Breaking the binary

It was August, but the air was chilly. Jah Akande, ’13, bundled up in his coat as he prepared to exit the plane. He had just arrived in London with that nervous excitement so many students feel as they begin a semester abroad.
Jah grew up in Richmond, just a few miles down the street from the University. These three months in London would be his first time not surrounded by the friends and family and places he had always known.
As he approached the airplane door, the pilot greeted him, “Welcome to London, sir.”
Jah paused briefly, thinking to himself, “That was nice.”
It wasn’t the pilot’s friendliness that caught him off guard. Rather, it was the first time in Jah’s life that anyone had ever referred to him using “sir,” or “he,” or any other masculine pronoun — and the first time he realized the terms fit.

About a year ago, I pitched an idea for a story about the experiences of transgender students at the University of Richmond. While we’re a co-ed university, we have a coordinate college system that still assigns students to a college based on their gender. I thought we might have a perspective that not many other colleges and universities would have.

The University doesn’t have all of the answers, and I know many of the people I talked to would like to see more progress. But I’m happy it’s also a place that’s willing to acknowledge, on the front page of its website, that there's still work to do.

I spent hours and hours talking to students, alumni, and staff and I wish I had endless room to share their full stories because this story barely scratches the surface.

Serious props to Katie McBride for the gorgeous artwork and Joedy Felts for the animation and Internet magic.