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Becoming Selene: Student Tells All About Gender Transformation

Karamarie Joyce ‘15, Editor in Chief 

Selene Cummings, a senior studying biology, is the first transgender person to be open about her gender at Merrimack. Over the past few years she has been through several changes both physically and mentally.

I sat down with her to learn more about the changes taking place in her life, and see how these changes affect her as well as the Merrimack community.

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Q: When did you begin to feel that you were female and not male?

A: I first started to feel that I was more female than male after I left my first school; I was going through the same thing most people go through, which is trying to figure out who you are. For a long time I had been questioning if I even existed, it got the point where I had to re-build myself from the ground up. Part of the building process was questioning everything, including gender, I realized even from middle school I was questioning myself, thinking “If I were a girl life would be easier.” I was thinking that at the time because I was looking at this group of girls, and they all seemed to be friends and get along, and at the time I had very few friends. I always seemed to get along better with the girls. That was the first time I ever really thought about gender. Men and women are basically the same to me, they’re just people. Since that point forward I questioned my own gender, my biological gender didn’t seem to matter as much as my mental gender.

Q: Who was the first person you expressed what you were feeling to?

A: That person was Elizabeth Harvey; she is my best friend. When I came out to her she said, “Honey, I know.” We went on to talk about how she knew, and she said she had noticed when I began to grow out my hair, and how I acted much differently than most 21-year-old guys. She assured me I was completely accepted and loved.

Q: What was the next step you made after coming out to Elizabeth?

A: I came out to my mother next on Christmas Eve — poor timing, but I just couldn’t hold it in any longer. She was quiet for a moment and then very calmly said, “I will always love you.” We kept it from my father for about a month; in that time I told my sisters. Their reaction was complete indifference. They assured me if I were a guy or a girl I’d still be their sibling and they supported me. My father was a little bit more difficult. We didn’t talk for a little while after I told him because he felt like he was losing a son. He came around eventually, especially after I spoke to his mother, my grandmother, about it. As the matriarch of the family, my grandmother’s acceptance set the tone for the rest of my family to follow.

Q: What was the first step in the process of changing your gender from male to female?

A: The first step for anyone going through this is to find a therapist. I found one and the process began to make sure I wasn’t making a mistake, and that I wasn’t, for example, a cross-dresser, which is a man who likes women’s clothes, but rather it was the issue of being one gender physically and another on the inside. After going to therapy for some time I was connected with a transgender doctor who prescribed me estrogen pills to begin my transformation.

Q: What effects did the estrogen pills have on you?

A: The most notable effect was the change in my emotions; they became much more intense once I began taking the pills. That took a long time to work out — because of the intense emotions I was feeling my doctor had to slowly increase the doses she was prescribing me. Other changes which took place over time were the softening of the skin and hair, and growth of breast tissue. Scientifically, adding the estrogen to my body made my brain suppress the production of testosterone.

Q: What was your birth name?

A: My birth name was Joseph Ryan Cummings. I legally changed my name to Selene Cummings

Q: How did the school respond to your arrival?

A: They had a very positive response. Once they realized I was transgender, many of the faculty went to see Gordene Mackenzie, a teacher who has done much of her research on transgender people. My advisers were still a bit wary and so were the Residence Life faculty, but after a few meetings most people got used to me. Res Life was particularly accommodating, allowing me to room with other women, and at my suggestion, as long as my roommate knew what they were getting into. Some of the most accepting people on campus have in fact been the monks, which was my largest concern. In fact I now feel more comfortable with them than the general student body.

Q: Have you run into any harassment?

A: I have only on a few occasions. New England is very accepting of the LBGT community compared to most places in the world. The only problem I ran into on campus involved a picture of myself and a rude comment taken by a student. When the administration found out about it, the picture was removed from Twitter and the student ended up apologizing to me. The whole incident made me feel more comfortable because it made me feel that the school would protect me if I ran into any more trouble in the future.

Q: What is the most difficult thing about transitioning?

A: In many ways, you are free to act like yourself, and look like what you want to look like when you begin to transition. Learning to walk with a sway in my hips has been fun, the clothes are so much nicer, and makeup is turning into one of my hobbies. For many male to female transgenders, removing facial hair and changing our voices is very difficult and takes a lot of time. Hormones take care of that when you’re a transitioning female to male.

Q: Why did you pick Merrimack, did you think it would be accepting?

A: Honestly I wasn’t sure about Merrimack College at first. It is advertised as a Christian school, not the most accepting bunch. They also don’t advertise their social diversity or acceptance that Augustinians in particular have toward the rest of the world and other ideas. The monks ended up being one of the most accepting bunch and the ones I’ve spoken with tend to greet me when we see each other around.

Q: Why did you decide to leave your old school and attend Merrimack?

A: I left Hesser College in order to study biology. They just didn’t have the facilities to teach it and I had heard that Merrimack College had a good biology program. It was as simple as that.

Q: Are you attracted to men or women or both?

A: I’m actually pansexual. No, that doesn’t mean that I’m attracted to frying pans. It means that gender has little to no meaning to me when I’m looking at a possible partner. This includes people who don’t identify as male or female. I do have other preferences though, so it also doesn’t mean that I’m just attracted to everyone. I still find confidence in one’s self, an intellectual mind and a healthy lifestyle very appealing.

Q: Are you involved in any campus activities?

A: I spend a lot of my time in the Media Center, one of the most accepting hangouts I’ve run across is in that office. From time to time I drop in with the GSA (Gay Straight Alliance), but I’m not one for being in a group or having a large friend base. I spoke in a panel the last time Merrimack hosted Social justice week and I make myself an open resource for anyone who wants to ask questions in a respectful manner.

Q: Are you in contact in any other people going through this transition? Are there support groups?

A: I do know a few people like myself. My primary physician is actually a male to female individual, which has helped a lot, as you might imagine. There is also a friend I have that doesn’t feel like they can transition because they would be rejected by their family. It makes sense to me; it’s quite frightening to put yourself in such a vulnerable position. I just try to be supportive and my friends are the same way with me.

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