Campus Life

Transgender Students Share Journeys to Identity


Jude Depew, senior

Two seniors are living their final year at university with newfound identities and genders. For Jude Depew, that meant abandoning himself as “Jessica” and transitioning into manhood. Victoria Blackburn cast away her identity as “Marcus” to express herself as a woman.

Depew enrolled in the Honor’s College as a lesbian female. He said labeling himself a lesbian was “a place-filler, but not the right one.” He didn’t feel comfortable expressing himself in womanly ways.

“I always knew that there was something a little bit off,” Depew said. “I always knew that doing the feminine things I was expected to, such as wearing dresses and having long hair, felt wrong.”

For Blackburn, the disconnect between her identity as a female and her biological composure was the subject of introspection in her childhood. She said she always felt more comfortable playing dolls and dress-up with girls instead of roughhousing on the playground with the young boys in her class.

Depew and Blackburn explain their past gender conflicts with three independent terms: biological sex, gender identity and gender expression. Biological sex refers to one’s genitalia and reproductive organs. Gender identity is how a person ascertains tendencies within themselves, whether masculine or feminine, and gender expression is how people choose to express their inner gender identity.

Some people hover in a space between some of these terms. They exist in a land without gender, unable to recognize themselves within a single set of pre-made societal gender roles. But some enthusiastically embrace that space as its own identity: gender non-conforming.

Both said their detached feelings they feel spawn from inconsistencies between their biological sex and their gender identity or expression. They said it wasn’t until late in their adolescence that they encountered communities and vocabulary that properly conveyed that conflict and found channels to express their inner selves.

Victoria Blackburn, senior

For them, choosing to transition is not as much a personal choice as much as it is a realization. “People wake up and have realizations about stuff like jobs and relationships, not their gender,” Blackburn said. “It’s not waking up and thinking ‘Oh, I feel like a woman.’ It’s waking up and thinking, ‘Oh, I get it.’”

Depew said he uses the term “trans” loosely, using it to imply varying degrees of change on a case-by-case basis. Some transgender people will simply change their name and adopt a new set of pronouns – “Michael” becomes “Melissa” and “he” becomes “her” – but for others such as Blackburn and Depew, it involves the consideration of hormone treatments, surgeries, new wardrobes and therapy sessions.

Transitioning genders has presented both students with a long string of life changes, hurdles and undertakings. Depew said his conservative upbringing made him reluctant to explore hesitations he felt about his gender. He knew he was attracted to women, but hadn’t realized himself as male yet.

During his senior year of high school, he came to terms with his sexuality and came out as a lesbian. He began dating another woman at the time, but he hid it from his traditional-minded parents. But his mother saw content on Facebook that outed his secret. His mother called him freshman year and barraged him with extensive disapproval and rejection.

After that call, Depew remembers feeling empty and alone. A whirlpool of rejection and confusion fueled by social isolation and gender confusion drowned him in a depression. Depew attempted suicide freshman year in his dorm room, downing a cup of antifreeze and popping as many pills as he could find. Thankfully, he said, the attempt was unsuccessful.

After surviving that night, Depew knew he had to change his life to make himself happy and comfortable. He said he knew he had to embrace his identity and become the man he felt himself to be. He chopped off his long hair, cleaned off his makeup, got rid of his “stereotype lesbian” clothing and, most recently, began testosterone injections.

After three months of treatment, his voice is noticeably deeper, he’s growing facial hair and his muscle structure is changing. “I’m more socially accepted as male, which is really exciting,” he said. “It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Depew said the treatments will likely be a lifetime commitment. If he stops taking the testosterone injections, his body will revert. His husky voice will regain its high frequency, his facial hair will halt and the muscle structure he built will subdue.

Transitioning into a feminine figure is daunting to Depew, but it is Blackburn’s end goal. Blackburn began living as a full-time transwoman last summer. Prior to her decision publicly to express herself as a female, it was something she kept private and only expressed in the company of her close, trusted friends.

She said stories about transwomen discriminated at work, on the street and within their peer groups discouraged her from expressing her identity publicly. “Trans people weren’t really talked about until a few years ago. It was like a UFO. Everyone was like, ‘What’s that?,’” Blackburn said.

Before coming out as a transwoman, she took a route she described at the time as “gender fluid.” Blackburn identified as a woman, but dressed masculine to avoid attracting unwanted attention. Now she carries her curvaceous figure in lacy dresses and frames her purple lipstick lips with a head of silk black hair.

Despite her outward appearance, Blackburn said her discomfort with her biological sex has complicated romantic pursuit. She said transgender people are often targets of sexual assault and discrimination and sometimes struggle to find like-minded individuals to bridge emotional connections with

Some people seek transgender people for sexual fantasy, while others fail to understand her desire to be treated as a woman in all aspects, she said. “Often, a [transwoman is]not treated as a person, we’re treated as a fetish,” she said. And until she inquires into sexual readjustment surgery, she said, she may never be comfortable engaging sexually with her partners.

Although Blackburn expresses herself as female, she is still uncomfortable with her biological makeup. “Obviously there’s more to relationships than sex, but it often is a part of the emotional experience,” she said. “Since I can never be comfortable with the sex part with my current situation, the emotional part gets messed up. Then it’s one big giant mess and I just can’t do it.”

Blackburn said leaving her home every day provides a unique risk. She said she must always hope that she won’t encounter emotional or physical harm.

Transgendered people, she said, face challenges of being transgender and difficulties of their expressed gender.Blackburn said she faces the hurdles of being a transwoman, as well as the barriers of being a woman.

But hurdles, Depew and Blackburn said, haven’t impeded their college experience. Since coming out, Blackburn and Depew said UCA faculty, staff and students – for the most part – have been generally accepting and understanding of their transition. Neither recalled problematic situations, apart from the occasional name or pronoun slip-up

UCA also has seven gender-neutral restrooms for transgender students to use if they feel uncomfortable using standard facilities. Depew is president of the PRISM student organization, which offers a supportive community for LGBTQ+ students on campus.

Professors in the theater department and College of Business call Blackburn by her preferred name and pronouns, Blackburn said. “They make me feel comfortable and like I’ve always been a woman around,” she said.

Depew said administration at the Honors College altered his information in computers so rosters show his preferred name. “Every single time someone affirms my gender or calls me ‘man’ or ‘he’ or ‘bro’, it overwhelms me and makes me so happy and so excited about life,” Depew said. “Finally, for the first time, I’m being this person I look at in the mirror and like who I am.”

photos by Jared L. Holt

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