Pallas Guiterrez is publicly outed every time they take a
Northwestern-sponsored COVID-19 test. When the staff member reaches the
“Sex at Birth” question, the Communication fourth-year feels horrible.
“It’s something I always have to psych myself up for when I go to get
tested: ‘They’re going to ask this, and it doesn’t mean anything, but
they’re going to ask and you have to be ready,’” Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez, who has been living as nonbinary throughout college, recalls
countless moments when safety and respect haven’t been a part of their
Northwestern experience. Professors have forgotten to use their
pronouns, or didn’t even bother asking in the first place.
Gender-neutral spaces on campus — like the first floor of Allison Hall
and the third floor of 560 Lincoln — were filled with cisgender students
eager for an upscale dorm. Even bathrooms where they could feel safe on
campus felt few and far between.
So, even during a pandemic, students and professors within the
transgender, nonbinary and gender- queer communities are continuing on a
double-sided journey to find an impactful community and fight back
against the structures that continue to harm them.
Dr. Marquis Bey, an assistant professor of African American Studies and
English, knows that outside of academia, the classroom is seen as a
place of fragility. But Bey is disdainful of this notion and aims to
abolish the structures of institutional academics that harm the queer
and trans community. Granting students safety within the classroom, Bey
says, can be an act of strength that turns into something much greater.
“When you enter my classroom, you are physically safe in that space.
Because of that, then we have license to be intellectually dangerous, in
the sense that it will rattle and shake a lot of the normative and
hegemonic structures that are themselves violent structures,” Bey says.
One way Bey creates this type of classroom culture is by de-emphasizing
the academic routine of assigning work simply for the sake of grades and
completion. Instead, Bey focuses on what texts and media they can
introduce to students that have the power to change what they see as
possible for themselves and the world. Trap Door: Trans Cultural
Production and the Politics of Visibility is one text that Bey calls on
when thinking about what visibility actually means. Those moments of
in-class or on-campus solidarity can often be more impactful than many
realize. As a first-year, Gutierrez recalls attending get-togethers
thrown by queer upperclassmen. They’d never been surrounded by so much
“It was really great to be around other people who held similar
identities and know that the things that Northwestern does that aren’t
great do affect multiple people, and it’s not just me and my roommate
being crazy,” Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez recognizes that finding support like this can be challenging,
but they encourage other trans and queer students to search for others
in their community.
“You’ll stumble into a class, and there will be someone who has
different pronouns than you were expecting or than you’ve heard before,
and then suddenly you will have a huge community of trans friends, and
it will be wonderful,” Gutierrez says. “You just have to be open to
looking for it.”
Kelsey Phalen, who graduated this spring, found support in
Northwestern’s theatre community; a friend’s senior thesis was a trans
and nonbinary adaptation of The Little Mermaid, called The Little
Merperson. Being in that production showed Phalen the importance of
explicitly creating and inviting spaces for vulnerability.
“It’s not embarrassing if you have those moments and you invite other
people into it,” Phalen says. “The whole point is we’re here for each
other and here to care about each other, and we’ll help each other
through the fear and through the uncertainty.”
Even so, for fellow alumnus Zury Cutler, that hyper-visibility felt
daunting. Cutler says it took deep introspection for him to realize that
his gender identity was valid — partly because he did not feel similar
to other gender-queer students who were not questioning their gender
“The amount of visibility at Northwestern made me [think], ‘These are
the people who are gender-queer on campus, and I’m definitiely not super
similar to them, so I’m probably just a man,’” Cutler says.
Cutler says that his experience of an accepting and visible Northwestern
community does not represent — and in fact is in contrast to — the
University’s treatment of trans students and professors. “Because the
Northwestern community is pretty open and accepting of trans folx — I
want to be clear: not the Northwestern administration, but the
Northwestern community — I think that that has allowed a freedom of
expression and experimentation that almost intimidated me,” Cutler says.
Bey echoes the gravity of seeing oneself in their professors and peers.
Though being introduced to new forms of expression and modes of thinking
can be overwhelming, Bey says that experience can also be life-changing.
“Simply knowing that something is possible by seeing someone else do
that, embody that, is deeply, deeply important,” Bey says. “I can never
under-emphasize something like that.”
But Bey isn’t just interested in fostering acceptance, openness or
inclusion — “all these imperfect words,” they say. Because simply being
“out” can be dangerous (in more ways than one), they point out the need
to systematically dismantle institutions and structures that promote
violence against queer people.
“Rather than simply inserting a trans or queer person into this
[institution], how can we cultivate radically different conditions that
allow for queer and trans modes of relations?” Bey says. “For me, the
purpose of my scholarship is not simply to acquire knowledge but to
attempt to make people more free. How can I introduce students to things
that will allow them to feel freer and to do freedom and liberation in
more impactful ways?”
Even with visibility, Cutler realized Northwestern’s community wasn’t
exempt from calls for change. When Cutler served on the board of
directors for MARS — which at the time stood for Men Against Rape and
Sexual Assault — he noticed how much of the organization was composed of
cisgender fraternity men. While Cutler himself was never a part of Greek
life, being a member of MARS often meant thinking deeply about Greek
culture, which he says posed a multitude of issues for queer students.
“Greek life is supported by generally white, upper-class, cis,
heterosexual, Christian people,” Cutler says. “It happens to be one of
the most egregious cases of massive, systemic disenfranchisement of
queer and trans folx on our campus.”
So, the organization changed its name to Masculinity, Allyship,
Reflection, and Solidarity. Cutler says the organization would have been
open to including including trans and queer people before, but the
re-wording made a clear statement that “This should not be a men’s
group; this should be a group for people with masculine experience.”
For Phalen, the only campus space where they didn’t come out as
nonbinary was in their Panhellenic Association (PHA) sorority. Although
the sorority members were accepting, they didn’t always know what to do
when someone’s gender identity challenged their structure of cisgender
Phalen says that part of their decision to not disclose their gender
identity in this space came from witnessing how the sorority reacted
when a different member came out about their gender identity.
“They were all trying to be positive about it, but it just felt like it
became this whole thing. Even though they were accepting, I just didn’t
want to go through that,” Phalen says.
During PHA sorority recruitment their first year, Gutierrez saw many
exclusive policies and actions. Sororities purposely didn’t ask members
for their pronouns in order to get around national laws that demand that
members strictly identify as women.
“It’s crazy how much of our campus housing in the form of Greek life
houses is inherently inaccessible to trans people. Maybe we don’t need
those Greek houses, and we need more trans housing,” Gutierrez says.
Gutierrez realizes a community isn’t enough. As Illinois law still
enables discrimination against trans people (such as lacking bathroom
laws), a critical eye is turned toward the University.
“If you genuinely believe it’s a problem, you will be advocating against
those laws. Northwestern has so much money, so much power and so many
high-powered alumni,” Gutierrez says. “There’s no reason that if they
don’t believe in something they can’t help it get changed. What are you
doing to advocate that that law gets changed so that your students can
live safely on this campus?”