The world through their eyes: Trans* student experiences college, life

IMG_5108 English literature and microbiology senior Riley poses for the camera. They are an openly Trans* student as well as the President of genderWHAT!?, a club for queer-radical students at ASU. (Photo by Ashley Kesweder)

Riley, who chooses not to disclose their last name, always knew the name given by their parents was not theirs. Last year, Riley decided to do something about it.

The change came when a Starbucks barista asked for a name. The answer was Riley.

“When I was three, I was like, ‘No! I don’t want to wear dresses, only girls wear dresses,’” Riley said. “When I was six, I was like, 'I want to be like you,' to these two girls but also to this one guy. I had complicated feelings on who I wanted to be and who I liked.”

Riley has always been Riley, the English literature and microbiology senior said.

“I don’t really think of (my former name) as my past, because that’s assuming that is a part of my identity at all,” Riley said. “It also perpetuates the notion that trans* people start as one thing and transition into something else.”

Riley is an openly trans* student at ASU.

“I just feel like I don’t fit in with any other label. I don’t really have a gender,” they said. “'Trans*' is an umbrella term used to encompass lots of different genders that often times aren’t cis(gender).”

Cisgender is a term that usually refers to people who identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. Trans* includes all non-cisgender identities, such as transgender and transsexual.

Tonia Stott, a professor who contributes content to an introductory class of LGBTQ studies at ASU, said transgender is an identity term.

“It often refers to a person who feels like their assigned sex is not their identified sex,” she said. “Transgender identity can also mean that you don’t identify with your assigned sex, but not necessarily that you identify with the opposite sex.”

Many people, Riley included, prefer to use the pronoun ‘they’ to describe themselves.

“Someone who identifies as transgender … may be very uncomfortable with having an assigned pronoun, so they use ‘they’ instead,” Stott said.

Riley works at the Downtown campus Student Success Center as a writing tutor and at the publication Lux Undergraduate Creative Review as an editor along with holding the position of president in the openly radical student-led organization, genderWHAT?!

“Queer-radical means not normative and that you are critical and you question things,” they said. “Defining radical is an oxymoron in itself.”

Riley joined the organization in 2011 after meeting former president Taylor Cruz, who became a mentor to Riley.

“Just saying genderWHAT?! is kind of synonymous with talking about Taylor,” Riley said. “Taylor was an angry, lashing-out person.”

LGBTQA specialist Chris Schlarb said Riley is a good leader for genderWHAT?!

“Riley is a great trans* activist and knows a lot about trans* subjects and wanting to improve things for trans* students at ASU,” Schlarb said.

Schlarb, who also prefers to be referred to as "they," said there is still work to be done at ASU in terms of diversity.

An important resource for transgender students is the ability to change their name at ASU, even if they do not change it in other legal documents.

It is not an impossible process, but students have to know who to contact, Schlarb said.

“The registrar's office is still working on how to change preferred names in some areas, but not in other areas,” they said. “They have to have your legal name in that area, but a preferred name in rosters. They’ve really only done that for one student.”

Schlarb plans to make the information available online as part of other transgender resources at ASU.

Riley has not changed their preferred name at the University.

“I don’t feel like a guy or a girl,” they said. “I guess just nothing. I’m nothing.”

Riley, who has not seen their mother since the age of seven, grew up with their father and sister and later moved in with their paternal grandparents.

Riley’s father had three jobs to support his two children.

“I used to treat ‘mom’ and ‘mother’ like it was a bad word,” Riley said. “When I would be reading at school I would skip over the word. My dad always encouraged me not to call her ‘mom.’”

Riley briefly identified as a lesbian, but after starting a certificate in LGBTQ studies, Riley began to notice the last two letters of LGBTQ, which stand for transgender and queer, more and more.

During the summer of 2012, Riley practiced binding their chest so it wouldn’t be prominent.

Riley said they constantly feel gender dysphoria.

“It feels, well, for me, like you hate yourself and you just want to saw off those parts,” they said.

Gender dysphoria ? which is known as gender identity disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but will change in the next edition ? is commonly perceived as cross-gender identification.

“(Gender dysphoria is a) diagnosis that someone can assign to a person to mean they’re confused or ambivalent about their gender identity,” Stott said.

A person often has to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria to be able to undergo sex reassignment surgery, Stott said.

ASU offers counseling services to all students. The first session is free, but students have to pay if they require more than one session.

“We do what we can,” Schlarb said. “One of the things we started was the LGBTQ support group, and there is no payment for that.”

Riley, who has been to Counseling Services at ASU, said they were not very helpful.

Schlarb ordered Riley to attend a session after Riley wrote a Facebook post that implied suicidal thoughts.

“They charged me, and they didn’t listen to me,” they said. “They wouldn’t understand trans* issues and possibly don’t even know what feeling dysphoric means.”

After the second session, Riley never returned.

Research suggests trans* students might find more hardships than lesbian or gay students, Schlarb said.

“It’s difficult for trans* students due to stress, anxiety and problems with their body image,” they said.

According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality in 2011, 78 percent of those who identified as transgender or did not conform to their gender, while in grades K-12 suffered harassment and 35 percent were victims of physical assaults.

One of the immediate challenges transgender students face at ASU is finding bathrooms that will make them feel comfortable and not put them in harm.

Riley has memorized all the gender-neutral bathrooms available in the Tempe campus to avoid the issue.

“I only go to gender-neutral bathrooms,” they said. “If they’re not open, I go to the women’s bathroom. People sometimes stare or say things.”

To counteract these adversities, ASU has created SafeZONE, a program that aims to increase understanding of LGBTQ issues in the community.

Schlarb, who oversees SafeZONE, said appropriate pronouns are taught during the workshop.

There are other difficulties that trans* students at ASU face every day, Riley said. Student insurance does not cover many of the common transitioning methods.

Riley does not plan to undergo sex reassignment surgery and is ambivalent toward hormonal treatment.

At some point, I started dabbling in natural transitioning things like herbs and supplemental-type things,” they said. “It felt like it made a difference to some extent.“

Riley noticed facial hair and fat redistribution after the treatment and has stopped taking it.

If they could, Riley would change many things about their physical appearance.

“I would get top surgery,” they said. “I would have less hips, too.”


Reach the reporter at or follow her on Twitter @dpalomabp

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