LGBTQ students share their experiences, insights about growing up with a nontraditional sexual identity
By Hashem Anabtawi, ’15 and Jane Eskildsen, ’15
2007. 8 a.m. Awake and upset at the mirror’s reflection of a young girl getting ready for another day of school. Grooming the long hair, tightening the bra and adjusting the heels and makeup is most of the morning routine. But it wasn’t enough to overshadow the feeling that something was wrong.
“I felt like I was wearing a mask or costume,” senior Max Ralstin said. “I wasn’t me.”
2015. 8 a.m. Awake and excited to see the new reflection in the mirror, a reflection that finally matches the feelings Ralstin has felt his entire life.
Ralstin knew he wasn’t a girl since his childhood and has been waiting to dress, walk, talk and look like a boy ever since.
“I think I always knew I wasn’t a girl,” Ralstin said. “I thought of myself as becoming a man; as an elementary school student I thought of growing up [and] I imagined shaving my face and becoming strong and muscular. I just didn’t know there was an actual term for it.”
Ralstin identifies as a transgender, and because of this has lived most of his life feeling like an outsider.
“My friends in middle school tried to give me ‘normal lessons,’ and if I didn’t behave how they wanted—basically not myself—they’d punish me with a slap on the arm,” Ralstin said. “The worst thing that someone has done to bully me was in [middle school]…. A kid, took my school picture and started a Facebook fan page about me [and] said all of these mean and horrible things that made me sound terrible.”
Following the suicide of Leelah Alcorn, a 17-year-old from Lebanon, Oh., the unequal treatment and fatal threats to the entire LGBTQ community have been highlighted. Alcorn identified as a transgender teen who lacked parental support in her decision. Due to this same lack of support, many people from the transgender community have developed depression and vulnerabilities to fear within their own society.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), studies suggest that gay men, lesbians and bisexuals have higher rates of some mental disorders and suicidal thoughts compared to heterosexuals due to discrimination.
“Mental illness and self-harm is very prominent in the LGBTQ community,” Ralstin said. “50 percent of all transgenders from the ages of 14-or-15 to 24 try to kill themselves [because] they are bullied severely.”
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 50 percent of transgender youth will have had at least one suicide attempt before their 20th birthday. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention attributes this high statistic to the ongoing harassment and bullying of people within the LGBTQ community.
On Local Grounds
After coming to terms with his gender identity, Ralstin was told that he was atypical; he was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria, the medical term for dissatisfaction with one’s gender.
Ralstin’s identification as a transgender male was a process that spanned several of his early teen years. At the beginning of high school, Ralstin was still trying to identify as a female. Ralstin said she—and the pronoun “she” is accurate when referring to Ralstin during this time—wanted change, but she was scared of what this might mean in her daily interactions with others.
“I didn’t want to be any different from societal norms than I already was,” Ralstin said. “I started over feminizing myself, wearing heels all the time, dresses, skirts, makeup—the whole nine yards. Over time I gave up on that. I was uncomfortable.”
Ralstin came out as transgender June 25, 2013, regardless of how he—“he” being the appropriate pronoun now—thought people might react.
Ralstin hopes to continue making physical changes during the next few years. He is considering subcutaneous mastectomy surgery to remove breast tissue and create a more masculine chest.
“My mom actually brought it up before I did. Any other surgeries that are to be done I’m still considering, because there’s a lot of risk in these surgeries, and some of the results I’ve seen aren’t that great,” Ralstin said. “I plan to wait a bit until the procedures improve.”
Ralstin thinks it is necessary for transgenders to understand and accept themselves mentally before jumping into the physical process.
“You don’t have to want to get surgery to be transgender. Some don’t care that their bodies are different than what’s in their head,” Ralstin said. “That doesn’t mean that their gender isn’t valid and that you should ever misgender them. What someone wants to do with their own body is their personal business.”
Ralstin has decided to openly identify as a transgender male and believes the LGBTQ community has helped him find peace with his gender identity and be true to what he feels.
Sophomore Sam Eschelman is a homosexual who identifies within the LGBTQ community. She agrees that UAHS seems like a much more welcoming environment for LGBTQ youth than what is seen in other schools and cities across the nation.
“I think that [UAHS] is a lot more accepting than other schools are,” Eshelman said. “[I] don’t think we’re the best or perfect and there’s still a lot of stigma and bullying that goes on, but I think it’s better than a lot of places.”
Senior Shoshana Cohn, also part of the LGBTQ community, said that despite the above-average acceptance of the community, she still will be seen as different, now and for years to come.
“We’re a pretty good community here for [acceptance, but] obviously people give you looks when you clearly look like you’re part of the queer community and you’re going to get some comments and some judgement,” Cohn said. “People are uncomfortable and they treat [queers] weird if they see them holding hands, and that’s just a matter of making people aware that we exist.”
Cohn said education is the most important part of achieving equal treatment for members of the LGBTQ community.
“With the way our education is shaped and the way our media is focused, I don’t see homophobic areas getting much better without significant interventions such as laws or different education, but the areas that are good right now are great,” Cohn said. “The fact is violence—in the form of verbal abuse and misgendering slurs—is a really big and prevalent issue everywhere, and it makes members of the LGBTQ community feel unsafe.”
Cohn thinks the reason that people act strange against members of the LGBTQ community is due to fear of accidental insult.
“The real issue is that there’s just not enough information out there about different gender identities and sexual preferences, and people have not allowed us to just spread our voices about this part of our life, this part of who we are,” Cohn said. “But if people are going to make it that way, we need to make sure they know what it is, that it’s normal, it’s human nature, and it’s OK.”
The type of education Cohn stresses can be found close to home at The Ohio State University.
Many people who identify with the LGBTQ community agree that OSU is one of the most accepting universities across the nation. According to Garett Heysel, President of the Board of Governors for the OSU Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Alumni Society, also known as Scarlet & Gay, OSU offers the largest number of scholarships to incoming students who identify with the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of us need that leg up; a good portion of LGBTQ kids don’t have the support of their families and any money they can get is helpful,” Ralstin said.
OSU and Scarlet and Gay are doing as much as possible to support students who identify with the LGBTQ community.
“Ohio State is already in the top 25 percent of the leadership in LGBTQ issues but we can always do more,” Heysel said. “I think that in many areas, Ohio State is above and beyond in its leadership and support for diversity.”
In Dec. 2014, OSU became one of a dozen universities to include an optional LGBTQ identity question on their college admission form for the 2015-16 application cycle.
“For a student questioning their identity in high school the range of scholarships we offers shows that a) what makes you unique is validated by one of the best public universities in the United States, b) you should embrace the opportunity to become a leader in your community and be proud and not ashamed of who you are, and c) that OSU is a safe community and that we welcome all,” Heysel said.
Heysel hopes to make what OSU has to offer a reality for anybody across the nation.
More locally, Kaleidoscope Youth Center (KYC) offers a friendly environment for people in the LGBTQ community.
“We have different activities every night and every other Tuesday. We [also] have Genderscope which is a support group specifically for transgender and other gender nonconforming youth. There is also have a separate group for parents that meet at a café nearby. KYC [offers] food, internet access, help with school [and] help with job searches.”
Though OSU and programs like Kaleidoscope have taken enormous steps forward in terms of creating LGBTQ equality, the issue of creating awareness on the national level, both socially and politically, still remains a problem.
Hope For Change
Despite the safety and acceptance of UAHS and OSU, Cohn is aware that members of the LGBTQ community are sometimes so afraid of being harassed, verbally and/or physically, that they abstain from being alone for too long.
“We are bullied severely; most transgenders I know are scared to even use the restroom because they could actually be killed,” Ralstin said.
According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, homicidal actions or intent are not uncommon in the transgender community. Since March 2008, more than 1,500 transgender murders occurred worldwide, according to an update by the Trans Respect Versus Transphobia society, an educational group that stresses against the poor social perceivement of transgender people.
In addition to the current inequality and unacceptance of those within the LGBTQ community, Rep. Debbie Riddle (R-Texas) introduced HB 1748 that will make it a misdemeanor for a person over the age of 13 to use a restroom that doesn’t match his or her gender.
“The bill says ‘the gender of an individual is the gender established at the individual’s birth or the gender established by the individual’s chromosomes,’” Paige Lavender wrote in a The Huffington Post Article.
The environment surrounding transgender people using public restrooms is that of a lot of controversy and harassment.
“There is a culture of fear around bathroom-use,” Teagan Widmer said in a Time magazine article. Widmer is a transgender woman who runs an app called Refuge Restrooms, which maps gender-neutral restrooms around the world.
Cohn said it is clear that the main issues regarding LGBTQ equality, aside from marriage, are not even discussed.
“The most [commonly discussed area of inequality] would be marriage because that is what everyone knows about, but there are a lot more things to discuss, like tax breaks, military families, recognition of non-binary genders, equality for trans within our system and police brutality against LGBTQ,” Cohn said.
Ralstin agrees that the issue of equality is much larger than the passing of a bill.
“Gays have a long road until [they] get equal rights. It doesn’t stop at marriage. It stops when we are not seen as second-class humans,” Ralstin said. “And transgenders have an even farther road.”
Following the death of Leelah Alcorn, according to Ralstin, the entire LGBTQ community has hoped there would be social changes in the perception of queers.
Ralstin said he feels Alcorn’s death only served as a headline for social media.
“It seems like people only care about us when we become a hashtag,” Ralstin said.
Cohn, as well, did not see a major impact in terms of equality following Alcorn’s death; however, she believes it was a minor step in raising recognition for the community.
“At least in the news they were using the correct pronouns, and I think this will spark at least some awareness and hopefully some influence for positive opinion about the community,” Cohn said.
Ralstin and his family saw Alcorn’s death as a tragic loss for the LGBTQ community, but he said the only solution for queer identities to avoid depression and suicidal thoughts is for parents and peers of LGBTQ members to be supportive instead of not.
“You can’t fix what isn’t broken. And in my opinion, if you can’t accept everything your child could possibly be then you should never have children,” Ralstin said.
Although LGBTQ equality is far from clear sight, Cohn expressed what is important for society to see in order to make the first major step.
“It’s so little about who we’re attracted to and so much more about who we are. We’re all three-dimensional people and to be reduced to a sex characteristic is damaging at its best and fatal at its worst,” Cohn said. “The main thesis is that we need to be seen more, we need to be heard, and people need to be educated about so much more than just sex. And that needs to come from us so it’s not distorted by others.
“The general problem is that people don’t understand and what they don’t understand scares them, so there’s this huge fear of everything queer, when we’re pretty good people, we’re normal,” Cohn said. “It’s just a matter of being heard.”