Trans* community supports the power of choice and finding its meaning

With just a shot to the head, Jason Kerr would die. The trigger was pulled, and yet, the firearm never went off. Jason took it as a sign and chose life that day. A life as the person she truly is: Megan Kerr.

Five years ago, miles away in Texas, Kerr was frustrated and depressed,and refused to own mirrors in her home. She dressed as a man (her biological sex) and, for the most part, identified as one, too. But that lifestyle was too hard, and Kerr staged a robbery in her motorcycle shop. If it worked, Kerr would die and leave her children with her life insurance.

“It got to a point where I couldn’t look at myself anymore,” she said. “I hated everything about myself. I had a friend try to shoot me in the back of my head. But something happened. I didn’t die for a reason.”

Years before Kerr moved to Texas, married a woman and started a family with three kids, she always knew her biological sex she was born into was not the gender she was meant to identify with. 

At around 10 years old, Kerr began purchasing her own clothing and dressing as a girl. However, as she grew older, the tension between her mother and stepfather increased, and Kerr dropped out of high school and joined the military.

“The really weird thing is, as long as I was experiencing a lot of adrenaline — I put myself in combat-type situations where I wasn’t thinking about it, and I was getting shot at — then it went to the back of mind,” she said. “So I identified as male. You learn how to mask it really, really well.”

After Kerr’s terms of service in the military expired, she started a motorcycle business to continue the adrenaline rush. She got married shortly after and remained married for 20 years. 

“Over time, it’s supposed to get easier,” she said. “But especially after the military, the harder it got. I looked at my life, and I realized I’m 30-some years old, and I haven’t done anything I wanted to yet.”

Moving from Texas to Illinois gave Kerr a new start. At first, she started to live as a woman and work as a man. But two years ago, she fully transitioned into a life as a woman full time. 

“Life is a lot easier,” she said. “I am much, much happier. My kids are well-adjusted. We (Kerr and her ex-wife) live in the same town ... I have full custody (of the kids), but she gets visitation.”

Kerr also works with The UP Center of Champaign County in Urbana and heard about the new registered student organization on campus, the Campus Union for Trans* Equality, or CUT*ES, from there. 

“It is a place, an atmosphere that makes people feel really comfortable about coming out,” she said. “It excludes that loneliness (and) draws them together so you know you’re not alone.”

Stephanie Skora, CUT*ES president and junior in LAS, initiated the process of establishing CUT*ES as an official RSO last year. Since this semester, it has been holding meetings on Wednesdays from 8 to 9 p.m. at the LGBT Resource Center, located at 616 E. Green St. in the Kaplan Building’s Suite 212.

The term “Trans*” with an asterisk is a symbol of inclusiveness, Skora said.

“You can finish ‘trans’ however you want to. And it doesn’t even have to start with trans to be a part of the trans community,” she said.

While the official term for a person who identifies with a gender different from one’s biological sex is “transgender,” CUT*ES uses “trans*” to ensure no person is shunned from the community.

She said that if someone wants to self-identify as a member of the trans* community, CUT*ES welcomes them with open arms.

“If you think you count, you count. And we really emphasize that anybody who wants to come to these meetings can come to these meetings and are welcome to be there: allies, friends, LGBT or otherwise,” Skora said.

Lesbian and gay issues have been more widely understood across the nation in recent years. In June, the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and dismissed Proposition 8, an appeal that would have banned same sex couples from marriage rights in California. And most recently, New Jersey became the 14th state to recognize gay marriage.

“It’s become ‘OK to be gay,’ but very few people know what it is to be ‘trans.’ And so it hasn’t become okay to be trans yet,” Skora said.

Skora’s own self-identification discovery began on campus during her freshman year. She saw a flyer in one of the residence halls with the word “transgender” on it and instantly went back to her room, Googled the term and opened the entire Wikipedia portal on trans issues. 

“That described me as I was. That really identified me to a ‘T,’” she said, pun intended. 

Her partner, Sylvia Nunez, junior in LAS, is the reason she was able to start CUT*ES and keep going, Skora said. 

The RSO’s main project is now updating a list of gender-inclusive bathrooms on McKinley Health Center’s website. The current list is three years old, and Skora, along with Megan Kramer, CUT*ES interim vice president and junior in Engineering, both believe providing the most up-to-date list for students is an important initiative. 

“A gender-inclusive bathroom provides a safe space for people who identify as trans* or gender non-conforming, or any sort of gender-variant at all,” Skora said.

According to the Coalition for Queer Action, bathrooms are often sites of anxiety and violence for trans* students. Trans* people may face physical or verbal assault in a bathroom and are sometimes questioned or even arrested by the police when they use gender-specific facilities. 

“Many students think that LGBT issues are outside the scope of their lives,” Kramer said. “It’s something that happens to other people, it’s something that concerns other people, but it doesn’t really matter to them. But it’s important to know that it does.”

Other issues that the RSO is working on are providing health care for trans* students through the University’s subsidiary, University of Illinois at Chicago, and creating ally training workshops. 

One day, Skora wishes to tell her grandchildren about a past in which babies were told their genders without the opportunity to decide for themselves. 

“From birth, we are told who we are, and we are told who we are supposed to be and there’s no element of choice,” she said. “And that’s why a lot of trans* people are so misunderstood and why we have so little visibility; because people are taught to think in a very binary sense.”

Kerr agreed with this notion and said that if students are debating on whether or not to come out, they should consider the factors holding them back.

“I know a lot of people are afraid that their family will shun them,” she said. “For me, my entire family turned their backs on me. I don’t regret it, and I’ve been fine. Look at your fears and see why you’re afraid and (ask): is it rational? Is it something that can be overcome?”

Alice can be reached at smelyan2@dailyillini.com.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the firearm went off. It should have stated that the firearm never went off. The Daily Illini regrets the error.