I don’t think I’ve discussed it much on this blog, but we are currently in the process of launching a scholarship fund for gender non-conforming and allied students.  Our goal is to gather an endowment of $1 million in order to offer a full ride to one student per graduating class.  I’m spearheading the effort and we’re hoping to get it off the ground by the end of the 08-09 school year so we may offer a scholarship to an incoming freshman in the Class of 2013.

I recently received some criticism, and I’d like to address it publicly since this is an issue that is near and dear to my heart, and I believe my critics are grossly misunderstanding the issues at hand.

My critics have claimed that the scholarship doesn’t improve the campus climate, but in fact might cause an uptick in discrimination on campus as other students might see the scholarship as “unfair.”  They claim that doing something like petitioning the administration to increase the number of unisex bathrooms on campus, for example, would be a better project.  First of all, not every gender variant individual chooses to use unisex bathrooms, and an increase will only serve a certain segment of the population.  The focus on bathroom use is a very narrow view idea of what the campus community can do to make gender variant students feel welcome.  Second of all, I believe that, first and foremost, this project’s goal is to show incoming freshmen that there is a supportive community here at U-M.  In spite of any acts of discrimination or outright bigotry that gender non-conforming students might face in Ann Arbor, we want to send the clear message that there is a community, however small, that is dedicated in a big way and will stand up for them if they need us.  Not everybody coming to this campus is going to be as ready to ignore or constructively deal with taunts and threats, but it’s certainly more likely that they’ll be willing to put up a brave face if they know not only that support is at their back but others have come before and have succeeded with flying colors.

As an aside, much of this desire came from my own experience arriving in Ann Arbor as a transgender freshman.  I didn’t feel as though there was a community at all here.  I was unsure who to reach out to.  I didn’t know if I’d be in danger living in a female dorm floor in South Quad.  I wasn’t clear on how to deal with all the people on campus who would question me, criticize me, and even threaten me.  Were there even other students like me?  I wasn’t sure.  There are other efforts underway like R.A. training through the CommonGround program that are new or improved since I was a freshman.  However, these are administration-sponsored programs.  Our scholarship is intended to be a meaningful show of support that is student-directed — evidence for incoming students that there’s a supportive group of people on this campus not just on staff, but also part of the student body.

Other criticism that has been leveled at the project is that by choosing a gender non-conforming student we are being “discriminatory.”  There are two reasons that this is a false, if not fallacious, argument.  First, the scholarship is aimed at both gender non-conforming students and their allies who are already serving the LGBT community through activism, community service, outreach, or just generally being a good human being.  I’m unclear about how this scholarship is discriminatory if it is based upon shared values.  I’ve also been told about scholarships for very short people.  Discriminatory?  Depends on how you look at it, I suppose.

Second, this argument smacks to me of the same kinds of arguments used against affirmative action.  Some people would say it’s discriminatory to give an extra leg up to anybody, but the reality of the situation is, transgender students suffer from tangible and real disadvantages compared to the rest of the student body.  How can we expect to offer students a “level playing field” if the playing field was never level from the beginning?  Is it fair to ignore the discrimination that our peers face merely for the sake of “equality?”  And is that really equality?  That this might be some kind of equality to me seems dubious at best.

There’s another affirmative action parallel in here.  Opponents of affirmative action say that people who are looking for reasons to be prejudiced against students of color will use it as a reason to do so; so, goes the criticism, will recipients of this scholarship be singled out and targeted.  As much as this may be the case, I don’t think that the young people who are eligible to receive the scholarship will be very “low-profile” in terms of their gender presentation.  I’m not saying they’ll be ostentatious, because many of us aren’t.  But I don’t seem very “out there” as far as my gender presentation goes, but I’m still singled out.  Even in places I consider “safe.”  I’m comfortable being an out transman, and that carries with it risks.  The reality of the situation that these critics fail to grasp is that we are already singled out in a very real, very immediate, and very constant way.  There is no “stealth” mode for many of us, especially at this age, especially living in dormitories segregated by sex.  Those inclined to apply for the scholarship will be identifying themselves in other ways.

I want to emphasize that this scholarship is designed to serve a severely underserved community, one which is often simply ignored by mainstream society.  At worst, we are singled out by acts of physical or emotional violence.  Even on U-M’s so-called liberal campus, I have been the target of taunts, threats, and discrimination.  This is a reality.  I don’t pretend that this problem will be eradicated or even improved by offering this money.  But as I stated previously, I hope that the scholarship will be a gesture from a segment of the student body that does care deeply, sincerely and honestly about diversity in Ann Arbor.

Finally, I believe my critics have a poor understanding of what it means for many gender variant individuals to be gender variant and to live in the skins they’ve been given.  I don’t pretend that by bankrolling an education I will be buying off the psychological pain of being non-binary in a binary world.  Many students will look for professional psychological help.  Some students, during their time at U-M, will inevitably opt for hormone therapy and sex reassignment surgery.  These are astronomically expensive procedures, which, when supervised by qualified professionals, improve the quality of life for transgender people by orders of magnitude.  Therapy ain’t cheap either: the people I’ve seen who have specialties in the fields of sex and gender tend to be much more expensive than their general practitioner counterparts.  The unfortunate fact of the matter, though, is that not only does not everybody benefit from health insurance, not everybody who has health insurance benefit from insurance that will cover the procedures or therapy.  I’m one of the lucky ones — if my SRS is pre-approved by my insurance company, it’s 100% covered.  I get 52 visits with a psychiatrist or psychologist per year.

The financial burden created by trying to build the life a gender variant student might dream of is immense.  Coupled with the cost of education, and the student may be faced with a seemingly insurmountable debt.  Money doesn’t buy happiness, but it can buy steps toward being more comfortable in your own skin, measures toward better understanding yourself and your place in a society, and the higher education necessary to achieve.  Just as scholarship funds for other minority groups aim to empower individuals to achieve and hopefully give back to the community in the future, I hope that the recipients of the U-M Transgender Student Scholarship will feel empowered to achieve at the U and beyond.

Worrying about paying for college is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of my goals for this project.  I hope to bring together a community of caring people to direct the scholarship, for example.  I plan to involve members of staff, students, faculty and community leaders.  I want to offer an opportunity I never would have dreamed of coming to U-M.  Sure, it’s not “justice,” per se, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.  But having a contingent of empowered gender non-conforming and allied alumni?  That sounds like more than one step in the right direction.