Michael Sutherland dreamed of coming to Tarleton
By Makenzie Plusnick—
“I was in FFA during high school, so I would come to Tarleton’s competitions all four years and this was the only college I ever applied for,” Sutherland said. “I knew the area, I’d been coming here the last four years, so I’m familiar here.”
Sutherland came out as transgender on campus at the beginning of the Spring semester. They identify as gender fluid and prefer they/them pronouns.
“It could have been that I’d been a here a semester, so I felt safer. I was more comfortable with this campus than anywhere else, and with ODI and GSA, I’d made good connections there,” they said. “It was at the point where I didn’t want to keep hiding it. I wanted to come out and be referred to as Michael and be they/them out more. It’s progressed from the beginning of the semester till now, where I’m looking into legal changes like my name and hormones.”
Sutherland first came out on social media.
“I came out online, on my social media accounts, probably on some of them in 10th grade, and then on Facebook, I just came out last semester,” they recalled. “The start of this semester was when I fully came out on campus.”
They knew that they were not their birth sex since childhood.
“I knew the word in high school, but I’ve known since probably elementary school that something was off and there were signs that showed that from me, and my parents also had that same signs,” Sutherland recalled. “I got a phone so I had internet in high school, in ninth grade, and that’s when I could look more into it and finally understand.”
Sutherland started receiving harassment for being a member of the LGBTQ+ community last semester. They faced roommate issues because she knew Sutherland had told her they were transgender, though they were still going by their legal name.
“One of the big things last semester was my roommate, who was transphobic,” they remembered. “She had friends over a lot, and they were the same as she was. I could hear the comments she’d make about me so I’d just end up leaving and going to the second or third floor and just wait it out.”
Sutherland lived in one of the residential halls on campus and informed the residential leader (RL) what was happening.
“I’d made different reports, so he knew what was going on. We had sat down together and did the living contract, but nothing changed until she threw one of my religious objects. It wasn’t until she went with religion, instead of gender, that she moved,” they said.
More students are identifying as transgender or other non-traditional genders. According to a Pediatrics’ survey, nearly 3% of students between ninth and 11th grade identify as transgender or gender nonconforming. This study was based on a survey of almost 81,000 teenagers in Minnesota. A UCLA study from 2017 estimated that 0.7% of teens identify as something other than the two birth genders.
“They’ve taken down my preferred name, so there wasn’t anything on there. They’ve removed and damaged some of the decorations I had, I have Easter decorations up, but I took them down because they were being taken and destroyed. They’ve pounded on the door two or three times at about two in the morning,” Sutherland said.
They reported one of the incidents to the front desk, but because they could not prove who did it, nothing happened.
Sutherland also struggles with a lack of respect from students in their other classes.
“I had my government class today, and we were going over all different types of things but no one was listening to me because they knew I was transgender,” Sutherland said. “We were divided into groups and there were three guys, two girls, and me, and people were talking over me specifically because they knew they had the right to do that.”
“That lecture government class is probably the worst one, because that has a very large number of agriculture students, and it is quite obvious they don’t support it (transgender rights) in anyway. They are completely against it, which is one of the reasons I have gotten a bit out of the Wildlife Society, because it is an agriculture club,” Sutherland explained.
Sutherland is also misgendered by other students.
“In government class, they do misgender me. They did it today. There is one guy from agriculture who enjoys doing it. He is someone I do consider dangerous,” Sutherland said. “I’ve come out as transgender, as Michael, and he enjoys calling me she and her.”
In Texas, for schools to change students’ names in their system, the student must first legally change their name. Tarleton cannot change Sutherland’s name from their given name until it is legally changed. The process of legally changing a name requires time and money.
“They say they can change it on Blackboard, but they don’t know how to right now,” Sutherland said.
This provides Sutherland with another challenge of informing their professors about their name.
“Before class even started, I emailed all my professors and told them my preferred name. If they had any issues, they could contact ODI, because I wasn’t going to deal with that,” Sutherland said.
Emily VanKirk, Student Development Specialist II in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and member of the LGBTQ+ community, has been talking to Sutherland throughout their experience at Tarleton.
“This whole situation really bothers me, because I have been talking to Michael the entire time and I feel very powerless, even as a professional person in this position, and it really sucks,” VanKirk said.
Tarleton does not keep record of how many students identify as transgender.
“I will say that a good third of the students who routinely visit my office are trans, or at least not cis,” they said. Cisgender refers to a person who identifies as their birth sex.
VanKirk says the school’s policies on discrimination can be interpreted differently by the person in charge of enforcing them.
“I think it’s going to depend on who is enforcing the policies,” they said. “To me, as a person who is maybe more well versed on trans issues, I see intentional, repeated misgendering as an act of violence, because it is an act of disrespecting someone’s identity.”
According to VanKirk, many transgender students experience repeated pounding on their doors and have their name tags torn down.
“A lot of times things that get reported to me are not necessarily documented. Something I really try to do is encourage students to report and document. We don’t really have a clear way of doing that,” VanKirk said. “What I am supposed to be able to do is help the student navigate the system, which starts with talk to your RL and talk to your RC. Frequently, people are basically advised, in not so many words, to turn the other cheek. It’s too hard, too difficult to determine who is causing the problem and it’s not that big of a deal, so the student who is being harassed should just try not to care is frequently the response. I don’t know if that makes sense. To me that is a really silly response because it puts the ownness of solving the problem on the person being harassed.”
Students in the LGBT community report many incidents of mocking and harassment to VanKirk.
“This is always treated as if it’s a super minimal, no big deal, I don’t understand why you’re upset about it situation,” they said. “I honestly think the dismissive way it’s responded to is one of the most harmful aspects. Half the times students just want someone to say, oh my god, that’s fucked up. They just want to be seen. It might be really difficult to catch somebody who is tearing down door signs, but that doesn’t mean you just go oh, just don’t put anything gay on your door.”
Tarleton does offer gender-neutral housing.
“We have specific rooms that are set up for gender-neutral spaces, so if a student is part of the LGBTQ community, they can call up and request for a gender-neutral room, but we only have a certain number of rooms allocated for that,” explained Mikayla Mcdonald from the Residential Life department.
The number of gender-neutral rooms change per semester and are only available to certain students.
“A gender-neutral room is a room that is available for men and women to reside in the same room. It’s not intended for couples, it’s strictly intended for students who are part of the LGBT community and students who might feel more comfortable residing in a space that’s with the opposite gender,” Mcdonald said.
Gender-neutral housing is also offered to siblings who attend the university.
Sutherland is pushing through the struggles they face and continues to thrive at Tarleton. They have three poems published in the 25th edition of Tarleton’s Anthology. They are a member of Tarleton’s Gay-Straight Alliance and helps plan events for the club. Sutherland is considering transferring to an LGBTQ-friendly school so they can feel safe again.