A transgender couple’s journey through college

(Rylan and Jeremy were able to live together this year through the new gender-inclusive housing program. Photo by Melina Bourdeau)

Two FSU students walk hand-in-hand past the store windows of the Natick Mall.

If you listen, one of them might be talking about their homework, or what hours they have to work for that weekend, or maybe how they should take another trip to the zoo once the weather warms up.

After returning to Framingham State, the two swipe their IDs to get into their residence hall. They go up to their room together to do more homework before falling asleep to some movie or TV show on Netflix. Their door tags read “Jeremy” and “Rylan,” but those aren’t the only door tags they have.

The two started dating about a year and a half ago. Jeremy, a sophomore, came out as gender fluid over winter break in 2014, and then as a transgender male. Rylan, a junior, came out as a transgender male on Oct. 3, 2013.

“I know the exact date – it’s like my little anniversary,” Rylan said.

“Because I’m not out to my family, I have to have two door tags. So if my parents ever decided to come up to my room, I could have [Jeremy] change the room around a little bit – get rid of some of the apparent guy clothing, or things with my name all over it – and put a different door tag out. … All of my RAs I’ve ever had have been really, really accepting,” said Rylan.

Jeremy also has a second door tag, since Rylan’s family doesn’t know he is a transgender male. However, he is out to his family and only keeps one in case Rylan’s family visits.

Jeremy and Rylan decided they would utilize gender-inclusive housing, a program which started last fall, and live together this academic year.

The gender-inclusive housing program is accommodates all gender identities, and students can select their preference for gender-inclusive housing on their residency applications.

Rylan said they had friends who told them they shouldn’t room together because they had only been dating for a short time, but for them, it was about safety. “It wasn’t because we were so in love or in a rush.”

Jeremy added rooming together was a safer option than rooming with someone who could be transphobic or homophobic.

While they said being roommates has been fun, they did miss their personal space and time to themselves. They are looking forward to having singles on the same floor next year.

Rylan said, “We will still technically be living together because we are going to be on the same floor, but it will be like Horace Mann will be our apartment. … I’m so excited to have those moments together and feel like we can have date night.”

He added there are challenges to living with another person, but it was good for them to have a “test run” to know they can live together in the future.

Some mornings, Rylan and Jeremy have different schedules.

Rylan said, “Every morning, the one leaving always wakes the other up to share a quick kiss goodbye.”

They try to eat together in the cafeteria, and usually twice a week, they grab Starbucks after lunch. Sometimes, Rylan said he gets up early to grab breakfast with Jeremy before his morning class.

While they are grateful that gender inclusive housing is available, they believe there is room for improvement.

They suggested more gender-neutral bathrooms with showers. However, they are aware that plumbing codes would make providing full gender-neutral bathrooms difficult.

They also suggested having programs where RAs speak to residents about the LGBT+ community, adding their RAs have extensive knowledge from trainings.

Jeremy said, “The purpose is not to make everyone an ally, but at least teach healthy ways to live in close proximity to someone you don’t agree with, and how to safely live in the same space.”

They are both active on campus as SDAs and members of Pride Alliance, of which Rylan is president.

Rylan said he likes being a student leader. He was a Wet Feet Retreat Leader this past year, and was the only male leader on the three-day retreat with incoming freshmen.

“Most of them seemed to be really chill with me being masculine and a guy. I think that really meant a lot to me. These are complete strangers. These are incoming freshmen who probably haven’t been exposed to anything like this. … So I was like, ‘Wow, OK. I can do this. I can blend in with the rest of the guys. I can be a role model for other guys that aren’t necessarily transgender,’” added Rylan.

Jeremy said he is also active in Pride Alliance and there needs to be more education on the LGBT+ community for people who don’t understand it or haven’t been exposed to it.

He said stereotypes against transgender people “hit harder. … I am more feminine than I am masculine, but I still identify as male. Some people just don’t get that. Just because I’m feminine doesn’t make me female, regardless of my biological makeup.”

College love

They met when Rylan, then a first-year student, attended his then-girlfriend’s high school senior prom.

“That relationship ended right before the school year started, and then this one happened,” Rylan said, smiling at Jeremy. “He’s obviously my best friend. Before we got really serious in a relationship, we actually called each other ‘Partners in Crime.’”

Jeremy added Rylan knows how to cheer him up. “I don’t think I could have anybody else be that caring and passionate about taking care of me and actually genuinely being in love with me.”

When Jeremy and Rylan first became close, they went to the Natick Mall with friends and made Build-a-Bears.

Rylan said, “We just made them as friends, and he made me do the horrible, little embarrassing dance you have to do.”

Rylan named his bear Jay Jay and Jeremy named his Penelope. Since then, they have switched bears.

They hung out for the first time early on in Jeremy’s freshman year, and stayed up talking until 2 a.m. in Rylan’s dorm room.

“I laid really, really stiff with my arms at my side because I didn’t want to touch him. I didn’t want to freak him out. I didn’t want him to think I was trying to do anything. He rolled over a little bit and grabbed my arm and threw it over him, and was like, ‘You can cuddle me! It doesn’t mean anything, anyways!’ And now we’re dating,” said Rylan, laughing.

Jeremy added it did mean something to him, but he didn’t want to tell Rylan because he was nervous.

“I think that’s when I first started to fall in love with you,” Jeremy said, turning to Rylan. “Just because I got to know you on a more personal level than what I have done with anybody else. I think it just felt right, like everything was just falling into place.”

For their first date, they went to dinner at Olive Garden and grabbed drinks at Starbucks.

“I was in a dress shirt and dress pants, suspenders, a bowtie and everything,” said Rylan. “That was the first time I ever got to really be like ‘the man’ on the date, and just be really comfortable with who I am and how I present. I got noticed as a guy, so the servers treated me like a guy.”

Rylan said while “every couple has those good days and bad days,” their bad days can be especially hard since they have to “juggle the emotional aspect of transitioning and dating.”

He added, “We are each other’s biggest supporters.”

When both Ryan and Jeremy are “feeling down” it’s not easy to help each other because “when you’re in that state of mind it’s very hard to break away from your own feelings to help the other one, but we always do. We always find a way to make sure the other one’s OK.”

Identity

Rylan said as a transgender male, he finds people expect him to be “hypermasculine – everything the societal male is supposed to be like. I’ve gotten questions like, ‘Are you going to stop transitioning now? Are you going back to being a girl?’ and it’s like, ‘No, this is who I am.’”

He added both he and Jeremy have experienced being targeted on Yik Yak, a social app where users are anonymous, because of their relationship. The comments have ranged from being called “girls who claim to be guys” to a “chick with a beard.”

He said he is vocal about being trans and gay, but he is also “a normal human being.

“I think the one thing they don’t really know is – specifically me and trans people in general – we are people, regardless of our ‘special label,’” Rylan said.

Jeremy said he has had eight different names since coming out.

When he first came out as gender fluid, which is defined by nonbinary.org as meaning an “individual’s gender identity could be multiple genders at once, and then switch to none at all or move between single gender identities,” Jeremy went by Kai, which he liked because it was more gender neutral.

After coming out, he said he was able to explore his gender identity more and he then identified as a transgender male, going by different first and middle names, including Leo Alexander in honor of his grandfather.

He said a lot of people, including friends, have asked him why he changed his name so often.

“It’s hard to understand if you’re not transgender,” he said, adding a lot goes into choosing a name and they were all significant to him.

Rylan said he helped Jeremy pick some of the names he went by. “I commend his bravery. Backlash is the biggest thing.”

Jeremy said he got negative feedback from people who said he changed his name too often, and said LGBT+ people might be deterred from finding a name they like because of negative reactions.

“I want them to realize that it doesn’t matter what other people think about it. Do what makes you happy. I know how happy it makes and made me,” said Jeremy.

Rylan added looking at all of Jeremy’s past names is like “a journey on paper,” with each name illustrating a different point in Jeremy’s transition.

When Rylan first came out as a transgender male, he said he went by Rylan Dixon Thomas – Dixon in honor of his dad and Thomas for the saint he chose for his Confirmation.

He said he grew up in a Roman Catholic family and struggled with his religion after coming out as a transgender man.

“I wish everybody was given that choice [of choosing a name]. … Names are so important and I encourage people to go by a different name if it’s a name they love more than their own,” he said.

Rylan described his dad as a gentle person with a big heart, and said he wants to be like him.

“I really wish I was the rough and tough, rugged lumberjack-looking guy with the big facial hair, and the man bun, but that’s never going to happen. I just got comfortable with just being me and being very relaxed. … I just want to be the non-stereotypical guy,” he said, adding he wants to be what people don’t expect him to be.

Every time Rylan goes home, he has to be his “old self,” with female gender expression by dressing and acting like a girl.

“It was difficult in the beginning because I was still trying to settle into who I am as a man,” he said, adding his mom has “stereotypical views of what a girl needs to look like” and his dad “has his own mindset.” He said having to be called by a name he doesn’t go by and wear clothes he doesn’t like is hard.

He relies on his parents’ support for college and for help paying for his car and phone. Although he doesn’t think they would permanently disown him, he said it would be “the big shock of, ‘Who are you? Get out of my house.’”

The support of Jeremy’s mother has been important to Rylan.

“She met me as a trans guy and bought me men’s clothing. She basically welcomed me into their family. His mom is a big supporter,” he said.

Jeremy said a major moment for him was coming out to his mom. Because he was so nervous and wasn’t sure what his mom’s reaction was going to be, he sent a text to her saying he was trans.

His mom knew about Rylan being transgender, but Jeremy didn’t know how she was going to react to her own child coming out. When she didn’t answer the text message, Jeremy went downstairs and talked to her about it.

“It was a conversation with tears. I think my mom still struggles with it, but I’m hoping she’ll understand it better soon,” he said, adding when she called him by his preferred name, “it was just really great to have her call me by the name that I want.”

Living together for the past academic year has allowed Rylan and Jeremy to be supportive and understanding of each other’s transition.

For example, Jeremy said Rylan helped him choose his first chest binder, which is a thick material that compresses the breasts in order for trans men to look naturally flat-chested.

“Binding is never a pleasant or easy thing to do,” Jeremy said. “It gets super sweaty inside of it on warm days, and it’s more than skin tight. It’s always awkward and uncomfortable, but in order to feel all right with my body and the way I present it to the world, I have to do it. I naturally have a very big chest size, so binding can be extremely dangerous if I get the wrong size binder or if I wear it for too long.”

Jeremy added the maximum amount of time he can wear a binder safely is eight hours per day, and he has experienced back and rib pain from wearing it. He wears a chest binder whenever he leaves his residence hall.

“It is definitely having a bad effect on my body. It is worrisome, but I don’t feel comfortable going without it,” he said.

Rylan said chest binders “are super awkward and horribly tight, even when sized correctly.”

Binding is “super important” to Rylan’s transition, he said. “When I’m out in public, I am always wearing one, so sometimes, it gets really sweaty and gross. Sometimes, my back and sides are sore after a long day, but it’s worth it to me. I always try to remain safe while binding because injuries can happen.”

According to Rylan, men and women walk differently. He did research on how men walk when he first came out, and said people walk as if there is a line, with women walking on the line and me on either side.

Jeremy said Rylan taught him how to walk like a man.

“I remember teaching him that and just watching him try to walk,” Rylan said about Jeremy. “I told him when we go out in public, if you need to stand a step behind me and watch how I walk and copy me, go ahead. It takes a lot of practice. Now, I do it subconsciously.”

Jeremy said when he is in public, he watches how men walk or hold themselves. “It helps you just get a feel of how to make yourself seem more masculine.”

He added the way a person walks does not make him “any less male … but as freshly coming out, it’s something that everybody tries to do.”

Now, Jeremy is not as concerned with the way he walks. “There’s no point of being miserable when you can just be yourself and being happy is what it comes down to.”

Next year, Rylan graduates. Jeremy, however, will still have one more year of school.

Rylan said he hopes Jeremy will be comfortable living on his own, and that is partly why they chose to get singles next year, albeit down the hall from each other.

He added, “It’s more of a trial run for it – his ability to live on his own while I’m still in close proximity. So after I’m not on campus, he can have every confidence in himself that he can live on his own.”

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