Freshman Kriss Giles hasn’t yet decided on a major at Washington & Jefferson College. But the 18-year-old nonbinary transgender student is already proactive in changing perception of gender and identity on campus.
Even before becoming a student, Giles reached out to W&J to allow gender-nonspecific prefixes in online directories instead of just Mr. or Ms. The prefix Mx. (pronounced “mix”) has been installed as an option for those like Giles who don’t identify as strictly male or female. Giles prefers the pronoun “they” as a reference instead of any novel prefix, but wanted the option to be available for others.
“It’s freeing. But even I slip up sometimes with pronouns. Everyone does. But we use ‘they’ when we’re talking about an unidentified person in conversation, anyway. You just have to try to acknowledge someone as they want instead of some preconceived notion you want them to conform to so you’re comfortable,” Giles said.
Giles is more comfortable than most talking about gender, and wants others to be more open about understanding gender. One of the starting points Giles believes could change acceptance of transgender people is bathrooms. They’re often described in America in gendered terms, such as the men’s or women’s room.
Bathrooms have become the touchstone for transgender issues. An equal rights ordinance failed in Houston, Texas, after opponents characterized it without evidence as a free pass for men to masquerade as women to film minors. And presidential candidate Ben Carson suggested having separate transgender bathrooms because “it’s not fair for them (transgender people) to make everybody else uncomfortable.” Penning a column for W&J’s student newspaper, The Red & Black, Giles pushed for open-use bathrooms for anyone who needs them.
“I think the words ‘gender-neutral bathrooms’ are often seen as too hippie-liberal. Instead, I am going to call them ‘bathrooms,’” starts the column. It goes on to prescribe an ideal situation of having closed-door stalls in all bathrooms, and dismisses the unfounded claim that shared-gender bathrooms would lead to an increase in sexual assaults. While someone like Giles – who expresses in mostly feminine ways, but doesn’t identify as strictly female – can still use the women’s bathroom, Giles highlights the issue for those who have gone through sex reassignment surgery or hormone treatment, allowing them to “pass” as their real gender. So if a biologically born female becomes male and looks like a typical male, it could be awkward, Giles said, if that person is forced to use a restroom designated for females.
Ketwana Schoos, assistant dean of student life at W&J, said administrators were happy to help implement changes like the Mx. prefix in its online directories, but bathroom changes are going to require a bit more work if they ever occur.
“Some changes are more immediate than others, but the conversation about gender-neutral housing and bathrooms is at least happening on campus,” Schoos said.
Giles’ push for acceptance started as a middle school student in Carver, Mass. But Kriss wasn’t always Kriss. Kriss used to be Megan. “At this point we still refer to her as Megan. And I try, but I still say she or her,” said Giles’ mother, Lorinda Giles, who lives in Carver.
“We spent so much time figuring out the perfect name. And it’s very hard to let go of it. Maybe it’s holding on a little to the past. She’s OK with us calling her Megan right now, and we’re OK with others calling her Kriss,” she said.
“Both her dad and I strongly support her in this transition period. It’s not that we don’t accept the changes; we still love her any way she is,” she said.
Giles attributed that unwavering support to having the confidence to express being bisexual at age 12 and “gender fluid” around age 16, along with the self-appointed name change.
“Megan has all of these sort of strictly feminine memories attached to that name. It’s a stereotypical girl name I didn’t identify with,” Giles said.
The identity struggle is typical for parents, according to Dr. Dana Rofey, UPMC assistant professor of pediatrics and psychiatry.
“The biggest misconception is what it means to be born into it. We are born and have a ‘sex,’ our parts, and gender is what we grow into – a continuum of masculine and feminine. And from an early age we’re taught to have specific outward and inward descriptions of our gender, and we find out that it’s not always the right way,” Rofey said.
“And like sexual orientation, which can masquerade and correlate with gender, but is different, it’s often understood incorrectly as a choice. It’s not. We’re figuring out how our brains work and allowing that to be expressed,” she said.
Per Giles’ open-book description, Giles didn’t hold back, admitting being comfortable with Giles’ primary sex characteristics – genatilia – but not with the secondary characteristics – namely, breasts.
“I would opt for top surgery (double mastectomy) if I ever get corrective surgery. But I’m mostly comfortable expressing my androgyny as it is now. I take on masculine roles in friendships and relationships. I’m a protective, paternal person; not a maternal, nurturing type of person,” Giles said.
W&J students haven’t always felt so comfortable. College can be a trying time for any student, but that’s compounded when a person has to reintroduce himself or herself to peers three times. Kathryn Simon, who was born biologically female, became Addie; Addie started taking testosterone and became Greyson. The 26-year-old former student left W&J for Portland, Ore., after a tumultuous academic stay.
“I had bottles thrown at me from trucks just walking around campus. I didn’t walk frat row at night, and I didn’t go to parties because I didn’t want to make myself a target,” Simon said. But signs of family support back home in Harrisburg encouraged him despite the challenges.
“My 80-year-old Catholic grandmother was using my name (and masculine pronouns) the day after she received my coming out letter,” he said.
Simon is in the process of changing his name and setting up further corrective surgery. He also moved due to frustration with local counseling services that insisted on a two-year supervision process to refer him for surgery and a year for hormone therapy. Simon was going to counseling sessions through PERSAD, an LGBTQ outreach organization with office space in First Presbyterian Church in Washington – a short walk from W&J’s campus.
“The system that PERSAD had at the time was really ‘gatekeeper-y.’ It was full of stops and checks where cisgender people would judge me and how ready I was for transition. I felt like I had to hide my gender nonconforming qualities to present them as much ‘maleness’ as possible to get hormones,” Simon said.
But PERSAD director Jan Cox said the group has learned from its served community. Cox said the protocols the group now follows for counseling and care are the World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care, which has changed the way it receives information and offers referrals to clients.
“It’s now one year of life experience. That encapsulates however you’re expressing yourself. It doesn’t require you to prove who you are, just however a person wants to present themselves that they do this consistently for 365 days,” Cox said, “because the ultimate aim is, ‘Look, these are major changes you’re going to put yourself through.’ We want to make sure they’re sure themselves. This is not to hold them back. We’re here to support them,” he said.
Beyond societal hurdles, there’s the financial cost for anyone looking to undergo corrective sex surgery.
“Transition isn’t cheap, especially when so many insurances still deny basic medical care for gender-identity disorder,” Simon said, “and even considering insurance, a double mastectomy can cost anywhere from $6,500 to $9,000.”
Surgery isn’t on Giles’ mind right now; advocating for the rights of others is the priority. Advocating for disadvantaged and maligned populations has been a priority since high school, Giles said, and the latest gig is volunteering for the disability advocacy group Tri-County Patriots for Independent Living.
“I’ve always stood up for kids because I have a lot of minority qualities. Racially, I identify as white, but I’m also ethnically indigenous American,” Giles said. “Whether it’s disability, identity – whatever it is, we have to acknowledge some aspects of a person are going to hold them back because of how others see them or treat them. We need to stand up for those people, and we should help each other.”
Giles is a stage and set manager for the production of the puppet-acted musical “Avenue Q,” which premiered at W&J’s Olin Fine Arts Theatre this past weekend.