by Michael Munkvold
Toby Hill-Meyer, while biologically male, feels at least partly feminine in terms of gender identity—an orientation known as transgender. Hill-Meyer is also “genderqueer,” meaning someone who doesn’t completely identify as either a man or a woman. Hill-Meyer, 21, a UO student activist for the university’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Association (LGBTQA), uses either female pronouns (which will be used in this article) or a set of gender pronouns devoid of gender, such as “ze” instead of “he” and “hir” instead of “his.” She wears either unisex clothes or clothes traditionally ascribed to both men and women. She is trying to get on a regimen of female hormones.
Since coming out as transgender and genderqueer at 19, Hill-Meyer has found support from friends and her partner, Alethia, but has also attracted confusion, scorn, and discrimination.
“I experience things radically different from people who are concretely man or woman,” Hill-Meyer says “Frequently people get confused. If I’m wearing a dress and heels, that’s probably a part of it. My day clothes are more of a ‘butch dyke’ presentation.”
“A different kind of guy”
Hill-Meyer says she has always felt different from other people, but the moment when she grasped what exactly that difference was came about when she was 16, at a youth summit featuring the topic of gender differences.
“They talked about the stereotypical differences between boys and girls, and then the so-called ‘real ones,’” Hill-Meyer says. “They made a list of those qualities, and I found myself on the girls’ side for almost every one of them.”
Upon this revelation, Hill-Meyer says she realized that traditional models of what it means to be male or female didn’t apply, and, over the next few years, began to restructure her life and relationships accordingly.
“I resigned myself to being a different kind of guy—not macho, kind of sensitive,” Hill-Meyer says. “It hasn’t been an immediate process, but my family wants to be supportive. Even when they were concerned or didn’t understand, they wanted to be supportive.”
Among resolutions Hill-Meyer made was to make a difference in transgender issues in the Eugene community, especially after being elected to the UO Student Senate.
“I think the most important part” of being a student senator, Hill-Meyer says, “is education, being there, and reminding people about my pronouns.”
“Toby has a way of making things make sense,” says friend and fellow LGBTQA activist Cassie Sorensen. “Ze’s very clear, very concrete, and it makes other people feel very safe in their concrete identity.”
The hardest part of being transgender, Hill-Meyer says, is that people don’t understand why.
“Most people think sex is a clear binary … but gender isn’t a continuum. The problem most people have is understanding how a gender that’s neither man nor woman works out in dealing with other people.”
Battle with the Commentator
Last year, Hill-Meyer says her life was disrupted by what she calls hate speech in a series of articles in theOregon Commentator, a conservative UO magazine, that she felt mocked her gender identity.
In its September 2004 issue, the Commentator printed a sidebar column, called “What Did You Do Over the Summer,” of fictitious quotes purported to be from various people on campus, including Hill-Meyer, whose quote was “I got tired of my penis oppressing me.”
“Some (LGBTQ students) have been in shock, some have been supportive, some have said, “That’s theCommentator,’ and some have burst into tears,” Hill-Meyer says. “Maybe they see it as an attack on all transpeople, that the implication (of the articles) is that all transpeople are silly and pretentious.”
The Commentator learned of Hill-Meyer’s gender identity, she says, from an Oregon Daily Emerald article about a performance she did at the EMU Ballroom July 28 of last year about being transgender, which Commentator editors then discussed on their online blog, where they discuss future stories and receive comments from readers. Among such comments from readers were advice to use non-gendered pronouns other than ze as “sort of a ‘If you don’t pick we’ll pick for you and you won’t like it’ strategy.”
“I think it’s pretty clear…that they’re very confused,” Hill-Meyer says. “Their response is to think I’m some wacko doing something ridiculous. From their blog entries…they see it as their responsibility to show me how ‘silly and pretentious’ I’m being in hope that I’ll stop identifying my gender the way I do.”
Hill-Meyer filed a grievance with the Programs Finance Committee (PFC), which approves the budgets of student groups, through the ASUO in January of this year, aiming to strip the magazine of its UO-provided funds.
Life became even more complicated, Hill-Meyer says, when someone overheard a threat made against her and reported it to Student Judicial Affairs, which then reported it to her.
“Regardless of whether or not (the threat) is serious, I try to have an escort at all times,” Hill-Meyer says. “I hear a noise at night … and I think, ‘It’s the cat, but let me grab a blunt object.’ I’m treating it as serious until I find out it’s not.
“There are people everywhere, including on this campus, who’d kill someone just for being trans. I’ve become a very high-profile target.”
The Commentator defends itself on First Amendment grounds and denies any intent to insult sexual minorities.
“We’re not targeting the transgender community,” says Commentator editor-in-chief Tyler Graf, who wrote a letter to the editor in the Jan. 31 edition of the Emerald offering Hill-Meyer a rebuttal. “It’s not an attack on the LGBTQ community. I’d be the first to admit it was bad taste, but it wasn’t meant as an attack.”
Graf describes the sidebar article, part of its “Tater Awards,” which poke fun at prominent campus figures, as satire.
“I don’t care about (Hill-Meyer’s) sexuality, and I don’t think we’ve addressed it,” Graf says. “His dogmatic insistence on being referred to as “ze” and “hir” puts him in a minority of one, and I found the comments to be incredibly silly.”
Graf also dismisses Hill-Meyer’s supporters who call the articles hate speech.
“Who’s to say what hate speech is? Legally there’s no such thing in the state of Oregon. Even the speech code of the Student Code of Conduct doesn’t regard that.”
ASUO Multicultural Advocate Leslie Sanchez, who is working with the LGBTQA and other student groups to include anti-hate speech language in the Student Code of Conduct, disagrees.
“I would say it’s hate speech because it’s vicious, rude, and gives someone an ultimatum to pick a gender or have it picked for them,” Sanchez says. “Speech is protected, but if it brings on something like what Toby experienced, it’s harassment. Is harassment protected under the First Amendment?”
Hill-Meyer says she puts the issue more into the context of personal safety for herself and all transpeople.
“This puts me in danger, and that has to be considered,” she says. “Second, I see a big difference between prohibiting speech and refusing to fund speech. When the Commentator violates university policy, it’s justification for their losing funds.”
The Commentator’s budget hearing with the PFC on Feb. 8 attracted a huge crowd of both sides’ supporters, almost broke out into a physical confrontation, and resulted in board member Mason Quiroz’s resignation, which he later recanted. On Feb. 28, the PFC approved the Commentator’s budget.
Despite the failure of Hill-Meyer’s action against the Commentator, many in the Eugene LGBTQ community say the fight was worthwhile as a way to raise awareness for transgender issue.
“It’s more of an activist thing,” says LGBTQA co-director Johnny Correja. “I just think that not many people have stood up to them, and the more people who do, it would be a good precedent.”
“I easily spent 60 to 80 hours on responding to the Commentator,” Hill-Meyer says. “It was an emotional stress and a time stress, and it took away time and energy for other things.”
Among such stresses, Hill-Meyer says, were receiving an incomplete grade for an independent study writing project, resigning from the UO Student Senate, and graduating earlier than planned, at the end of winter term.
“I’d hoped to stay until spring term and complete a year’s cycle with the Senate, but I just don’t have the energy,” Hill-Meyer says.
She says she is considering suing the university for “doing nothing about the anti-trans environment” she says was created by the Commentator articles. The lawsuit would be on employment discrimination grounds, she says, since the articles led to her resignation from the Student Senate.
Her conflict with the university is not without possible resolutions, however, she says: among her ideas for possible univeersity action is a gender identity training program for its employees, incorporating gender identity into its diversity program, creating a position dealing with gender identity issues, and issuing a public statement calling for the safety of all trans students.
“All I’ve asked for from the beginning is for the university to resolve the hostile environment created by the articles,” Hill-Meyer says. “Having nothing being done is unacceptable.”
Even though Hill-Meyer has left the Student Senate and is soon leaving the UO behind, many in the university’s LGBTQ community say she has also left behind an immeasurable impact.
“I think one of the things that’s changed is that everyone knows Toby’s name now,” Sorenson says. “Because of the Commentator issue, people are starting to see that Toby’s standing up, and people are recognizing that standing up is a form of activism.”