Transgender, non-binary students find support in MSU programs

While other students stressed about fixing their hair or picking the perfect outfit, Jay Hull felt a huge sense of relief on ID card day at MSU. After six months of coming out to friends and family with their chosen name, Hull didn’t have to anymore.
“It was really freeing to come to college, where no one knew me by my birth name.
I just introduced myself as Jay, and it was so cool,” Hull said. “I changed my preferred name, so I had an ID card, and it was one of the happiest moments of my freshman year.”
Hull is nonbinary, someone who does not identify as either male or female, hence the they/their pronouns. Nonbinary people can identify as either both male and female or neither, depending on the individual. The MSU senior said that until coming to college, they struggled to find common ground with their family and peers.
“At home, I felt like people weren’t respecting my identity as trans, so I had to be super, super trans-masculine in my presentation, in my actions and in my name, because that was the only way I felt valid,” Hull said. “In college, being with people who accepted my trans identity and people who were trans and who had a wide range of presentations, I got to be a little kinder to myself. I got more comfortable and started to present myself like I wanted to.”
For the first time in years, Hull said, they can wear skirts without worry of being perceived as too feminine.
According to Dee Hurlbert, the director of the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender Resource Center at MSU, Hull’s exploration of their identity is natural. College is a time of growth.
“It’s important to note that it’s not just people who go to college, but really, it’s age-appropriate,” Hurlbert said. “There are still a lot of folks who, when they come to college, have some degree of self-awareness, and this is their time to really explore that more fully and meet other people who are LBGT.”
And with nearly 40,000 undergraduate students, the campus is filled with many students of diverse backgrounds exploring their sexualities and gender identities for the first time.
“I think our unit really excels at meeting student needs in a way that’s intersectional, that honors all the intersecting identities and experiences that students have,” Hurlbert said. “We’ve been particularly successful at connecting with students who are African American, Latino and international students who are also LBGT.”
But that isn’t to say MSU’s campus is perfect. Google “LGBT-friendly college campuses” and Michigan State University doesn’t make the top 50.
As with any campus, homophobia and transphobia sometimes rears their ugly head.
“I had one professor, and he misgendered students overtly in class,” said Joe Shemanski, a senior microbiology student at MSU. “I called him out on it, and he said, ‘Oh no, it’s for the foreign exchange students to avoid confusion.’ What kind of excuse is that?”
Shemanski, who is also nonbinary, identifies as gay. They said that even with MSU’s resources, there’s still a lot the university can do better.
“First, more neutral bathrooms, because there are barely any, their distribution is very clustered and a lot of it is out of the way,” Shemanski said. “Then, I think the teachers getting more sensitivity training — especially the older generation, the tenured people.”
Shemanski also recommends on-campus job training.
“I’ve worked on campus, and supervisors will use ‘sir’ with customers and employees, and it’s definitely a situation where I don’t feel comfortable saying, ‘Don’t call me sir, because that’s not what I am,” Shemanski said. “If they put something out there, something to reassure that you can come forward about it, that would be really cool.”
But perhaps the school’s saving grace is that the MSU LBGT Resource Center staff realize where the school falls short, and, according to Hurlbert, there is a push to do better.
“We are still struggling with bathrooms,” Hurlbert said. “However, there is a plan in place to roll out and add to the network of restrooms that are available.”
Hurlbert said that MSU is one of the nation’s few campuses that has a gender-inclusive multi-user bathroom.
And as transgender issues become more prominent in the national discussion, other shortcomings are revealed.
“We have a lot that’s changed, or that there are plans of action in place to address some of the needs that have arisen more clearly in the last few years,” Hurlbert said, citing concerns like healthcare access and transitional access for students who are transgender, emergency funds for students who might be cut off from their family and gender-neutral housing options and roommate selection availability for students to have more options in choosing who they’ll live with.

“In college, being with people who accepted my trans identity and people who were trans and who had a wide range of presentations, I got to be a little kinder to myself. I got more comfortable and started to present myself like I wanted to.”

— Jay Hull, nonbinary MSU student

So even though MSU doesn’t reach the country’s top lists of LGBT-friendly schools, there are signs of forward progress. The city of East Lansing itself was rated especially LGBTQ friendly. The Human Rights Campaign gave East Lansing a 100 percent in its municipal equality index, putting it leaps and bounds above Lansing’s 65-point score and at the same level as the state’s top-scoring cities, Ann Arbor and Detroit.
Though Shemanski said they experienced various instances of homophobia and micro-aggressions since coming to campus, they said that overwhelmingly their MSU experience was positive, especially recently.
“I’m seeing a lot more moves by the Resource Center to put more stuff up,” Shemanski said. “Just seeing advertisements for LGBT stuff everywhere, and in terms of my singular most positive experience on campus, finding TransAction was pretty great.”
TransAction is an on-campus club for transgender and gender non-conforming students and their allies, one of several on-campus LGBT clubs. Both Hull and Shemanski are part of the student-run organization.
“TransAction is super fulfilling,” Hull said.
“That was really a crucial part of me being able to express myself and be comfortable with myself. I feel like at a smaller college, a group like that would have been more difficult for me, and (at MSU) it wasn’t really.”