Well-being Wednesday: Raising Awareness for Trans Students’ Mental Health

Nico Alfahed, a sophomore from Brooklyn Park, Minn., wears a white binder as he lifts his arm above his head. Alfahed has struggled with gender dysphoria daily, leading to him binding more than 10 hours a day (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Transgender Awareness Week is Nov. 13-19; it precedes Transgender Day of Remembrance, an annual observance on Nov. 20 that honors the memory of transgender (trans) people whose lives were lost in acts of anti-trans violence. The week was established in 1999 to help raise visibility of trans people and address issues members of the community face, like discrimination, inaccessible hormone therapy and misgendering. 

To celebrate the week, I want to highlight trans voices across Albion College and discuss mental health struggles specific to the community and the resources available to them. 

I am a cisgender and bisexual woman. Cisgender, meaning that I was assigned female at birth and identify with the gender associated with that sex. Bisexual, meaning I love all types of people, not just one specific gender or sex. 

Although I came out as bisexual at the age of 14, I wasn’t in a queer relationship until I was 18. During my first year at Albion, I met my first partner. He was assigned female at birth, presented masculine, used all pronouns and went by a shortened name to set himself apart from his birth name – also known as his dead name; a moniker that he no longer chooses to go by. 

I didn’t care what his assigned sex or assumed gender was. I cared about him and our relationship. All that mattered to me was how I felt, and oh boy, was I in love. 

Four months into our relationship, my partner told me that he wanted to use only he/him pronouns and start hormone replacement therapy (HRT). I wasn’t surprised; I’d seen his face light up every time someone accidentally called him a guy when he was still using all pronouns.

Seven months into our relationship, he finally had his first appointment for HRT. He asked me to be in the room when the doctor explained his HRT options. Eventually, they came to a mutual decision that a weekly testosterone shot would help him achieve his gender presentation goals. I was there for his first shot and administered a few throughout the remainder of our relationship. I even sat with him to pick out what name he would go by; an experience I’ll never forget.

Before him, I never knew what it was like to love a trans person. Since him, I am now aware – to the extent a cisgendered person can be – of the challenges that trans people face and how laborious it is to try and be your true self.

Nico Alfahed, sophomore from Brooklyn Park, Minn., has experienced some of those  challenges as a trans person.

“Although I have several mental health issues, I experience gender dysphoria daily – with it getting worse during depressive episodes,” Alfahed said. 

According to the Mayo Clinic, gender dysphoria is a term that refers to the psychological distress that a person feels when their assigned sex at birth does not align with their gender identity. When a trans person experiences this, they most often seek gender-affirming care to ease the mental and physical stress associated with gender dysphoria. 

Some examples of gender-affirming care include social affirmation with a change of  name and/or pronouns and medical affirmation through surgical procedures or HRT. Physical practices can include changing hairstyles or binding one’s chest to prevent their chest from looking feminine. But, even these practices present challenges.

“I have extreme chest dysphoria, so I am a long-binding person averaging around 10  hours a day,” Alfahed said. “Binders are very uncomfortable to wear, and I wish I didn’t have to wear it.” 

Even getting and receiving hormone therapy is a challenge that causes mental health distress. 

“I was 18 when I started taking testosterone shots – before I ran out after five months, because I couldn’t find a provider in Michigan,” Alfahed said. “I was off of it for over six months before my mom started sending it to me via mail; this caused significant depression and anxiety.”

Although Alfahed discussed his struggles with being trans, he also emphasized the positive aspect of getting to be himself.

“I’ve actually experienced a loss of anxiety due to being trans. I was terrified of men and now that I look more masculine, I have less fear,” Alfahed said. “I feel now that I can stand my ground.”

Alfahed smiles with his hands touching his face, lit by red lighting. Though being trans comes with struggles, Alfahed finds joy in his identity (Photo illustration by Katherine Simpkins).

Even though HRT is difficult to receive due to provider access, state laws and insurance restrictions, the daily struggle of being misgendered can be the most mentally challenging issue among trans students on campus. Sandy Montes de Oca, a senior from Waukegan Ill., struggles with being misgendered often.

“I have some trouble with people using my they/them pronouns, as I tend to dress more on the ‘femme’ side,” said Montes de Oca via email. “The number of times I’ve heard ‘but you look like a girl’ is infuriating and frustrating.”

Seph Cartier, Ortonville sophomore, has had similar experiences.

“It’s a struggle to be perceived as something that makes you comfortable because not everyone wants to listen to the pronouns we choose,” said Cartier. “It’s a struggle for self-image when people refuse to perceive me the way I want – it hurts.”

Imagine being called the wrong set of pronouns multiple times a day and facing the reality that some people don’t respect who you are as a person. When a student on our campus is misgendered, they feel invalidated and unseen. However, when it is a daily occurrence, it becomes a burden that can negatively impact their mental health and self-image. 

According to Child Trends, “Ensuring that transgender people are referred to according to their identified genders, and with their chosen names, is a critical factor in establishing a supportive and safe environment.” 

That’s not a burden trans folk should have to endure on their own. It’s important that they have individuals in their corner to advocate for them. Mikayla Campbell, director of the Anna Howard Shaw Center for Gender Equity, is one of those advocates for trans students on campus. 

“In my role at the center, I am a non-mandated reporter, meaning that a student who has experienced gender-based discrimination can come talk to me about their options and what the process could look like,” Campbell said.

Campbell also can help students find community resources as well as campus resources that can help them address their mental health.

“That can look like finding the student a support group to join, or referring them to a therapist either on campus or through one of our campus partners,” Campbell said via email. “What I can do at the center includes helping students find support groups and other resources off campus, helping students navigate the name change process (both legally and at the college level) and helping students navigate the Title IX process.”

There are also resources throughout the state of Michigan that can be beneficial for students. 

Planned Parenthood offers gender-affirming care and began offering hormone therapy in 2022. Also on their website, they offer many resources for transgender people including specific ones to Michigan,” Campbell said via email. 

If a student wants to set up an appointment with Campbell, they can email her at mcampbell@albion.edu. Albion College’s Office of Belonging also has a tab for LGBTQ+ Resources that is accessible 24/7 with key information, including bias reporting, housing, health and wellness.  

When thinking about the future of campus and the acceptance of transgender students, cisgender folk really need to step up their effort. Unless you have questioned your gender, you have no idea what it’s like to go through that process; we do not need to make it harder for anyone who is just trying to be themselves. 

Cisgender individuals can support the creation of transgender-affirming spaces by actively educating themselves about trans issues, showing empathy and respect towards trans people and using inclusive language. We can amplify trans voices, challenge discrimination and promote understanding; ultimately helping to create safe and welcoming environments where trans people can express their authentic selves without fear of prejudice or exclusion. 

To all the trans students, staff, friends and others around me: You deserve nothing but love, support and the ability to be your true self. I believe Montes de Oca said it best: 

“Only you know who you are, and it’s such a joyous feeling when you know who you are. I hope everyone feels that at least once in their life.”

About Katherine Simpkins 24 Articles
Katherine Simpkins, aka "Kat", is a senior from Adrian, MI. She is majoring in Sociology and minoring in Educational Studies. Her passion for journalism started at an early age when she picked up her camera and started seeing life from a different perspective. In her free time, you can find Kat snuggled up next to her cat, Phoebe; named after the best "Friends" character. You can contact her at KCS11@albion.edu.

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