Gender identity in Georgia: college students lead fight for recognition
Credit: Hyosub Shin
Tamar Quincey, a Morehouse College student who identifies as transgender, walks to the campus on Thursday, October 5. Awareness of transgender people and gender fluidity has become more mainstream in recent years, though incidents such as the Georgia Tech shooting death of Scout Schultz, who identified as nonbinary — neither male nor female — bring a spotlight to an historically overlooked group. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
The 26-year-old grew up surrounded by devout Christians, who taught her traditional views of sexuality and gender.
She told people she felt "called to celibacy," or that she was waiting for God to send her someone to marry.
Then she told the truth.
Quincey first came out as gay in 2016. About a year later, she began transitioning from male to female after enrolling at the all-male Morehouse College. She has not changed her legal name and goes by Tamar Quincey to reflect her identity.
As a transgender female, she feels dehumanized when people reject her womanhood.
"I think that it is very hurtful when you have people who are not willing to acknowledge and respect who you are, because they would expect the same thing for [themselves]," she said.
Gender identity has emerged as a cultural flashpoint on many universities, spawning a new way of thinking and talking about once-taboo topics and igniting passionate advocacy in a generation of young adults.
Many millennials view gender in ways that are unrecognizable or untenable to some people, including religious conservatives. Fifty percent of Americans ages 18 to 34 describe gender as a spectrum and say some people fall outside strictly male and female categories, according to a 2015 survey by the media company Fusion.
The issue burst from a college campus to Atlanta's kitchen table last month when Scout Schultz, the 21-year-old president of the Georgia Tech Pride Alliance, was killed by a campus police officer during a confrontation. Investigators said the student left three suicide notes.
Schultz identified as nonbinary, neither male nor female, and was born intersex, which describes someone whose biological or physiological characteristics aren't fully male or female. The student used the gender-neutral pronoun "they," rather than he or she, and many news articles — to the consternation of some— followed suit.
At a vigil to honor Schultz, friends praised the student for leading the campus organization that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and asexual students.
Protesters, whom the university president identified as mostly outside agitators, later disrupted the night. Two police officers were injured, a police car was set on fire and three people were arrested.
The Georgia Tech Progressive Student Alliance responded to Schultz's death by calling for change — from police officer training to more support services for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.
“Society is really thinking about this. We are grappling with this in a new way and, unfortunately, it’s punctuated by these tragedies,” said Eric Wright, chair of the sociology department at Georgia State University.
One side derides the youth driving the movement as snowflakes and social justice warriors, too sensitive and too politically correct. They contend the gender shift upends traditional and faith-based values.
Those on the flip side see gender as a deeply personal sense of being that should be respected. Some hurl stinging rebukes for using pronouns that differ from how individuals refer to themselves.
Not everyone understands the reasons why some insist on unconventional pronouns or describe themselves using gender terms that are unfamiliar to many.
"Our youth today [are] not as patient, so that's where older generations get kind of frustrated: 'You can't force it down my throat; I'm not going to get it on the first try,'" said Chanel Haley of Georgia Equality.
But the language shift reflects a turn in the cultural landscape that she said "is 100 percent driven by youth." Their movement has been emboldened by same-sex marriage victories, support from former President Barack Obama, the visibility of transgender celebrities and equality concerns.
The 38-year-old transgender woman said these conversations weren't happening when she was a teenager. Now, she leads training sessions at universities across the state on behalf of the LGBT advocacy organization.
The gender debate has been pushed forward by battles, like one brewing at City Schools of Decatur about transgender policies related to bathrooms and who gets to play on boys or girls sports teams; court cases fought by people to change their legal names; and colleges that added gender-inclusive services.
"We are seeing more visibility. We are having these conversations in the mainstream, and it's messy and people are really uncomfortable about it," said Jennifer Miracle-Best, a diversity consultant who previously directed the University of Georgia's LGBT resource center.
Take the use of “they,” a plural pronoun that some use as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in place of “he” or “she.”
In March, the Associated Press updated its media guidelines to allow the use of "they" as a singular pronoun in limited cases, but the AP noted that such use is "unfamiliar to many readers" and should be explained.
Using a pronoun that differs from what someone specifies is disrespectful, said Quincey, who compared it to how a man would feel if somebody called him a woman.
"That's not how they want to be identified," she said. "They think we are some type of alien-being or something that is non-human."
Questioning someone's gender identity, which Georgia Equality defines as an "internal sense" that may not be visible to others, or getting it wrong by mistake can hurt because it denies who that person is, said Miracle-Best.
"It's invalidating or it challenges who you are if people try to push back," she said. "When you use the wrong pronoun or the wrong name it feels like you can't see me."
In recent years, Emory University's first-year orientation program has urged students to introduce themselves and the pronoun that they use when they meet new classmates.
Some people now provide their pronouns on email signatures and nametags.
That has sparked pushback, like this from Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative organization Turning Point USA, which has chapters on nearly a dozen Georgia high school and college campuses.
"At a Starbucks this morning & the baristas had their approved gender pronouns," he posted on social media a few weeks ago. "We are creating a society of people waiting to be offended."
More than 11,000 Twitter users liked the post.
Days later he tweeted: "There are only two genders."
That comment received thousands more likes.
Some institutions are changing to reflect the shift in gender views.
In 2016, Pride School Atlanta opened. The private school for youth ages nine through 18 — which currently enrolls a handful of students — is the first in the area for students and teachers of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
This fall, Georgia Tech began allowing students to add a preferred name in campus records where a legal name is not required. Emory rolled out a similar policy in January.
Spelman College upset some when the women's school announced it will admit students who identify as women, no matter what their birth certificate says.
Keo O'Neal, 21, a transgender man and Spelman senior, said the college must address housing, safety, and many other matters before transgender women arrive on campus next fall.
He said he's experienced harassment and "can't imagine" what it will be like for transgender women, who he said are a "bigger target" than he is.
He said plenty of first-year students he mentored this fall as a campus orientation leader embraced his gender identity and some have even pointed out language in a campus survey they thought was prejudiced. He said there is a lack of understanding about transgender people and a dearth of discussion about sexuality in the black community.
Annette Davis Jackson, a 1984 Spelman graduate, thinks admitting transgender students could hurt the school, whose motto is “Our Whole School for Christ.”
"It's to tear away. It's to change the fabric, because you didn't really care about God's providence. God's providence made babies male and female," she said.
Spelman's founders built the college for women, she said.
"A cultural shift should not change a Christian heritage. The Christian heritage is absolute," she said.
A Spelman spokeswoman declined to comment.
An estimated 55,650 Georgian adults identify as transgender, according to a 2016 University of California, Los Angeles law school think tank report. Pew Research Center found that less than a third of adults said they know someone who is transgender.
Several young adults said it’s difficult for older people or religious conservatives to see gender the way younger people do.
"They were raised to feel there is a man, a woman, you get married, you have a kid and then there are certain gender roles," Quincey said. "And breaking that pattern seems to be very difficult for older generations."
Some conservatives reject what they believe is an attack on Christian values or traditional mores. In the country's deep-red Bible Belt, where religion tightly intertwines with everyday life, gender discussions can be fraught.
"The South is trying to grapple with issues that you saw the North play out in the 70s, 80s, and 90s," said Wright, of Georgia State. "The South has been slow to respond because it's much more politically, socially, and religiously conservative."
The Rev. Erin Swenson, 70, of Atlanta was a pioneer in 1996 when she narrowly won a headline-making vote to retain her ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after she transitioned from male to female.
As a child, she feared that if people knew the truth about her they would hate her or that she would be sent away for treatment. She hid her identity until she was in her mid-40s.
"The experience has been much more normalized," Swenson said.
Earlier this year, Sasha Cohen, a 29-year-old Emory nursing student, started telling family members that neither conventional gender fit. Cohen, who uses they/them pronouns, identifies as gender non-conforming, meaning they don't identify as a man or a woman.
"I was like 'Oh my gosh, she's gotta be kidding. This is not my daughter," said Cohen's mother, Kate Seidman, who lives in Gloucester, Mass. and turns 70 this month.
The birth of Seidman's third child had been a cause of celebration, an extra special addition to a family full of men.
"When Sasha was born, I was so ecstatic that I was having a girl," said Seidman.
Cohen, who wants to pursue a medical career in transgender health, said Seidman is supportive but added it is difficult for some older feminists to understand.
"[They] fought really hard for women to be anything that they want, so for you to throw it out is hard to grasp," Cohen said.
Seidman said only Cohen can know what's best.
"What she's teaching me is that this whole gender thing is so ridiculous," Seidman said. "I think Sasha's generation really, they are much more fluid, and nobody her age is freaked out by the fact that she's trans."