T.J. Jourian has gotten a lot of exposure in the last few months.
First, camera crews followed him around for a documentary on the Sundance channel. Then came an interview with Larry King. And on March 4, Natialie Portman played him in a skit on \”Saturday Night Live.\” [tj1]
But when Jourian came to MSU in 1999, he was a she and her name was Tamar.
Seven years later, the third year student administration graduate student lives as a male, and has received national attention as a result of his advocacy for transgender rights.
Jourian, a 24-year-old Armenian international student from Cyprus, said he always felt something was wrong. “It’s like my gender didn’t fit,\” he said. \”But as a child, I pushed those thoughts away because it’s not something you’re allowed to talk about.”
No matter what society you’re born into, there are standards you’re expected to follow. Growing up, girls are supposed to play with dolls and boys are supposed to play with trucks. And that\’s just one very small piece of a very complicated puzzle.
Everyone born with a Y-chromosome is expected to want short hair, be big and tough and hate the color pink. Everyone born with two X-chromosomes is supposed to run around playing house and dress up. They’re expected to be a little “girly” and to want a bigger chest as they mature into those awkward, pimply adolescent years.
But for T.J., things were a little different and it wasn’t because he grew up in Cyprus, the third largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, where not English but Greek and Turkish are the official languages. “Even if I had grown up in the United States, it probably would have been not that different since it was the eighties,” he said. “As a child, you don’t get the opportunity to question your gender.”
Jourian argues that it’s OK for boys to play with dolls when they’re young. Often times, parents don’t tolerate this kind of gender-crossing behavior but children should figure out things for themselves, he says.
Coming to college, Jourian, \”finally got the chance to meet other trans people who are older and started figuring myself out.\” But even that process was not an easy one.
Jourian pretty much experienced a full sweep of the rainbow before deciding he felt comfortable with who he was. First, he came out as a bi-female, then a lesbian. Soon, he considered himself gender-queer, a term used to describe a youth-led movement where there is no one way of identifying who you are. It’s a non-binary system where you don’t belong to either gender. Eventually, in the fall of 2001, Jourian felt he had finally found his gender identity. He was not a she. He was a transmale.
Since coming to MSU, Jourian has been an active member of the LBGT community, identifying most with the other \”Ts.\” In realizing the struggles transgender people go through, Jourian and a fellow female-to-male (F to M)transgender person, Jordan Furrow, started Phi Tau Mu, a transgender support group. [furrow]
Furrow, a social work graduate student, has been out as a transmale for two and a half years. “We started this group two years ago because there’s a lot of hostility,” Furrow said.
One of Phi Tau Mu’s biggest projects is to have gender identity added to MSU anti-discrimination policy. Of course, L.A., the administration refuses to answer direct questions about this issue but things are moving forward. In November of 2003, gender identity was added to the anti-harassment section of the policy, but not the anti-discrimination policy.
“We jokingly say that what this means is we can still be fired from campus jobs and receive bad grades because of our gender identity, we just can’t be called names,” Jourian.
And being called names is just the beginning of where discrimination can lead. Transgender students have been raped by members of both genders and harassed by the police, a service they should be able to rely on, Jourian said.
“Not having the policy in place makes campus an uncomfortable and scary place,” Furrow said. “But we feel positive about the direction things are going.”
Because “no one should be discriminated against based on anything,” said chemical engineering sophomore Kristy Currier, \”everybody should get the same opportunities.”
At the moment, the university has set up a second gender identity committee that’s reviewing the proposal to include gender identity in the policy, which will create those equal opportunities. “We’re letting the administration take care of it within the system, we just have to keep hammering the message in.”
Lou Anna, this is where you come in.
“I see no reason why gender identity shouldn’t be included in the anti-discrimination policy,” said social relations sophomore Carrie Reed. “It’s just an important as race or sexual orientation.”
One event sponsored by the non-Greek affiliated support group is a weekend of education. Samuel Lurie, a national trainer of transgender issues, is on campus the first weekend of April to address activism for transgender allies, ongoing issues like discrimination and to train Olin Health Center staff so they can better care for transgender individuals.
Jourian’s claim to fame, however, came from having simply replied to a list-serve email just a little while back “for the hell of it.” That specific email was sent out by Jeremy Simmons, director of the new documentary airing on the Sundance Channel Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Transgeneration follows the unique stories of four transgender college students. T.J. was one of them. The others are students at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Smith College and California State University, Los Angeles.
“I decided to do the show because I built a trust with the director and he treated my story with respect,” Jourian said. “Jeremy wasn’t looking for four people who represent transgender people, he just wanted to tell their individual stories, so I jumped on the opportunity.”
The outcome is not just Sundance viewers getting a chance to peek into and better understand the life and struggles of a transgender person but personal growth for Jourian, as well. “There were a lot of sit-down times for small interviews with the director and that was really good. Self reflection, that was my biggest gain.”
Through all this, Jourian has become a sort of a national celebrity. Even his Facebook profile says that one of his jobs is being a part-time national speaker, which must be true since he seems to constantly be out of state and reachable only by wonderful wireless. [tjsit]
But for T.J., each day, there is the possibility of harassment and that’s the scariest part, he said. “When someone looks at me and can’t make out if I’m male or female, they’ll get angry and I don’t know if something will happen or not.”
“I’ve managed to be very resourceful so I know where not to go. I avoid certain situations and don’t go for certain jobs,” Jourian said. Discrimination based on gender identity is a reality on this campus.
Because putting all else aside, transgender individuals are people too and at this school of “equal opportunity,” discrimination goes against everything the university stands for.
And even after “gender identity” is added to MSU’s anti-discrimination policy, the struggle continues. For Jourian, when he graduates and goes back home to a community that will probably not be very accepting of his decisions, he must return as a she. “I’m sure there’ll be some compromises here and there,” he said. “I don’t really know what that will mean but we’ll just have to see how that goes.”
This struggle, however, is not just his own. It belongs, L.A., to MSU and to each individual. Not just people who identify with the transgender community have a gender identity, Jourian said. Each person has a gender identity and he encourages each person to really look and ask what makes them who they are.
Lou Anna, I\’m sure you and your administration have many questions about transgender identity. But are you willing to listen?
“The answer is,” Jourian said. “There are no answers.”
Gender I. Dentity