Alexx Andersen lay in bed at 12:11 p.m. two years ago, scrolling through their phone. An email popped up from their chaplain.
“So sorry to hear about your loss,” the chaplain wrote.
Andersen froze. They replied, asking the chaplain what she meant.
“Milo passed away,” the chaplain replied.
Andersen, now 23, was in disbelief. Their best friend, 24-year-old Milo Wright, couldn’t be dead. But Andersen called Wright’s partner, and sure enough, Wright had died unexpectedly two days prior.
Wright was more than a friend to Andersen. They wrote poetry together. He made Andersen laugh. And most importantly, he was the only transgender friend Andersen had at Salem College, a small women’s college in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Andersen couldn’t go to class that day. Feeling alone, they called Trans Lifeline, a suicide prevention hotline for transgender people. Andersen needed someone to talk to.
Andersen called the hotline every day for a month.
At the time, Andersen, who is transgender and non-binary, was not open about their identity. But something stirred inside them after Wright’s death. They felt self-resentment. They wished they had come out while Wright was alive.
Andersen knew it was the time to change that.
They decided to first come out to their adviser, who had created a welcoming environment in her classroom and had a LGBTQ safe space sticker on her door. That was relatively painless, but what would come next — coming out to the student body — would create a campus so unwelcoming to Andersen that they were forced to move off campus and endure discrimination.
The day Andersen came out as transgender to their adviser, House Bill 2 was passed in the North Carolina General Assembly.
But a year after the repeal of HB 2 and the passage of its compromise bill, transgender students continue to face discrimination and harassment on campus.
The compromise put a moratorium on municipalities enacting nondiscrimination ordinances until 2020.
While the Department of Justice under President Obama sued North Carolina over HB 2, the Trump administration has worked to remove federal protections for transgender people.
Last year, the Trump administration rescinded a Dear Colleague letter issued under the Obama administration that directed public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity, even if it was different from the sex listed on their birth certificates. As of February, the Department of Education will no longer investigate complaints related to the issue.
But the impact of the recent state and federal policies extends beyond the bathroom stalls.
“I think that all the way back to HB 2, that sent a really scary signal to students in our state that it is not acceptable or safe for them to be openly trans,” said Ames Simmons, director of transgender policy at Equality NC. “At the end of 2016, we ended up with a federal election that resulted in another signal to trans students that the government doesn’t have their back.”
‘You are never not afraid’
Growing up in Charleston, S.C., Andersen never liked makeup and other feminine things.
They knew something was different about them, but they never had the words to express it.
“Where I grew up, I think maybe a few times the word lesbian and gay had been mentioned,” Andersen said. “Other than that, people didn’t really talk about it in my town.”
That all changed when they met Wright. A bespectacled 24-year-old with short brown hair, Wright didn’t explicitly educate Andersen on transgender issues. But a mutual understanding — someone who related to their struggle to come out — was all Andersen needed.
For the first time, their friendship, along with the terminology they learned in the classes they took for their Women and Gender Studies major, gave Andersen the words to describe their identity: Transgender. Non-binary.
But that doesn’t mean they wanted to say those words in front of their peers. And as they took the microphone in front of a crowd of more than a 100 people that Friday at city hall at a rally against HB 2, they were terrified.
“You are never not afraid,” they said. “For me, not telling people was kind of killing me in a different way. I would rather deal with the people who couldn’t deal with it, no matter how many of them there were, than torment myself on the inside.”
Being surrounded by people at the rally who were in support of transgender rights, they were met with acceptance.
But not everyone in the campus community was ready to listen.
Andersen would soon be one of the 23 percent of transgender people who came out in college and experienced verbal, physical or sexual harassment because of their gender identity, according to the 2015 North Carolina transgender survey. The survey, conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, is the largest survey of transgender people in the U.S.
“So are you a boy or are you a girl?” People would ask Andersen, spotting the button they wore listing their pronouns.
“Have you had surgery?”
At first, they wanted to assume that the comments were well-intentioned, but when they received them from the same classmates over and over, it was clear that it was harassment.
But after inaction from the administration, they felt they had no way to fight back.
Before Andersen came out to anyone, they had approached the administration with a simple question: “What if we had a trans student on campus?”
The administration directed them to the diversity director, who, although she was supportive of Andersen and even hosted campus discussions on the issue, had no power to change campus policies that could protect them from discrimination.
“It felt like I was wasting my breath,” Andersen said.
Despite the lack of support from the campus community, Andersen continued their transition.
Andersen, who doesn’t have a car, had a friend drive them nearly two hours to Planned Parenthood in Raleigh, since facilities that provide affordable hormone treatment are scarce in the state.
Two days later, they walked out of the pharmacy with a $30 bottle of hormones. Their face elongated and thinned. They sprouted facial hair. Their voice deepened.
“I feel like for one of the first times in my life I’m actually genuinely happy with myself,” Andersen said. “And I can heal from all of these pressures that I have put on myself and other people have put on me to look a certain way.”
Despite changing their name and their appearance, in the eyes of the state, Andersen’s identity is reduced to a single letter marked on their driver’s license: F.
And for Andersen’s peers, that letter defines whether they can be accepted into the University, after the college released an updated nondiscrimination statement last June, just after Andersen’s graduation.
The policy was updated after Andersen and nearly 100 of their peers staged a sit-in over poor living conditions, racism and anti-transgender admissions policies. While it attempted to include gender identity and gender expression, it only allowed those whose have a female designation on their driver’s license to be admitted to the University.
And in North Carolina, only those who have undergone sex reassignment surgery can change their gender marker. Among respondents in the North Carolina transgender survey, 77 percent did not have the name and gender they preferred on any of their identity documents.
For a student applying to a college like Salem, it’s even more unlikely.
“I think on behalf of trans people, the only reason to engage in (the legal) process is because the greater society gatekeeping requires that,” Simmons said. “There’s no reason why anyone other than a trans person would have the authority to say what their gender is.”
Their whole life, Andersen had kept their distance from religious spaces, where they felt far from welcomed as a member of the LGBTQ community.
“I got a lot of this language from church I grew up in that if you identified that way then you were going straight to hell,” they said. “And the only way you could be saved is if you turned away from that.”
But after the church where Wright’s funeral service was held used his proper name and gender identity, Andersen gave religion another try. They attended several different transgender-affirming churches and ministries in the months after Wright’s death and into their senior year.
Eventually, they decided to put in an application for the Wake Forest University School of Divinity. They were accepted, but Andersen was still apprehensive.
That’s when Andersen met Erica Saunders, a 23-year-old transgender woman, through an online group for transgender people pursuing higher education.
Andersen went to visit the divinity school and discovered that Saunders was one of several transgender students in the program.
According to the Institute for Welcoming Resources, a group that promotes acceptance of LGBTQ congregants, just 17 seminaries in the country — and three in the south — are welcoming of LGBTQ students.
“Before I came here, I did not even know that a church would accept a trans person as a member, let alone welcome one into leadership,” said Saunders, who now interns at the Wake Forest Baptist Church and is on her way to becoming an ordained minister.
A few weeks later, Andersen decided to attend. They are still reconciling their relationship with religion, and examining transgender and black liberation perspectives on salvation.
Raising their voice was once their greatest fears, but within the campus’ Wait Chapel and the classrooms adjacent to it, Andersen can finally speak out.
And during a choir rehearsal, looking out across the rows of empty seats that would soon be filled at the following week’s Easter service, Andersen begins to sing.
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