CWs: Transphobia, Transmisogyny, Suicide, Mental Illness, Abuse, Ableism
This past weekend, I sat down with a friend of mine, a homeless trans woman who spends a lot of time at Mount Holyoke’s campus. She shared her unique perspective as someone who is both inside and outside of Mount Holyoke’s community. We discussed her experiences with academia, queerness, class, and disability.
Could you tell me a little bit about the circumstances that lead to your homelessness?
I was kicked out of my home when I came out as trans, and my parents tried very, very hard to tell me that this was not because I was trans, that they were just kicking me out, as though that made it okay. My parents are divorced; first my mother kicked me out in a letter after I came out to her. It was heartbreaking and very, very mean that she couldn’t say this to my face. I remember it felt like a betrayal. Then I lived at this theater I was interning at. After two months there, they couldn’t put me up anymore, so I had to move in with my father.
Both of my parents abused me a lot, and my father is a person I’ve always been very scared of, so moving in with him was not a good thing. My stepmother and him repeatedly misgendered me and critiqued me for going on hormones. My stepmother actually printed out a Wikipedia article on the dangers of HRT [hormone replacement therapy] and put it on my bed. I tried to work a job and wound up having to call a suicide hotline during my lunch break.
After that, I decided that if that’s how I was feeling, [my father’s house] wasn’t a healthy environment for me to be in anymore and that it would not be conducive to a positive transition. I had a friend who hooked me up with a social work organization, Dial Self , that helps out homeless youth in the area, but they told me they could only give me services if I was in Western Massachusetts. I decided to run away to Western Massachusetts and couch surf. I learned a couple things: I realized that disability prevents me from working any type of job and makes applying [to a job] a lot harder, so finding a source of stable income would not be easy for me. And two that I learned that I loved hormones. I was happy for the first time.
[After couchsurfing] I was officially on the streets, staying at a shelter, hiding out in a library for most of the day, and desperately applying for housing, but no one wanted to take me.
You’ve talked to me before about how you have a difficult relationship with academia. Could you talk to me a bit about what that relationship is like?
I have autism and approach education from the view of someone with a disability. I dropped out of school when I was sixteen. School wasn’t able to accommodate my needs; the school I was in was not helping me like it was supposed to, so I left and started going to community college. Then I realized that I had never been prepared for school; at the time I did not know I had a disability, and I suffered. I failed two semesters and then went to study at a theater instead. What really tints my view of academia is that I grew up in this area, and I’ve had this experience of the lower class education route, and I grew up very poor. This is a part of the country that is ruled by the fact that there are five colleges here, so my view of the upper middle class people has always been the students in the area. It’s how I still view students: they are people who are more privileged than me, people who were able to get to these schools, able to get an education. I know a lot of people worked very hard to get here, but still the way I see the system is that it locks out people like me from getting in and having access to this higher education. It’s also very elitist, and so I look up at academics with spite.
How do you feel about the way that academia treats queer and trans people?
I think it’s shitty. I have a host of complaints about the way academia treats [queer and trans people at Mount Holyoke] such as silly microaggressions like calling it a women’s college, despite the fact that there are people who go here who are not women. I like what [a friend] has told me, about instead calling it a traditionally women’s college. That’s my external experience, but my personal experience? I have never met another trans woman on campus. Mount Holyoke has this whole “we take trans students” initiative, and they announced it very proudly as a publicity thing. But so far they’ve only shown it to be a publicity stunt. Where are the trans women? Why aren’t you reaching out to trans women? They could have a visiting day for trans students.
A lot of Mount Holyoke students who are trans or queer take a lot of gender studies classes, and these classes influence the way they understand themselves, in a way that may not be the same as for queer and trans people outside of academia. I was wondering if you’ve noticed if your understanding of yourself is different, being not enveloped in gender theory.
It definitely is. Sometimes I try and talk about my gender [with a Mount Holyoke student], and they just don’t get it. They don’t come from similar places. I am a genderqueer trans woman; I am non-binary. I know who I am, but I don’t have a lot of words for it, which I think is the difference between me and a lot of students here. A lot of students have words for it and get to explore different words; meanwhile I’m kind of lost.
It sounds almost like academia is monopolizing the language around the trans experience. It’s like there’s only one legitimate way to understand being trans, and academia is gatekeeping that way of understanding. In order to know yourself as a trans person or queer person, you need to have taken the right classes, so that you have the right language to use. I feel like that’s creating an unequal system for queer and trans people.
I would say the lack of general knowledge about this language is the problem. I wouldn’t say that academia has a monopoly on it, but I would say that academia is gatekeeping it. It’s locked behind this paywall, like you need to go to this school, and you need to take these classes, and then you’ll be able to understand this better. Honestly, these classes could help so many confused people, so many people who have questions about their own identity, their gender. I feel very out of sync with [Mount Holyoke’s queer and trans] community in that regard, actually, which is why I’m interested in engaging with that community more and entering into that dialogue.
How can we make gender theory and queer theory more accessible to people outside of the ivory tower?
Free, public gender theory and queer theory workshops. We live in an area with five colleges -- someone could sacrifice a professor for two hours to do a workshop. It would help so many people. I think academia should interact with the communities it exists in more; academia should give back. The theater I worked at interacted with the community; they regularly performed free shows. They didn’t exist above the community -- they were part of the culture. And hey, maybe after one of these workshops, a trans woman will approach the professor and say, “I’m interested in going to this school now that I’ve taken this class.”
Have you been part of queer communities off campus?
This is my first time actively participating in any community. Like most young trans women, I isolated myself very heavily and developed very much on my own. That’s also what children who are abused do. A lot of trans women isolate themselves because the world is cruel and no one likes them. That’s how it feels. When it is a culturally accepted norm that you are disgusting and sickening to people, you don’t want to go outside that much.
Do you have any critiques or suggestions for people involved in the queer community at Mount Holyoke?
I’d say focus less on the academic studies and start focusing more on people. Any time I’ve ever met a queer academic, I’ve noticed there’s a lot of attachment to text and theory and the academic notions of queerness. [To them,] it seems like my experience is foreign, which it shouldn’t be. People should get to know people outside of an academic community, outside of an academic bubble, which definitely creates a skewed perspective on everything.
I’m wondering about the intersections between queer and trans identities and class on this campus. What have you noticed?
I’m very out to everyone, and that’s 100% because of my class status. No one’s going to hire me, I have no family, I have no reason not to be out. But also it means that I don’t have the ability to protect myself. I’m constantly vulnerable. I don’t have the ability to not be out at this point.
There are so many rich people on campus, and it’s very intimidating for me. There’s a quote that I’m going to bring in, which is, “Everyone thinks the poorest they've ever been is poor,” which definitely applies to a lot of the more wealthy students here. I don’t have money to spend on anything on an average day. I hear students talking about going to do this great thing or that great thing which is definitely afforded to them by class, and it’s hard. There’s also not a very prominent lower class presence on campus. The campus itself feels rich, like the architecture and sculpture and landscaping just screams wealth. It’s another “I don’t belong here” thing. Class plays into that a lot. I’ve had conversations where I’ve realized that this person would never have talked to me if I wasn’t at Mount Holyoke.
Is the right way to be queer only afforded to people by class?
I think so. I’m really lucky that I have state insurance that covers my hormones. There are so many people whose insurance will never cover hormones. But I don’t know what the right way to be queer is because I don’t do it. I think I’m very much doing the wrong thing. I think a big reason why people take me seriously is that they know that I’m a homeless trans woman. I think that’s very much an example of oppression equaling social capital in that sense. People see me, and they’re like, “You’re in an oppressed group, so by giving you the space to talk, I gain social capital.” The other thing is that I feel like my queer scares people. No one wants to talk about it -- everyone’s afraid to broach the subject, which might have to do with my non-academic background or the fact that no one wants to be the person that says something shitty about trans women. I think the right way to be queer is actually afforded by class, but in the reverse: I think that what people view as proper queer is being poor. Like the more oppressed you are, the more queer you are.
So like, struggle translates to authentic queerness?
Exactly. I take my identity very seriously. If I wasn’t out and transitioning, I would have killed myself years ago. I have the scars to prove it -- this was a necessity for me. For a lot of people, it’s taken on a lot more casually. I still recognize that it’s necessary no matter how rich you are, but it’s probably something that you can integrate into your identity and not have a panic attack over because you’re already stable. Like, “Hey, you’ve just learned a new thing about yourself, and you’re going to be doing just as great,” instead of “Oh God, I’m trans. How is this going to affect my life? How is this going to affect my future? Does this mean that I can never support myself? What does this mean for me?” It’s a lot less scary to be trans when you’re rich. I wish I had that ability. I wish I had income. I wish I knew where I could sleep. I wish I had an apartment. I dream about having a moderately sized apartment: two rooms and a bathroom. Meanwhile these people are going to beach houses on weekends. They have this ability to move without their identity causing them pain.
Do you feel that there’s less at stake?
No, they’re just as valuable, but class affords access to gender studies classes, class affords access to the ability to explain yourself and sound smart. With class, people take you more seriously, even if they don’t want to listen to you. If you are a wealthy trans person, you are immediately going to be afforded more sway by virtue of your class. You’re immediately safer because of your class.
There’s the comparison between Caitlyn Jenner and the incredible levels of violence towards trans women of color and poor trans women.
Caitlyn Jenner is a perfect example. She’s still got her sway. She’s still got her money. No one’s attacking her. She can afford to hire bodyguards if people start. She’s safer. Meanwhile, I have no safety net. I lost my family when I came out.
Academia is a space in which your productivity determines your self-worth, and people are very obsessive about their productivity. I’m wondering how it feels -- as a person who has disabilities and as a person who is not a student -- to be surrounded by this when you’re not a part of that.
Well, from the disabilities standpoint, it feels like a societal reminder that this is not for you, this is not something that exists for you. This space is for other people. I also worry about the health of everyone I meet who is affected by this. I’m scared when [a student] has gone off to study at the library and is still in there at 12:00. No one should have to do something that unhealthy. Seeing people asked to do this themselves -- being pushed to do this to themselves -- scares me. It’s cruel.
Do you ever feel discouraged about yourself in this environment, given what it values?
I can engage with some conversations, but there’s a point at which people start talking about their classes and their class loads, it’s a reminder that this is not a space for me, which is amplified by being a queer trans woman. I feel very self-conscious in an academic environment. This space and this culture is actively forcing me out of it.
How could Mount Holyoke become more accessible to disabled people?
As a disabled person, I would encourage academia to drop its elitist attitude. I know that there’s pride in this school, but you shouldn’t tout your education as if it is the be-all-end-all. You should offer an environment for all students at your school. You need to be able to churn out an x-amount of work a week in order to go there in the first place, and that’s a lot to ask people who would otherwise benefit from that education.
How do you think that Mount Holyoke could be made more open to people from a non-academic background?
Make knowledge more accessible. Don’t treat it like precious treasure. Community outreach is the answer: free workshops, events, make auditing classes more accessible. You have to jump through a lot of hoops to audit a class at Mount Holyoke. No one’s going to approach academia if they don’t want to learn.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.