Meet Emily Kaufman

| Dec 18, 2017
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By Kristina Mayhem

Emily Kaufman

A young woman is creating positive change in Michigan. She is the first transwoman to rush sororities at The University of Michigan. It’s a journey to womanhood painted from a palette of rich colors and beautiful hues.

Emily Kaufman spent extra time preparing for her big day. She was representing transpeople and being cute was a must. She wore dark slacks, a blue checkered shirt, and a pink purse for her interview with Cosmopolitan Magazine. The colors blended well with her brownish-black hair. The reporter was impressed with her charm and described her as “bubbly and chatty.”

Emily has a sparkling manner that belies a powerful intellect. She illustrates what running the gauntlet is like, she crushes it in conversation, she reveals something involving and compelling underneath. She is like a valiant steed on an unstoppable course.

Emily is a self-described “trans-mama” delivering on her promise to bring about change. She’s the founder and President of LGBT Michigan, a student organization with 150 members. Her activism follows a rich tradition at UofM. The university recently noted the passing of activist Tom Hayden. Notable ‘trans-grammas’ at UofM include Milesa Phar and Lynn Conway.

Emily’s efforts seem incredible in face of the exclusion that transpeople face, especially in the world of Greek life. I was a trans woman at UofM in the early 1990s and similarly had to leap impossible divides. Leaping those divides was difficult enough in high heels. Participating in a Sorority Rush wasn’t even a consideration. Comparing notes with Emily was an inspirational hinge between generations.

Transgender activism and support used to be Crossroads, a nonprofit organization in Southeast Michigan. One of many special people there was Marissa. We were the only students from The University of Michigan. We were both in Liberal Science and Arts; I studied Political Science and Marissa studied Physics. Discovering ourselves and meeting like-minded people was a plunge into unfamiliar territory. We told others about Crossroads because it deserved a cheering crowd.

Some at Crossroads were first-timers who never returned after their first meeting. Some were straight and some were gay. Some members came with their wives. Young adults were a minority and female-to-males were almost nonexistent. Longer-serving members sensed our anxiety and made us feel welcome. Marissa’s youthful and naturally feminine appearance won everyone over. She ran for office and was elected to the board.

Meetings were monthly and the average attendance was around thirty-five. The agenda included formal discussion, guest speakers, and socializing. Meetings were booked in hotel conference rooms in the Detroit area. The annual dinner was a larger event and every year one meeting was in Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor was a progressive city, but for transpeople it wasn’t much help. Transphobia was everywhere and Marissa and I rarely saw another transperson on campus.

Despite the prevailing mileau our courage was bolstered by the philosophical orientation at UofM. Professors challenged us to think un-traditionally and independently. This motivated us to accept our nonconformity. UofM also had the first staff office for gays and lesbians at an institution of higher learning. It started as a small room in 1970 called the Human Sexuality Office. It was monumental, but there wasn’t much for transgenders.

Despite its reputation the library also proved inadequate. We navigated a catacomb of library floors and hallways searching in vain. Those out-of-the-way parts are now described in a YouTube video that has many unearned attributes bestowed. It claims the library has portals to other worlds and a metal stairway made from the fillings of Woodward Wilson’s teeth. Our search led to a single book that wasn’t much on transgender at all. We don’t remember that stairway and I can’t find it now. Besides, Woodward Wilson was president at Princeton.

Not fated to be similarly enshrined, Emily’s efforts are creating a kaleidoscope of change. Her vibrancy is like a Van Gogh Starry Night. She is a jolt of energy crackling with maize and blue sparks. She’s a spokeswoman for transgender issues and the feature of several news stories. She’s also on an LGBTQ advocacy board and does public speaking and panels on her identity. She makes our efforts seem paltry by comparison.

Marissa and I were guest speakers in college classes. We also created and posted flyers that provided Crossroads information number. Callers could leave a message to meet an outreach team volunteer. Crossroads had a committed group of volunteers with an effective system of outreach and support. Marissa’s first contact was Melisa Phar at Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor. UofM went online in the early 1990s and Marissa reached out on early transgender chat lines. The internet led to an explosion in transgender advocacy and support.

For transpeople UofM has successfully painted a broader campus for the new millennium, and have tailored their actions accordingly. “It’s one of the most liberal institutions in the country, so there aren’t any regulations anymore,” Emily says. In her freshman year Emily participated in the Gender Inclusive Living Experience. She lived in a cozy room in East Quadrangle, an attractive dormitory with all the comforts of wood interior design, shiny floors, warm lighting, and ivy-league architecture.

The Gender Inclusive Living Experience provides an environment supportive of all gender identities. Emily still had to navigate a tightrope, however, as the bathroom issue hadn’t been resolved and she couldn’t use the women’s restroom. The problem was corrected and gender inclusive bathrooms are now everywhere on campus. It’s all part of UofM’s conscientious commitment to change. Transpeople also get help updating records, navigating healthcare, and finding connections on campus.

Medical services for transgender students is a seismic shift away from my experience in 1991. The doctor in the Student Health Center wasn’t interested in prescribing hormones or doing anything. I’m just glad he didn’t want to take the fillings out of my teeth. When Marissa had the same experience we took a journey down freedom’s highway into Mexico. We started by driving from Ann Arbor to Houston to attend the Transgender Legal Conference. Phyllis Frye welcomed us and was a gracious host.

We then rendezvoused with Laura at The University of Texas and drove an isolated expanse of highway into Mexico. Crossing the border was a legal and inexpensive way to obtain hormones. The long drive was an experience, but we were female co-eds confirming our identity. It demonstrates how important a gender transformation is. A movie released a few years later called Road Trip seemed to resemble our itinerary, although they traveled from Ithaca University to UT.

Emily still encounters many challenges at UofM. “The biggest problems that I’ve had are with professors” she says. “Their behavior is not from malice but a lack of information. They say incorrect things and ask personal questions about someone’s history that transpeople are uncomfortable answering.” Her advice to anyone transitioning is never give up. “What society thinks of you doesn’t matter. Being happy is what’s best for yourself.”

Despite the prospect of joining a sorority Emily’s stretch drive for the sweepstakes didn’t produce a winning filly. She abandoned her dream of joining a sorority before finishing the rush. Emily says the women she met rushing were great, but the system of norms failed her expectations. The sweepstakes are not over, however, as Cinderella also left early from the ball. Besides, trans girls may already be in UofM sororities; girls that have not come out.

In addition to Emily I usually see at least one other transperson on campus and that’s a refreshing change. The restrictive environment in the 1990’s meant you rarely saw anyone. The emphasis was on passing and when you could not, well, you may as well be wearing red and white when the football team plays Ohio State. You fail to uncork a wellspring of enthusiasm and support.

The University of Michigan Library also received a rich supply of transgender materials from the Gender Education and Advocacy organization in 2001. UofM’s National Transgender Library and Archive is a repository of books, magazines, films, and other memorabilia on the transgender movement. The Human Sexuality Office is now the Spectrum Center and provide a wide range of services including a transgender support group.

Emily is also a member of the campus LGBT Advocacy Board and is a founding member of Point of Pride, an organization that helps transpeople live authentic lives. She’s also charting the uncertain waters of her future with law school quickening in her veins. With her unflagging willingness to help others she will play this role to perfection. Emily is an estrogen and adrenaline cocktail — poured into a glass to reveal a rainbow of brilliant colors.

Emily also released her first published work: From Death to Life — a collection of poems describing her transition that is heartfelt, imaginative, and moving. Her style reveals dynamics beyond the prose and knits her diverse talents into a single tapestry. Emily goes through the fire, runs the gauntlet of self-discovery, and makes flames that leap and lick the sky. Our broad canvas of campus life became more colorful when she joined a sorority rush and emerged victorious — illustrating a piece of the world we glimpsed from afar, and have never seen with such clarity.

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Sources Cited

Cosmopolitan.com. Can Trans Girls Be Sorority Girls? October 17, 2016.

Kaufman, Emily Samantha. From Death to Life, Amazon.com. September 15, 2016.

Nandi, Anisha. For Transgender Student, Greek Life Alluring, but elusive.
Cbsnews.com. February 26, 2016.

Point of Pride.

Robins-Somerville, Maria. The Statement. Transgender On Campus: Navigating New Policies and Old Prejudices. The Michigan Daily. January 18, 2017.

TGForum. The Week in Trans. October 24, 2016.

The Michigan Daily. Trump Administration Guidelines On Transgender Bathroom Sparks Backlash. February 24, 2017.


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