Donald Collins, a transgender student at Emerson College, made national headlines in 2013 after his health insurance provider refused to pay for his top surgery. What happened after that is an unprecedented story of acceptance, brotherhood, and community fundraising in the face of bureaucracy and outdated thinking.
On April 25, Beacon Press will publish At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces, a collaborative memoir by Collins and his mother Mary, a writer and professor of nonfiction at Central Connecticut State University. Uniquely structured, with each chapter alternating between mother and son’s point of view, the book is a powerful account of family, parenting, and trans experience that has been hailed by Transparent creator Jill Soloway as “a necessary and beautiful book.” Read an excerpt below.
—James Yeh, culture editor
Donald Has Something He Would Like to Tell the Class
My first major coming-out happened when I stood up at my dorm’s Christmas party and said, “I’m trans.” It also happened when I spoke to my mother in our kitchen. And it happened again when I finally created a Facebook at 17.
Much like R. Kelly’s infamous 33-chapter opera Trapped in the Closet, coming out is a process, with exhausting ups and downs, that continues to happen relentlessly.
Non-trans people sometimes express a strain of entitlement that goes something like this: “I deserve to know if anyone I meet is transgender.” I’m trans. Being trans is a part of my identity. I’m also a writer, an amateur painter, and the proud owner of a used Ford Focus. The compulsion to “know” I’m trans wrongly assumes that this information is necessary for others to have, when most of the time it’s not. The compulsion to “know” also propagates the idea that trans people are hiding something, that we are frauds or illusionists, that we are not real. Our gender is unfairly treated as if it were a costume that we must admit to wearing.
In her 1990 book, Gender Trouble, theorist Judith Butler famously asserted that gender identity is characterized by “a stylized repetition of 63 acts through time.” This is gender performativity theory, the idea that gender is a kind of behavioral consistency both in and of a system.
Butler herself was quick to point out that this doesn’t mean we all have the empowering ability to constantly change our gender depending on what clothes we put on in the morning. As Sarah Salih explains in her essay on Butler, our “choices” surrounding our gender exist within a “regulatory frame.” Rather than artists with infinite supplies, daily creating new and exciting works of gender, we’re kind of stuck with paint-by-numbers.
Being trans is a part of my identity. I’m also a writer, an amateur painter, and the proud owner of a used Ford Focus. The compulsion to “know” I’m trans wrongly assumes that this information is necessary for others to have, when most of the time it’s not.
Many scholars and thinkers have expanded on Butler’s theory or challenged other, more rudimentary “performance”-based theories. Julia Serano recalls her own experiences as a trans woman in doing so, asserting, “Many of us who have physically transitioned from one sex to the other understand that our perceived gender is typically not a product of our ‘performance’ (i.e., gender expression/gender roles) but rather our physical appearance (in particular, our secondary sex characteristics).”
If you do not fit easily into a visual gender category, you are complicating someone’s constant categorization of all nearby bodies. You are challenging the entire system of gender on which the viewer’s identity is built. Oftentimes, onlookers may seek to fix this processing glitch by avoiding (“Don’t stare, honey”), clarifying (“Are you a boy or a girl?”), or accosting (“What are you doing in this bathroom?”). They might just burn you with their laser eyes.
It’s important to establish the weight of both sides when it comes to the compulsion to “know” and the decision to share. On one side, we have curiosity. On the other, we have a potential minefield. Many, if not most, trans people do not get to opt out of the minefield.
Coming out scratches a variety of itches. It can be a personal deliverance or a medical or clerical necessity. The following are situations when I came out for one reason or another:
Coming out to a café cashier at a bus station to explain why the name on my credit card doesn’t match my appearance.
Coming out to the bus driver a few minutes later to explain the same thing about my license.
Coming out to my tattooist, because I really liked her and it seemed chill.
Coming out to a new doctor in Hartford, Connecticut, and again when I move to Los Angeles.
Coming out at a party to the friend of a friend, whose own sibling is gender variant and who had some questions for me.
Coming out at two Departments of Motor Vehicles in one day trying to (unsuccessfully) get one of them to change my gender marker from “F” to “M.”
Coming out in an essay to write about coming out.
There are many days when I don’t come out to anyone. I just live my life, and some of the people in it know I’m trans and others don’t. A lot of the time, sharing the fact that I’m trans is something I do to establish that I trust someone and want to know them better. Being “stealth” means I have to censor my stories, my history, and my stresses. I can most fully be myself by including “trans.”
I’ll admit that I often hate the moment when I tell people. I feel them look at me differently. I feel them explaining my behavior with this new information, or at least I think I feel it. I imagine them scrutinizing my body, my voice, even my hobbies. Oh, that’s why Donald bakes so much—he was raised as a girl! I’ve had people tell me I have “women’s hands” and that I stretch better after a workout because “women are more flexible.”
Gender is a system maintained by a ruthless neighborhood watch (us). We constantly judge and disparage other people’s bodies, both in and out of gender contexts. Are they too fat? Are they too thin? Are they short? Do they have acne? Is it severe? Are they bald? Are their boobs too big or small? I do it all the time in my own head, with the goal of not letting these runaway thoughts get legitimized by speaking them or acting on them. It’s hard not to be obsessed with other people’s bodies when you spend so much time obsessed with your own. And maybe that’s why I sometimes hate that moment after I come out because it makes me feel so self-conscious about my own body and about the way I look at other people’s.
My coming out: Part two (the reckoning) happened my junior year of college. I pledged a fraternity called Phi Alpha Tau, came out as trans on cable news, and ultimately found myself in possession of $23,000. I’ll start at the beginning.
By the fall of my junior year, I had been on testosterone for almost three years, my name was legally changed, and I lived in my own room on campus as an RA. My mother and I were on decent terms but shaky ground. She knew I was pursuing top surgery to flatten my chest, another physical alteration she couldn’t get behind. I proceeded in the planning stage without her. We were both completely emotionally exhausted. I tried to just keep my own shit together and keep it far from her door.
I like to think of my experience joining Phi Alpha Tau as some kind of daytime movie special. It’s a feel-good story; it’s a cautionary tale; it’s a melodrama and a buddy comedy.
Tau (pronounced “Tah”) is a single-chapter fraternity dedicated to the “communicative arts,” which includes film, TV, journalism, theater, music, marketing, and writing. Emerson College, thankfully, has no frat houses, so Tau’s sense of community operates on the organization and commitment of its brothers alone. When I joined, our membership was around 30.
I had never considered joining a fraternity before entering college, and I still can’t fully comprehend I’m in a fraternity. Most people I meet can’t either. They ask, “What kind of fraternity?”
My roommate pledged Tau his sophomore year. I became enamored with his new “brothers,” realizing that many students I admired on campus were also members. A friend and I went out for Tau the following winter. We submitted letters and resumes, were interviewed casually by individual brothers, and then attended a “smoker,” a more formal interview process with the majority of the active brotherhood.
Fraternities are fundamentally exclusive organizations. They accept the people they want and turn away those they don’t. At any college, especially a smallish one like Emerson, this rejection, however politely worded, hurts. Everyone knows if someone didn’t get a “bid,” the term that describes whether a fraternity wants you or not.
Fraternity life first appealed to me because it was separate from my “trans” life. It was also a place where an only child and a trans guy could be called “brother.”
Tau is inclusive of a variety of personalities: hard partiers, quiet scholars, dedicated entrepreneurs, and brilliant performers. It’s also known for being gay friendly, and when I sought entry, already had one trans member. But like any fraternity, Tau turns people away. To this day, my personal experience of unconditional support from the fraternity clashes with its status as an ultimately exclusive, conditional organization.
My motives for joining Tau were actually a jumble of contradictions. Fraternity life first appealed to me because it was separate from my “trans” life. It was a place where I could socialize like the extroverted college kid I wished I was and meet people from all different majors. Yet it was also a place where an only child and a trans guy could be called “brother.” I needed validation as a boy, and it felt great when that validation came from other boys. I craved the feverish declarations of this family. That we all loved each other, that our homes were always open to each other, that we were available at all hours for brothers who needed us.
My mom and I still kept up a tentative correspondence. When I informed her I was pledging, she was surprised but supportive once I told her more about the fraternity. She always encouraged me to expand my social comfort zone and knew I would benefit from the kind of brotherly support Tau could offer.
My friend and I gratefully received and accepted bids. Our pledge class of ten convened a night later to begin the “new member process,” a two-week, highly secretive ordeal. Fraternity members joke that pledging is “the most fun you don’t want to have again.” I will clarify that though I was not always having fun during this period, I was never hazed.
While pledging, we wore khakis, a collared shirt with tie, a blue blazer, and a fresh white carnation during “business hours” and evening meetings. For me, the most taxing part of it was the sheer amount of clothing layers I had to wear. I was still planning my top surgery and wearing binders to flatten my chest.
About a week into the process I received some bad news on this exact issue. My insurance claim for the surgery, a veritable thesis of paperwork, including proof of my name change, hormone therapy, and official letters of support from a counselor and endocrinologist, was denied.
Many doctors’ offices that offer gender-confirming surgical procedures don’t even entertain insurance claims because, historically, it’s pretty futile. Only recently are tides turning. Since being “trans” is something that still has to be “diagnosed” to be legitimate in the eyes of insurers, it’s frustrating when medical-care systems won’t actually provide care for the diagnosis they force on you. It’s beyond frustrating; it’s a kind of demolition.
My doctor’s office did work with insurance, and when it called to tell me the claim was denied, I was devastated. I was also shopping for neckties in an H&M, and so I hurried outside to cry on the curb. My pledge brother Alex reassured me, and we plodded slowly back to campus.
The sweat pooling on my back and ribs under all my layers of clothing stung with each step. I had been doing so well, trusting that all my discomfort would be over soon. Yet every day I had believed myself closer to top surgery, my rejected claim was sitting in a clerk’s outbox. I possessed some savings, but out of pocket, the surgery was going to cost more than $8,000. I didn’t have $8,000.
A few months earlier, I switched from my mother’s insurance to my school’s. She and I had both agreed to the terms. My mom didn’t feel comfortable having her insurance cover the physical changes she was opposed to, and by having me move policies, we were able to remove at least one point of conflict from the list.
My school’s policy covered hormone treatment, but its attitude toward GCS was vague. Emerson’s health-center director was tireless in helping me, and together we pored over the policy to find some way to appeal.
I couldn’t really share my claim defeat with my mother because I thought it might be a kind of victory to her—not that I was sad about it but because the medical system was preventing the same thing she wanted to prevent.
I missed my mom, who as a single parent and often self-employed writer/editor always had a kind of doggedness and resourcefulness in dealing with bureaucracy. She knows where to apply pressure and never forgets to follow up. Indeed, no matter how hard I tried to keep my “shit” from her door, there were days when I broke down and called her. I needed a ride somewhere or I needed help with a bill or I was just really depressed. These calls were our white flags, proof that our bond was intact.
My fraternity brothers were attentive and kind, but they were peers, not parents. It just so happened they were high-functioning peers. The insurance-claim debacle prompted me to come out to my pledge class, many of who did not know I was transgender. One of my pledge brothers, Dave, exhibited his characteristic gentility.
“I have no idea what that means,” he told me earnestly. “Tell me about it.”
I told them about it. The situation made its way to our pledgemaster (he who runs pledge) and then the active brotherhood.
I had no idea how far the information had carried. But by the meeting later that night, they had promised to help fundraise so I could afford top surgery.
I graciously thanked them. They’re really nice, I thought, but who are they kidding?
They certainly weren’t kidding me. A central core of brothers set up a page and worked tirelessly to fundraise toward the cost of my surgery. Within 24 hours they had almost $2,000.
Another of my brothers, Ben, a journalist worked for Out magazine at the time, conducted a short interview with me in response to the campaign. “Boston Fraternity Raises Money for Trans Brother” read the headline of the article.
Within another 24 hours, donations were pouring in from around the world.
I missed two days of work at my campus office job while I entertained media inquiries. Other RAs graciously covered my “on duty” nights at the dorm. I skipped some classes and fell asleep in others.
A national LGBTQ organization asked me to sign with them as a spokesperson. Inside Edition offered us $3,000 for our story if we would give them before-and-after pictures of me. Surgeons emailed me offering to do my surgery “free of cost.” I said no to these, but agreed to other media inquiries. HuffPost Live had us on-air. We were on the front page of the Boston Herald and got a feature in the Boston Globe and a followup with Out.
Ours was the heartwarming story of the moment. We were rehabilitating the shattered respectability of fraternities, prompting an outpouring of love from “Greek” orgs and comments like “That’s what a fraternity should be like.” I was thrilled to bring such positive attention to my new brothers, and to the inconsistent state of trans health care. I was less clear about the attention directed toward my body and me.
On the first day of media, I called my mother to tell her firsthand what was happening. It was late. Next to me, my “big brother” Ryan mapped out a schedule to help me manage the next 24 hours. Homework, interview, food, interview, sleep, interview.
“You might see me on TV,” I warned my mom.
Her voice was measured, brimming with concern for me, for herself. I can’t remember our conversation, only a feeling. Be careful.
Like an outsize version of my coming-out at Loomis, this public stage represented a dramatic new step. I wasn’t ready or willing to share everything. How could I talk about my family when things were still so muddy and difficult with them? How did I answer questions about my parent’s reactions? How could I cast off my privacy but keep my mother’s intact?
The answer was that I couldn’t. But I didn’t know it yet.
Within those first 24 hours, I wrote a thankful post about the fundraiser update on my Tumblr. I was stunned when other trans people reblogged it and a vocal minority disparaged me. Why was my surgery “free” while they were working overtime for theirs? Lucky bastard!
Others were mad I wouldn’t share the wealth, and strangers emailed me asking for the money. Even those who passed along messages of support occasionally sent terse followups because I wasn’t getting back to them fast enough. A student posted anonymously on a public Emerson “confessional” Facebook page, accusing me of using donations to buy coffee at Starbucks. Transphobic forums and articles surfaced in response to the expanding list of articles. I read comments from people who made light of killing and raping me and people like me. I occupied pages of Google web and image searches. There would be no going back. It was the fastest, most brutal education I have ever received.
On day two I answered a phone call from my mother, in distress. She was concerned about the questions I would receive going forward. “They’ll want to know about me,” she said. “They’re going to ask about your family and where we are in all this.”
She asked me to shut it down, and I readily agreed.
The boys were fully supportive of my decision. After nearly three days in the media spotlight, we had raised $23,308. My surgery was scheduled for the winter break, only weeks away.
“We accomplished what we set out to do,” my brother Christian said.
He was right. They had helped me; I had helped myself. We pledged the excess funds to the Jim Collins Foundation (no relation), an organization that gives grants for gender-confirming surgeries to those in need. A storybook ending.
Within the next day or two, the insurance company “clarified” its position and agreed to cover my surgery.
My fraternity brothers and I all assumed this was a ploy to save face after the punishing media coverage, but we were discouraged by the college’s PR department from publicly stating so. A few days later I was told that a lost memo had been found proving Emerson’s insurance to be trans-inclusive. The policy had just never been updated correctly. My surgery would be covered, and future trans students would be saved the trouble of having to crowdsource their funds.
At first I was mortified. After all, we had just fundraised $23,000 that I didn’t actually need anymore. But then I realized: this is way better. We donated more than expected to the Jim Collins Foundation, and my medical care was rightly in the hands of a medical-care provider. Perhaps most importantly, this wouldn’t happen again at Emerson.
On the home front, Mom and I both breathed easier, knowing our problems were back safe with us.
Later still, I learned that, through all this, my stepfather Andrew (who I call my dad because he took on that role) had made a series of calls to the college asking them to investigate the issue. It was his calls that prompted the paperwork search.
By agreeing to come out, be visible, and share my story, I achieved so much. My surgery was financed in full, the college’s insurance policy was clarified to benefit others, and all the money I didn’t need was going to a worthy charity.
So why did I feel so much anger and shame?
I felt I had sold out myself by agreeing to be “trans” for the camera. As much as I long to be social and fun, I’m also incredibly private. I enjoy being alone for long periods of time. I’ve never had the compulsion to go to a club or even to Disneyland. But it wasn’t the media overkill that upset me; it was the sneaking suspicion that I was more manipulative and desperate for help than I had realized. Once the fundraiser took off, I quickly understood that if I played “trans” in all the right ways, people would help me get what I needed. And they did.
I do feel like I didn’t earn an all-expenses-paid surgery, even though I sweated so hard for my physical and mental health progress. I do feel guilty and embarrassed about all the attention. And I do feel shitty and ungrateful for not being solely positive about all the amazing help I received. I love my fraternity, and I love my brothers. I was so hurt when those few trans people termed me a lucky bastard, but that’s exactly what I am.
Excerpted from At the Broken Places: A Mother and Trans Son Pick Up the Pieces, by Mary Collins and Donald Collins (Beacon Press, 2017). Arranged with permission from Beacon Press.