By Raoul Biron
This week, one of the most underrepresented groups in UNH’s community worked to become impossible to ignore.
In anticipation of Nov. 20, the Transgender Day of Remembrance, an international observance honoring the lives lost through transgender violence, UNH’s trans rights activists (among them Trans UNH, The Waysmeet Center, and the Women’s Studies Program) sponsored the sixth annual Gender Identities Awareness (GIA) Week.
“I started GIA back in 2010 because I saw that there was a true dearth of education regarding transgender issues on campus, as well as a lack of community for trans identified students, faculty and staff. I also observed that we needed to create a much larger pool of vocal and visible cisgender allies to trans folks on campus,” said Dr. Joelle Ruby Ryan, lecturer in women’s studies. “I believe that education and community building are essential first steps to addressing issues of inequality and systemic cissexist discrimination.”
While major legislative progress for gay rights made headlines in 2015 and many members of the LGBTQ+ community continue to make headway in an ongoing struggle for cultural acceptance, the Transgender community (T in the LGBTQ+ acronym) still faces unique challenges. For student activists like junior women’s studies major Audrey Johnson, UNH isn’t immune from battling inequality for trans students and faculty.
“Trans people face even greater issues than their gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. peers for a variety of reasons. Gender is omnipresent – it’s a part of every interaction,” said Johnson, the GIA Week coordinator.
From Monday to Friday, students and faculty turned the Memorial Union Building, The Waysmeet Center, and for one night, The Knot, into a hub for educating and discussing the progression of trans rights, understanding gender identities, and celebrating members of the community.
“Some of the specific problems faced by trans students here are UNH are a lack of gender neutral bathrooms, being misgendered by people (purposely or not), and cissexist ideas being taught by professors… There are certainly structural changes that need to be made to make UNH a more inclusive space for trans people, but a cultural shift is needed as well,” Johnson said.
During the week, daily events ranging from a keynote address from activist and artist Ryan Cassata, to panels discussing transphobia, coming out, and daily life on campus for trans-identified students, faculty, and staff, aimed to help address cissexism and inspire communal awareness.
“My hope is that from these educational sessions attendees will be moved to take the next step and join campus groups like Trans UNH, The Alliance, the Transgender Policy and Climate Committee (TPACC), The GLBT Commission etc. to take what they have learned and then work with others to strategize for real change – changes to policy and campus climate that move beyond rhetoric to make transgender students, faculty and staff complete and valued members of the UNH community at all levels,” Ryan said.
While the events were largely aimed at preparatory education to the larger community, many went further than purely addressing what pronoun to use when unsure or what “never to say to a trans person.” As some students were able to understand identities such as genderqueer, genderfluid, and agender for the first time, other members of UNH’s community could discuss their perspectives in a cooperative safe space.
“As transgender acceptance and understanding grows, I think GIA Week will evolve as well – there will be less need for introductory events and we can delve into even deeper discussions,” said Johnson.
The week concluded with a vigil for Trans Remembrance Day at the Waysmeet Center where candles were paired with cards including a name, age, and picture of a trans person killed in the past year. On Friday, 21 names were listed.