by Michelle Kusel, Elon Staff

About four years ago I was asked to facilitate a leadership retreat called Insight.  Looking back on it, the name was quite ironic.  Insight.  I was asked to provide space where students could be insightful and reflect.  That’s exactly what this retreat allowed *me* to do.

During the retreat, students and facilitators participated in a leadership activity called Four Corners.  The purpose of Four Corners is to create conversation around diverse viewpoints.  During one of the questions, I was having trouble choosing a corner.  Did I agree with the statement?  Disagree?  I wasn’t sure.  So I stood in the middle, perplexed.  Beside me stood John.  He too was perplexed on how he felt about the topic.  He turned to me and said, “I’m not sure how I feel about this.  Since I’m transgender this question is really difficult for me to take a position.”

Transgendered.  Huh.  What did that even mean?  I nodded my head, smiled, and chose my corner.  But my mind wouldn’t shut up.  I needed to put John in a category and my mind didn’t have one for him to fall in!  I finally convinced my mind to silence itself by succumbing to the fact that there was a lot in the world that I didn’t know.  Now, don’t get me wrong.  I wasn’t okay with that.  It’s just what I needed to do to get back in the game.  Transgender went into a category:  Unknown stuff.

After the retreat, I emailed John to hang out and asked him if I could learn more about what it meant to identify as transgender.  We talked.  I learned what it meant to be a female-to-male transgendered individual and the legal process involved in transitioning.  I learned what it meant to bind, what it meant to “pass,” and that gender identity has absolutely nothing to do with sexual orientation.  But most importantly, I learned John’s story.  I learned how incredibly similar we were in our desires and in our socially constructed lives.

I also learned that there was still so much I didn’t know.  As a learner and an active citizen there was a fire inside of me that made me realize that it was my responsibility to learn.  Ignorance wasn’t an excuse.

So I continued to meet students and community members that identified as transgender and I continued to learn.  Then, I conducted my masters research on transgender college student experiences to find out if the stories I heard were isolated.  I think most importantly, I continued to ask questions.  Admittedly, some were pretty stupid questions but you don’t know unless you ask.

When people ask me why I am an ally I think back to the stories I heard – the rocks thrown at an 18-year-transgender student walking down the street or the hateful slangs directed at my friend.  I come back to a simple fact:  everyone deserves respect.  As an ally, I work towards educating people to respect one another and celebrate difference.