Graduate student Daniel Benton Stewart spent a year at the University of Missouri–St. Louis before deciding to publicly identify as transgender.
“My classmates and I spoke of gender and the impact of identifying as LGBT on health outcomes on a factual basis, but not on a personal level,” said Stewart, who is enrolled in the School of Social Work’s Gerontology Program. “Frankly, I was concerned about coming out as transgender.”
But after doing so, Stewart discovered allies among peers and professors. The director of the graduate program brought in a guest speaker to discuss what it means to be transgender, and Stewart also found encouragement among fellow students.
“I have been fortunate to have been met with nothing but support,” Stewart said. “At times, it can be challenging to be the go-to guy for transgender-related issues. But it’s really encouraging to know people wish to know more and be supportive of all people who identify outside of the gender binary.”
Stewart has especially enjoyed assisting with preparations for the Transgender Spectrum Conference that UMSL is hosting Nov. 21 and 22. The two-day event is designed to educate participants on a wide range of issues and features strands in health and aging, youth and families, policy and politics, and teaching and learning.
“It’s been heartwarming and encouraging to see a room full of individuals so dedicated to educating and providing resources about transgender issues to all members of the UMSL community and beyond,” he said. “Knowing my university is holding such a large event for individuals like myself continues to affirm my choice to attend UMSL for my graduate work. I feel safe here and know that there is a push for further understanding and inclusion.”
At least 300 attendees are expected. Sally Barr Ebest, professor of English and director of Gender Studies at UMSL, called the conference planning process itself a uniting experience.
“We knew that we wanted to work with people from the community, especially the transgender community, to get their support and guidance,” Ebest said.
Brenda Bredemeier, an associate professor in the College of Education, said it was interactions with a transgender student at UMSL that spurred her to learn more and eventually travel to hear a presentation by Joel Baum, the keynote speaker at UMSL’s upcoming conference and a senior director with the California-based organization Gender Spectrum.
Afterward, when Bredemeier spoke with him, Baum noticed “St. Louis” on her name-tag and expressed interest in something like the Transgender Spectrum Conference taking shape in the Midwest.
“He said, ‘St. Louis is really ready for something like this,'” Bredemeier recalled. “I’ve just been so excited and really proud of the St. Louis community and especially of UMSL. We have 23 co-sponsors – very broad-based support that says so much about the receptivity of the community. It demonstrates to me that this conference is timely and really very significant for all of the different contributors that are represented.”
Stewart noted that gender is “constantly affecting our everyday life whether we notice it or not,” impacting everything from clothing and bathrooms to language and occupations. Bredemeier echoed this point.
“So many people think that this issue is something tertiary – frosting on the cake in the area of social justice,” Bredemeier said. “But I think that all issues of social justice are connected, because it’s really about addressing how we respond to difference.”
The Transgender Spectrum Conference is the first of its kind to occur in St. Louis, said undergraduate student Sharon Lynn Pruitt, who is completing an internship with Gender Studies this semester.
“What’s been rewarding for me is seeing so many different community organizations and departments on campus working together to make this happen,” Pruitt said. “At a time when you can practically feel the tension in this city when you step outside, it’s been comforting to see groups from such diverse backgrounds come together in pursuit of a common goal.”
More information about the event is available at transgenderspectrum.com.