Personal Histories – Paul Hickman (OC 01)

Audio clip:

Oral history conducted at Oberlin College, Oct. 6 2007, by Amy Caes. An ellipsis (…) indicates that material has been omitted. A huge thanks to Ray Lockman for transcribing.

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Probably the stuff that I devoted the most time and energy to was doing transgender activism here … At the time, there were no other out trans people on campus. I came out my first semester of my first year about being transgender …

My first conversations [about gender] happened with my ex-wife Eileen. She was actually the one who introduced the idea of transgender to me. It had never occurred to me before I got [to Oberlin] that that was even a possibility. And we talked about it endlessly. Endlessly … Actually, I was talking about it with another one of the alums, Thayer. I don’t remember Thayer’s last name. I think we got really close my second year and he actually dropped out. He was a transman who dropped out and then did hormones and basically just dropped out of college, transitioned, and then went on to Seattle and I have lost touch with him since. We talked a lot about gender, and when he came out as trans, I was delighted. I was seriously delighted. And when he dropped out of college and then transitioned, I was not so delighted, but obviously I was happy for him that he found a way to go.

I didn’t really have an idea of what I was really getting into and I kind of went back and forth about transition a lot, especially in the early part of being out … There [were] no models about not transitioning. If you were transgendered, you transitioned or you made a whole lot of effort to pass. If you weren’t going to take hormones, you had to really try hard to pass and that was something that was very clear. And I just didn’t really have the energy to either pursue hardcore the transition route or hardcore pursue the passing route. I don’t think that I particularly cared enough to try hard enough with that. I did kind of sadly fuck with things that I shouldn’t have, like fucking with hormones that were either on the black market or DHEA, which I don’t recommend for anybody to do.

A lot of my conversations about gender [at Oberlin] happened in classrooms, because I talked about it a lot with people outside of the college. I felt like it wasn’t really a very mature conversation that I had here with people, so I gave up on it pretty early on and I was like, “I’ll just talk to my professors about it, and if people have questions they’ll ask me questions,” and more often than not, they didn’t …

When I did education through Queer Peers or through any of the activism stuff I was doing, it was a lot of explaining, explaining, explaining, but mostly I just asked people to educate themselves and “come talk to me when you’ve read this book and then we’ll talk more.” I think probably the most rewarding conversations I had with people here was actually with a professor named Anna Agathangelou, who is definitely not [at Oberlin anymore]. She was too much of a rabble rouser. She wasn’t destined to stay. But she and I had amazing conversations about gender and I think she really educated herself and then educated me in turn and I really valued that.

And I took some semesters off. I took one semester off on a personal leave and went to Nebraska and spent a lot of time with transgender people there, which is surprising but there are a lot of them. Well, not a lot but they’re really solid. And on my semester abroad I also did a good amount of personal searching about transgender stuff … I decided to go as a woman and see how that went and it didn’t go so well …

I went to the Cleveland group, the Trans Family, I think was what it was called—but I had a really negative experience with them pretty early on and kind of tapered off going there. They’ve probably since changed but they were pretty incredibly offensive about it, about the fact that I wasn’t “trans enough” to be there and whatever … I went to the Cleveland group because there was nothing here. There was no support for me coming out about my tranny self and there was just really not a lot of understanding about what I was going through, so I felt like I had to research things outside of the college …

There was a couple people here who had trans relatives who I talked with a little bit here and there, but mostly they just didn’t really want to talk about it a lot or be really public about it. There’s one person who’s a really good friend with Thayer and who … has a trans woman for a sister and actually that was the person who Eileen and I and Thayer worked with to start Transgender Awareness Week when we started it. Her name is lost to me now …

I went to True Spirit, which was a conference in the DC area, and I had Oberlin pay for it because I told them, as I said to them, “You do not have resources for this so I expect you to pay for everything.” And to their credit, they did. I talked with the Dean of Students a couple times about that and I had a lot of online activity. The Internet is revolutionary for transgender people. I got hooked up with a couple youth networks—Transgender Youth Network, which I don’t think exists anymore—and talked to a lot of people online is what I did. And that meant nationwide or worldwide or whatever. Most of my interaction with people was outside of the college and inside the college I just did education mostly and tried to get through school …

It definitely struck me that when I was looking for [trans] speakers [to bring to campus], alumni speakers in particular, to come back, I could only find one [trans person]… I asked the alumni office, “Is there somebody who’s changed their name in the records? Is there somebody who’s approached you to say I need this changed? Is there any way to see that?” And they always said no. There’s one person who they gave me the name of. And that’s Holly Boswell, who I love. She’s amazing. But that was the only alumni that they said, “This is a person who’s transgender.” And she’s pretty freaking openly and famously transgender, so it’s not hard for that to be clear.

In my mind, I was like, I will not have that be the case. I want people to know that if they need to draw upon a transgender person who’s alumni, I will step up, and the alumni office does know that. Even with OLA … The first time I went to OLA…, I bitched to them … about not having trans members. I was like, “Do you understand what that means? You have this tacked on, but do you know what it means to have transgender tacked on there? Can you find transgender alumni? Can you?” … As far as a sense of history, it’s true: there’s nothing in the history, there’s nothing there. I’m determined for that not to be the case. You will remember Transgender Awareness Week. You will remember this trans group. You will change your policies …

I lived with my partner. My ex-wife. So it was easier for us. We lived in the OSCA system. OSCA is an amazing alternative … Residential Housing, their attitude was, if somebody transitioned, we’re putting them in a single room. That’s what they decided to do. OSCA was like, do whatever you want to do. If you’re in OSCA, we don’t care …

I started out in Harkness, I lived for a time at Old B—Old Barrows—and then lived in Harkness again and then lived off campus and my major was religion … I loved OSCA. First semester, when I lived in Harkness and ate in Harkness, I was the DLEC or Dining Loose Ends Coordinator…, which was a little tongue in cheek that they got me to do that. But even when I was deciding to go to Oberlin, OSCA was part of the reason I decided on Oberlin. I very much felt like I wanted a place that had a different way of running decision making process, and I wanted a different way to interact with people and have it be self run. I really liked that OSCA was self-run and student-run and I became very active in OSCA and remained active through OSCA …

And I did some work with Queer Peers. I obviously spent a lot of time with the coordinators in the MRC…But I spent a lot of time talking with and spent a lot of time researching and doing independent research about trans stuff, and there wasn’t a lot of material about it …

[The administration was] flexible at first [about planning for transitioning students]. They were very responsive at first. We went to housing, we said this is going to be an issue and we educated them on what the issue was: “This is what’s gonna happen. This is what’s gonna come up. It may not be us, but guaranteed, in the next four years, you will get somebody who’s going to transition …” It was a struggle for me …to have institutional change that was respectful. I think I compromised a lot on some of the stuff with the registrar and with the housing stuff …

Student Health has always sucked. There’s no way around that. It’s not a trans issue necessarily, it’s an everybody issue … And counseling services? That just really gets back to the medicalization of trans people and that whole problem where we are seen as a mentally diseased community and that’s not going to change until we get the actual institution of psychology to understand who we are … That’s slowly being changed in places like New York and San Francisco … The counseling services, also, has never been very supportive of students over all. So I’m pretty glad that you guys are working on that at all. That just seemed like a lost cause to me.

There was a nurse practitioner who worked in Health Services named Laura Hieronymus, and she was one of my heroes. She educated herself. She was surprisingly knowledgeable about hormone stuff. We talked a lot about what I was doing about DHEA and she didn’t approve but she was also like, “Let’s manage your care. You’re doing this anyway. I’m not going to tell you to stop. You know I don’t like this …” She was actually a really great ally…

Being trans on campus is a pretty fucking lonely experience. I know that. Believe it or not, there are resources … I’m always happy to be a resource about this stuff. I will say that. And that’s definitely something I feel comfortable offering. But I understand. It feels lonely, and things going on off-campus just seem so far away …

The transgender movement busted out and … rolled on its own momentum for a while and now it’s stalling. What happens now that we’re more accepted in the mainstream queer communities? How do we distinguish ourselves? How does our movement work? Are we assimilationist or non-assimilationist? Are we even tied to the queer movement? It’s such a load of questions to deal with …

The stuff that we had at my time was a pure social support group and if there was individual actions that we were doing outside of it, like if I asked can you come with me to do this meeting, but it was never a can we as a group go and do this advocacy. It was “ Can you go and help me with this?” … People … are apathetic by norm and you have to kind of push them to get out of that … I’m very pragmatic about this stuff. When things lose leadership, then maybe the thing is no longer necessary. If you don’t think it’s necessary, it won’t happen …

I think gender is something that evolves endlessly and you should never think that you’re at a stopping point. You should always question where you’re stopping if you’re stopping at all and how long are you stopping and why are you stopping there? So I think that my evolution into what I am now is not the end …