It was an early evening in Skybar Cafe, mostly empty as it normally is on any given summer night — at least empty enough for Lucas, standing in the front area of the bar, to see the bathroom doors adjacent to the dance floor.
He stood there quiet for a moment, wrestling with thoughts that were coming at him quicker than he could process them. Should he use the men’s or women’s bathroom?
Some outsiders observing the situation may have assumed Lucas was trying to mentally come to terms with his gender identity, but he had accepted his identity far earlier than that evening.
Lucas, who preferred to keep his full identity private for the purposes of this story, came out as a transgender man nearly two years ago during his freshman year at Auburn, but because of strict laws on transitioning and obtaining hormone-replacement therapy, he still has many feminine physical features.
“In my head, it was like, ‘Oh, that person, they know. They know,’” Lucas recalled.
In that moment at Sky, Lucas wasn’t questioning which gender he thinks of himself as. He was mentally going back and forth on whether he was ready to see and internalize the reactions of others.
“It was just a weird moment,” he said. “It felt like an out-of-body experience, honestly.”
Which restroom did he choose to go in?
For Lucas, being a transgender student on Auburn’s campus has little to do with how he thinks of himself and a lot to do with how others think of him. Going to the bathroom, along with many other routine and daily activities, aren’t just a part of his day. They are a part of the planning of the entire day.
“I mean, this is Alabama — not to stereotype Alabama, but it’s Alabama,” Lucas said as he laughed, looking out of the only window of the room.
Unity Walker always knew there was something different about themselves but didn’t know the terminology to be able to put a name to it until coming to Auburn in 2010.
It was then that Walker met two Auburn students who had come out as transgender, and Walker realized transgender was exactly the word that described their experiences of years past.
Because Auburn did not offer on-campus housing options for transgender students, the three decided to move in together off campus, and this is when Walker began to transition.
“I like to think of transition as something that is continual,” Walker said. “So, even though I figured out that I was trans in 2010 and started transitioning in 2011, my identity is something that has continually changed as time has gone on and is something that continues to develop today.”
Although Walker came out as a transgender woman during freshman year and identified as such for a few years, Walker now self-identifies as non-binary, meaning someone who does not fit neatly within the two traditional genders of man and woman and prefers “they” and “them” nongendered pronouns.
But Walker said being a transgender woman is something they still hold dearly because of just how important of a role that time played in their life.
During the beginning stages of the transition, Walker was in a class with a semester-long group project in which the group could sometimes become more concerned with Walker’s gender than the actual work at hand.
“My partners were just screaming whether I was a boy or a girl, and it got pretty heated, and the group had to dissolve for the day,” Walker said.
During a time of deep introspection and self-discovery, the discomfort and lack of understanding from other students left Walker the subject of arguments that lacked consideration for Walker’s thoughts and feelings.
“People didn’t talk with me much to begin with, but after I came out, that amplified,” they said.
The treatment by much of the staff at the University was similar. Especially after publicly coming out, Walker would experience antagonistic remarks from staff.
“When I started openly transitioning, the staff would go in the opposite direction instead — gendering me as the gender I was assigned at birth and calling me by my full legal name and using the wrong pronouns intentionally,” Walker said.
Generally, Walker found that there was a distinct difference in the treatment from staff and the treatment from faculty. Faculty tended to be more accepting and quicker to adapt than staff members.
Over time, the malicious treatment toward Walker diminished — partly due to increasing understanding and partly due to Walker’s changing physical appearance.
“In the beginning of transition for me, I was pretty visibly trans, and as I swung pretty hard in one direction, it ended up being that I was able to — and I use the term hesitantly — pass as that gender,” Walker said. “So, I was not read as trans by people in the general public.”
Max Zinner is pursuing a master’s degree at Auburn and does research on the history of the LGBT community at Auburn. Zinner said the early 2010s were the first time that the transgender community was becoming a part of the Auburn campus community, which is precisely the time that Walker arrived on campus.
To Walker’s knowledge, there were only three students at Auburn who had come out as transgender in 2010.
The first time any portion of the LGBT community made itself present on campus was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Auburn Gay and Lesbian Association began the grueling process of seeking an official student organization charter in the face of vehement opposition. The process sparked national controversy as the Student Senate at the time attempted to block the charter.
There were other organizations that branched off, but any talk of the LGBT community generally stayed centered around the gay and lesbian experience. The first introduction of the transgender community to Auburn’s campus came at a safe-zone training in the early 2000s, but the inclusion of the transgender community in the training was in name only.
“It included the ‘T’ in the name but nowhere else,” Zinner said. “Everything was about ‘Let’s be more accepting of people with different sexual orientations.’ It said nothing about gender identity.”
The transgender community continued to be largely left out of the discussion of LGBT rights. Sexual orientation was added to Auburn’s anti-discrimination policy in 2006. According to Zinner, there was some discussion to include gender identity, but it just didn’t happen.
Spectrum, an LGBT student organization, states on its AUinvolve page that it serves as a safe space for gender, sexual and romantic minorities. But even it has lacked in transgender representation in the past.
“[Spectrum] was just coming off of a time when it was very much the gay men’s club from what I understand,” said Zinner, who came to Auburn as a student in 2011.
Walker agreed. They said because they were one of just a few transgender students on campus, the group really had to rely on one another because other people, even members of Spectrum, had trouble empathizing with their experiences.
It wasn’t until the early 2010s that the transgender community became a part of the dialogue on Auburn’s campus, Zinner said. Zinner and Walker were on the forefront of the efforts to get gender identity and gender expression adopted as part of Auburn’s anti-discrimination policy in 2013.
Zinner said that part of why the gay community was accepted earlier on than the transgender community has to do with the difference in how people must change the way they interact with people from the respective communities.
Essentially, people can mentally box off sexual orientation as how someone behaves in the bedroom, but gender identity is a part of most daily activities.
Zinner said that in many ways, a heterosexual cis-gender person doesn’t feel their identity change when thinking of a gay person, but it does when thinking of a transgender person.
“I would think of gender, in the most basic way, it’s how one presents oneself and how they’re referred to, but that still isn’t something one changes for gay people,” Zinner said. “In reality, there’s a lot more to it.”
Zinner said that more people began to come out as genderqueer at Auburn in the early 2010s, which helped increase understanding and awareness on campus.
“I guess I’ve been around long enough to notice these changes,” Zinner said. “Certainly, the general campus is much more aware of transgender issues than they were even five years ago. Previously, it’s something that a lot of people just didn’t even think about, didn’t even know about. Now, I mean I’m sure there are still people that are surprised, but it seems to be a much more normal thing.”
Zinner admitted that being able to recognize a change in Auburn’s social conscience is partially due to personal experiences formed by being immersed in social groups such as Spectrum.
Walker agreed and said that since they came out in 2010, the transgender community has exponentially increased at Auburn.
“I think that Auburn is a supportive and friendly environment in certain contexts, but that largely comes from the individuals with whom I surround myself,” they said.
Walker said they likely have the most access to supportive environments of any genderqueer person in Auburn, which is not a shared experience for people in more conservative areas of campus. In addition to being an advisor to Spectrum, Walker is professionally involved with the LGBT community in the Office of Inclusion and Diversity and at the East Alabama Medical Center.
But even with Auburn collectively growing in acceptance and the number of comfortable places increasing, there is a lot to be desired.
Walker regularly receives strange looks, stares and whispers from strangers, especially when in public with their fiance who is also visibly queer.
“That’s something I wish I could say has decreased as time has gone on, but I think it’s something that I’m just used to at this point,” Walker said.
Whether it’s a befuddled look in passing from a stranger or an insult-laced question while on a panel, Walker is reminded of other people’s unfamiliarity and discomfort with their identity on a day-to-day basis.
Auburn has a long way to go, Walker said. It has made a lot of progress, especially because of the efforts of Spectrum, but Walker will be pursuing a doctoral degree soon and is consciously looking for a place more accepting than Auburn, largely because their family is a queer family. They do not like the prospect of raising children in Auburn’s community.
For Lucas, understanding the experience of what it’s like to be transgender can’t be done without thinking of the sheer numbers and visibility on campus.
“Being trans at Auburn, you don’t see a lot of it,” he said. “Spectrum, yeah, you see a lot of it there, but outside, nobody really talks about it. I feel like it’s a taboo subject.”
Since beginning his transition early in college, Lucas has maintained many of the friendships that he had in high school.
“My really close friends, it’s not really a big conversation topic,” he said. “It’s not that they don’t care how I feel. They just don’t view it as a big part of me because they know me.”
On top of connecting with others who have shared experiences in Spectrum, having friends who accept Lucas for Lucas has been what has allowed him to overcome snide comments in class or getting kicked out of his house or even a mental battle in front of a bathroom at Sky.
“It’s been nice having people who know me for me and that have known me for me,” he said. “I wish it was like that for everybody because I know it’s definitely not.”