'The person I was born to be'

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Evan Higginbotham, a junior majoring in psychology and a transgender man, holds up a Transgender Pride flag in front of Gorgas Library. CW | Pete Pajor

“I watched him get dressed and put on his tie and shave, and I thought that that was going to happen for me,” Higginbotham, a junior majoring in psychology, said. “I thought that eventually that would happen, and when puberty set in and it didn’t, it was like, ‘This is wrong. This is totally not okay.’”

From the age of 3 or 4 years old, Higginbotham knew he was male, but his body was biologically female. Higginbotham is transgender, a term used to describe people whose gender identity does not match their sex at birth.

“The way that I think doesn’t line up with my sex,” Higginbotham said. “Gender and sex are two different things. My sex is female because I haven’t gone through any of the surgeries, [but] my gender is male.”

Throughout his childhood, Higginbotham suppressed his identity for fear of being ostracized by his conservative, religious parents. With no one to turn to, he eventually began self-harming and abusing drugs. Now 31 years old, Higginbotham said he is sober and no longer has a relationship with his parents because of their unwillingness to accept his transition.

Although Higginbotham identified as a male from a young age, he said every transgender person’s experience is different. Some do not realize they are transgender until puberty, or even later. Others may feel something is wrong early on, but are unable to put a name to their sense of disconnection until later in life.

Anna Shutter, a transgender woman and a senior majoring in art, began her transition during college. She identifies as female but usually presents in public as male, and said she has not come out to her family.

“I don’t have the typical trans narrative where people say, ‘Oh I always knew,’” she said. “That’s not always the case. I didn’t figure it out until I was 12 years old.”

Higginbotham and Shutter belong to an anonymous transgender support group on campus, which Shutter said can provide an environment for trans students to speak openly and connect with other students who understand them.

“At the very least, this group gives me other people who know what I’m going through,” Shutter said. “It makes it a little easier to relate to somebody.”

Students in the support group said they face varying degrees of harassment and discrimination on campus, and it isn’t always as blatant as name-calling or physical force. Sometimes, Higginbotham said, it can be a glance that lasts one second too long, a misinformed comment or a whispered conversation.

“I think the thing that gets me is the way that people talk, the conversations that people have that they don’t know that there’s a transgender person standing right next to them,” he said.

The University has policies in place to combat discrimination and harassment of transgender students and faculty. The school complies with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits gender-based discrimination for federally-funded educational institutions.

“Title IX protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students and employees from discrimination, harassment, sexual assault and sexual violence based on sex, sex-stereotyping or failure to conform to stereotypical gender norms,” Beth Howard, the University’s Title IX coordinator, said in an emailed statement. “Gender identity was included under the umbrella of gender/sex discrimination and protected specifically by University Title IX policy.”

While some of the University’s policies include explicit language to protect transgender individuals, others do not. For example, the University’s harassment policy states that it protects against “illegal harassment based on race, color, religion, ethnicity, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, age, disability, or veteran status,” but does not explicitly mention gender identity or gender expression.

A March 2013 reaffirmation of the University’s nondiscrimination notice, sent by UA President Judy Bonner, did not include any specific language relating to discrimination against transgender students, faculty and staff.

In the 2013-2014 school year, an SGA Senator proposed Resolution R-30-13, which encouraged the “adoption of an inclusive nondiscrimination policy by adding ‘gender identity and gender expression,’ which would create a more welcoming campus for future students, faculty, and staff.”

The University’s nondiscrimination notice has since been updated to include the terms “gender identity” and “gender expression,” although Howard did not specify when the change occurred. Higginbotham said he was not aware of the change until mid-September.

Because he presents as male, Higginbotham said he generally blends in with other students. For students who adopt a more androgynous gender presentation, harassment can be more prevalent.

One member of the support group, who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety, said he has been verbally harassed by male students on campus.

“I don’t [feel safe on campus],” he said. “I don’t really go out that much because I’m afraid something is going to happen and there’s not going to be anyone to do anything about it.”

For some transgender students, the discomfort encountered on a day-to-day basis begins before ever stepping out of their front door. Living in an on-campus housing assignment opposite to one’s gender identity can turn what is supposed to be a safe haven into a source of stress, Higginbotham said.

“Housing has been an issue,” he said. “That’s why I didn’t come to University right out of high school, because I was like, ‘I am not going to be with women on campus in dorms.’”

Laura Sanders, director of residential communities, said HRC is willing to make adjustments for transgender students who are uncomfortable with their housing assignments.

“Residence halls or suites or apartments are assigned by biological gender,” she said in an emailed statement. “HRC works with transgender students on a case-by-case basis to find a space where they feel comfortable.”

Multiple support group members said they have successfully worked with the HRC to amend their housing situations.

“Once I told them ‘Hey this is why I don’t feel comfortable living with other males or females, because I’m kind of in an in-between stage right now,’ they worked with me very well and got my housing issues resolved,” said the anonymous member. “I feel comfortable where I’m at right now.”

Even if their housing concerns have been resolved, transgender students can have trouble finding bathrooms to use on campus. Group members said not all University buildings are equipped with gender neutral bathrooms, and said they prefer to avoid using gendered bathrooms.

“I still don’t feel comfortable going into the men’s bathroom, and obviously not the women’s bathroom, it just doesn’t feel right,” Shutter said. 

Transgender students can also have trouble finding appropriate medical care in Tuscaloosa, Higginbotham said. Hormone replacement therapy can be an important step in the transition process for many transgender people. According to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, hormone therapy “is a medically necessary intervention for many transsexual, transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals with gender dysphoria.”

Higginbotham was initially prescribed hormones by a doctor in Montgomery, a two-hour drive from Tuscaloosa. He said the University Medical Center would not prescribe hormones to him as a new patient, but once he had seen the the doctor in Montgomery, the UMC agreed to continue filling his existing prescription.

Margaret Garner, interim executive director of the Student Health Center, said the SHC does not provide in-house services for transgender students.

“While the Student Health Center does not currently employ providers who have experience in trans health issues, the staff will assess medical needs as they are presented and will refer the student to outside services that meet their needs, just as they do with other subspecialties,” Garner said in an emailed statement.

Higginbotham and other group members said the UMC used to employ a team of three medical professionals, including a psychiatrist, a general practitioner and an endocrinologist, who would work together to oversee hormone replacement therapy for transgender patients. Garner declined to comment on the past or future availability of similar services at the SHC.

Finding a doctor willing and qualified to prescribe hormones is only part of the process. According to WPATH’S Standards of Care, a document providing clinical guidelines for health professionals to assist transgender, transsexual and gender-nonconforming people, transgender individuals need a recommendation letter from a qualified mental health professional before they can be prescribed hormones.

Shutter attends counseling at the UA Counseling Center, but she cannot get a recommendation letter for hormone replacement therapy.

“My therapist said she’s comfortable writing me a letter, but it wouldn’t really be credible because of the type of therapy that we do here,” Shutter said. “I have to go somewhere off campus and find a whole new therapist to convince that I’m trans to write me a letter.”

Higginbotham had been living as a man for several years before taking hormones, so he received his recommendation letter after one therapy session. Although he legally changed his name, currently lives as male and has been taking hormones since 2013, Higginbotham is still legally a female in the eyes of the state of Alabama.

In Alabama, gender on a birth certificate cannot be changed until proof of surgical treatment has been provided. Even with this proof, the updated birth certificate will indicate that the name and gender have been changed.

This creates the potential for transgender people to be outed on their birth certificates and through background checks, which can affect their ability to find employment, Higginbotham said. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, Alabama is not one of the 17 U.S. states that has laws prohibiting discrimination against transgender people in employment, housing, public places and schools.

“I haven’t gotten a job interview since [May 2013],” Higginbotham said. “I have tried over 150 places to get a job here in Tuscaloosa, and I have to [answer ‘yes’ to the question], ‘Were you known under a different name?’ I put that and nobody has called me back, even for an interview.”

Despite its challenges, group members said transitioning is ultimately what’s right for them. Higginbotham said he hopes to influence change at the University and encourage a level of openness and understanding about what it means to be transgender.

“If you’ve never questioned the ‘F’ or the ‘M’ that’s on your birth certificate, then you truly don’t understand how difficult it is to know that it’s wrong,” Higginbotham said. “I’m not making a choice to do this. This is what I have to do because if I don’t, I don’t want to live. I don’t want to be on this Earth if I can’t be the person I was born to be.”