By Paige Flanagan
Imagine the complexity of making the transition from the gender identity assigned at birth to a different one. I am certain that some of my colleagues question my sanity for embarking on such a process. I questioned my sanity if I didn’t.
Transitioning in academe, as in any employment sector, involves both difficulties and advantages, drawbacks and conveniences. My experience has been generally positive, and, by writing this, I hope to assist others who may be facing this life change. Cis readers, I hope that this sheds a sliver of light on what people who transition experience and that you discover ways you can be more supportive when the time comes. The academy will increasingly face this matter with faculty and staff members as well as students — maybe even presidents. I have chosen to focus on my personal perspective as a librarian in my 15th year on the faculty of a small, private, liberal-arts college.
On the plus side. Among the biggest advantages to transitioning at a small college or university are the personal relationships, the relatively liberal environment, the increased emphasis on diversity, the close interactions with students. Each of those factors has certainly aided me in my journey.
As a librarian with special faculty status, I transitioned over the course of the spring semester of 2017 and into the summer, and began presenting fully as a transgender woman late in the summer.
It’s early yet but, so far, from a professional standpoint, my transition has been successful well beyond my expectations. Time served at an institution seems to have been a factor in the initial acceptance I’ve experienced. I have made many wonderful friends at my college, and most of them stood by me. Over the years, I’ve developed a reputation as someone who works hard, adds a personal touch, and is very service oriented. That reputation appears to have helped immensely with my transition.
If you have only been at your institution for a short while, people are still getting to know you. You might not have built up a support network there yet. But the advantage of being a newcomer transitioning on a campus is that your changes may be easier for new friends and acquaintances to accept.
Most of my friends and colleagues have been not only accepting, but supportive — some to a surprising degree. My favorite moment: the faculty member who reacted to my transition almost as if I’d just informed her that I was getting married. She could hardly contain her excitement. That was an amazing feeling for me. If you are a cis-person reading this: How you react when someone initially tells you something this deeply personal can have a lasting impact. Go a little overboard, I promise you that we can use all the enthusiasm we can get during this process. I hope, for your sake, you have many colleagues who are of the egalitarian mind-set, as that will boost your potential acceptance on the campus.
Another advantage is the purposeful advocacy of diversity at most institutions. Anecdotally speaking, over the past 10 years or so, changes of focus on the student side toward diversity and acceptance have been evident programmatically on my campus. That is spilling over to the faculty/staff side in the form of programs such as Safe Zone training and greater support of student groups with a focus on diversity.
If you enjoy working with students, as I do, a different set of opportunities opens to you upon transition. Such opportunities can add positivity to your experience, and aid in your mental and emotional transition. For example, I have been invited to participate as a presenter/facilitator in Safe Zone training. I have been asked to participate with our Unity ALLiance, which is a student group consisting of LGBTQ+ students as well as supporters.
Students in the LGBTQ+ community can easily perceive themselves as being marginalized, and you may have an opportunity to help them experience college with increased self-worth and satisfaction. You may also help those students to create long-term connections with the college that extend well into their status as alumni.
On the down side. You will need to take advantage of benefits available to you because your transition will certainly present adversity. There is much out of your control, including the emotions and feelings of others. Those who are on the job market, unfortunately, will have even a lower degree of control. Alex Hanna stated it best when she wrote that transgender people on the academic job market need double the amount of strategies for coping.
The fact is, you cannot control your bladder, your reactions to hormone treatment, or anyone’s response to your transition. You must find ways to manage and move on.
Another unfortunate fact: Not everyone will accept you with open arms and cupcakes. Nor can you expect them to do so. What you can expect is professionalism.
One of my co-workers is having a very difficult time with my transition and tends to avoid me when possible. When our paths must cross out of necessity, it has been with a high level of professionalism, which is commendable on the part of the other party. The loss of the friendship-like part of our work relationship is lamentable, but I do my best to understand that the idea of transgender is not for everyone.
I also have a colleague on the faculty who was well beyond the point of struggling in that she could hardly even look at me and did her best not to speak to me when she visited the library. In past times, I was her go-to person for technology assistance. She has since come around a bit, which lends hope to a difficult situation. I genuinely like this person, but her attitudes are out of my control. I choose to not allow her reactions and choices to negatively affect my day.
Of course, the question of locker rooms and restrooms comes into play when someone transitions. This is where the benefits of being in touch with your human-resources department early can be to your advantage. At my institution, our HR director is very supportive and has told me that I may use the ladies’ restrooms in any building on the campus.
I believe we would have had a slightly different conversation about locker rooms at the campus fitness center. Fortunately for both of us, I informed her of my infrequent use of the locker room in my previous 14 years here. Most of my time spent in the fitness center is limited to the treadmills, ellipticals and stationary bicycles, and I am not a swimmer, thus my use of the locker room is unnecessary.
Still, what if? This could be tenuous and create uncomfortable situations for many people. I have a tendency to be an accommodating person and do not wish to pursue the issue, yet the issue remains and may affect the next person who embarks on a similar path.
For my part, the big unknown was the reaction of students. The campus on which I work is an all-male undergraduate campus, and our student body tends to lean to the conservative side. I was unsure how a transgender person in a role as public as mine would be perceived. Fortunately, and for the most part, our students are ready with a generous supply of Southern hospitality. The effect has been politeness and manners. I commented to a colleague that I have been "ma’am-ed" to death. She brought to my attention that, while I may view this as a positive aspect, regarding feminism it is not necessarily so. "Welcome to being a woman here," she told me.
A few words of advice. Although I would not consider myself an expert by any means, I am in a good position to offer some tips to anyone in academe considering transitioning.
- Timing is important and a highly personal decision. You need to be comfortable. That said, I recommend you plan the timing of your transition and presenting yourself 100 percent for late in the summer. That allows your colleagues time to become accustomed to the new you prior to the students’ return. I elected to begin presenting fully at the end of July, allowing nearly a month before classes started. Making your transition and fully presenting during the academic year may confuse students and create divisions.
- Make a list of those you think will be accepting and supportive. Follow that with a list of those on your campus who are in a need-to-know position — a dean, supervisor, department chair, close colleagues, and the director of human resources. Then start sharing your transition plan with people on lists. I found it incredibly valuable to do this face to face because, in theory, these people deserve to hear this major life decision personally. Do not hesitate to state the obvious by asking them to keep the information you are sharing confidential, but anticipate the grapevine effect. Be prepared when people begin to tell you that they have heard. That is inevitable, and you can react better if you anticipate word leaking out.
- Perhaps two or three weeks from when you are going to present fully on campus and in public life, set a firm date and then go back to your lists and begin to inform individuals of this date. That allows people to step up their mental preparation. Remember, this is something you have considered for an extended period. Not so with everyone else.
- Once you initiate the formal process of changing your name, legally, also begin to continue in similar fashion on campus. Human resources and IT will have to be involved at some point. In Virginia, my first step was to submit the order for change of name to the county circuit court. Once that was returned with the judge’s signature, I moved on to the local Social Security office and changed my driver’s license. Then I worked with HR to change my name on retirement accounts, insurance, and other benefits. I was surprised at how much paperwork was necessary. In fact, it was as though I was a newly hired employee. I was thankful that HR was guiding me through, instead of allowing me to flounder and guess. Through the IT department, I changed my official employee email address (and forwarded the "old name" email to the new name), and other enterprise-based software to which I have access. Don’t forget small, yet not insignificant steps such as campus directories, online handbooks, and manuals that may name you as a contact, building directional signs, telephone voice messages, and more. There is much to consider.
- Be as open and honest as you can and welcome questions. Your personality will of course come into play here. I told most people: "I will not be offended by any question you ask. If I am uncomfortable answering, I will let you know." That put people at ease and opened discussion of a touchy subject, one that many people know little about. I wanted to educate and inform whenever possible because human nature tends to fear the unknown.
Unless you are at an overtly conservative institution, your chances of experiencing a positive transition are far greater than they were just five years ago. From Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, to the rise of Laverne Cox, to the president’s proposed ban on transgender people in the military, there is more awareness of us than ever before. I wish you the very best of luck if you are transgender, and thank those of you who are supporters from the bottom of my heart.
Paige Flanagan is academic technology librarian and assistant library director at Hampden-Sydney College. She welcomes comments below or invites readers to email her directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).