A guest post by Lauren Herold and Tobias Rodriguez.
Earlier this week, an Indiegogo campaign went viral: Emerson College’s Phi Alpha Tau fraternity raised money for their frat brother, Donnie Collins, a trans man who needs top surgery. Donnie initially tried to pay for the surgery through Emerson’s insurance, Aetna, since Aetna offers coverage for trans*-related surgeries and hormone replacement therapy; Donnie’s request was denied, however, because Emerson College did not opt in to those services. After Out.com featured an article about Phi Alpha Tau’s Indiegogo campaign, the brothers raised more than twice the $8,000 Donnie needs for the surgery.
Donnie’s frat brothers spoke in their Indiegogo video about wanting this fundraiser to start a conversation. There are (at least) two important conversations we’d like to address.
First, not every insurance company covers trans-related services. Colleges are typically hesitant to add these services for financial reasons. When colleges opt in to services for insurance plans they offer to students, they want to ensure they are getting their money’s worth. If a college doesn’t have any trans students, they can claim that these additional services will be paid for by all but enjoyed by few. Their most obvious incentive to add the services is to attract a more diverse student population, but the chances of the college attracting even dozens of trans students who need these services is slim.
It’s good that insurance companies like Aetna are beginning to cover these services, and many colleges are beginning to follow suit by opting into these services. But “many” is not enough. People like Donnie oftentimes don’t have time to wait for their insurance plan to decide to cover necessary services. Raising funds for an individual’s surgery may be successful in the short term, but we shouldn’t have to settle for hoping that the kindness of strangers will make up for the shortcomings of insurance companies and their clients. We need to push for institutional change so that all policies include these services. There are trans people around the country with similar medical needs who spend years saving or raising funds for these procedures and sometimes do not succeed. What about them?
We also need to talk about media coverage around the Indiegogo campaign. Most reporters have focused on a hook: that fraternity members defied the frat bro archetype by launching a campaign in support of a trans member. Donnie’s frat brothers deserve a lot of credit for demonstrating what it means to be a trans ally. But when media coverage focuses on the actions of cisgender individuals, it moves focus away from the fact that lack of proper medical care for trans people is a systemic issue and shifts our gaze to the stories of cis allies. The frat brothers are the conversation piece: they both created the conversation and are the subject of it, while Donnie’s experiences are discussed only briefly. Who gets to talk about trans people’s bodies and experiences? Cis people create the storyline and drive the narrative, and articles about the Indiegogo campaign reaffirm this trope.
This pattern perpetuates the assumption that cis people can talk about trans people’s bodies and experiences without their consent and without repercussions. In this case, Donnie welcomed the Indiegogo campaign as another platform he can use to share his experiences with the world, and has already made a variety of YouTube videos documenting his transition. However, for many trans people, their transition is a private journey. Stories like these make invisible the trans people who don’t medically transition as well as those who don’t want their transition to be public knowledge.
These stories also reify a singular trans narrative: that every trans person comes out, is supported, and begins a medical transition that includes hormone replacement therapy and at least one surgery. This is the story most people are comfortable hearing, but it does not reflect all trans people’s experiences and it alienates trans people whose experiences differ. It leaves out trans people who do not medically transition (whether because of personal preference or lack of access), who do not have a support system, and/or who are not vocal about their trans status.
We applaud the efforts of Donnie’s brothers–their campaign has helped change his life, and will continue to benefit trans people: they have pledged to donate the extra money they raised to the Jim Collins Foundation. Yet these efforts are not enough. We have to work toward systemic change in our healthcare system so trans people are not constantly fighting individual battles. And when we tell trans stories, we need to do so with a media that captures the full complexity of trans experiences.
*We use the asterisk here to suggest that the term “trans” can refer to a lot of identities under the trans umbrella. Here’s a great explanation of why. Our choice to use the asterisk in our first use of trans* and not thereafter was for readability.