By Sean Robinson, Copy Editor
Growing up, J.C. (whose name has been redacted for confidentiality purposes) said she felt an empty conflict waging within her own head, consumed with thoughts that her existence didn’t belong on Earth. To fill this self-described “empty hole,” J.C. took action three years ago and headed on a trip to Chicago, where she had an epiphany with the change of an outfit.
“I didn’t know anybody in Chicago, so I dressed up as a female for the first time, and it all clicked,” said J.C., a broadcasting student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. “At the same time, I thought ‘oh, shit’ and hoped the answer would be anything else because it’s terrifying.”
This was not a passing phase and just the beginning of J.C.’s transition from her born gender as a male to become a female. J.C. is one of many students who belong to UNO’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexed and asexual (LGBTQIA) community, a group that has thrived within the boundaries of a conservative state and institution.
“A lot of work at UNO still needs to be done, and it may be a struggle,” said Borin Chep, director of UNO’s Gender and Sexual Orientation agency, an organization within Student Government that advocates on behalf of this community.
J.C.’s own personal struggle began during childhood when she first realized toys were divided by gender- G.I. Joe for boys and Barbies for girls. While the need to introduce socially-restrictive gender norms angered her, J.C., who admits to being a tomboy, didn’t mind climbing trees and playing with legos as a child to fit in with the other boys.
It was after that trip to Chicago with three trans-friends that her internal identity crisis was solved and external conflicts erupted.
When she told her sister on the phone that she was transgender, J.C.’s confession was met with a dial-tone, which was followed by her losing half her friends, her parents ignoring her transition and her being fired from her job at a local supermarket chain. Nebraska currently has no state-level protection for discrimination against LGBTQIA employees, and federal protection that would come with the passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act hasn’t been granted due to the legislation’s stalling within the Republican-dominated House.
“My life was like a country song at first. It was a sad and awful period,” J.C. said. “I took action when times were hardest to surround myself with help.”
She aligned herself with a small community of Omaha transgender activists and began taking hormones to increase her levels of estrogen and decrease her testosterone.
While she is now legally and medically recognized as a female following examination from a doctor, J.C.’s male birth name is still on file within UNO’s systems since she started taking classes on campus before she began her transition. Prior to classes beginning each semester, she must speak with professors to discuss her name change and how she would like to be referenced, sometimes this includes explaining her preferred use of feminine pronouns.
“I’ve found that you need to be proactive about it to avoid discrimination or confusion,” J.C. said. “I can clarify my name and how I’d like to be identified, but on-campus issues still exist. For example, do I use the female or male locker room when I go to HPER [UNO’s gym and School of Health, Physical Activity, Exercise and Recreation]?”
The LGBT-Friendly Campus Climate Index, a measurement developed by a team of national LGBT researchers to highlight areas where institutions need to improve, currently gives UNO a score of 2.5 out of a total of five. Operated by Campus Pride, which is the leading nonprofit organization for student groups working to create LGBT-safe environments, the Index cites such issues as the lack of recruitment and retention efforts for LGBT students, including that no scholarship or alumni group exists for this population, and absence of gender neutral housing options for transgender or intersexed students.
Chep’s goal as director of UNO’s agency on Gender and Sexual Orientation is to bring awareness to these issues and provide support for his community. By participating in LGBTQIA protests and working with the American Civil Liberties Union to educate the public and legislators on needed reforms, Chep has made it his mission to help other youth feel more comfortable with the coming out process.
“I hope to be a resource for students at UNO, and GSO can provide support,” Chep said. Currently, the agency can help students find counseling and free STD testing and provides condoms to students of any sexual orientation. “GSO is an important space for students to feel safe and to not be harassed.”
Chep transitioned to UNO after attending the University of Missouri and Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City and Omaha, and he said UNO’s LGBTQIA efforts need improvement in comparison to his previous experiences. From creating a LGBTQIA studies program to requiring training of all faculty and staff members on issues of inclusivity, UNO is bounds away from the progress made by their competitors.
“You can’t express your sexuality freely at UNO without fear of discrimination,” Chep said.
Each year, LGBTQIA students are targeted by a guest speaker brought onto campus by The Rock, a christian student organization. Chep said the biggest blunder hindering UNO’s progression is year-after-year administration allows onto campus Pastor Tom Short- an evangelist who, he alleges, has sparked controversy at UNO for inciting hate speech against LGBTQIA, female and non-christian students.
“Our goal bringing him on campus is to spread the gospel and truth about Jesus,” said Melanie Crisman, student president of The Rock. “We don’t hate anyone, but we believe what the bible says to be true.”
Crisman agrees that Short’s speeches to the student body, held on the pavement outside the Student Center, have incited controversy, so the organization agreed not to invite him back this past year.
“Pastor Tom has told us that it’s not like this at other universities he visits, that the reaction isn’t as heated,” Crisman said.
Students aren’t the only ones affected by or aware of LGBTQIA inclusivity problems surrounding UNO- faculty and staff are equally impacted. In 2005, Dr. Meredith Bacon of the university’s School of Political Science made national headlines for undergoing $85,000 worth of sexual feminization surgery, none of which was covered by insurance.
While taking classes at UNO as a student, Dawn Cripe, who currently serves as a Women’s and Gender Studies’ adjunct professor, experienced discrimination from a fellow classmate. After Cripe spoke about her sexual orientation as a lesbian, a student reported her to Cripe’s supervisor at the College of Saint Mary, where she still works and no disciplinary action was taken against her.
“I’m out, but I’m also careful,” Cripe said. “Change always needs to come from the top. I don’t want parades, disco balls and flags, but I expect more than to just be tolerated. It’s about acceptance.”
During the fall semester of last year, Cripe traveled out of the state to marry her partner with whom she shares a son. While their union was well-received by both faculty and her students, she sites that the culture at UNO is still not as inclusive as its regional competitors.
Despite the fact that College of Saint Mary is a catholic university, their “Mothers Living and Learning” program is a nationally-renowned initiative that supports the nontraditional family unit of single mothers and their children. Cripe said a gendered program of this scale or one focusing on sexual orientation is missing from UNO and would help to make for a more open community.
“We can’t just talk about being inclusive. We’ve got to take action,” Cripe said. “In first-year experience courses, it should be part of the curriculum to highlight all facets of diversity.”
The Academic and Career Development Center confirmed LGBTQIA issues are not required to be taught in these courses but the lecturers must include information about some aspect of campus diversity. Nevertheless, progress on UNO’s campus is being made.
Beginning in the spring semester of 2015, renovations to the student center will begin, with initial plans including the installment of a new “common grounds” office that will have full-time staff members devoted to LGBTQIA and gender issues, a university first.
“In order for campus to be inclusive, there has to be a space for that population. That piece has been missing,” said James W. Freeman, director of Multicultural Affairs.
The specific resources provided by the office will be determined by its hired director, with the search committee meeting Oct. 20 to further find the right candidate.
Other advancements made by UNO to better serve their LGBTQIA population has been the inclusion of gender neutral bathrooms in all newly constructed or renovated campus buildings and the extension of health insurance to same-sex couples who share an employee’s household. This follows the passage of plus-one benefits by the NU Board of Regents in 2012.
The university is also encouraging its staff, but not requiring, to undergo Safe Space training, which provides educators tools to support the LGBTQIA community at UNO.
“Progress has been made, but we need to talk further about it, whether that be bringing these inclusion issues into curriculum across disciplines or highlighting achievements from students or faculty who belong to this community,” Cripe said. “We should ask what other institutions are doing to enact change to their culture.”
On a warm September afternoon, J.C. is seated in the student center’s Fireplace Lounge, outfitted in a cameo jacket and hair pulled into a tight ponytail. By appearance, she’s just another student enjoying a quiet campus study space.
“Identity issues aren’t always on the surface. Sometimes you’ve got to dig deep to find them,” J.C. said. “It’s like being dizzy because you never notice your sense of balance until it’s not working. With identity, you don’t think about it until it’s questioned, and that’s the tricky part.”