"The person looking back at me from those pictures … is saying, ‘Where did you go? Why did you leave me?’ Because I did. I left her,” says T.J., a graduate student at Michigan State University, as he introduces himself. T.J. is talking about Tamar, the name he was given when he was born as a female in 1981.
T.J., who is studying student affairs administration, is one of four transgender students featured in TransGeneration, an eight-part Sundance Channel series premiering tonight. The series follows the students through the 2004-5 year at college as they take on not only the rigors of academics, but also various stages of transitioning from their birth sex.
In the series, the first two episodes of which were previewed for this article, the cameras follow students everywhere: in class, at home, as they inject hormones and as they consider surgery and confront bigotry. The series offers a “look at the current trend on college campuses of confronting gender issues and politics head-on,” according to Laura Michalchyshyn, executive vice president of programming and marketing for Sundance.
Mara Keisling, 45, executive director of the National Center For Transgender Equality, has seen some of the series, and says that the power of TransGeneration is in showing people persisting in a struggle, “willing to risk everything to be who he or she is, who he or she was made to be.” Keisling adds that “it’s not surprising colleges don’t always know how to deal with this…. For people in my generation, this isn’t in the playbook.”
At some colleges, it is in the playbook. Three student groups at Ithaca College showed a “festival cut” of TransGeneration last Wednesday, and are hoping to coordinate screenings on 100 campuses across the country.
The students in TransGeneration are from different areas of the country, and at different stages of transformation.
Gabbie, born Andrew, was a sophomore computer science major at the University of Colorado at Boulder during the filming. She began living as a woman during her freshman year, and then began hormone therapy. Gabbie is a pretty typical college student: playing video games, hanging posters, and, as a resident advisor, threatening to write up people throwing water balloons out the dorm window. Gabbie, who says she “really flourished in this role,” is a bit behind when it comes to her social life, and begins the new academic year in gregarious fashion. Some of her friends who identify as queer, however, quickly get fed up with Gabbie’s excessive touching in her effort to be more social. Navigating the minefield of social interaction is a theme for all four students.
Raci, born Roy in the Philippines, is a freshman who received a Presidential Scholarship Award that pays her full tuition to California State University at Los Angeles. Raci has to deal with her impaired hearing, her family’s poverty -- she shares a bed with her aunt -- and, though her family is supportive, her classmates, many of whom are men who can be seen checking her out from the corners of the camera, and who do not know the details of her identity. Raci wears moderately revealing clothing and enjoys attention from men, but is unsure exactly how to handle it. In one tense scene, a drama professor has Raci and her excited male scene partner kissing on the cheek and touching one another as part of a scene. Raci frets about whether to tell the other student about her identity.
Raci’s challenges promise to extend to the medical, as well, as she has been buying cheap hormones from a street dealer for months. All four of the featured students are considering the medical issues surrounding a gender change, though some more carefully than others. Following their initial disapproval, Gabbie’s parents have agreed to pay for sexual reassignment surgery in the spring.
Lucas, born Leah, a senior neuroscience major at Smith College, is much more measured in his approach to hormones and surgery. He constantly researches the side effects of any medical adjustments, and notes the increased blood pressure and cancer risk that come with testosterone. Keisling hopes that the medical content of the show can be an education in its own right for members of the transgender community considering sex changes. Lucas recognized his male identity in his early days at Smith, but chose to stay at the women’s college because he was getting good grades. “I’m the one that has to carry around the Smith diploma for the rest of my life and explain that to people,” he says. (A spokeswoman for Smith says that the college will admit only women, but does not ask students about gender once they are enrolled, and that Lucas graduated in the spring.)
Early in the first episode Lucas withdraws from the activist community he was once heavily involved in. “I don’t want to be seen as a transgender person,” he says. “I’m much happier just being male.”
So is T.J., but he still stays involved with activism, from an Armenian students’ organization, to a transgender group, to an anti-capitalist theater production. T.J. was born in Beirut and raised in Cyprus, where he is expected to return after graduation. His mother struggles with T.J.’s identity, and wonders if it might be the result of “Western influence.” Says T.J. matter-of-factly: “College is for self-discovery.”