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Arielle Shternfeld / Columbia Daily Spectator

I think frequently about the life I would have had if I had stayed close to my small hometown in rural Georgia.

I would have set myself up for extreme social marginalization. Being trans affects my ability to work at home, the basic respect I get on the street, and the quality of life available to me. A decision needed to be made: I could choose to miss my family, which I love dearly, or to work to achieve a better life for myself. But I had to be honest with myself to understand that living where I grew up is not a real possibility for me.

I chose to leave my family and to come to Columbia University so that one day I could put myself in a better position. While my family offered me an unparalleled sense of togetherness that I didn’t have elsewhere, I knew when I left my home at seventeen that it would never be my full time home again. So, I began to work out where my home would be and what I could do to improve my life.

I thought that Columbia would offer me a life with more amenities and interpersonal ease by finding me a quiet corner in the halls of the administration’s advertised diversity. I wanted to leave behind the intricacies of being trans. It’s the small affronts to your personhood that I wanted to divorce myself from. I wanted to do the small things in life without having my gender constantly disrespected or ignored.

But that hasn’t necessarily been my experience since I came to Columbia. I feel projections on what transness is put onto me in both the smallest and largest interactions. My personal relationship with transness isn’t from a frame of identity as much as it is an experience. I don’t feel any personal connection with being trans solely because I’m trans. I connect to other trans people, specifically other trans women from low-income backgrounds, who have gone through similar hurdles to manifest their own happiness. But I’m not tied to transness as an identity. I identify mainly as a black woman, and I acknowledge my experiences that are unique to being trans—I just don’t feel close to transness as an identity.

At Columbia, I’m frequently asked to speak on my transness as something to celebrate. While being trans is something to celebrate for some people, I do not want to spend all my time talking to cis people about my experiences. I want to be respected like any other person; I want my womanhood to be a fact, not a courtesy, just like any other woman. I want to be left alone to choose the life that I wish to lead and not be forced into the ideas of what a trans woman’s life should look like. If I am talking about my experiences and you are not able to say that you’ve been through similar things, then that puts an added stress on me to relate the story to you, which is a lot of labor.

This specific labor is in opposition to the kind of labor I experience back home in Georgia: being told to keep quiet about my experiences. As I go back and forth from Columbia to my parents’ house throughout the year, I notice that in both places I am asked to put a large amount of effort into either talking or being quiet, but the decision is never completely mine. And it should be. I want the agency that is so freely given to cis people because of the privilege they exert in the cissexist system that we live in.

That is not to say I am never given this agency. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about all the instances during my time at Columbia when I was treated with a refreshing level of respect and agency. There are specific aspects of Columbia that really deserve to be acknowledged for this—people like Chris Woods, the former Associate Director of Multicultural Affairs and LGBTQA+ Outreach, and the people at Counseling and Psychological Services who helped me have access to health resources. Each of them helped me reach a point of happiness and comfort in life that I didn’t have before, and we need people like that here.

There are times when I wonder what I mean to Columbia as a student, like how I’ve constantly been called upon by the black community to handle trans issues, or when I published my first op-ed for Spec in the fall of my sophomore year and was mildly uncomfortable with the picture used. The illustration was attempting to do some weird representation of femininity being hindered by masculinity, which was assumed to be my struggle but was not related to what I was talking about or my own experiences. These were times when I felt frustrated and alone, and at times upset with the way my transness put me in positions of vulnerability that created issues for me that my cis peers do not have to experience. But as with anything, there are good and bad aspects of being here.

The truth is, it is rare to find an institution that is completely flawed or completely perfect. I’m happy that I came to Columbia as a seventeen-year-old who didn’t have a home that she could concretely live in forever, because now I’m poised to graduate in two years as a woman who has made a home inside of herself. And that home goes with her wherever she goes.

The author is a junior studying English and comparative literature in Columbia College. She spends most of her time being involved with black and queer life on campus.

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Race, Trans Experience, Gender
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