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OPINION: WWU is a safe place for gender expression

Amid a ridiculous court case, nonbinary and trans students students navigate their environment

The pride flag, created by Gilbert Baker, is one of the key images in the LGBTQ+ community. While everyone has a gender expression, nonbinary and trans individuals in particular can find that clothing, makeup and surgery play a role in it. // Graphic by Cordelia Longo

In December, the Supreme Court declined to rule on a case in which a therapist claimed that a Washington state law banning gay conversion therapy violated his First Amendment right to free speech. This was a victory for LGBTQ+ rights. 

Following this case, I wanted to explore how accepted the queer and trans community is at Western Washington University. 

The framing of denial of a person’s identity as something that needs to be changed is dangerous. While some claim that conversion therapy works, there is no evidence that it does. It greatly contributes to the deterioration of a queer or trans person’s mental health. This court case affirmed the right of LGBTQ+ people to exist. 

A huge part of acceptance is the normalization of gender expression. The right hairstyle, blouse or pronouns can make a person feel true to their gender. 

Dani Patrick is a trans and nonbinary licensed mental health counselor in Bellingham who focuses mostly on trans and nonbinary people.

“It’s also okay to be uncomfortable exploring your gender and gender identity,” Patrick said. ”What’s important is having a safe and supportive environment that allows us to be as comfortable as possible.”

An environment where you can wear whatever you want and go by your correct pronouns, then, is key. 

Trans and nonbinary people sometimes get misgendered, which causes dysphoria. The Mayo Clinic describes gender dysphoria as “the feeling of discomfort or distress that might occur in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.”

Dysphoria feels like being naked in a field where no one can see you, Patrick said. 

Erin Godwin, a fourth-year at Western, said they noticed a huge difference in their academic performance and personal joy after having top surgery in 2022, which involves the removal of breast tissue. 

“The gender dysphoria before that surgery, I couldn’t even articulate it. And then once I had the surgery I felt so much better,” Godwin said. “I was like, ‘Oh! Gender dysphoria is real and it really affects your mental health.’” 

Aside from top surgery, clothes can alleviate gender dysphoria, though often not completely, Godwin said. They view masculine clothing as armor that protects them from being misgendered. 

Frances Bridwell, a fifth-year majoring in biology at Western, started to transition two years ago. She has found the school generally accepting and safe. 

“I feel like for the most part, living in Bellingham is kind of like a bubble,” she said. 

Bridwell works at The Willows, a retirement home, where older people who wouldn’t necessarily pick up on gender expression gender her correctly, and that makes her feel like she passes. 

In Godwin’s experience, there has been some accidental misgendering from professors, but their experience has been mostly positive. They feel good about going to Western because of the atmosphere and the gender-affirming care center and team, which provides students with the medical support they need. 

Godwin is also the associated students vice president for governmental affairs. They admire the Viking Union’s dedication to celebrating diversity. Each quarter, Godwin said, Viking Union employees must attend one antiracism, diversity, equity and inclusion event. 

To see the full effects of testosterone, Godwin plans to stay at Western, knowing that the campus is a safe place to go all out in their true gender expression. 

JoeHahn, director of LGBTQ+ Western, echoed Godwin’s sentiments about how honoring people’s gender expression on campus allows them to focus on their school work.

“Having a sense of belonging in your community is critical for success and retention,” JoeHahn said. 

That’s why Western has spaces like Trans Tea – which is a gathering for trans students to talk and drink tea, and usually has 30 to 50 students – or the Black LGBTQ Thriving Collective

Western also hosts the Generations of Pride program, which is a collaboration with Bellingham Queer Collective, the local PFLAG chapter and the Western psychology department. It brings together LGBTQ+ college-age students and older people for dinner and conversation. At the first meeting of the year, over 80 people attended. 

These events are a great way to connect with older people in the LGBTQ+ community. They will continue with dinners throughout the year, on the last Wednesday of every month, from 5 - 7 p.m. at the Bellingham Senior Activities Center.

JoeHahn is proud of the upcoming lived-name policy at Western, which will be implemented in the next few years. It allows students and staff to officially use the names they want to go by on records, school systems and so forth.  

Western also has the speech and language clinic where people can get vocal coaching, which can alleviate some of the gender dysphoria that trans people may experience when their voice does not align with their gender identity. These services at Western are provided by graduate students, and are monitored by professional staff. 

The wait times tend to be long, but this system ensures that students can get the routine care they need once they are established patients. Students can find this coaching via the website linked above. 

“My hope is that they will be able to feel affirmed and supported every single day,” JoeHahn said. 

JoeHahn would like to see a full lounge and offices for LGBTQ+ Western, as well as more gender-neutral restrooms on campus in the future. 

Around the world, trans and nonbinary people who aren’t white face more discrimination for expressing their gender. While Western is generally a safe environment, there is still the risk of being attacked due to gender expression that goes against the binary. 

For Godwin and other students, recognizing that Western has a long way to go and that it has helped pave the way for other universities is vital. Overall, their experience here has been uplifting. 

“I feel like Western really cares about its students. Other universities operate as more of a business and their students are just a number,” Godwin said. “I feel like at Western they treat their students as people.”

Cordelia Longo

Cordelia Longo (they/them) is a senior at Western majoring in political science. In their free time, you can find them listening to Taylor Swift and asking to pet strangers' dogs. 

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