Breaking the Binary
by Kim Catley
It was August, but the air was chilly. Jah Akande, ’13, bundled up in his coat as he prepared to exit the plane. He had just arrived in London with that nervous excitement so many students feel as they begin a semester abroad.
Jah grew up in Richmond, just a few miles down the street from the University. These three months in London would be his first time not surrounded by the friends and family and places he had always known.
As he approached the airplane door, the pilot greeted him, “Welcome to London, sir.”
Jah paused briefly, thinking to himself, “That was nice.”
It wasn’t the pilot’s friendliness that caught him off guard. Rather, it was the first time in Jah’s life that anyone had ever referred to him using “sir,” or “he,” or any other masculine pronoun — and the first time he realized the terms fit.
“I didn’t identify as transgender yet,” says Jah, who would later socially, and then physically, transition from female to male. “But from that point on, I was like, ‘I’m not going to correct people.’ I wasn’t in Richmond, I wasn’t on campus, and I wasn’t around my family; there wasn’t anyone who knew who I was.”
It wasn’t long before he had a similar interaction. When he arrived at the London university where he would be living and studying for the semester, the resident assistant handed him a key to his room, and also assumed Jah was a male student.
“I didn’t understand what had come over me,” Jah says. “I had this profound sense of choice in my own perceived identity. I wasn’t hiding, because I wasn’t ashamed, but I didn’t want people calling me ‘she.’”
The moment of clarity Jah experienced is one shared by many transgender and non-binary people. Some say they grew up never feeling quite comfortable with the gendered pronouns and expectations placed upon them, but also without the language to fully define themselves.
But they describe these moments, when the use of a pronoun or the reading of a definition rings true and they know, instantly, “this is me.”
For Diana Reighart, ’16, it was when a professor used the pronoun “they.” Diana remembers holding back tears. “She used it casually, normally,” they say. “That had never happened. I distinctly remember it. It physically impacted me, lightened the load.”
What’s in a Pronoun?
Grammarians are often seen as sticklers when it comes to maintaining the rules of language. But 2015 saw a shift in thinking around one long-standing rule: the singular form of they. When The Washington Post added the term to their style guide, copy editor Bill Walsh described it as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” A few months later, the American Dialect Association recognized singular they as the 2015 word of the year.
In this story, Diana Reighart, Tanner Kerckhove, and Jo Gehlbach use the singular they/them as their pronouns. Ryan Brazell and Jah Akande use he/him.
Ryan Brazell, a liaison in the University’s Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, remembers a day when, as a student at Oberlin College, he first met someone who identified as transgender. Ryan had never heard the term, but “it immediately clicked,” he says. “I met someone and the next day was like, ‘this is who I am. I now have this language to describe myself.’”
While these moments are crucial to a person learning to define their sense of self, they’re often just the beginning of a complex road to understanding how to present that self to the world — and navigate the new terrain that follows.
A Place to Call Home
For most students, registering for campus housing is a straightforward process. Pay the deposit, pick your roommates, and choose your room or apartment.
But what happens when you want to share a campus apartment with students who are the opposite sex? Do the rules change when your own gender identity falls somewhere in between male and female? How should the preferences of the roommates — and permission of their parents — balance with school policies? Does the existence of single bedrooms and bathrooms change anything? Where do the protections of a non-discrimination policy that covers gender identity and gender expression come into play?
These were the questions Diana Reighart faced when planning their senior year housing. After first-year random roommate assignments, a living-learning community sophomore year, and junior year studying abroad, they had to navigate the campus housing system for the first time.
Identifying an Identity
While transgender serves as the umbrella term for any gender identity that differs from the one associated with a person’s sex assigned at birth, there’s a lot more nuance to each individual’s identity. In early 2015, The New York Times published a gender-neutral glossary to help clarify terms like transgender, genderqueer, and pangender.
Ryan Brazell, who identifies as genderqueer, says he prefers the term because “it signals more what I’m not than what I am. It’s a descriptor and a protector and it gives me space to refine my understanding of myself.”
Diana identifies as gender fluid, meaning their gender identity doesn’t completely align with the sex they were assigned at birth. “I can feel 100 percent female or 100 percent male,” they say. “But most of the time, I’m floating in a soup of man, woman, and something else.”
When they wanted to sign up for an apartment with three cisgender men — meaning their gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth — Diana’s gender identity didn’t fit within the existing policies and processes.
The question of how to handle transgender and gender non-binary students is one many colleges and universities are grappling with. Some reserve a few apartments and single rooms, while others designate residence halls and floors that are open to residents of any gender identity and expression. Housing policies may limit these spaces to upper-class students, require a signed agreement from all residents, or encourage conversations with parents.
At Richmond, it wasn’t long ago that men and women weren’t just divided by floors or buildings. The University’s coordinate college system assigns men to Richmond College and women to Westhampton College, which both provide a structure for students’ academic and co-curricular experiences. The campus physically divided the two colleges, with Westhampton Lake serving as a barrier, until Tyler Haynes Commons first opened in 1976. It wasn’t until 2002 that men and women began living on both sides of the lake and 2006 before residence halls went co-ed. Expanded living-learning communities now offer even more opportunities for mixed-gender housing and academic spaces.
Today, transgender and non-binary students can work with Richmond and Westhampton college deans to switch their college affiliation — a change Jah requested when he returned from his semester abroad in London.
“To my knowledge, Jah was the first person to request a change in college affiliation,” says Joe Boehman, dean of Richmond College. “We had talked about the possibility for a couple of years prior, so we had thought about some of the things we would need to work through. We realized that each student would come to us with unique needs or challenges and, as a result, we needed to have a loose framework approach.”
In Jah's case, Joe spoke with Juliette Landphair, former dean of Westhampton College, who agreed to the change. Academic files were exchanged and Joe contacted the Registrar's Office to change Jah's affiliation to Richmond College, which linked him to the appropriate email distribution lists, databases, and housing assignments. From that point on, Jah was a Richmond College student.
“At its heart, college affiliation is linked to where a student’s academic file resides,” Joe says. “A student is assigned to a college, but in reality they are assigned to a dean. That dean is responsible for that student’s retention and success. When the student is struggling, their dean is the one to try to help them. But the primary mission of the dean’s offices is care and concern and, ultimately, it doesn’t matter which college a student is linked to.”
The answers to housing challenges, however, aren't so simple. After Diana’s request to live with three male students was denied, they spent weeks asking approximately 40 other Westhampton College students to be their apartment mates. Diana finally found a group of three other Westhampton College students — a day after the registration deadline. As a result, they now live in a single-single suite with a fellow Westhampton College student, instead of in an apartment.
“I have a good housing situation and I’m not complaining,” they say. “But it’s my senior year. I wanted to live in an apartment and I had housing priority for it. Having a kitchen and living with my best friend — a cisgender male — would have been better for my mental health. So while my housing situation is okay, it is not ideal.”
Diana looked to their challenges and worked with fellow students Tanner Kerckhove, ’16, and Jordan Nguyen, ’16, to write a proposal for how housing policies at Richmond could be more gender inclusive. Steve Bisese, vice president for student development, has since recommended Diana for Richmond President Ronald Crutcher's strategic plan steering committee, which will work to craft a vision for the University’s next five years. Steve says he hopes to see Diana bring their perspective on how housing, as well the University’s broader student life experience, can be more welcoming and inclusive.
“The strategic planning process is a good time to have this conversation,” Steve says. “We can see where there’s a movement, because this is going to be driven by students.
“Any university that has a gender-inclusive housing policy has had the same conversations we’re having.”
Checking the Boxes
When Ryan Brazell was applying for his position as a liaison in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology, he started with the usual considerations. Job description sounds interesting? Check. Qualifications match? Check.
Trans at UR
The University’s non-discrimination policy includes gender identity and gender expression. The addition came nearly five years ago after Jon Henry, ’12, Jo Gehlbach, ’12, and other members of the Student Alliance for Sexual Diversity gathered more than 1,000 signatures on a petition. Jon and Jo presented to the Board of Trustees, which approved the amended policy in April 2011, making Richmond the third school in Virginia to include gender identity and gender expression in their policy.
Common Ground also manages a Trans at UR website, which outlines University policies for faculty, staff, and students; community support organizations; and education resources.
Then Ryan digs deeper. Is there an equal employment opportunity statement, and does it include gender identity? Are there resources for transgender staff, or a faculty/staff affinity group mentioned on the human resources website? Do I know anyone in the office, and how do they respond to my gender?
On the application form, he looks for lines, rather than checkboxes, when asked about gender. “The second I have a line, the second I have a choice that’s not male or female, I’m like, genderqueer,” he says. “They’re going to have to figure out what to do with that information.”
With an approach that vets employers as thoroughly as any background check he faces, Ryan has been able to move from job to job with relative ease. He also benefits from a niche field with a small network of employers, and a masculine presentation that’s easier for hiring teams to understand than someone who falls elsewhere on the transgender spectrum.
He’s also vocal on social media about LGBTQ issues. A Google search of his name hides nothing.
“People sort of know what they’re getting,” he says. “I’ve done that in part because it’s really hard to have that conversation when you put in a résumé. Someone sees my name and they expect I’m a guy — and that’s fine. Then when they meet me, it’s always this moment of ‘Oh, did I get it wrong?’ That’s the really hard moment, and you never quite know how that’s going to go until it goes.”
“I try to be up front because it saves everybody a lot of anxiety and sometimes saves that dance,” he says.
About 25 percent of transgender people have lost a job due to bias and more than three-quarters have experienced some form of workplace discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has begun to use existing laws against sex discrimination to combat bias, but about half of the nation lives in areas without non-discrimination protections for transgender people.
While Ryan has taken a vocal approach, proper identification that matches a person’s name and gender marker can also help when navigating the hiring process — not to mention easing airline travel, picking up a bottle of wine, or buying cold medicine. Updating identification can be daunting, however, involving local circuit courts to update birth certificates, further layers at the state and federal levels, and, sometimes, hostile judges who insist on added requirements for transgender clients. It’s no wonder only one-fifth of people presenting a new gender identity have updated all of their IDs and records.
The Trans Law Collaborative — a new partnership between the University’s Carrico Center for Pro Bono Service, the Common Ground office, Fan Free Clinic, and Virginia Equality Bar — offers legal assistance for transgender people seeking name and gender marker changes, and training for attorneys and law students. “We hope to provide this service,” said Tara Casey, Carrico director, “so that members of the transgender community can go about their lives with one less hurdle.”
The Space Between Red and Blue
When Jo Gehlbach, ’12, arrived at Richmond as a first-year student, they just wanted to fit in. For Westhampton College students, that classmate camaraderie often begins with candlelight and white dresses at Proclamation Night.
Only Jo hadn’t worn a dress since they were 10 years old. In the name of tradition, they went with a high school friend to find a white dress — a process they describe as a “nightmare” — paired it with Birkenstocks, and joined the rest of their class.
“I survived,” they say. “But it’s one of the handful of regrets I have from college. It makes me uncomfortable to think about it, to talk about it, to see pictures of it.”
That’s why, when Jo was faced with Ring Dance — and another white dress — two and a half years later, they instead opted for a black suit. “I needed to do me and if I didn’t fit in, then that was that,” Jo says. “I wasn’t going to skip a monumental event in the Westhampton student’s career because I wasn’t going to wear a white dress.”
The University’s coordinate college presents a unique challenge for transgender and non-binary students. Unlike other co-ed colleges and universities, every student’s academic and social experiences are largely defined by their identity as a man or a woman.
Some, like Tanner Kerckhove, simply opt to not participate. “I live at home and I try to stay away from the gendered spaces on campus as much as I can,” they say. Tanner did try talking to administrators about being a student in both Richmond and Westhampton colleges but the academic management role of the colleges doesn't allow for dual affiliation. The two deans welcome students to participate in the activities of both colleges — including events like Proclamation Night, Ring Dance, and Investiture — and when a new Westhampton College dean is hired this summer, Richmond College Dean Joe Boehman plans to continue conversations about how the two colleges might evolve their traditions and intentions. One change Tanner would like to see is more connection between the two colleges’ events. “I feel like we don’t necessarily need every tradition to be solely Westhampton College or solely Richmond College,” they say. “I feel like there needs to be more collaboration.”
Some might see a simple solution: Don’t like it? You don’t have to attend. But as any alumnus knows, these traditions are Richmond. The shared experiences of reading letters, or signing the Honor Pledge, or standing together in a W bind generations of students and alumni to the University and to one another.
These students and alumni also see benefits to the coordinate college system, particularly when exploring gender identity and the social constructs that shape men’s and women’s experiences. In addition, separate student governments and co-curricular activities mean double the leadership opportunities.
That’s why students and alumni like Jah, Jo, Diana, and Tanner don’t necessarily want to eliminate the coordinate college system. Rather, they see it as an opportunity to look at how the traditions can be molded to fit the needs of today’s students.
When Jo showed up at Ring Dance in that black suit, it wasn’t to make a statement, but an attempt to find the intersection in their identities as genderqueer and a Westhampton student. They even spoke to the Westhampton College staff to clear the decision in advance. Kerry Fankhauser, interim dean of Westhampton College and the coordinator for Ring Dance for more than a decade, says that, at the time, conversations were already happening about more inclusive language in event communications. References to “dress” or “skirt” had already been revised to read “attire” and specific colors and lengths were no longer mentioned.
It was when the time came for the class W photo that things took a turn; the photographer thought Jo was a male student trying to sneak into the shot.
The mix-up was resolved and the night went on. But two years later, the University elected to make a more formalized statement and require black attire at Ring Dance. That's when Jo — who had since graduated — suddenly found their story thrust into the limelight on the pages of The Collegian.
At the time, Jo was still unsure about their own gender identity. “I knew that I didn’t fit into whatever box I was supposed to fit into,” they say.
The publicity forced them to examine their gender and raise questions about how they fit in the coordinate college system. “My story kind of got co-opted and morphed into this prop for the black [dress] and white [dress] sides to yell at each other,” they say. “What choice was left but for me to step in and say, ‘This is my story and this is how I will use it.’? That forced me to deal with it.”
Jo says the concerns of students who don’t want to attend Ring Dance because of a dress requirement should drive conversations about how to make the events more inclusive for all students. “That’s the mission and purpose of Westhampton College. They’re there to engender a safe environment for everyone who is a part of that community.”
In fact, Jo's experience that night pushed forward a conversation that was already brewing — and one that continues today. “That night drove the importance of [the discussion] home,” Kerry says. “This tradition doesn't fit everyone in its current form. And while no tradition necessarily is going to fit everyone, it's our responsibility as a college and as an institution to make a tradition as inclusive as possible. I think we need to seriously look at our policies and think about what we can do that still allows us to be who we are while allowing our students to be who they are. And that's not easy.”
A Transformative Experience
It’s December 2014, and Jah Akande is preparing for his wedding day in London, where he moved shortly after graduating. He’s marrying that resident assistant who handed him the key to his dorm room at the start of his semester abroad. She had little knowledge about transgender people before meeting Jah, but encouraged him to find support groups and attended talks about gender and sexuality. They learned, side by side.
“I don’t know where I’d be without her, honestly,” Jah says. “I don’t know if I’d accept myself as much. I think when you see yourself through someone else’s eyes, you’re a lot less judgmental.”
Jah’s parents and siblings are in London for the wedding. Jah came out as gay at 13, but his transition marks a second coming out — one that’s proved more of a struggle for his family. “I’m the eldest of five; it’s me, my three sisters, and my brother,” Jah says. “I think that’s why it was so difficult, because there are clearly established roles in a family of four daughters and then a son.”
Jah and his wife marry in a traditional Hindu ceremony, honoring her Indian heritage. The wedding begins with an introduction of the groom’s family and a dance around the venue. Jah looks over to see his father beaming. “At that point, everything changed,” he says. “He was able to see his son through his daughter-in-law’s eyes. There’s nothing I could ever say — please call me ‘he,’ or please see me as your son — to get someone to think that way. For your father to feel that sense of paternal pride for you, it has to be a very personal and transformative experience.”
One could argue that Jah’s experience at Richmond was transformative — not just for him, but in starting a conversation about how an institution can continue to grow and meet the evolving needs of its students. In his quiet way, Jah pushed Richmond to find answers to questions it hadn’t yet had to ask — by moving his coordinate college affiliation, or inspiring WILL*, a formerly cisgender women-only program focused on gender and diversity issues, to open its membership to transgender and gender non-conforming students.
Even though less than three years have passed since Jah graduated, today’s students still look to him as they continue to question and challenge. It’s a movement Jah remembers from his Lavender Graduation, an annual celebration honoring graduates who identify as LGBTQ or ally, and have made contributions to LGBTQ campus life.
“I’m the type of person who lives to change the system,” he says. “I don’t let that stop me from doing something; I just question it, engage with it, and ensure other people down the line are able to have the same possibilities and chances. There were students who were younger than me who were at my Lavender Graduation and were able to see that.”
“I think that is incredibly important, that change starts somewhere.”