Incident against trans student triggers pain, action

| November 18, 2015 8:28pm
Photo courtesy of Zeke Pralle.

by Lydia Laythe |

His thick, black-framed glasses slid down his nose as he looked down at his hands and fidgeted with his ring. He pushed his glasses back up with his index finger in one, fluid motion — an involuntary function anyone with glasses would understand. He had one leg tucked casually underneath him as he sat comfortably on the black, leather couch. He paused, took a long breath and looked up.

“Everyone who’s trans knows that there’s the potential that they could go to the wrong place and they could not come back from that place,” he said. “The instant I feel like I’m disrespected, I also feel like there’s the potential for danger.”

The Incident

On Nov. 2, Zeke Pralle stood in front of a bulletin board on the seventh floor of Mehling Hall, stunned.

The previous week, a Mehling resident had displayed a copy of The Beacon on the board. The Oct. 14 issue featured a front-page article about Pralle, a Mehling resident and trans man. The person had proudly written on the front page: “Hey! He lives here!”

Sometime between midnight and 10 a.m. on Monday morning, someone had crossed out “He” in the resident’s message and had written “she” underneath.

“It’s an indication that I’m not respected,” Pralle said. “It’s a way of saying, ‘You’re not welcome and, if we can get away with it, we’re going to hurt you.’”

Pralle alerted Mehling Hall Director Gina Loschiavo, who documented the incident through Residence Life. Loschiavo also sent an email to Mehling residents.

In her email she said, “Mehling Hall is a wonderful community that consists of an awesome group of residents and this diversity is what makes Mehling Hall special… I want to be clear that bullying and harassment are not acceptable in our community, and are not tolerated under any circumstance.”

Pralle also considered filing a Title IX report for gender-based discrimination. Pralle met with Title IX coordinator Lauretta Frederking and deputy coordinator Fr. John Donato last week to discuss the reporting process.

During their meeting Pralle said they decided not to file a formal Title IX report, given that actions were already being taken to address the incident and that the offender was anonymous. But Pralle said they also discussed the possibility of altering the name-change policy in time for his graduation next spring.

“I don’t want to walk across the stage at graduation to the wrong name,” Pralle said.

In addition to the Title IX meeting and the dorm-wide email, Pralle will be holding an educational event on Nov. 20 titled, “Real Names” and other inappropriate questions: A panel on transphobia in the UP community.

Pralle said the event will involve a panel of UP students who identify as trans, non-binary or gender non-conforming. Pralle has also arranged for Frederking to speak on the panel, to educate students on how and why someone might file a Title IX report.

Personal experience

The incident triggered memories of other transphobic incidents from Pralle’s past.

“And that’s part of the reason why what happened... is so hurtful,” Pralle said. “Because not only am I coming from a place where I know what can happen, from people outside of myself, I know it can happen within my own life because I’ve experienced it...In the context of my life, it’s not just the mis-gendering. It’s not a small thing. It’s a symbol that what’s happened in the past could happen again.”

Pralle said he experienced a lot of abuse from various family members in his life, even before he came out. A month after he came out to his parents, after an especially upsetting interaction, Pralle said he sat with a bottle of painkillers and contemplated suicide.

“I sat there that night, staring at that bottle of pills, trying to decide whether or not I was going to swallow all of them,” Pralle said. “Because of my friends on campus, that didn’t happen.”

Junior Carly Simon, Pralle’s significant other, said she was communicating regularly with Pralle through this dark period.

“I was terrified,” Simon said. “The whole break, I was worried we were going to lose him. It was a relief to get him back here where he feels safe. (I wanted) to show him that he had somewhere to go back to, that he had people that would accept him, that he always had someone — so he didn’t feel so hopeless.”

Pralle’s friends were and remain important supports in his life.

Freshman Remington Ziems met Pralle this year at a retreat held by the Gay Straight Partnership. Ziems described her relationship with Pralle as being Pralle’s “awkward, freshman, big-number-one fan.”

“(When I met Zeke) he was just really cool, really easy to talk to and super insightful,” Ziems said. “So seeing this kind of shit happening is so irritating. Like, why? Why would somebody go out of their way... to undermine someone’s existence?”

Freshman Greer Klepacki, a Mehling resident and close friend to Pralle, is also left asking “why?” when confronted with incidents of transphobia.

“It’s really aggressive and direct,” Klepacki said. “And why? He’s a great guy. He doesn’t bother a soul. He’s such a good friend to me and to everybody — and even if he wasn’t, he doesn’t deserve that. I just don’t understand what drove someone to get that aggressive.”

For Pralle, the social supports outside of his family have been life-saving. The University of Portland campus, and Mehling Hall in particular, has been an escape from the violence and shame of his home life. But with this recent incident, Pralle is questioning his safety.

Historical and cultural context of transphobia

Pralle’s intense fear in response to this incident is not only personally informed, but backed by historical and cultural realities.

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the National Center for Transgender Equality conducted a survey in 2011 of over 6,300 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals. According to their findings, 63 percent of participants experienced serious acts of discrimination, including: job loss or eviction due to bias, being harassed and bullied in school, being victims of physical and sexual assault, homelessness or incarceration due to gender identity/expression, and loss of relationship with partner/children.

The discrimination experienced by trans people has a powerful influence over their lives, their perceptions of themselves and their self worth. Forty-one percent of participants reported attempting suicide, compared to the 1.6 percent of people in the general population who have attempted suicide.

Beyond the tendency toward self-harm, the threat of external harm is statistically realistic for a trans person. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, in 2011 there were 30 LGBT murders, 43 percent of which were trans people.

“If the only thing that somebody who’s trans faced (was) somebody being like, ‘Well, I don’t think you’re a man,’ that would suck, but it still wouldn’t have the same weight or gravity,” Pralle said. “That’s something you could shrug off if there wasn’t so many people being murdered for their identity, if there weren’t so many people who were bullied to the point that they commit suicide.”

Interactive map of transphobic incident reports:

A learning opportunity

Pralle hopes to use this incident as a learning opportunity for Mehling residents, and for the University of Portland community as a whole.

“We can’t do anything about hate,” Pralle said. “Honestly, there is no way to change somebody’s mind if they are just a hateful, bigoted person. But we can do something about ignorance. And that’s where I want to go with this.”

Klepacki believes education is important, both for combatting ignorance and aggression, but also for giving people the vocabulary and tools they need to develop their own identity.

“There’s a lot of people that just don’t have the resources to be who they are,” Klepacki said.

When it comes to discussing his gender identity, Pralle said he’s willing to make himself vulnerable if it means he can educate people. But he also does not support the active discrimination being perpetrated against him because someone disagrees with his identity.

“Gender identity is one of those things that’s a very personal identity, and no one should care,” Pralle said. “Someone’s personal identity is not something for a public forum."


Upcoming Events:

Trans Day of Remembrance vigil, hosted by the Gay Straight Partnership

Thursday, Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. in the Academic Quad

“Real Names” and other inappropriate questions: a panel on transphobia in the UP community

Friday, Nov. 20 at 6 p.m. in the Mehling Ballroom.