Content Warning: Contains vague narrative descriptions of transphobic violence at Olin.
I don’t talk very openly about my gender on campus. I’m here for the same reasons you are: to learn, be close to people, and plan for a career. My gender and my body’s position in the bimodal distribution often simplified as “biological sex” shouldn’t be relevant to any of that. I’m speaking up because I saw a disturbing pattern on campus last semester, and I’m calling on our community to change. This letter is especially relevant for people who had never met a trans person before me. I want to focus on eigenvalues and spline curves, on core dumps and Parcel B walks and the people I love, but my lived reality last semester kept me from bringing my full attention to any of that. I want that to change.
First, the background: I’m a transgender person. When I was born, a doctor checked “male” on a sheet of paper. Assigning “biological sex” as exclusively male or female is not only a statistically inaccurate abstraction for transgender and intersex people—it makes healthcare worse for everyone. It hurts patients because it encourages doctors to make assumptions rather than think critically about individuals, and it leads to spurious research conclusions. Humans display a wide natural variation in sex characteristics, but doctors and researchers often operate based on assigned sex, which cannot be accurately classified as male or female for as many as 2% of people at birth. Physical bodies are different from gender, which is internal, but variations in both occur frequently and are often hidden.
“Male” inaccurately describes my gender, so I found more accurate language. I’m still figuring out what words best describe me, but I prefer being referred to with the pronouns “she/her/hers” or “they/them/theirs.” So you could say: “Sam is writing an article about their gender” or “Sam really appreciates that you are bringing an open mind to her lived experiences.”
In many ways, Olin has been incredibly welcoming. For most of my first semester, my gender identity was not something I had to think about every day. Many professors asked for pronouns, which was affirming and is a great way to be an ally to trans people. At the same time, I heard a few disturbing categories of jokes that mock trans people in coded ways. I know most of the people making these jokes don’t intend harm, but they make Olin a more hostile place for trans students and that matters more than the intent.
I first noticed a common joke trope: the Man In Dress. I have lost count the times I’ve heard Oliners joke about men wearing dresses. It’s often casual, sometimes in reference to specific comedians’ jokes about trans women. Let’s be clear: trans women are female, and men can wear dresses. If the idea of a man wearing a dress feels wrong, awkward, or amusing to you, it’s because our society normalizes strictly gendered clothing. Think about it rationally: there’s nothing intrinsically “male” or “female” about a cut of cloth. Portraying “men in dresses” as humorous or depraved is not just alienating, social scientists have shown that it provides a cognitive permission structure for violence against trans people. In short, it dehumanizes. In the Americas, trans women have a life expectancy of 30-35 years on average because of the violence against us. In 45 states, the “trans panic” defense is still legal, so arguing that a trans woman is responsible for her own murder (by not conforming to gender expectations) is a valid legal defense. Joking about and mocking gender-nonconformity enables and normalizes the hate that often leads to violence. It doesn’t just make me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome, it makes the world meaningfully less safe for people like me. It’s also the same language strangers have used before assaulting me in public for my identity, and it hurts to hear that in a place I love.
I also heard more subtle jokes that target trans people for our identities. The thread of jokes about “identifying as a _______,” like identifying as an Apache Attack Helicopter, are specifically intended to mock non-binary identities. Choosing a label for your own gender experience is a historic process that has existed in diverse cultures for thousands of years. For example, Navajo culture recognizes some individuals as both men and women, and reveres those individuals as nádleehí. Genders that are both male and female, neither, or a distinct category were recognized throughout pre-colonization societies in the places we know as Argentina, Australia, India, Italy, Massachusetts, Mexico, and more. Jokes that arbitrarily identify people with objects ridicule the process of choosing a gender label, which has existed for most of recorded history. Language is socially constructed, and you can use whatever gender label most accurately describes your lived gender experience. Jokes about gender “not existing” undermine the validity of all gender identities. All genders are real, valid, and not determined by physical characteristics.
Most concerningly, I noticed a pattern of more direct harassment and inappropriate questions. I’ve been laughed at, mocked, misgendered, and asked what I “am.” I’ve also been asked about my genitals in public spaces at Olin. The summer housing survey implicitly asked inappropriate and irrelevant questions about the medical history and bodies of transgender students. I am very grateful that Seth corrected that survey at the request of myself and many other students. At several public Olin events, I was misgendered directly both by Oliners and visitors. In one case, another student’s family member pointed at my “she/her or they/them” pronoun sticker, read it, and then continued to point and laugh while walking away.
Last semester, an Oliner made a series of public blog posts that explicitly misgendered another student on campus. The posts even accused them of changing identities to somehow avoid “male guilt” and were shared alongside accusations that people choose gender identity labels to pressure others into sex. In a few specific instances, other transgender students and I were directly intimidated for our attempts to argue back against those ideas—we were targeted for arguing for our own existences. I have been physically threatened on multiple occasions. I know of several students still having nightmares because of fear for their safety. I found that Olin simply does not have an official harassment or bias response policy to cope with situations like this.
It’s not all bad. I’m profoundly grateful for this community’s openness to change and the deeply empathetic support I have experienced from almost everyone here. I’ve heard so many open-minded questions from other Oliners who wanted to understand more about people like me, and I love you all for caring enough to hear more. Thank you.
Please think honestly and critically about the jokes and content you share. You don’t have to police your speech, just ask who you’re targeting and why. We are designing the future of our community and society at all times. When you hear another Oliner making fun of gender identity, ask them to be more respectful. When you hear someone reinforcing unified biological sex as a valid scientific construct, challenge them! You are the designers of Olin’s future culture. Include gender acceptance. However awkward it may feel, speaking up is infinitely safer for people who aren’t transgender than for those who are—and it can be more powerful. If you are not transgender, you can use your privilege to help make space for trans people to exist. We need your help. I welcome any This is our community to build, so let’s make it inclusive and give every single Oliner the space to question their own identity and feel welcome.