By Paul L. Young
SMCC’s ongoing struggle to understand and engage a growing multicultural student population has led to the formation of the Rainbow League, the school’s most recent official student organization. Its stated mission is “to provide a meeting of students wishing to foster a welcoming and inclusive environment for all within the SMCC community, regardless of identity or expression.”
The Rainbow League formally emerged last semester from the long-simmering frustrations of a core group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) Human Services students and their allies who believed the department was not doing enough to educate students about the importance of LGBTQ cultures and issues on campus and in American life.
The response of the Human Services department began one year ago. With Assistant Professor Kathryn Stannard, department chair Tom Richardson assembled an advisory group of faculty, students and alumni to identify LGBTQ information and concerns. The group would recommend training for department faculty “to help them become more knowledgeable about LGBTQ issues – especially gender issues where I think there is a lot of ignorance,” Richardson wrote in his initial outreach.
Advisors would also recommend curriculum changes “to better educate our students about how to work effectively with LGBTQ clients and coworkers.” Richardson and Stannard also instigated a ‘You Are Welcome Here’ poster campaign modeled on other academic institutions’ successful outreach to LGBTQ communities. This summer, for the first time, SMCC was represented in Portland’s annual Gay Pride Parade to raucous approval from parade- watchers.
“This population was not getting the attention it needs, especially in light of current social events,” said Sarah Goldberg, a founding Rainbow League member. “There’s been a lot more light shed on LGBT youth suicide and mental health. If you’re not taught about this, there’s no way you’re going to know about it.”
Driven by a small, dedicated group of LGBT students, the Rainbow League achieved official status as a student organization in May, at the last Spring term meeting of the Student Senate. Human Services instructors Kathryn Stannard and Emily Russell serve as its faculty advisors.
Although the group believes all issues affecting LGBT communities are important, those affecting transgender – or ‘trans’ or ‘genderqueer’ – students have been priorities to date: improving students’ understanding of the nuances of transgender communities and their terminology and addressing the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.
Meaghan Martin, another founding member, noted the organization’s educational focus. “Because the Rainbow League was originally formed to serve the Human Services department, our original goal was to be a part of that education by providing the department with accurate information and resources, and suggestions for how to appropriately integrate that information into the existing curriculum. We also wanted to make SMCC more visibly welcoming to students who are LGBTQ-identified so they might feel more comfortable here.”
One student in particular has been at the center of the Rainbow League’s efforts since its inception. Ivan Murray, a 21-year-old, transgender man in transition, originally was frustrated with how little LGBT communities were covered in Human Services coursework.
“It’s important to make instructors more aware of LGBT students’ preferences for pronouns and forms of address,” Murray said, “but from the first meeting we knew we wanted to do more than that. We wanted to reach out to the campus. We wanted to form an advocacy group. One of the first issues we talked about was gender-oriented bathrooms.”
Murray explained that “a lot of genderqueer people are uncomfortable with gendered bathrooms. Genderqueer don’t identify as man or woman.” In current LGBTQ parlance, this preference is also called ‘nonbinary’ or ‘agender,’ as opposed to ‘bigender’ (self-identifying as either sex) or ‘gender fluid.’ ‘Cisgender,’ whose prefix means ‘on the side of,’ refers to those who identify as the sex they were born.
These terms convey a rapidly shifting landscape of gender that may generate fear, anxiety and deeper mental health issues for transgender men and women. According to Murray, the person may experience gender dysphoria , which he described as “the anxiety and depression you feel when people don’t recognize you as the person you chose to be.” The person may also experience body dysphoria, in which “you don’t feel your body is adequate to the role you’ve taken on,” Murray said.
“A significant percentage of the trans population doesn’t feel the need for hormones and surgery or can’t afford them,” Murray said. “They don’t experience body dysphoria. A double standard exists. Trans persons are expected to adhere to gender stereotypes.”
For persons in transition, it is critical that they be allowed to make desired gender changes at their own pace, Murray said. “Transition doesn’t include anyone else; it’s all up to do it at your own pace. Transitioning isn’t a race. It doesn’t have to be big things like hormones and surgery. There are little things you can do.
“My biggest daily challenge is deciding whether to put on my binder [a tight sheath suppressing the breasts]. If I don’t, people will be able to see the shape of my breasts. So it comes down to, do I want to feel comfortable today or do I want to feel like more of a man today?”
Murray said he has not seen any overt prejudice around gender issues at SMCC. Rather, he said SMCC benignly neglects its LGBT community. “People say, ‘I don’t see why it’s a big deal.’ That’s because they’re not educated about it and not talking about it.”
Tabatha Copeland is a Rainbow League member and a Human Services peer support counselor. “One of my biggest problems is that students aren’t taking it seriously and no one is asking them to take it seriously,” she said. (In the interest of full disclosure, this writer also serves as a Human Services peer support counselor.)
Murray observed that “more LGBT people are becoming visible in media and the world. More LGBT people feel safe coming out now.” At SMCC, he said, “We’re making a safe space for people to be themselves.
“Maine is pretty safe, but if I came out in Texas it might be different. If people are willing to risk their lives, to risk being raped, that shows you how important this is. People think we choose to be this way. I didn’t choose to be a boy. I didn’t choose to face these dangers. I don’t want to live in hiding.”