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Interview with a new generation of gender activists seeking to find a broad, more inclusive way to describe sexual minorities. Credit: Carolyn Lim , Carolyn Lim

While Penn is recognized as one of the most LGBT-friendly schools in the nation, a group of freshmen feel the last letter is still underrepresented.

This past November, eight freshmen formed a group call Penn Non-Cis, a space for students who are not-cisgender. Cisgender is a term that describes a person whose sexual identity matches his or her biological body.

While the group is still in its developmental stages, a recent article in the New York Times has given the group a lot of national attention. The group currently consists of ten members, mostly freshman, but they are hoping that the publicity from the Times article, along with more recruiting and advertising, will help grow their numbers.

How it all started

It all began when College freshman Kate Campbell and Engineering freshman Terry, who prefers to go by only his first name, met through the Class of 2016 LGBT Facebook group.

Terry said, “I posted that I’d been thinking about gender,” and Campbell responded.

According to Terry, the two started discussing gender issues and thought, “Hey, what if we had a group that was just for people who were gender-other or gender-queer because there doesn’t seem to be a group for them already?”

Terry then posted about this new idea on the main Facebook page for the freshmen class, and a few other students responded, eventually leading to the formation of a weekly meeting at Penn’s Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Center during this past semester.

While Penn already has a group called Trans Penn, Campbell explained that it “was mostly geared towards staff and faculty,” while Penn Non-Cis primarily serves undergraduates.

College sophomore Dawn Androphy, who chairs Penn’s LGBT umbrella organization the Lambda Alliance, thinks that Penn Non-Cis is filling an important need in the Penn community.

“Especially in a liberal bubble like the Penn campus, a lot of people have moved beyond issues of sexuality, but gender seems to be something there isn’t a lot of understanding about, so I suppose it’s the next step in the movement,” she said.

Prior to Penn Non-Cis, there was no outlet for gender discussion, especially for undergraduates.

Additionally, Penn Non-Cis member and Wharton freshman Britt Gilbert noted that “Trans Penn seemed to be more political” while Penn Non-Cis “is more interested in getting people aware of the issues” some face as non-cisgender individuals.

Non-cisgender challenges

Among the issues the students face is simply dealing with names.

Some of the Penn Non-Cis members have changed their names or are in the process of changing their names, and it can be somewhat daunting to transition to a new name while enrolling in college.

Penn Non-Cis member and College freshman Richard Parsons was pleasantly surprised by the experience he had transitioning into Penn with his preferred name.

“I contacted Erin Cross at the LGBT center over the summer, making sure that my preferred name was listed pretty much everywhere,” he said. “Student Health Service, my RA, housing, the roster, everything has my preferred name, which I find extremely beneficial, and I wasn’t expecting that.”

According to Androphy, Parsons was “a rarity,” and most students aren’t as fortunate in getting their name changed.

“The problem right now is that if your safety is at risk, then the LGBT center can kind of use this back alley way of making that change, but it’s not publicized,” Androphy said. “I guess the problem is there’s so much bureaucracy behind it that it’s not really accessible.”

Since last semester, Androphy has been working with the Undergraduate Assembly to pass the Preferred Name Initiative, which would create an easier process for both transgender and international students to change their name on non-legal documents and rosters at Penn.

For Penn Non-Cis member and College freshman Anastasiya, who preferred not to give a last name, finding gender-neutral bathrooms was one of the biggest challenges upon arriving to campus.

“Gender-neutral bathrooms not being in every building is very frustrating. Most of the buildings I have class in don’t have them, and I have class back-to-back,” Anastasiya said.

Parsons found the biggest issue to be that “there was no space that said that it was welcoming specifically to non-cisgender people. Just having Penn Non-cis existing is already a space that I can be more comfortable in.”

Gilbert, on the other hand, believes that one of the biggest problems is cluelessness.

“You might find people who aren’t accepting, but I think most of it is that they just don’t know. How do they know to be accepting if they don’t know what they’re accepting?” she said.

Campus presence

While Androphy said Lamda Alliance would love to work more with Penn Non-Cis, the group has yet to officially join any campus network such as Lam and the LGBT Center.

“We decided to not be included [in Lam] because we wanted to make sure that we could work within our own constraints rather than someone else’s,” Wharton freshman Santiago Cortes said.

Terry echoed Cortes’ feelings.

“We want to have time to figure out our own group before we join someone else’s,” he said.

Androphy is hoping that Penn Non-Cis will decide to join Lam in the near future.

“I know their group is in the development stages, but I’m really hoping that by the end of the year, they have Lambda constituency, so we can begin working with them and having them develop as a more permanent group,” she said.

Looking ahead

There are currently six non-cisgender members in the group and four cisgender members, or allies as they like to call themselves.

Cortes, one of the allies, explained, “We want it to be both a place for non-cisgender people to be in and talk about problems that they face, but we also want it to spread awareness about the issues that non-cisgender people face.”

Cortes also thinks that it will be a great resource for students who are questioning their gender identity.

“This group could serve as a place to get more information and might help them make a decision in the future about what they feel is right for them,” he said.

The group is excited for future non-cisgender students at Penn to be able to arrive on campus and see that there is already a space for them.

“It’ll be really great for freshmen to come in and see that there’s a Jewish LGBT group, there’s a Queer Ladies group and there’s a non-cisgender group,” College freshman Rod Cook said.

In addition to being a safe space for students, Penn Non-Cis also looks forward to being able to provide an information pamphlet for non-cisgender students, including resources like a map of gender-neutral bathrooms around campus.

Members of Penn Non-Cis said they believe there’s a long way to go, even though Penn has a thriving LGBT community.

Cook thinks that the huge LGBT presence can sometimes mean that things are taken for granted.

“I think that being so LGBTQ friendly makes people at Penn say, ‘Everyone is going to feel welcome, and everyone probably feels fine,’ when that’s not the case yet. It creates a sense of false comfort,” Cook said.

But Cook is quick to note how fortunate he is for going to a school with such a large LGBT presence.

“I was talking to someone from Drexel at our event, and they said, ‘We’re here with the LGBT group on campus,’ and I said ‘Which LGBT group?’ They said ‘Uh, the only one.’ I forgot that that’s normal.”

Yet, Santiago pointed out that he has heard of a liberal arts school where students’ first question upon meeting someone new is “What is your preferred pronoun?”

Androphy still sees the creation of the group as a step in the right direction.

“I really admire that they had the gusto to just arrive on campus and say, ‘Our needs aren’t being met,’” Androphy said. “And I think it’s amazing that they got together and created this group, and they just did it on their own.”

This article has been updated to reflect that eight students started the group, not seven.

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