I received an email last week inviting me to Lavender Graduation and immediately registered online. While filling out the application, I realized that I’d never been this excited about registering for a Westhampton College event. I didn’t go to Ring Dance, and I don’t plan on attending any WC-sponsored events between now and when I graduate in May. These events don’t appeal to me, because I associate Westhampton so strongly with feelings of discomfort and distress that I can’t focus on the milestones that we’re meant to be celebrating.
I didn’t know that I would eventually find my way to calling myself non binary when I was accepted to Richmond. I didn’t think being part of Westhampton College would impact my experience here as profoundly as it has. It wasn’t until I applied to the WILL* program and started taking women, gender, and sexuality studies classes that I really even started thinking about my gender. Even in that space – so often regarded by my peers as safe – I felt more gendered than I’ve ever felt in my life. This began a year-long struggle with depression and dysphoria, or the feeling of discomfort that often arises from being gendered in ways that are nonconsensual and coercive. It took me six months to develop any coping skills. I felt alienated from other students, faculty and staff members, my friends and roommates, and my own parents. I frantically tried on names, pronouns, identities, and gender expressions, looking for some semblance of belonging. My entire self image had shattered.
I found support at ROSMY, a local organization that provides a sanctuary for queer and trans youth between the ages of 11 and 20 years old. Slowly I began to put the pieces of who I am back together. I became interested in changing the university so other transgender and gender non-conforming students, would not have to experience everything I had already gone through. I wanted to make a difference.
Maybe it’s because of who I am, but every attempt I made to change the campus culture felt like a failure. Last year, I took my concerns to the deans of Richmond and Westhampton colleges, requesting that I be incorporated into both Westhampton and Richmond College. The deans were welcoming, receptive, and fairly understanding. The system fell short, and I felt like I had been lulled into a state of complacency. I know of alumni who have encountered similar problems.
I kept running into walls with professors and classmates and eventually shut down. Being angry is also damn exhausting.
It took moving off-campus to find solace, to feel less out-of-place and more at home with who I am. I fully intended to graduate – without Westhampton College being mentioned on my diploma – and sever myself from the University of Richmond. But that’s not really a solution.
Obviously this is about the coordinate college system. This is about how non-cisgender students often feel out of place at Richmond because of it. This is about the failure of the community as a whole, including the student body, faculty, and staff members, to support students who are questioning their gender identity or transitioning during college. I know of people on campus who work very hard to challenge the status quo, namely the folks in the Office of Common Ground, but there’s only so much they can do. I think the student body has far more power than we will ever admit to having.
The coordinate college system is limiting, but I believe that there are a variety of ways to open up the system. The coordinate colleges do not have to be completely eliminated; they can be restructured in ways that support changing gender dynamics. There is so much room for improvement, and everyone can do better.
The coordinate college system, in short, is not as inclusive as some administrative personnel continue to believe. That idea is misguided and potentially harmful to students who feel otherwise, students who may be more strongly affected by the system than administrators. The coordinate college system is also only a piece of what makes the University of Richmond sometimes hostile towards non-cisgender students. It’s important for everyone to understand the issues and for all of us to work together to solve them.
I will graduate in May – without Westhampton College listed on my diploma – and hopefully leave an opening for other members of the campus community to make the change that feels most necessary to me. I do not want to leave without having shaped this university even a little bit.