Article By Maria Braganini
Photos By Carly Geraci
The daily life of a transgender person can be immeasurably challenging and rife with discrimination. But it can also be blissful, victorious and transformative.
On a campus of 50,000 students, transgender people find their voice through MSU resources and student organizations.
The collaboration between MSU Counseling Center and Olin Health Center has been providing hormone therapies to students for 38 years.
Within the past two years, Olin has begun initiating hormone therapy for students in addition to continuing therapy to already transitioning students.
Approval from a gender specialist affirming the mental health of the patient is the first step for students who want to transition.
Dr. Jen Grzegorek is that specialist. A counselor at MSU Counseling Center, Gregorek is the first face students see to initiate the transition process at MSU.
After students explain their expectations, emotions and future plans with Dr. Gregorek, she is able to write a letter affirming that the student is ready for the next step in the transitioning process — to begin hormone therapy.
“Once we get the letter, they make an appointment here with me then I can talk to them and usually start them that same day or I usually get their blood work first,” Glynda Moorer, the MD Director of Student Health at Olin said.
Most students who wish to transition are very knowledgeable about the process, Moorer said.
“Usually when they come here, most of them are involved in the trans community,” Moorer said.
The “trans community” Moorer referred to are the several student organizations on campus.
The preliminary processes are essential to starting a gender transition because of how the hormones can affect the rest of the human body emotionally and physically.
“The testosterone can increase your red blood cells and cause too many red blood cells in the system, and that can cause side effects ... and estrogens can affect your cholesterol and lipids,” Moorer said. “If we give a male estrogens then their cholesterols (may) be affected so we just monitor all of that.”
Moorer and Gregorek supplement community recourses for services Olin Health Center does not yet provide to students.
“We use electrolysis and the local dermatologist for laser hair removal, so we refer them to Doctor’s Approach dermatology for the laser hair removal,” Moorer said. “Then, of course, the genital reassignment surgery is major, there’s no one around here that does that so we refer to the University of Michigan.”
And while MSU has a group of doctors on the front lines of helping students transition to their true gender identities, the reality of actually transitioning is much more personal.
English sophomore Kalib Watson knew from a young age that he was male.
He would play outside without a shirt on. He would roll around in the mud with his brother. When he got older, he wanted to grow a beard.
But at that time, Watson’s parents didn’t know he was Kalib. To everyone else, he was still Kayla.
So Watson spent his adolescence being jealous of his brother. Watson tried to avoid wearing bras, disliked feminine clothing and always surrounded himself with girls.
So when Watson came out as a lesbian during his senior year of high school, his parents weren’t surprised.
And a year later when Watson came out as transgender, his parents fully supported him.
“I did go to the LGBT groups for a time, but then my schedule just ended up getting really busy and I didn’t think that I had time for it or I necessarily needed that support group just because I had my own support group within my friend group and my family,” Watson said.“What other people think is going to make you happy isn’t always going to make you happy.”
Now, almost done with his transition, Watson is learning to live life as a male — to live life the way he always wanted to.
“You should be taking your happiness into account, no matter what it is you're trying to achieve,” Watson said. “Whether you’re trying to achieve feeling comfortable in your own body, if that is for gender reasons, for weight reasons, for whatever reasons... You should be thinking about it from your point of view, not from someone else’s because what other people think is going to make you happy isn’t always going to make you happy.”
Watson said he doesn’t believe much has changed since his transition.
“I think I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the idea of having to navigate with that social sphere,” he said. “It’s not that my beliefs have changed, or as a person I’ve changed. It’s just with my beliefs, I’m more comfortable. It’s probably more straightforward, because that’s something that is afforded to me, especially cis white males.”
For many transitioning individuals, finding a place to fit in can be hard. Accepting themselves can be even harder.
For Jessica Sietsema, speaking with a psychologist who specialized in gender at Olin Health Center was only the first step in a long journey of self-discovery.
Growing up in a private school in West Michigan, Sietsema, a philosophy senior, didn’t know what LGBT stood for until four years ago.
“(Transitioning) in college was really difficult,” Sietsema said. “The level that not knowing what LGBT is affects someone’s identity if they are nonbinary is very profound and traumatic, frankly.”
One year after her visit to Olin, Sietsema began hormone therapy, composed of daily estrogen pills and a testosterone blocker.
“If you’re trans, you haven't processed a lot of things that everyone else kind of has,” Sietsema said. “In terms of regulating your emotions and handling things in terms of hormones. “It’s like going through puberty in college and it's not a recipe for success.”It’s like going through puberty in college and it's not a recipe for success.”
Sietsema said moments throughout her transition felt like a physical and emotional war she fights daily.
“I would have killed myself a while ago if I didn’t have the confidence,” Sietsema said. “I can say that laughing now because I’ve gotten over it, somehow.”
Standing at 7 feet tall, Sietsma said she feels her efforts in “passing” as a woman are sometimes futile.
“If I play into the feminine role, I feel like it looks fake on me,” she said. “I realized because of my height, passing looks different on me. Even if I do pass, I’m still going to be 7-feet-tall and be treated a certain way because of that.”
Even walking around on campus, Sietsema said she becomes anxious and feels like she’s being judged.
But at the end of the day, Sietsema is learning to love herself. Slowly, but surely.
“Being comfortable with myself is a project I’ve been working on for a long time and I feel like I’m getting there,” Sietsema said. “I’ve started this day like, ‘OK, you have this figured out and it’s going to take some time now, so what do you want to do with the rest of your life.’”
When Nick Zielke graduated from MSU with his master’s degree last year, he was given the opportunity to speak during commencement.
It was during this speech that Zielke announced he was transgender. He was met with a standing ovation.
“(It was the) first time I spoke in front of a large group and the first time I came out to a large group,” he said. “All of my professors always knew, I just didn’t want to tell my cohorts. When I came out I got even more support. ... It will always be where I got my voice.”
On the heels of discovering he was intersex, Zielke began taking hormones and transitioning to be a male.
After living much of his life, Zielke, now 39, said he found comfort in the discovery.
“It was a huge relief,” Zielke said. “I didn’t have to see a therapist, because I was born intersex. It was medically necessary for me to choose a hormone.”
Now, Zielke’s role at The Center for Relationship and Sexual Health in Royal Oak gives him an opportunity to help others like him.
“I see transgender clients of all phases,” Zielke said. “At the beginning and the people who have already transitioned who have regular everyday circumstances. … I also do transgender support groups at my job and I want to be more of an advocate within the state of Michigan for transgender rights. … I am the person that people see for hormones or surgery.”
Legally registered as a male with a male birth certificate, license and passport, Zielke has experienced transitioning from every angle, providing him with a unique perspective to offer others.“I think people are going to have to know someone who is intersex and transgender to touch their heart and know it’s OK and not scary.”
When it comes to discovering who you are, Zielke said gender is a lot like a rainbow.
“There is no black and white, like on a paint scale, you have all these colors and now swirl them all together and that’s gender,” Zielke said. ““It’s fluid. Everyone is their own unique person … It’s putting down your boundaries and accepting that person for being themselves, and everyday is going to be different for them until they find themselves.”
As an older transgender man, Zielke serves as a role model and mentor to transgender people. While much of society’s opinions of transgender people have changed, Zielke said he hopes to see society become more accepting.
“I truly believe that it’s going to take more one-on-one stories and (to) touch people's hearts to be more accepting and to change the stigma,” he said. “I think people are going to have to know someone who is intersex and transgender to touch their heart and know it’s OK and not scary.”