Living Beyond The Binary: A Transgender Penn Stater’s Journey

Dan Savage coined “it gets better” in 2010 when he created a campaign to counsel LGBTQA youth through troubled times. Since then the slogan has developed into somewhat of a cliché. There’s a funny thing about clichés though — often they’re the most truthful statements regarding our lives. For Jake Nair, “it gets better” became somewhat of a mantra during a difficult journey becoming the person he is today.

Donning a Penn State sweatshirt, basketball shorts, and a scruffy beard, at first glance Jake Nair reminded me of most 22-year old guys I know. He soon shared with me that he was a transgender student and that over the past year he transitioned from female to male.

Nair grew up as an openly gay teen after coming out as a lesbian in middle school. He had a normal high school experience, did well academically, and even played on the school’s tennis team.

Although Nair comes from a long line of Penn Staters, living a life in Happy Valley was not his original path. He enrolled at George Washington University as an incoming freshman in the fall of 2012. In a large city such as D.C., Nair would be surrounded by a new diverse crowd and a more accepting environment — at least, that’s what he thought.

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Nair with his parents and older sister.

After moving to D.C., Nair quickly found a new group of friends and immersed himself in the city’s environment. “I thought everything was going to be hunky dory,” Nair said, although he had a gut feeling that something still wasn’t right.

Almost two years later, Nair was introduced to a fellow student that would help him realize what exactly that gut feeling was. The student gave a presentation about his life as a transgender person and explained his transition from female to male, commonly known in the Trans community by its acronym “FTM.”

Nair knew this was it; This was the change that he needed to make to put an end to the confusion he continually felt about his gender. Shortly after, he came out to his then-girlfriend about being transgender, however, he didn’t receive the support he wanted from her and he went into denial.

As the fall 2014 semester came to a close, Nair headed back to his home in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. He had the same conversation with his parents about his decision to transition — thankfully they were willing to listen. With a father as a doctor, mother as a nurse, and sister as a counselor, Nair was in the right hands.

“I’m very lucky to have the support of my parents, who have been behind me 100%,” Nair said. “They have educated themselves so that they can be good advocates for me.”

He began Gender Dysphoria counseling during his 2014-2015 winter break to help with his transition. Come January, he would head back to GW as a transgender student, still going by his female name.

“I went back to school with everyone knowing I was trans without me telling them,” he said. “This led people to start bullying me because they felt like it was a choice I made. People told me I was crazy, mentally ill, nudging me on the street. People would even close the elevator door before I got in, and my roommates even changed the lock on my apartment door.”

Nair’s focus was bettering himself, so naturally his course work was put on the back burner. Two weeks into the semester, the harassment from his peers became too much, causing Nair to withdraw from the university. This soon led to an unwanted battle with university administration. George Washington saw being transgender as a personal choice rather than a medical issue and gave minimal help when it came to refunding the tuition to Nair’s family.

Moving the focus to his health, Nair began taking hormones and beginning his transition. He then received a bilateral mastectomy, commonly known as “top surgery,” in April 2015.

***

Fast forward to the summer 2015. Nair accepted a summer internship through a program sponsored by Howard University and Georgetown University. He moved back to D.C. and was reunited with his now-current girlfriend, Nancy. The internship started off well, but when his coworkers discovered he was transgender, things took an abhorrent turn — he received similar harassment to when he was at George Washington.

“They decided to move my desk…it’s like they thought they were going to catch something,” Nair said. “At one point, I tried going into the men’s bathroom. [A coworker] stopped me and said the woman’s bathroom is down the hall.”

***

The next step in Nair’s journey brings him to Happy Valley. He is currently a first semester transfer student at Penn State. He plans on pursuing a career in kinesiology and is heavily involved with the LGBTQA community on campus. He said Penn State graced him with open arms and they are “ahead of the times” when it comes to LGBTQA rights. Penn State has created an atmosphere where he can be comfortable in his classes, even when telling other students he’s transgender.

“Being at Penn State has been like finally coming home. Everyone has been very accepting and welcoming. I couldn’t be at a better place right now,” Nair said.

Located on the first floor of the Boucke Building, Penn State’s LGBTQA center offers an array of programs, free for any student. The center offers programs ranging from “Straight Talks,” where students can discuss LGBTQA issues and have open, safe space for asking and answering questions, to “Beyond The Binary,” a group for trans and no-binary individuals to discuss transitioning. The center also helps students connect with CAPS and other psychological services on campus.

“Having a space where you can be as open about who you are and not having to think about it,” said Margaret Brock, a student who also uses the LGBTQA center as a safe space. “State College is a cool and accepting place, but not everyone here is like that. While you’re in the [LGBTQA] center, if somebody says something homophobic or transphobic, there are people who will back you up.” 

Penn State lets students register with an option to put a preferred name. This notifies the professor prior to the start of the course what each student wishes to be called. Nair explained that this puts a lot ease on transgender students who have not legally changed their names yet. At George Washington, he often struggled with the fear of embarrassment when professors would unknowingly call him by his female name.

Jake with current girlfriend on the day gay marriage was legalized.
Nair with his current girlfriend on the day gay marriage was legalized.

Nair continues to place emphasis on “it gets better” to people who are struggling with hardships and self-image. He wants to help others who may be having trouble with their transitions and coming out. Harassment built him into a stronger person, but no one deserves to go through what he did. “I’m okay with going though these hardships,” he said, “but don’t put it onto other people who aren’t as strong and won’t be able to handle it.”

You should always look in the mirror and be happy with the person you see reflected back, regardless of your gender, sexual orientation, and even skin color — be proud of who you really are, no matter what. Penn State, because of how receptive it’s been to him, has allowed him to do that.

“If I don’t tell people I’m trans, then we’re not going to get anywhere,” Nair said. “This is the best place I could be right now.”

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About the Author

Shannon Fox

Shannon is a senior at Penn State majoring in Journalism and English. New York City born and Bucks County raised she often complains about State College's lack of good Italian restaurants. She is a lover of all things music and an avid football fan (just not the American kind) Toss her a follow on twitter @ShannonAudFox or Email her at [email protected]

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