Widgets Magazine


Confessions of a trans woman

Stanford University isn’t the haven I thought it would be when I first set foot on campus.

Across the country, I see my sisters fighting and winning against a system not made for us. I see the tireless work by trans communities like TAJA’s Coalition, see history made by transgender activists even as the cisgender community breathes silence. I see grief and mourning, celebration and victory. I see every day the desperate vivacity with which my community survives.

And I wonder what I’m doing here.

A poll by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation included a small statistic on transgender people: eight percent of Americans know or work with a transgender person. There was no further elucidation on that number, but I have no doubt that the percentage who know a transgender woman is smaller. I have no doubt that the percentage who know a transgender woman of color is smaller than that.

I comment on the intersections of these identities not to isolate myself as a trans woman of color, but to identify society’s – and Stanford’s – blindness to the particular injustices we face: trans women of color are disproportionately murderedharassed and discriminated against on all levels of society. But even more concerning than this narrative of trauma is that trans women often find themselves with little else to talk about. What does it mean if whenever I hear the phrase “trans woman of color,” I brace for the words, “suicide,” “murder” or “incarceration” following it? In an editorial in Out & About Nashville, James Grady puts it bluntly: for trans people to make the news, we must “get famous, get caught in the ‘wrong’ restroom, get put in the wrong jail cell, or get murdered.” Few of us actually get famous.

At Stanford, things aren’t much different. Speaking about the probing stares I receive in bathrooms, misgendering I receive from institutions and transmisogynistic and cis-normative language in classrooms, at my residence and in community spaces has become my calling card on campus, my marker of trans identity. In every space, my presence seems justification enough for a constant barrage of questions about issues on campus, endless interrogation on trans politics, a request for the full syllabus of transgender 101 at any given moment. The mere act of existing as trans at Stanford is exhausting.

And when I defended in an article published earlier this year the benefits of being able to take a break, of safe spaces, a commenter casually suggested that I simply go home instead. And they have a point: there is no discrimination in my room, no harassment when no one else is there, no slurs or ugly laughter. I am safe in my room.

I am humiliated knowing that my room is the only safe space I am allowed.

To escape my own narrative of discrimination, fear and prejudice, I need Stanford University to be a place where I can thrive. Barring that, a place where I can at least survive. Earlier this year, I called on cisgender people to take responsibility in their own communities. Title IX, which protects transgender students in schools from discrimination, is clearly not enough – how many lawsuits would be appropriate to rectify the situation at Stanford?

I offer the following recommendations for Stanford University and its students, staff and faculty as the beginning steps to create a safer campus.

1)      Mandatory training for residential staff, faculty and other university employees on not only LGBT, queer and trans issues, but also on best practices to reduce discrimination in classrooms and to increase feelings of safety on campus for transgender or gender-nonconforming students.

2)      Clearly visible and accessible gender-neutral bathrooms in every major student, staff and faculty building, in order to make facilities more inclusive for transgender and gender-expansive individuals.

3)      Inclusion of academic literature, research and critical study of transgender topics, especially in courses, programs and departments concerning gender, LGBTQ+ identities, health and medicine.

4)      A standard, campus-wide policy guaranteeing gender-neutral housing for students on campus in all residences.

It is absolutely unacceptable for Stanford University to be named “Most LGBT-Friendly College” in the U.S. and fail on the part of its administration, organizations and communities to support its trans students. As an out and visible trans woman of color at Stanford, I refuse to be a fleeting memory for students to smile at in thirty years, a token trans person on campus. Stanford: it is your responsibility to do more than care about a theoretical community. It is long past due for concrete action to replace ineffective sentiment.

Contact Lily Zheng at lilyz8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Lily Zheng

Lily Zheng '17, is a weekly columnist for The Stanford Daily, a Social Psychology major and co-president of the student group Kardinal Kink. Her weekly column revolves around consent culture, queer and trans identity, social justice and activism. In her spare time, she enjoys wearing too much black clothing, accidentally sleeping in her makeup and spending quality time with her partners. Contact her at lilyz8 'at' stanford.edu – she loves messages!
  • Jonathan Poto

    On the bathroom dilemma:

    Question: Stanford provides material equality (bathrooms useable by everyone), but not actual equality (subjecting transgendered to a potentially uncomfortable, or even dangerous environment). Does this mean Stanford should have to spend millions installing non-gender specific bathrooms, or something similar?

    Procedurally speaking? Probably not. It would take a concrete documented example to prove Lily’s point regarding concerns of safety and implicit discrimination.

    Ethically speaking? Probably yes… sure there’s a lot of things that the $21.4 B endowment could go toward including saving it for the future, but I would think your students safety and perception of their safety would be high on the list

    Strategically speaking? Yes, lets be honest, unique talent comes most from freethinking, groups of people, who are quick to push borders. If Stanford’s caught behind culturally, it soon will get behind in the battle over talented students. Youth of any modern era are without exception more liberal than the generation preceding them.

  • david

    Okay. Let me hit up some things.

    Let’s say you’ve got a guy. He’s big, manly, and his name is Mark. He decides to get drunk with his friends and takes a bet to put his dick and balls into an ice-fishing hole for 10 minutes in a Minnesota winter. He goes along with it and everyone cheers him on. A week later he has his cock and balls amputated due to frostbite.

    Is he still a man? Is he still “Mark”?

    According to biological essentialism: No. He is no longer male. But people will still call him Mark and treat him as a male.

    This is because we acknowledge that even without a penis he is a man because that is his social identity. That is the person we have known and he doesn’t stop being Mark just because his dick got cut off. Easy enough, right?

    Similar situation. Mary has cystic polyps on her ovaries and after a few weeks of antagonizing over the decision settles in on a double oopherectomy and a hysterectomy. She no longer has ovaries or a uterus. According to biological essentialism she is no longer female.

    We still call her Mary and refer to her with feminine pronouns. Again, we separate out the biological component (ovaries) from the sociological component (her identity).

    But when it comes to transgender individuals people use biological essentialism constantly. Male in biology means nothing more than “Can Produce Sperm” while female means “Can Produce Eggs”. The terms male and female, however, have massive sociological implications based on stereotypes and gender roles in society. So when dealing with transgender individuals people have issues separating those two items, even if they have no issue separating those items in the above examples about Mary and Mark.

    The easiest and obvious solution to this problem is to stop assigning social roles and identities to genitals. Acknowledge that a penis is a penis and a vagina is a vagina and stop labeling one or the other male or female. It is an extraneous definition that only serves to confuse the issue.

    Once you’ve done that it is a lot easier to understand that women can have penises, men can have vaginas, and both can have the other or neither. Because Gender is a social construct and it is a cornerstone of our identities as people, not a biological directive handed down from on high. The only reason there is so much ignorance and confusion is because of our tendency to use the same terminology.

    Say it with me: A Person born with a penis is not born “Male”. They are born with a penis. A Person born with a vagina is not born “Female”. They are born with a vagina.

  • marcedward

    What about Left Handed people? Where’s our bathroom? We face discrimination in the form of tools that are made for righties that kill us by the thousand every year. We’re the real victims!

  • Jonathan Poto

    Not to mention that the humanities have been virtually wiped out from the undergraduate education prerequisites. Good job Lily. No pats on the back for minor achievements by the university when there are major problems still till to be solved.

  • Lance is Wrong

    We do present sexual dimorphism, but it is weak and far more fluid than is usual for dimorphic species. Think, even humans presenting canonical sex traits vary wildly in their expression. Some have a lot of body and facial hair, some have barely any. Body fat arrangements exist on the full continuum between canonically “feminine” and “masculine”. Breasts can be incredibly prominent or barely present, while still displaying full functionality.

    This is odd. You don’t see male peacocks without tails! Sexual dimorphism is an evolutionary adaptation arising for the need to compete for mates, and selection pressure is strong: non-dimorphic individuals do not reproduce. Yet hominids appear to play fast and loose with how our bodies express our hormonal makeup, with differences between “sexes” having to be drawn in terms of small gaps in statistical averages rather than clear differences. Different hypothesis have been suggested, but my two favourites are that either early hominids lived in cooperative groups where members freely chose mating partners and offspring were raised by the group as a whole, or hominids descended from a polygamous species but changed into a mostly monogamous structure, with our dimorphism being a genetic relic that is not selected for anymore.

    I kind of got carried away there, so let’s talk about the sex binary. What is the sex binary? The sex binary is the idea that all humans can be clearly separated into male and female, and that each of those groups is distinct in a number of characteristics, including genetics, anatomy, reproductive capacity, chemical biology, and even social role.

    This. Is. Bullshit.

    And I don’t say that because of some ideological conviction, it is literally not true. Reproductive capacity (that is, whether an individual produces eggs or sperm) is the one with least exceptions, but there are some even there, and anyway reproductive capacity is not associated with any other traits half as strongly as the idea of the binary says. Genetically XX and XY are the two most common caryotypes related to reproductive potential, but because genotype =/= phenotype, not even all XY people develop sperm or XX people eggs. Anatomy is a spectrum, and anatomically intersex people are actually fairly common (but overwhelmingly receive non-consensual cosmetic surgery in infancy to “normalise” their anatomy), as is chemical biology, and to throw a further wrench in those gears, humans love to play around with those things. And social roles, well, anyone who tries to tell you that gender roles are clearly defined and immutable needs to get out more.

    So yes, on a biological level, humans, like most mammals, are divided into sperm-producers and egg-producers.

    But this isn’t strongly related to anything else, and it is certainly not what people mean when they talk about “male” and “female”. It’s not the “sex binary” that people talk about existing or not existing. And the kind of gametes you produce isn’t all that significant to your identity, in general.