"How do you see yourself without consequence?"



"My name is Brandon, I use they/them pronouns, and I am the Dean of Students at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS). HWS is a really interesting place to work because of its focus on gender (it’s the first college to have a LGBTQ+ Studies program), the expansion of gender and evaluating the constrictions that may exist for some students in gendered systems. I grew up on Long Island where I went to a very large and diverse high school and, after graduation, went to Keuka College as a first generation college student. At the time, I was really excited to go to a smaller, private institution. In retrospect, I wish I had gone to a much larger institution where I could have explored my identity a little bit more, particularly earlier in life. At Keuka, I was kind of stuck as one of very few gay men; it was a very small and private group. This sometimes resulted in a toxic environment because you were expected to get along with each other, just because you shared a common sexuality.


I was a student leader in student affairs as an RA and such. After, I went to work at SUNY Cortland and Ithaca College. Now, I am here at HWS—I attended Binghamton University for my master’s and Northeastern for my doctorate. Throughout that time, I moved into adult life pretty quickly. I identified as a gay white male since I was thirteen. I had my first long term relationship while I was working at SUNY Cortland, and a year later went to Ithaca College where I met my current partner. Six months into our relationship, we were engaged. Eighteen months later we were married, and a year later we adopted our child—who is now 11!


When I was a teenager, I remember doing a lot of my own research on AOL about what it meant to be trans—that WAS THE INTERNET! From this research, I found a lot of negative examples and connotations of trans lives. I searched about transgender, transsexual, and other terms on AOL—because, who else was I going to ask? I knew I was gay—but there was something more.


Around the same time, I would Google search for support places. The only gay community support center for youth was over an hour away. It was nice to know that places like that existed in relative proximity to me, but at the time it wasn’t possible to even maintain a virtual connection with them—they were too far away to even visit. Really the only gay connection I had was a chat room on AOL known as 'long island M4M'. I remember it very specifically because that is how you would search for it! This chat room functioned similarly to apps (like Tinder, Grindr, etc.) that exist today, but…back then… it took much longer for a picture to load! While some used it for intimate relationships, it was also nice just to find others going through a similar experience.


So then I went off to college. I never really had any community until I went to Binghamton for a Master’s program and was working at Cortland where I met my best friend who was also gay—honestly, it was the first time I spent days and days with someone who was gay…and it was amazing. His pride helped me realize there wasn’t shame in my sexuality or expression.


In one of my first classes at Binghamton, a teacher asked me, 'Have you ever heard of the word heteronormativity.' I enthusiastically was like, 'No… what is that?' That lead to my research on why people who are gay and queer have to rely on social media to find connection and community. This focus on community became more important to me. Then, through my academic studies, I started to plan and implement diversity-related programming and I developed different SafeZone trainings for colleges and universities. Yet, I questioned the purpose of these: shouldn’t everywhere be a safe space? I centered this idea in the subsequent trainings I created and pursued my doctorate, which focused on the challenges of queer people through the 70s and 80s and, more specifically, how they found jobs and how they feel their gender/sexuality impacts them today.


So it has all been a step by step process. I wouldn’t say I was a queer academic at the age of 18, but more of a lifelong process of learning and understanding how important community really is.

 

My transition from research into academia was definitely a noticeable shift. Two particular things come to mind. Scott Fearing was a leader in the Rochester area who ran a lot of LGBTQ+ trainings and activism program. Ten years ago, I was in one of his trainings and I remember at the end of class, he facilitated an activity where people stood on one side of the room or another based on their agreement with a question. One of the questions was if they had been to a pride event. I hadn’t gone to a pride event in my life yet so I went to the non-pride event side of the room. I remember Scott asking me, ‘I’m just curious but why haven’t you been to a pride event yet?’ I responded, ‘I felt like I never really needed to be there. Why do we need to flaunt it? Why can’t we just represent like our straight counterparts?' Now, I realize that, at the time, I was still holding onto a lot of internalized trans- and homophobia. Then Scott replies, ‘It doesn’t matter if you feel like you want to be there, other people need you to be there; you have to be a model for other people who are struggling and living with the anxiety of being gay in this world.’ And it really hit home, I felt like that was definitely a call to action. So, I did attend my first Pride parade in 2019---WORLD PRIDE—where I marched alongside the POSE cast with friends!

I started teaching personal empowerment, a course I still teach today, about emotional intelligence; things like how to deal with anxiety, thoughts of harming yourself in the emotional sense, how to detach from toxic people in your life, etc. I feel like it’s a course that helps young adults learn a lot of really important concepts that give them the tools to navigate an often difficult world.


Around this time, I was doing my dissertation on emotional intelligence. I started writing it and my advisor was like, ‘this seems really boring. Why don’t you write about something you want to write about? You’re writing about something that will benefit your career, not something you want to write about. This might be your only chance to write in this way, why not do it about something you’re passionate about!?' So, I started researching queer leadership and the experiences of the lives queer leaders as they moved through their career journey. After that, I began to take my empowerment course and transitioning it into asking questions like: How do queer lives become empowered? How can one pursue active allyship? How do you detach from toxic people that are causing you harm as an LGBTQ person? Once I started doing that, I saw so many doors open personally and professionally. Yes, I am labeled as a teacher, but I see role as a facilitator, my students already know what they’re supposed know, they just don’t know it’s there. My job is to unlock the information already in the room…


Exploring my identity has been a journey. Right now, as you are interviewing me, all of my clothes are feminine, but I still received as relatively male by the world. Throughout my life, my identity has been evolving and continues to do so. I came out as bisexual originally, and that reflected my understanding of gender at the time. I thought, there are men and women and if you want to be trans you really do have to go from one to the other. Again, that was my understanding at the time…everything has been an evolution, alongside the help of friends.


But, keep in mind, from a really young age, when I would think about who I wanted to be with for the rest of my life, at like six years old, I would think, ‘I am going to be a wife to someone someday.’ I thought this but without a real concept of how I would get there given the world we live in. I’ve known my whole life that I am probably not male, I don’t really align myself with anything 'men' do. But for most of my life I have identified as male. I started having intimate relationships with other people as a male, and even now I recognize the male power that I have in a room. It’s a complicated dissonance: I recognize the benefit that I receive, unfortunately, from being male and I don’t like it at the same time. Around three years ago, I came out to my lifelong friends Steven and my friend Kerri saying to them, ‘I think I might be trans. I’ve thought about it for while, it has caused me some pain to just sit on it, and I don’t know where I am going with it but here you go.’ I felt safe telling them, Steven actually works in television trying to increase trans representation. After the two of them, I started telling people that I could really have consequences with, like my partner. When I told him, there was apprehension and misunderstanding of what it meant and also what the consequences would be. I had to give him time because, it felt like the person he was with was drastically changing.


So about two years ago, I began identifying as genderqueer. I used the pronouns they/them or he/him. About a year ago, I felt like that was still allowing too much leniency in how I was wanting to be perceived, so I switched to they/them exclusively. It was at that point where I started to really question why there weren’t other options for gender identity. I’ve done it so much that my daughter has literally been like, ‘there is not an option for you here… I’m not sure what to tell you, you’re just going to have to select one. But if you select the female option, you might have difficulty in conversations because you aren’t presenting that way.’ And instances like that have made me start to realize that, if I want to present as female in the world, it is also a real conflict with my non-binary/gender queerness. If I present as female, and continue my estrogen to gain more feminine features, or just reduce mental gender dysphoria, how will that effect my gender queerness? And in my mind, I have decided that it won’t. I am not comfortable with she/her pronouns right now, and I am not sure if I ever will be. I am also not comfortable with the identity of a trans woman, but if I present more feminine I can still be non-binary. This has been something that has been very comforting to me. I am finally at a stage saying I will just present not 'as' something…but just as myself.

 

In terms of my healthcare, it was a big step in figuring out how to gain access to estrogen. Like, what that meant health insurance wise, not just for my estrogen, but the physical effects that the estrogen would have. These are questions I had to start asking people in the human resources and such, people who are allegedly there to help you. They make sure you have access to things in a polite way, but ultimately at the end of the day, these people are protecting the organization, not always you. So to have to out myself to our staff and ask exactly what is covered in our insurance policy, in regard to trans healthcare, was really difficult. And now that I have outed myself to people and they know my pronouns, another layer of difficulty is added because I have to sit there and constantly be misgendered by the very same people I have confided in at my workplace (I actually am doing a research study on these types of experiences). In literally every meeting I am in, I continually get misgendered on zoom with my labels right by my name. At a certain point after being misgendered so much, I just give up and hope that someone else steps in. It is exhausting.


I have depression and before I was prescribed a new anti-depressant, my NP was hoping to understand more about my depression. So I explained to her that I was dealing general life issues and what it means to co-parent, have work-related stress, etc. But, I also explored the new feeling surrounding my gender. This is when I first mentioned estrogen with my NP and she had no idea what the next steps were for me. She explained how they use estrogen for post-menopausal women and literally said, ‘I don’t even know who you would go to.’ It wasn’t until I talked a faculty member who recently transitioned, where I really learned what my next steps could be with estrogen therapy. She gave me the number of her endocrinologist. So I wanted to contact them to get set up with their healthcare team. I went to my counselor to discuss this and she said, ‘Your endocrinologist may need a letter that affirms that you have been seeing me. I know that you’re not comfortable with she/her pronouns…but I need you to know that in this letter, I need to use them. Because if I use they/them, your provider won’t understand what I mean. They won’t understand the words gender queer and non-binary. And they won’t understand why you want to be on estrogen if you’re not identifying as female.’ And I really trust my counselor, so me saying this isn’t at all a slight on them… but more on this place that calls themselves the trans center. But really, what I’ve learned, they only call themselves that brands themselves as a center open to specifically treat trans people—and they don’t understand the expansion of gender. As my counselor was finishing my letter, they told me that I have to choose a name, and said that I have to show them that I am at least considering a name in order for them to take me seriously. But in my head I am thinking…right now I am Brandon…and that’s the name I want to use.


So this was all that I had to go through before even calling to set up an appointment! Once my letter was finished, I called the center. I remember being on hold for a really long time, I think I finally got in on my third call.


Trans Center: 'Endocrinology.'

Me: 'Hi, I’d like to set up an appointment.'

Trans Center: 'Do we have your paperwork?'

Me: 'No, I’m new…'

Trans Center: 'Okay, are you a new patient?'

Me: 'Yes.'

Trans Center: 'Do we have your paper work?'

Me: 'No, I have my letter. You know, I am a new patient; I am trying to get acquainted.'

Trans Center: 'We can’t admit you as a new patient until we get your paperwork.'


…I’m still trying to maintain some optimism here!...


Me: 'Great, what paperwork do you need?'

Trans Center: 'You need a letter from your counselor, and then a letter from your primary care physician. Then, we’ll evaluate as to whether we can take your case.'


And that was it, it was so brief and I still felt like I didn’t have many answers—it’s like, I didn’t even know what questions to ask anyway! And, they didn’t even tell me how to send them the documents or whether they’d call me..or if I should call back. I was just left hanging.


Plus, I don’t have a primary care physician, and my primary care nurse practitioner doesn’t know completely my gender journey because I haven’t felt comfortable telling them yet. But I had to get the referral, so I went; I told her I need a referral and she completed my request. It wasn’t until about 3 weeks later that I received communication from the trans center. At that point, I had so much frustration over how to access this endocrinologist and on this call they told me that they were still ‘evaluating my case.’ So, I wasn’t even going to receive service yet. I had to go through all of this just to be considered. Thankfully, I was able to find Plume. Within the time that the trans center had processed all of my documents and called me to tell me they were considering me as a patient, I had already paid for my first month with Plume, spoken to an intake specialist, spoke with a provider for an hour about myself, and received my first prescription for an estrogen patch. It felt right, and I didn’t need to be anyone else other than myself, and literally the next day started treatment. My provider actually wanted to know who I am and it finally felt like trans-centered healthcare. So now I haven’t even followed up with the alleged Trans Center endocrinologist and I am receiving my care through Plume.


So what is Plume? It’s an app that connects you with a trans-centered healthcare team with a monthly fee where they check in on you and prescribe hormone therapy. What I love about it is that everyone that I have interacted with is in the LGBTQ+ community, and their primary focus are patients seeking hormone replacement therapy. Plume also has an incredible amount of information in their app. For example, educating you on the difference between a pill, a patch, and a shot—and side effects. And if you have high blood pressure (like me), which treatment is the right one for you? They are also so good at calming your nerves about treatment because they know so much about each specific option and any question you bring their way are answered in a professional and concise manner. They even provide resources for trans-owned companies where you can purchase things like clothing that will help you feel aligned with your gender identity. This has been huge for me because when I wear 'women’s' clothing, which is basically all I own now, it doesn’t matter how you perceive me because I know that what I am wearing is something I CAN put on and aligns with who I am. I can’t put on a male button up without a huge amount of anxiety and feelings of misalignment. Plume has provided educational resources for these feelings and how to maintain gender alignment. It has been nice to feel like I can ask questions without feeling stupid and that they have had these questions before! This company has made me feel so comfortable within my own skin.

 

My advice to the readers at Dx:Q is this...I would tell myself, and others, to look in the mirror. When you are doing that, think about the lens in which you see yourself, and think about whether that lens is shaded by others expectations of you. What does your parent, brother, sister, sibling, friends, kids, etc., what do they expect of you? What have you been told, and what have you seen? What do you know about people who are different than you and what context where they in? Think about how your lenses are shaded by those questions, and then take them off. How do you see yourself without consequence?


My counselor has said to me, ‘If you could do it over, would you have been born a female?’ And my answer is usually, ‘Yes.’ And they say, ‘well there is your answer for how to live your life now. Stop trying to think about the consequences that are going to be there. Because you can move through consequences. Handle each step as you go and get down to the heart of who you are and how you see yourself.' I’m still wondering what’s next for me but I’m comfortable with my progress and journey.


If you are considering making a medical change, here is my advice. You know, there was a time when I wouldn’t have followed through with it because of the difficultly, consequences, and fear of the unwelcoming environment. Now I feel strongly: if you feel the change is important, it is important and you have to seek the help you need to both find support and talk through your options. If it isn’t working with one provider, seek out a different medical professional. Ask others in the community who have had positive experience about they went about their healthcare. Don’t just ask people about their negative and traumatic experiences. Try to find the hopeful experiences too. When medical professionals put barriers in front of you, it can be easy to feel like something is wrong with you. But really, you just haven’t found the right provider!


Every part of trans identity is a step by step evolution. And each step takes its own time, enjoy them as they come." -Brandon Barile, Dean of Students at Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS), Geneva, NY (they/them)



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