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.