30 Years Later – Remembering UTD

By Renee Baker for the UTD Mercury

Our forebears love to tell us when we are young that life blazes by in the blink of an eye.   I would roll my eyes at such pronouncements.  Certainly when I moved to Dallas in 1987 and began my graduate studies at UTD, I saw only Forever in front of me.  Time was on my side, practically under my own command.  Now that I am a crusty old gal with a generous helping of bumps and barnacles, I can say that it is hard to hold back the arms of Father Time’s clock.  Surprisingly now, I don’t think I’d want it any other way.   Here’s why, as a former student, faculty member and transgender woman.

My uncle once told me, the only constant in life is change.  Thank heaven for change.   For those of us in the transgender community, change cannot have come soon enough.  Time has needed to move forward.   We are still forming and fighting for our identities and our equality, but gender transitions are much more accessible today than ever before.

The UTD McDermott Library was my first real sign of hope for my own transition. It was here that I found a 1966 book called The Transsexual Phenomenon by Dr. Harry Benjamin.  It was the first of its kind and the only one I found.  I was too scared to ask a librarian to help me.  And I was too scared to check the book out.   I was even too scared to openly read it, for fear of being outed.  I hid the book inside a larger book and found a study cubicle.   In 1987, before the internet, I read and found a way forward.

It was terrifying.  Though Benjamin is revered today as the Father of Transgenderism, and I consider him one of my heroes, the process the medical community put in place for transitions back then was daunting for a young 20-something that grew up in the Midwest.  The process was also fraught with barriers. 

Back in those days, if you were caught wearing clothes of the “opposite” sex, you worried about being arrested.  It was common for counselors (if you could find one) to write “carry” letters on behalf of transgender men and women, explaining that they were transitioning and were medically required to get “real life experience” prior to receiving sex hormones or gender reassignment. 

The transitional barriers were truly daunting.  Resources were scant.  I thought I would have to go to Casablanca, or Denmark for my surgery, like Christine Jorgensen did, one of Benjamin’s well-known patients.   Today, you can go to Plano.  I began my own therapy in 1991 and wondered how many years would I have to go before I would be allowed to begin hormones.  The earlier guidelines, while perhaps well-intentioned by some, were too hard swallow.   Would I have to leave my family and never be seen again by them?   Would I have to give up rights to my son?   Would I have to concoct a false history of my gender and pretend I was a cisgender woman?    Would I have to leave my employer so I didn’t embarrass them?  These are all real guidelines trans people once had to follow.  I tried for a few years, but it was too much. 

Most of all, I didn’t want to lose family.  I decided to focus on my PhD and went back to UTD where I felt safe.  My counselor then meant well when she suggested wearing a flower on my lapel to express my feminine side, but it was not about my gender expression.  It was and has always been about my essential gender identity.  I wish people could get that.  Transgenderism is very real.

A number of years past, the internet was born, and new hope arrived.  Change was good.  I was now in my late thirties had the strength to start transition.  And Dallas started coming together.   New transgender groups began to form.  A doctor here and a counselor there began to popup to support the trans community – they too took risks for helping us.  Many doctors and therapists were shunned by their own profession as supporting a gender diverse group that was unfairly considered psychopathological. 

More change came and trans people learned to join the ranks of the medical and mental health profession.  We joined with our allies and wrote new standards of transitional care.  We became lawyers and judges and politicians and now work to help trans individuals correct their gender identification markers and clear the way for equality.   Change has been good. 

UTD too I see has made great strides in providing programs for diversity and inclusion.  Now, when I visit campus, I am excited to see there are so many transgender people thriving and finding community.  I am happy to see there is a feeling of institutional level support. 

My hope is that growth and inclusivity continues for the school.  Administrators and faculty are in power positions and can promote transgender acceptance and equality.  Classrooms and offices can be made into safe places so trans and gender nonconforming individuals feel affirmed.   When gender diverse people see a simple rainbow flag or transgender flag, we know we can let our guard down.  It really helps.

To learn more, seek out organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign, The Transgender Center for Equality and GLSEN.  It’s okay to be an ally.  After all, where there is a will, there is a way!

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