Transgender student finds home in Mehling Hall

| October 14, 2015 8:24pm
Zeke-2

by Cheyenne Schoen |

There is a picture of Zeke Pralle at four years old in an angel costume, crossing his arms and making the angriest face possible. He did not want to be an angel.

Photos by Thomas Dempsey.

Photo by Thomas Dempsey.

He was in a school play and had begged his mother to make him an animal costume like the boys in the play.

This is Pralle’s first concrete memory of questioning the gender society had assigned him. He would struggle with his gender identity until November 2014, when he first came out to his friends as identifying as male.

Pralle was assigned female at birth, and struggled to fit into a traditionally feminine mold throughout his middle and high school years. During his childhood, he kept his hair long to please his parents, although he wanted to cut it short. He wore exclusively boy’s clothes, which he said cost him friendships in middle school.

“When I went into high school, I forced myself to be more feminine, and that’s when I really started to struggle with depression and pretty much dealt with that all the way through high school,” Pralle said. “I tried to force myself into that box of, ‘I’m a woman. I have to act this way. I have to be a woman.’”

Coming to college was eye-opening for Pralle. His first semester at UP, he found a group of friends with whom he openly discussed LGBTQ issues, a freedom he hadn’t experienced in his conservative hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. Around the same time, he joined the microblogging platform Tumblr, which is when he described discovering what it meant to be transgender, and had the realization that “this is what I am.”

Pralle, however, struggled with publicly labeling himself as transgender.

“I told myself, ‘No, I can’t do that, people won’t accept me.’ I had a boyfriend at the time and I knew he wouldn’t be supportive of it. So, it was very much like, ‘My life is set right now and I can’t change it,’” Pralle said.

Ella Bennett, a junior electrical engineering major, was one of the first friends Pralle asked to call him by he/him pronouns. The two became friends first semester of their freshman year after working together in a Calculus II class.

“Zeke is just a really cool guy,” Ella said. “He has a very characteristic yawn. We call it the ‘Wookie Yawn,’ because it sounds a little bit like a Wookie. Freshman year he shaved his head for St. Baldrick’s, and that was really cool.”  

After living in a co-ed dorm his first two years, Pralle now lives in Mehling Hall. It is traditionally a single-sex female dorm. But it is here that he said he feels safe and a sense of community.

“I wouldn’t feel safe living in an all-male dorm,” Pralle said. “Not that I know anyone on campus specifically that I wouldn’t feel safe around, it’s just there’s just this general fear that violence, both sexual and non-sexual, would be more likely if I were in a male dorm, so that's part of the reason why I’m in Mehling.”

Mehling Hall director Gina Loschiavo said that Pralle moved in this fall, but has truly been a part of the Mehling community since last year.

“When he approached me about living in Mehling, I was really excited about it. He’s a member of our community and we really love having him,” Loschiavo said.

Pralle is minoring in gender and women’s studies and education. Those classes have given him an opportunity to educate his professors on transgender issues and how to be a transgender ally.

Pralle’s Gender and Violence professor made a statement about a study for which ‘36 women and two transgender women’ were polled. After class, Pralle sent an email to the professor saying that the statement was exclusive to trans women. He suggested instead ‘36 cisgender women and two transgender women’ as a more inclusive way of addressing specific gender identity.

“He sent me an email right back saying, ‘I totally get where you’re coming from. I understand what you’re saying, and I will implement that in the future.’ It was a really great response,” Pralle said.

Just as Pralle has been transitioning, UP has gone through a transition of sorts.

For several years, students and staff had urged the administration to include sexual orientation in the University’s nondiscrimination policy. The prior administration resisted the addition, but was met with protests and a massive online petition signed by students, faculty, staff and some alumni. The efforts paid off and the Board of Regents voted to include sexual orientation in the nondiscrimination policy in September 2013. Though the policy does not include gender identity, it was a change applauded by students, faculty and staff who had championed an LGBTQ-inclusive policy since the spring of 2012.

But Pralle thinks UP could do more to be inclusive, such as adding more gender-neutral bathrooms, especially in the dorms.

Pralle, who no longer goes by his birth name, said that the University’s name change policy has also been a struggle for him. The University requires that a legal document, such as a marriage license or court record, and a photo ID be presented in order to change the name that appears on student ID cards, emails and other campus documents.

So what’s next for Pralle? In addition to classes, clubs and painting in his free time, Pralle recently had his first appointment with an endocrinologist and is excited to begin hormone replacement therapy after fall break, which will include a prescription for a dosage of testosterone.

Pralle wants others who may be struggling with their gender identity to know that there are resources at UP to help them. He said that counseling services in the Health Center have provided a lot of support and understanding for him, especially after coming out to his parents.

“After Christmas break, partially because of everything that happened over Christmas break, I started seeing a counselor at the Health Center and I’m still seeing one this semester,” Pralle said. “They are a really great resource, and both of the people who I have seen are super supportive and understanding.”

Pralle is also involved in the Gay-Straight Partnership and is the events coordinator for the Feminist Discussion Group, two groups he said cultivate supportive and open environments.

Pralle has found another outlet of support in the YouTube community. Pralle has recently become involved in a video project with other transgender young adults who film themselves talking about subjects such as appearances, name changes and coming out. The channel is called “Trans Kids with Cameras.”

As for ways others can help contribute to a more inclusive society, Pralle gives a few points of advice.

“Stop gendering strangers,” Pralle said. “There are so many ways to refer to somebody or to a group of people that aren’t gendered.” He described being called “ma’am” by cashiers in The Commons, or “ladies” while in groups at restaurants.

“And don’t ask if I’ve had ‘THE surgery,’” he added. “Genitals don’t decide gender.”

Cheyenne Schoen is a reporter at The Beacon. She can be reached at schoen17@up.edu.

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