Students

What Will College Be Like for a Transgender Student in North Carolina?

August 23, 2016

Morehead Foundation
Kaleb Lyda, a transgender student who starts this week as a freshman at the U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: "For a while I was actually very nervous" after the "bathroom bill" passed. "Now seeing students’ response, as time goes on, it calmed my nerves a lot."

Just a few days before North Carolina’s legislature passed House Bill 2, which requires people to use bathrooms that correspond to the gender listed on their birth certificates, Kaleb A. Lyda enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Mr. Lyda, an incoming freshman, is a recipient of the prestigious Morehead-Cain scholarship, a four-year merit scholarship that covers full tuition, housing, student fees, books and supplies, and funds to travel. Born a female, he is a transgender man.

The days after HB2 passed were nerve-racking for Mr. Lyda as he monitored the news about the law and the university’s response. Now he’ll have to face the realities of the law as a college freshman.

Classes start this week, and Mr. Lyda said he’s ready for college but still cautious about how the new law might affect his and others’ experiences at Chapel Hill.

The Chronicle spoke with Mr. Lyda about his plans for the academic year. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. With all the talk about HB2 this spring, why did you pick UNC?

A. The Morehead scholarship basically made the decision for me. And I knew in the past that it was a fairly liberal school, so I felt like I’d be supported there no matter what the political climate was. There was a lot of worry especially because I agreed to go three, four days before HB2 passed. When I picked the school I didn’t know HB2 was happening. Once I signed, I was watching all this news come out, I was watching students’ responses, professors’ responses to HB2, and while it was very stressful for me, the response was very supportive.

Q. How do you think HB2 will affect your college career?

A. I think people are starting to realize that there’s not a lot of political merit for this and there’s a lot of community support for trans people in the wake of this, but I do think that it riled up a lot of people.

There’s a lot of political discussion and some of that is unhealthy. It makes it scary. For a while I was actually very nervous. Now seeing students’ response, as time goes on, it calmed my nerves a lot.

I do worry about going to the bathroom and rooming with men, just because [HB2] happened. It gives support to people who are harmful or have those negative views of me.

Q. Do you think your campus experience will be starkly different than that of other students?

A. The way that I walk through life, I tend to worry about different things than other people do. I’m constantly on the lookout for safe bathrooms. Or I tend to really worry about what other people think — if other people are going to judge me or if I say the wrong thing. I also think being a trans male, I feel necessary to uphold this view of masculinity. That’s very difficult. Just because it’s a very tough gender role to fit in, especially living as female for such a long time.

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In terms of just in classes, going to college, it’s going to be pretty much the same as everyone else. It’s that little piece of trying to fit in with a culture that I didn’t grow up in and trying to fit in, in dorms and in bathrooms and in a slightly unsafe environment where there’s a lot of pressure. I think that’s the most difficult part.

Q. Some North Carolina chancellors have said the law is unenforceable or have even come out against it. Do you think you’re going to try to combat this law or try to get it repealed?

A. I definitely think so. Some of my friends and I worked with a nonprofit in Charlotte called Time Out Youth, and a lot what they are trying to do is present trans people fighting against HB2 as people. The adjective trans gets stuck in front of it and people freak out about that and forget to look at the community as human beings that really need to go to the bathroom and want to feel safe doing that. That’s what I put my emphasis on. Because I don’t know more about politics or how to repeal things. There’s this feeling of helplessness as a young person, but if I’m able to change the social climate and say: "Hey, I’m a person. This is what I do. I have passion and hopes and dreams." It changes people’s view of you.

Q. Do you see yourself as a campus activist on this front?

A. In a sense, yeah. I’m not really huge on activism just because I get burned out really quickly. It’s very tiring for me. I’m definitely up there for sticking up for anything. It’s something that I enjoy doing, being educated on these sorts of issues.

My stance on activism is definitely like interdisciplinary or intersectional. If you focus too much on one thing you’re missing out on a lot of other issues. I try to link HB2 with gender equality.

Q. Could you elaborate a little bit on that?

A. Intersectionality is going to be where one issue of gender and sexuality combines with another issue of poverty or health issues. There’s just so many intersections between each issue that bring it to life.

As a male-passing white person, I think I have a different experience with HB2 than trans women, who statistically have higher rates of violence, so my stance on HB2 and my outlook on it is going to differ greatly from theirs. I try to bring it: "Hey, this is me as a white male speaking. That’s where I’m coming from." But if I can look at where a trans women of color is coming from and her experiences, finding where those pieces interact and how different entities play into this is more important than just HB2. It’s so all-encompassing. There are so many people in the state that it affects.

Q. Are your parents concerned about your college experience? What are they the most concerned about?

A. First and foremost, my safety. My mom tends to worry a lot, as mothers do. She worries a lot about me finding a place where I’m seen as more than just my identity. Like I’ve said before, that adjective tends to get stuck, so I really do think she worries a lot about my safety.

Q. What aspect of college are you the most excited about?

A. All the different people I’m going to meet. It’s such an eclectic community. There’s literally something for everyone. I think coming from a smallish sort of town, suburbia, you don’t have that kind of diversity.

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.