Do better, Dawgs: Transphobia at Butler

Trans people at Butler deserve to feel respected. Graphic by Haley Morkert.


I grew up in a small, rural community, isolated from the rest of the world by overgrown cornfields, perpetually unpaved roads and crumbling, long-abandoned farms. Entrenched in deeply conservative beliefs, my hometown often felt several years behind when it came to divisive topics such as sexuality and gender. I was one of the only openly queer kids in a high school of nearly five hundred people, but even this was a risk. I couldn’t discuss my sexuality in classrooms or date someone of the same gender — and above all, I definitely couldn’t identify as anything other than my assigned gender at birth. 

In stark contrast, Butler’s significantly more liberal atmosphere promised a kind of freedom that I had only ever dreamed of. At last, I could change my name, experiment with my pronouns and speak openly about my identity as a nonbinary person. I was able to connect with other, real-life queer people — even other trans and nonbinary people! This transition from the trenches of transphobia to a haven of acceptance and inclusion seemed almost too good to be true. 

Spoiler alert: it was.

For someone who has spent most of their life crammed into the closet, any breath of fresh air feels practically euphoric. But once the initial astonishment wore off, I found myself noticing all the cracks that Butler’s thin veneer of progressive politics couldn’t quite paint over. 

For example, although Butler does allow students to indicate their preferred name for websites such as Canvas, this policy doesn’t extend to things like student I.D.s, the residence life portal, medical records and mailing and email addresses — just to name a few. As a result, I’ve suffered through numerous awkward confrontations with professors and students alike — and I’m not the only one. 

Violet, a sophomore English and philosophy double major who has asked to go by her first name for privacy reasons, has only recently begun the process of coming out as a trans woman. But because Butler isn’t very transparent when it comes to how and where you can change your preferred name — if you can change it at all — Violet has had to navigate these obstacles entirely on her own. 

“I figured out that you can change your name at least somewhat on Canvas,” Violet said. “But then I found out that your grades still show up under your deadname. And professors will also only see your deadname, and so they have to find out what your name is directly from you. As trans people, we definitely don’t have enough access to changing our name in school databases.” 

In the queer community, a “deadname” refers to the name given to someone at birth that they no longer identify with. As a result, hearing a deadname — or being forced to use it — can cause intense feelings of dysphoria for trans people. 

Furthermore, the inability to escape our deadnames only reinforces the “otherness” that trans individuals often feel in spaces clearly meant for cisgender people. We are made constantly, uncomfortably aware of the fact that we are in violation of the preconceived norm. So while I’m grateful for the individuals who do respect our preferred names, there are still too many situations where our deadnames are prioritized by Butler University. 

Violet also pointed to another, somewhat more controversial way in which trans people are othered on campus: pronoun circles. 

“Yes, I want people to respect pronouns,” Violet said. “But I also don’t want to have to reinforce my difference every time I’m in class.” 

For people who don’t identify as transgender, the issue with pronoun circles — or moments in a classroom where students are expected to share their preferred pronouns — may seem a bit counterintuitive. After all, the experience of being misgendered is also incredibly debilitating, and trans people in particular tend to be very outspoken about the normalization of pronoun awareness. Putting pronouns in the biography section of a social media platform, for instance, has become a common practice over the past few years. So it would make sense to assume that pronoun circles in classrooms are beneficial because they allow for gender non-conforming people to express their identities and ensure that they will be addressed appropriately. 

But I believe that pronoun circles are most often hindered by the mentality of the people involved. In my experience, it seems that people are simply going through the motions rather than shifting their mindset to accommodate being exposed to different identities. For example, cisgender people sometimes see their pronouns as being “obvious” because they match their outward appearance or the traditional gender norm. This means that they might also have a subtle, even subconscious reaction to someone whose pronouns don’t seem so obvious. Or they might simply memorize someone’s pronouns instead of actually seeing that person as their gender identity. 

Gansey Petroff, a senior classics and psychology double major, offered a very succinct summary of his own feelings about pronoun circles. 

“They honestly get on my f*cking nerves,” Petroff said. 

As a transgender man who is also a senior, Petroff has been navigating transphobia at Butler for several years. For the most part, however, it seems that his most negative experiences have occurred in the classroom as a result of misguided professors or students. 

“I think in general my classics professors have been a lot better about things because they’ll usually go out of their way to correct themselves,” Petroff said. “It’s a little embarrassing, but at least they try to care. But there’s still a lot of awkwardness when there’s a gendered debate happening, for instance, and people will still forget to put me in the ‘guy’ category. Or they’ll use a lot of broad, gendered language, like referring to a group that I’m in as ‘ladies.’”

I’ve also found that classrooms can be some of the most difficult environments to navigate as a trans person. Even the most well-meaning professors or students are capable of slipping up, but correcting a name or set of pronouns can also be a deeply humiliating experience for everyone involved. During one, particularly memorable class, I was deadnamed multiple times by a professor who then asked what my deadname was in order to be sure that that’s what they had called me. 

Of course, these instances tend to be few and far between given the sheer number of interactions I have with my professors and peers on a daily basis. But they still serve as a reminder that my identity doesn’t align with the expectations other people have created based on my outward appearance. 

Sophomore Bee Pilarz, an English and political science double major, agreed that assuming someone’s gender based on physical presentation is a complex and often uncomfortable issue for trans people. 

“I was in a psychology class, and we were studying how people have internal processes for how they assess someone’s appearance,” Pilarz said. “And so the professor had us look at these composite photos of different faces, and we had to identify whether we thought those people were male or female. But she never gave any sort of disclaimer that what you see doesn’t necessarily determine someone’s identity. It was very uncomfortable, especially because I was the only trans person in my group.”  

Pilarz described this experience as teaching students how to “clock” gender. Clocking is a term used in queer studies that describes the ways in which trans and gender non-conforming people are often identified as the gender that they look the most like, rather than the gender that they identify as. But these identifiers are often extremely arbitrary, and they pathologize many physical characteristics as either inherently trans or inherently cis. Furthermore, they blatantly ignore the existence of trans people who either can’t or don’t want to “pass.” 

While Pilarz’s experience reflects only a single professor’s views, it nevertheless exemplifies the cisnormative misconceptions that plague the trans community. Butler needs to educate students on the nuances of gender presentation and identity, rather than reinforcing harmful transphobic rhetoric. 

For the most part, Butler University is a far safer environment for trans people than many other places in Indiana. But many manifestations of transphobia at Butler are incredibly subtle, woven deeply into students’ everyday experiences as they navigate an inherently cis-heteronormative world. 

The day after I chose to write this article, I texted one of my friends who does not go to Butler and confessed to him how nervous I was. I told him that I didn’t feel qualified to write about anything to do with transphobia because, although I am a transmasculine person, I still look, sound and dress like a traditional “woman.” I told him that on some level, I understand why people constantly misgender me because I have so many physical and social characteristics that are associated with womanhood. 

Basically, I told him that I didn’t feel trans enough. 

And he told me that I should write about it in this article. 

The fact is that gender is still being understood and conceptualized only by cisgender people. And when they think about trans identities, they think about them in a cisgender way. The gender binary hasn’t disappeared; instead, it’s simply been reworked to encompass two new boxes: cis and trans. 

This idea is harmful for a plethora of reasons, but most importantly, it disavows our understanding of gender as a spectrum. People today tend to think of transness as a flexible and multi-faceted label, and cisness as a strict set of rules, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, there are an infinite number of ways to exist under both umbrellas — and none of them are wrong. Being cisgender is just as much of a spectrum as being transgender, and at the end of the day, the only real difference between the two is how that person chooses to identify themselves. 

For many, this perspective of gender may seem difficult to grasp. But you don’t need to fully understand it to let people live in whatever way makes them feel the most comfortable, regardless of what they look like or how they identify. Simply put, those things are none of our business. 

In fact, the only thing that is our business is making sure all trans people — from our classmates and professors to our closest friends — feel accepted and respected at Butler University. 


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