“What does Coordinate mean to you?”
How many HWS students (alums, staff, faculty, passers-by, families, friends, neighbors, invested local businessmen, the stranger on the street) come and gone, have been asked this question? How many different pieces of school promotional material have contained some version of this phrase; how many of us have had it sprung on us by Deans or other students?
I’ve been asked it more than I could count, and every time it comes up, I always feel blindsided, unsure of how to respond. What does Coordinate mean to me? This is rarely simply a question, a hypothetical gauging my interest—not in my case.
In January of 2016, the WS in my PeopleSoft changed to H, and that question ceased to be something that gauged my feelings on the Coordinate system and instead became a question on my lived experience at the schools. For the first (official) time ever, someone whose birth certificate read F had swapped from William Smith to Hobart, and it had taken eight (or more) years of hard work and teeth-pulling to get there.
Just like when gay marriage was legalized in the States, when I was able to graduate from Hobart there was a certain sigh of relief that everyone breathed. An unstated “We did it, we climbed the mountain, well done” sort of back-patting as the trans problem was shelved. And the trans problem? Not shelved. Still very much an issue.
What does the Coordinate system mean to me? It’s two things. The first is the party line, the marketing package: the three statues on campus. Our binary is so much less binary than we like to talk about, because Elizabeth Blackwell oversees the Hobart Quadrangle and William Smith strides down the William Smith Hill, startling students and passersby alike on dark winter nights. Between the two, the scissors sit, at the spot where the campuses combine, a reminder that we are severing connections; working better together; joined in one; cutting the binary histories and making something new.
The second is not the party line. The second is Orientation for the Classes of 2016 and standing in front of Coxe Hall with the sun in my eyes as I’m being told I have to go through William Smith matriculation, be given a colored band for Moving Up Day and a tote bag, and eating a meal seated with the Deans because I’m not really a William Smith student. It’s sitting in the Hobart Dean’s office with my brother Druids and having to ask Dean Mapstone, was I picked last because everyone was scared of the politics? It’s sitting on the steps of Smith Hall and reading death threats on an online petition because I wanted to get emails from Hobart. It’s being in a classroom and being told as a Junior that I own male privilege on HWS campus because I’m a Hobart student, even though it would be another year before I was made a Hobart student. It’s the Herald running a photo of me, my best friend, and my husband on the cover without our permission, outing both of them to the entire HWS community as trans. It’s one of my friends transferring because he couldn’t stand another day of being a William Smith student, having to walk into a Dean’s Office of only women, an oddity, an other. It’s someone saying to me, as I ask for a friend to take part in Hobart matriculation, that matriculation is only for the incoming classes, and they can sit in the back line, because they’re still really just a William Smith student. It’s sitting in a tiny basement room in Smith hall and having to explain, haltingly, as an eighteen-year-old, facing down a table of senior staff, why a graduate who has changed their legal sex could be outed by their diploma and not be hired, be fired, be denied housing, be killed.
It’s the shame of knowing, now and forever, that students at Hobart and William Smith just before me were never allowed to transfer schools because maybe they just weren’t out enough. They weren’t men or women enough—and neither am I. I lived my life for four years as a binary transgender man, because if I had so much as breathed a hint of my actual identity, whispered that I wasn’t really A Man, the all-seeing eye of Coordinate would have turned on me and I would have had to hear it said:
“Well, she’s not really living as a man now, is she?”
I’ve told all these anecdotes before. I will, I am afraid, have to tell them all again, because institutional memory cycles in four year washes, and fades out as soon as it’s become indelible. On the plaque outside the Hobart Dean’s office, NoahFeeman as a Druid in the Class of 2016 doesn’t mean a lot. It’s just a name.
Until you know.
So, then, what does Coordinate mean to me?
Coordinate means to me being seventeen and out, yes, but struggling in an identity I don’t know how to wear, insisting on he/him pronouns and a name that stuck from online chats, in shapeless, baggy clothes that I fear may give away my dysphoria on a chilly, rainy November day in Geneva, New York—weather I did not dress for, coming from Austin, Texas, clutching a thick Hobart sweatshirt to my chest, purple and orange, standing atop the De Cordova Hill and looking out over the Comstock Pond and the football field, listening to one of the Admissions Tour Guides talking about the Coordinate system, how it lets people discover themselves in the community, and thinking there is nowhere I better want to be than here. Coordinate means to me sitting at the front of the Classes of 2016 at the Bozzuto Boathouse, wearing the (horrendously delightful!) bright violet Druid jacket, surrounded by men who accepted and welcomed me into arms of fraternity for the first time in my life, truly, deeply at home.
What does Coordinate mean to us?
That is the question being asked here. What does Coordinate mean tous? What has it meant, what can it mean?
It can mean a lot of things. It can mean anything above; it can mean worse things. But the real question people ask me—what does Coordinate mean to me, an agender semi-transmasculine person reclaiming a cultural and indigenous gender identity construction, speaking in words half my readers do not understand, as a trans person who graduated from a binary school, that the Coordinate system still commits microagressions (at best!) against its transgender members? It means to me what I knew two years ago: that the trans problem is only beginning. HWS is about to undergo a period of painful, transformative rebirth, and either we will rise to the occasion with aplomb and panache, or we’ll fall utterly short and see a future where the system decays and shatters from within or transgender students are a segregated minority population, looked upon with fear and loathing.
How to do the former? Make sure admitted transgender students are placed in the right school, for one basic. Allow students to graduate from Hobart and William Smith and have a Hobart and William Smith Dean’s Office that can give Dean’s List honors and an Honor Society. Allow any graduate to go back and get the diploma of the school that matches their gender presentation. Change campus climate; require training or retraining for inclusion of transgender students in classrooms for all faculty, incoming or tenured. Commit to hiring transgender members of the faculty and staff, and make every building on campus have an accessible gender-neutral restroom, including one for every dorm with a shower. Create space in senior staff and the Board of Trustees for transgender inclusion. Make an LGBT Alumni Affinity Society; make it so that students can go to both sets of Matriculation; both Commencement events; both Moving Up and Charter Days. Put preferred pronouns on every faculty and staff bio on the website. Recruit transgender students, and let young adults, many of whom will have spent their entire lives so far living in spaces where they can’t be themselves, be part of a same-gender community for the first time in their lives. To stand alongside brothers of Hobart, sisters of William Smith, and siblings of Hobart and William Smith, and feel they belong rather than that they are being allowed.
How to do the latter?
Well, we’ve been doing a real bang-up job of it so far. Pretty much a one to one ratio of trans HWS student to a significant period of misery on campus.
We commit. We hold to it. We hold one another accountable. And the cisgender allies stop speaking for the transgender community—and start listening.
The Trustee meeting is coming up. Remind them, students of HWS. Hold them accountable. Make them see; make yourselves see. No voice is more powerful than that of the students, and use it; carry change atop your shoulders and lift up those among you struggling and falling and let them not fight alone. Hear their needs. Hear their wishes.
Change Starts Here: that was what the first transgender teach-in on campus was called in 2014. HWS is uniquely positioned to discuss, to queer, to undermine and reconstruct, gender. It was true then, and it’s true now.
It’s high time we used it.