I wrote the following article for the final project of my Writing Across Cultures class this spring. The assignment was to conduct interviews and research in order to write an in-depth investigative article about a culture other than our own.
Having watched multiple friends transition during my time here at the University of Iowa, I’ve long been curious about what that process is like for them. Does our school make things difficult? Or is the administration understanding of their students’ needs?
Writing this piece gave me valuable insights into the lives of the trans and nonbinary students and graduations of my school. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to craft journalistic pieces about LGBTQ+ issues, too, since it gave me practice with something I want to have as a career.
In an acting class freshman year, Merric Bower’s professor outed him to his classmates.
“She announced to the class that I could play male roles now, which made me uncomfortable,” he says. “It wasn’t her decision to make.”
Bower, who is now a junior at the University of Iowa, identifies as agender and transmasculine. “When I got to school, I initially wanted to blend in,” he says. “But I found out pretty quickly that I like being open and being myself.”
An exasperated look crosses Bower’s face as he remembers the incident with his acting teacher. “Neither the professor nor I knew the class would react so well. It was a potentially dangerous situation.”
Trans people often face threats of violence or even death upon being outed. By drawing attention to Bower’s gender identity, his professor could have inadvertently created an unsafe classroom environment.
“She apologized and is doing better with other trans students,” Bower continues, describing what happened after he confronted her about the problem. “So in a sense you’re fighting not only for yourself but for others who come after you.”
Bower says that he encounters more ignorance than transphobia. Speaking about his experience designing and building sets as part of his Theatre Arts major, he says,” You can’t dislike other groups of people in theater because it’s about putting yourself in other people’s shoes.”
Bower’s expressions shift rapidly from amusement to frustration and back again as he narrates his life as a trans student in Iowa, from the time he used “a descriptive paragraph and a weird metaphor” to describe his gender to the time he accidentally caucused illegally in February 2016.
(“According to the government, there is no man known as Merric Bower living at this address,” he says. “So I marked an F when I re-registered to vote this November.”)
Most of his anecdotes, though, end up coming back to his passion for theater. As part of his job as assistant stage manager, Bower was part of the audition process for two plays. He saw many people called back for roles intended for actors of a different gender identity than their own, adding that some students are perfectly fine with that while others are made extremely uncomfortable.
“For example, I personally would be bothered [by playing a female role],” he says.
Several emails and face-to-face conversations later, he had convinced the administration to add an option to the online performer database used by the university to find and select actors.
Now, anyone who wants to perform can choose the gender of the roles they would like to play in addition to providing information about physical attributes such as height, hair color, and vocal range. Although change comes slowly to the university, it is occasionally possible for just one student to advance the inclusion of diverse gender identities by leaps and bounds through very simple, even easy actions.
Bower launches into yet another story about theater, this time talking about his participation in what came to be known as the “restroom audit.” Last semester, UI students took it upon themselves to inspect all the buildings on campus, counting up the gender-inclusive bathrooms as they did so.
Bower volunteered to walk through Macbride Hall, the College of Nursing, and the theater building. On the third floor of the theater building, he found a locked, unlabeled faculty bathroom, off-limits to students.
Thanks to his efforts, that bathroom is now unlocked and open to student use. Even better, it has been labeled gender-inclusive.
Bower sighs as he describes how guidelines regarding the restoration of old buildings stipulate that no new additions may be made. This means that many of the oldest buildings on campus don’t have gender-inclusive bathrooms, because they were not originally built with them.
“I really hope one of the trans students here becomes rich and famous so they can donate money for new bathrooms,” Bower says, laughing as he gazes around his cramped, untidy basement apartment, perhaps dreaming of the day he himself can help out monetarily. “We can do a lot more with new buildings than we can with old buildings covered in red tape.”
Bower’s efforts to make his fellow trans students feel more welcome don’t stop at the theater building, however. Toward the end of his freshman year, he and another first-year trans student, Sean Finn, founded Trans Alliance, an organization that works to raise awareness of trans issues on campus and advocate for trans students.
Bower and Finn were inspired to create the group after attending meetings of Spectrum, the UI’s LGBTQ+ organization and the oldest student-run college LGBTQ+ organization in the country.
“My high school friend group was pretty queer,” Bower says. “But my first few friends in college were very much cisgender and heterosexual. I was doing a lot of ‘Queer 101’ stuff, trying to explain who I was as a person to people in my dorm. I liked not having to do that at Spectrum.”
Together, Bower and Finn organized and hosted events such as Trans Awareness Week and Trans Week of Action. Finn says his proudest moment came during the very first Trans Awareness week, the group’s initial attempt at large-scale planning.
“I was standing around preparing for [an educational presentation] and getting nervous about the turnout but it turned out that within five minutes of the event starting, over a hundred students showed up and I had to run around the Iowa Memorial Union to find someone to get us more chairs,” he says. “Although it was a frantic moment, I went home that night feeling so happy and fulfilled to have successfully led a session for so many UI students.”
The two leaders also receive many requests to speak to other organizations on campus, and recently led a diversity training workshop for the resident assistants at Currier Residence Hall.
“I do get really tired of providing the education people seem to require to respect me,” Bower says. “But it’s nice when groups ask you to come in and teach them because they really care about learning.”
Due to leading busy lives as upperclassmen, Bower and Finn are currently in the process of handing over the leadership of Trans Alliance to younger students.
“All my evenings get sucked into theater,” Bower says. “[Trans Alliance] was always about finding out what the trans and nonbinary community of UI and Iowa City want and need,” he says, adding that there is still much for the organization’s incoming leaders to figure out.
Sean Finn concurs: “Our biggest difficult has been ongoing from the start, and that is how to reach and engage trans and nonbinary students,” explaining that many trans students aren’t connected to the resources that exist on campus. Even if they know about Trans Alliance, they can’t or don’t feel comfortable participating because, for instance, they are not yet out.
Furthermore, the two students’ original vision for their group still has not been realized.
“I had originally envisioned a student organization that meets weekly and has a tight-knit group of friends, but that is not what works for this current campus and student body,” says Finn. “Instead, we have moved to monthly events, and find that this method works better for trans and nonbinary students looking to connect with others in the area.”
He is hopeful that the future leaders of Trans Alliance will be able to carry out the original plans for weekly meetings and more, but also recognizes that such changes are not easily made.
Both leaders are also anxious about the potential impermanence of their organization. Currently, the advocacy carried out on campus is volunteer-driven, leading Finn to worry: “I fear that [our work] will quickly fade away once the people who are passionate about it leave. After that, who will work to support trans students?”
The answer, he believes, involves support from within the university institution itself. Finn suggests that the most necessary changes include hiring full-time staff at the Women’s Resource & Action Center, having employees at University Counseling Services who know about topics concerning the transgender community and are dedicated to LGBTQ+ students, and requiring all administrators to know about trans issues and work constantly to improve in that area.
Trevor Leeper, a 2016 UI graduate, says that the school is a decent place for trans and nonbinary students: “People don’t always get everything right, but most seem to be trying.”
However, they wish that professors were better equipped to handle trans students. Leeper, who is nonbinary, says that their professors weren’t always the best in terms of using the correct pronouns and helping students find the resources they need.
“It would be great for professors and other university staff to go through LGBTQ+ training, although a challenge here is whether or not people will actually take away important information when they are only doing this because it is required,” Leeper says, adding that trouble understanding and using students’ right pronouns certainly isn’t limited to this school but occurs in universities and colleges across the country.
The Center for Diversity and Enrichment is one such organization, seeking to support UI students from marginalized and underserved communities and helping them to thrive during their years at college. To further this mission, the Center provides a variety of opportunities, including student programs, scholarships, and diversity training.
Although there are currently no faculty training programs concerned only with issues of importance to the transgender community, the LGBTQ Safe Zone Project aims to enhance understanding and foster acceptance of those with non-normative sexual orientations and gender identities. According to the Center’s website, the Safe Zone Project is open to all faculty, staff and students who want to make the campus a more welcoming place.
The program consists of two workshops that are required to become certified as a Safe Zone ally. In these workshops, participants learn about basic LGBTQ+ terminology as well as ways to actively participate in making the UI campus a more supportive place for LGBTQ+ students.
After certification, participants may display a Safe Zone sticker in their workplace. The stickers, which bear the image of a rainbow Pride flag, dot office doors across campus and signal to students that they are not alone: They can find support within.
Additionally, an optional session is available for those who would like to delve deeper into issues specific to the trans community. Participation in this part of the Safe Zone Project, which covers gender identity and expression, campus resources, challenges trans students face, and strategies for allyship, is encouraged but not required to earn certification.
The Safe Zone project is just one example of the ways in which UI attempts to build an affirming environment for marginalized communities, as dictated by their non-discrimination statement. The statement, which is required by federal regulation in order for the school to receive government funding, includes gender identity as a category that is to be protected from discrimination in education, employment and other activities.
Another resource meant for not just trans students but the LGBTQ+ community as a whole is the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, & Queer Resource Center, located on the west side of campus behind Slater residence hall. The Resource Center, which celebrated its tenth anniversary last fall, provides a safe place for LGBTQ+ students to gather.
However, the space is not available all the time: The Center is open only five hours each weekend, for instance, which means students can’t exactly decide to hang out there on a whim but must make plans well in advance.
A third resource available to LGBTQ+ students – particularly those who are transgender or gender-nonconforming – is the UI LGBTQ Health Clinic. Located in Coralville, Iowa, the facility is separate from the main campus in Iowa City in order to create a sense of privacy for its patients.
The clinic’s website states that the nurses and doctors there have a mission to provide “culturally competent care” to those who need it. Because many trans people experience discrimination, misunderstanding and discomfort while navigating the healthcare system, the clinic was designed to provide both primary and preventative care in addition to hormone replacement therapy, a common component of medical transition.
The clinic earned the designation of Equality Leader from the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ+ civil rights advocacy group and lobbying organization, in both 2013 and 2014. The designation, which was given to to facilities with exemplary visitation policies, patient nondiscrimination policies, employment nondiscrimination policies, and training in LGBTQ+ patient-centered care, was awarded to less than a third of the more than 1,500 institutions evaluated in the survey.
In spite of all this, UI students have mixed feelings regarding the facility. The clinic is open only three hours a week, on Tuesday evenings.
Another disadvantage is the clinic’s distance from the campus. “I didn’t have a car my first and second years here, so I had to borrow one or I couldn’t get there,” Merric Bower says. Another disadvantage is that the clinic is only open on Tuesday evenings, which is not a convenient time for all of the students who need its services.
At the same time, however, Bower is reluctant to seek healthcare elsewhere, due to having trust issues with doctors as a result of being misgendered at appointments during his high school years.
Bower’s situation exemplifies the experiences of trans students across the University of Iowa’s campus in not only the realm of healthcare but many other areas of life.
From the classroom to the restroom and many other spaces on campus, trans and nonbinary students at UI must grapple with the notion that, although some significant efforts toward inclusion have been made, there is still much work to be done.
Will the university’s policies and resources for trans students stagnate or grow? Whose efforts will lead to changes being made, if any – the students’ or the administration’s? Only time will tell.
This was a really interesting article. I admire the work Bower is putting into his community and school—it sounds difficult, but rewarding. And the article is great writing, too. 🙂
This was very interesting and so well written!! I had some issues with being outed recently as well, sadly. We have the little rainbow stickers at school and honestly, they brighten my day to see them. (We also have, like, five? five queer teachers, which is AMAZING.)
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