has been a record few years for the trans community. Popular celebrities such as Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner lend a platform to the growing visibility of trans issues, and more radical activists provide representation and educational discourse beyond a media image.
But with increased visibility comes increased risk: Trans and genderqueer individuals are more easily identified as targets for violence. By July, there were 11 reported murders of transgender women in the U.S. this year, and by the end of the summer that number had already doubled. The numbers of violent acts against trans women of color are particularly staggering. In 2012, the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that 73 percent of LGBTQ+ homicide victims were people of color, and in 2013 that proportion had risen to 90 percent. Of all LGBTQ+ homicides, 72 percent were transgender women and 67 percent were trans women of color.
Then there’s this eye-opener: In the U.S. today, trans women of color have a life expectancy of 35 years.
The eleventh trans death of 2015 stood out to Vincent, who read about the Fresno stabbing of K.C. Haggard online and learned that the woman had graduated from Chapman in 1977. In an email to faculty and staff of the University on July 24, Vincent outlined a desire to hold a vigil for Haggard and other trans women. Vincent writes:
“K.C.’s death stands out to me in particular not just because she had recently come out at the age of 66 or because the attack appears to be planned, but because she was also a member of the Chapman community.”
Vincent says there was overwhelming support from the University community, and with the help of Nancy Brink, Chapman’s director of church relations, a vigil was held at Fish Interfaith Center on July 29. Vincent also helped change Haggard’s gender in Chapman’s records and wrote an article for the Huffington Post that summarized the vigil experience.
“The space prioritized the voices of trans women of color, and included prominent activists, speakers and musicians,” Vincent writes. “As I read the names of the (slain) women aloud with a moment of silence and the lighting of a candle following each name, the violence facing the trans community hit home for Chapman students, faculty and staff. And after reading the last name, a single candle remained unlit with the hope that there wouldn’t be another murder of a trans woman. Unfortunately, that candle was lit just one week later.”
While the tragedy of violence continues to surround the conversation on gender identity, advocates at Chapman are working toward creating safe and educational spaces for groups that are targeted disproportionately.
The Rev. Brink summarizes Chapman’s developing relationship with the trans community: “Some might argue that this is such a small issue in relation to global crises, but Chapman’s personalized approach to education suggests that we are to solidly stand with those on the margins. We are getting a larger number of students who are openly sharing their trans identity, and we are actively exploring ways to make their experience here both safe and meaningful.”
Vincent’s own focus on trans women of color strikes a note with what their peers and housemates are carrying on at Chapman this year.
Luis, self-described as genderfluid, began a Queer Trans People of Color (QTPoC) organization on campus this fall and hopes to leave a sustainable and ongoing safe space with QTPoC after graduating in 2016 with a degree in creative writing. Luis grew up near the southern Texas border and struggled with sexual orientation during high school while also understanding that no single component of identity is wholly defining. During a semester studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa, Luis had a chance for serious self-reflection.
“I had a lot of time to think. I had to ask, ‘What am I to myself?’” Luis says. “If I’m all these things to other people, if people read me as gay, people read me as white, what am I to myself? There was one night I was reading about Frida Kahlo and a lot of Latina badass women and activists, and I started crying because I was so overwhelmed by their power. I was crying so much and I realized, ‘Oh my God, I identify with them.’ Since then I’ve understood myself as transfeminine. I just knew in that moment.”
Luis’ moment of clarity unfortunately is not representative for many trans individuals who struggle lifetimes with their identity, lacking positive representation in their communities and the media. K.C. Haggard was slain only months after she came out as transgender, and though we cannot know how long Haggard was closeted, her silenced voice reminds us of how much work there is to be done.
Recent increases in trans visibility and awareness bring hope for a future where there is representation for all individuals who question their position on the gender binary, where safe spaces are not confined to the living rooms of college apartments.
Alex (they/them), a genderqueer political science major with a minor in LGBTQ studies, is the lone student voice on a curriculum task force working to improve the LGBTQ studies program at Chapman and add more relevant courses to a curriculum that currently draws classes from other disciplines. As part of the task force, Alex is helping to restructure the priorities of the LGBTQ minor, including creating classes specific to the minor as well as recommending new faculty members for the express purpose of teaching the minor’s core requirements. Additionally, Alex notes frustration with the minor’s lack of an inclusive “+” sign in the name, and though nomenclature is not the task force’s primary focus, Alex’s attention to detail reinforces the importance of representation for all those whose voices remain silent. From pronouns to plus signs, descriptions define individual experiences and build vital support communities.
Alex believes diversity in education is critical to supporting marginalized communities within the academy, and that such growth comes from individual effort and active pursuit of goals. Though they plan to graduate in May, by the following winter the task force hopes to have made significant progress on improving awareness and acceptance of Chapman’s diversity goals.
Chapman University has a long tradition of welcoming people who at various times have faced exclusion from society because of race, creed or gender. Those values endure in many campus forums today, including through a program called Breaking Ground: Safe Space. The program takes its name from the safe space movement that advocates for both real places of refuge, as well as supportive forums of free expression for marginalized and stereotyped groups.
Chapman’s Safe Space provides education, intervention and support to anyone on campus who identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer/questioning, intersex or asexual. It also applies to identified allies who stand up for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.
Programs range from art exhibitions to training for anyone on campus who is an identified ally and is available to listen, meet in confidence or offer support to campus members of the LGBTQ+ community. After completing the training, allies may post a rainbow Chapman Safe Space logo at their workspace.
To learn more, visit the Breaking Ground Web page.
White (she/her), the house’s lone cisgender voice, works as a program assistant with Chapman’s Cross Cultural Engagement (CCE) program with all of the passion of her more personally affected peers. White became involved with the Chapman Feminists student organization early in her University career, and her interest in diversity equality manifested as new connections and friendships broadened her perspective as a feminist. White worked alongside CCE to develop seven campus events in October for this year’s LGBTQ+ History Month, from trans-inclusive writers’ workshops and film screenings to Gender-Inclusive Restroom Day. The goal is to open discourse on the experience of gendered spaces and to discuss the potential for inclusive alternatives. Though White does not undergo the discomfort and risk posed by such gendered spaces – risk her roommates deal with on a daily basis – it does not make sense for me to ask her why she chooses to advocate for equality. As a true ally, she cannot espouse rhetoric without also acting on her beliefs.
At Chapman, the current reality mixes progress with opportunities for improvement. In 2012, Luis’ mother dropped Luis off at the dorms for orientation and noticed that most of the students she saw didn’t look like her child. “Are you going to be all right?” she asked. In 2013, Vincent came out as transgender, competed in the Delta Queen student pageant and received national coverage for winning Miss Congeniality, then was unsuccessful fundraising for a “fra-rority” chapter on campus. Alina struggled with gender dysphoria as well as professors altogether unfamiliar with the gender binary.
By the end of September 2015, it is clear the roommates are going to be more than all right. “I think of our house as a safe space,” Vincent says after our late-night meeting has broken up. Alex sits at the table in the dining room and deadpans, “I think of our house as a very aggressive war zone.”
The statement is funny, as intended, but all the students are fighting a battle that is profoundly real. When we discuss a follow-up photo shoot, I suggest a shot of the roommates in front of their home, and the tone of the conversation changes. It’s not a great idea, we decide, because Vincent, Luis and Alex can’t be sure they won’t be targeted for speaking to me tonight. They’ve all experienced aggressions before, and it is possible that highlighting their experiences will draw negative attention.
Though the war-zone comment reminds me that the day-to-day concerns faced by Vincent, Luis and Alex are real, there is a reason it sparks a laugh rather than sinister conversation. At the end of the day, the roommates’ friendships easily transcend their advocacy.
“We were all excited to move in together because we’ve been friends for years,” Alex says. “We knew we wouldn’t just accept one another, we’d all understand and appreciate each other because of our involvement in social justice circles.”
White adds, “We’re at a point where we can be upfront and vulnerable with each other. It’s the best living arrangement I can imagine where we’re always learning from each other. I wouldn’t want to live with anyone else.”
The Chapman students, role models and activists who live under this roof are and will continue to be influential wherever they lend their energy – for their articulation, their commitment and their tacit refusal to apologize for who they are. If my admiration for my peers denies them any humility, let Vincent sum up:
“You have to look at yourself, and sometimes I forget to. With activism, with life, too, the learning process doesn’t end with high school, with college graduation. It’s about understanding other people’s needs and voices and amplifying them, especially the ones that are never heard.”
Tonight, I’m happy to have heard theirs.