What It’s Like to Transition at Whitman

Sammy Fitts, Humor Writer

When I wake up each morning, I look at the mirror that sits directly across the room from my bed. I look past the bedhead and ask myself how I feel, looking at my own face. I’m not the prettiest in the morning. My skin isn’t moisturized and my eyes are dull and surrounded by large bags. But my criticism doesn’t lie in those details. Instead, I judge if I look like a woman. The answer fluctuates daily.

I’ve been medically transitioning since the beginning of Spring of 2020, but there is more to transitioning than hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and surgeries. I started my social transition three months earlier, over the last COVID-free winter break. 

This article is about transitioning, both medically and socially. While non-binary people are trans if they choose to identify as such, I am focusing mainly on the binary, as it’s what I am familiar with. I would also like to acknowledge that everyone interviewed for this article is white and from the United States, as am I. I do not know any actively transitioning BIPOC or international students at Whitman, which speaks to the accessibility of resources and safe spaces for non-white, non-American students. As such, this article speaks from a white, American perspective, though there is lots of variety even within this group. 

Feeling like we are in the wrong bodies is a very common experience for trans people, and can lead to gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia, and the feeling that we don’t belong with either sex. To help with this, some trans people transition medically.

To medically transition, trans people take HRT and have surgeries, both of which are not required to be trans—nor are they anyone else’s business. That being said, getting hormones can be quite difficult.

I got my prescriptions through the Planned Parenthood in Walla Walla. While the people there are incredibly nice, there can be scheduling difficulties, problems with prescriptions and inconsistency in which provider sees you. Kayla Hinnen (She/Her), a Sophomore who came out during COVID, said that Planned Parenthood was booked for five months. She went to an endocrinologist in her hometown instead. 

Junior Elio Van Gorden (He/They) had a similar experience. Faced with a two-month waiting time, he used an online hormone provider called Plume, which provides telehealth appointments and prescriptions.

The accessibility of transgender care is not just constrained by waitlists. Treatments are expensive, even with copay, and Van Gorden had to work another job to afford his testosterone. On top of that, we have to be in a location where transition is safe. Whitman campus provides a bubble for us to do so. Transitioning is a difficult, emotional process, and Whitman has an accepting community of people who can help us through low periods when our hometowns might not be viable options.

Van Gorden had his worries about home confirmed with his active GoFundMe to pay for top surgery, which he hopes to get this summer. The fundraiser is at $3290 of its $5000 goal at the time of this writing, and the donors shed insight into the people in Van Gorden’s life.

“There have been two people from home, like even though I’ve shared it with everyone,” Van Gorden said. “And I think that really goes to show like where I come from is not a safe place to be. And that’s something I’ve known, but it’s definitely hard to grapple with.”

Of the several transgender people on campus who are actively transitioning, most of us have interest in medically transitioning, though this looks different for each of us. For example, some are interested in surgery, which can spell the difference between being gendered correctly or not. I’m aiming for breast enhancement surgery this summer, but due to long waitlists, there’s no guarantee.

Despite the variety of experiences, there was one throughline: Whitman is a good place to be. People at Whitman generally accept their trans peers. Colleen Boken (She/They), who graduated from Whitman in 2019, had a great time coming out on campus.

“That’s the thing, it’s literally just: ‘Okay you’re trans, cool. You need any support?’” Boken said. “It’s not like: ‘Oh, you’re trans? Ew.’ It’s just: ‘Okay, cool. You’re one of us, period, done.’”

Just because Whitman is more accepting than other places doesn’t mean it’s perfect. Sophomore Olin MacIntosh (He/Him), comes from a very trans and queer community. In comparison, Whitman feels very heteronormative and cisnormative, and he doesn’t always feel accepted. Because of this difference, he feels very isolated from the community and culture.

Feeling isolated is unavoidable for most trans people. It’s often hard to relate to our cis peers, and, often, even to one another: the trans community at Whitman is small and disparate, and we don’t necessarily have stuff in common. Conflicts from PRISM (Whitman’s now-defunct queer affinity group) or personal drama have driven many of us apart. Until recently, there was no dedicated meeting place for trans people. MacIntosh founded Trans Students of Whitman (TSOW) to address this issue.

“I think the biggest thing was to get connected with each other. I came here and I was like: ‘So where are the trans students?’ And there wasn’t a place I could go,” MacIntosh said.

TSOW provides a space for trans people to meet each other, build community and participate in activities that are often uncomfortable around cis people, like swimming. 

For trans people who don’t “pass,” being around cis people can be uncomfortable and even dangerous. Hinnen believes trans people shouldn’t need to pass to be gendered properly. 

“The problem, unfortunately, is just the constant assumptions. And if you don’t know, then I can guess I can understand how you might be taken off-guard, but at the same time it feels a little bit like at this point, what’s the number of non-cisgender people? I guess I’ll say that woman that I know, there isn’t really much of an excuse not to know someone like that,” Hinnen said.

Not passing can make a trans person uncomfortable, but beyond that, it can also be detrimental to our safety. In many places, Walla Walla included, looking trans is dangerous. Boken, who is not transitioning medically, would change into masculine clothes before heading to Safeway. She once had a water bottle thrown at her, and was at the Queer Beer party disrupted by locals, though she left before the incident. Despite this, Boken still made friends with local business owners and coworkers.

While passing is many trans people’s goal, doing so can present its own challenges. MacIntosh, who began his medical transition before college, considers himself to be cis-passing, something which comes with both privilege and difficulty.

“I find myself in a lot of situations where, actually, I don’t feel out, in a bad way, in that people perceive me as cis, and often, that can lead to uncomfortable situations. So I actually feel like this is the first time I’ve navigated that,” MacIntosh said.

HRT causes physical changes that many trans people appreciate: estrogen causes breast growth, lowered sex drive, and slowed body hair growth, and testosterone causes increased body hair growth, voice deepening, and bone growth. HRT is even referred to as a second puberty. However, it also changes our emotional states. I am incredibly sensitive now, sometimes crying over the smallest things, after being fairly stoic before. On testosterone, Van Gorden has experienced the opposite.

“I’ll go months–months–without crying. Not that I don’t feel like crying or feel sadness in that way, but it just doesn’t manifest easily at all. And I used to be a big crier,” Van Gorden said.

Crying isn’t the only emotional change that comes with hormones. Testosterone can make anger more frequent and intense, sometimes enough to lead to violence.

“At a concert there was a man bugging a girl and when he turned his back, without really thinking through it, I kind of shoved him a little bit to say, like, get off, leave-this-girl-alone kind of thing because she was telling him to leave and he wouldn’t,” Van Gorden said. “And I would have never, ever done that before. And it scared me a lot because I just did it and I didn’t even think about it. I just put my hands on someone else and it scared me a lot.”

Just like emotions, HRT can affect sex drive, which is already tricky for trans people. Finding a relationship is difficult for queer students, and the added factor of finding someone who accepts both your body and your gender identity makes it even harder. People simply have preferences. Often, not wanting to date trans people doesn’t come from a place of malice, but rather an attempt to avoid discomfort. MacIntosh now has a partner back home, but didn’t want to date at Whitman before.

“I definitely would not have felt comfortable engaging sexually or romantically with a lot of people around here. And I think part of that was navigating this perceived cisness. So how do you drop the ‘I’m trans’?” MacIntosh said.

Van Gorden is dating someone who they met on Semester in the West, a testament to how dating while trans is not an impossible or inherently painful experience.

“It’s a massive, massive boost to the way that I view myself and the way that I interact with people. And there’s so much support from that, and there always has been,” Van Gorden said.

The comfort and self-perception of a trans person is largely internal. Despite that, the outside world hugely impacts this analysis, and our moods can greatly fluctuate based on treatment by others. We’ve all experienced being misgendered at one point or another. Usually it’s from unintentionally gendered language. The stray dude, guys, man, or bro have always made me feel unseen and out of place, but it’s far worse when someone calls me sir or he. Misgendering is such a prevalent issue that Hinnen brought it up as a message to cis people:

“Checking your assumptions when gendering people instead of assuming gender out of nowhere goes such a long way in a way that I can’t fully begin to explain,” Hinnen said. “It’s such a little thing and I think we can all get better at it.” 

MacIntosh agreed, adding that cis people need to be more intentional and aware of how their actions may affect us. Van Gorden emphasized the importance of trans people also making space for one another.

“Showing up for other people, especially trans people, is so important because it’s a very isolating experience,” Van Gorden said. “No matter how held I feel, no matter how positive of a place this is for me now, I still have very, very bad days and I still feel stuck sometimes. And no surgery will fix that. No hormone will fix that. No amount of support I feel in my relationship will fix that.” 

Boken added that trans people are still trying to get through college and dealing with the same problems as cis people in addition to problems that come with our transness. 

Being trans isn’t a bad thing, nor is it necessarily a bad time. But no matter how good a place like Whitman is for our safety and ability to make friends, we still struggle. Much of the US is still unaccepting of us. Most importantly, we are more than just our transness, we’re just people with another thing to deal with.