Rollins

Becoming Alaine

September 01, 2013

By Jeffrey Billman

One student’s journey to begin living as a woman.

Last August, in a hostel in Switzerland, Marc became Alaine.

It was, in one sense, a spontaneous decision, but not one made in haste. By that point, Marc Alain Jolicoeur ’14 had been wrestling with it for a year. He’d been living as a gay man for almost a decade, since middle school in Miami. And like lots of gay teenagers, he’d caught hell for it, both in high school and at the aeronautical college he attended for a year before transferring to Rollins. But he’d persevered, and had made a home and friends at Rollins—friends who were accepting of who he was, more so than even his own family.

But something was off.

Jolicoeur had spent the previous summer interning in Washington, D.C., for the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce. There, for the first time, he found himself in a place where his sexual orientation was more than tolerated; it was embraced and encouraged. But still, the pieces weren’t falling into place.

Jolicoeur recalls walking to the Lincoln Memorial early one morning when no one was there. He looked up at the massive, white marble statue and wondered aloud, “Why can’t I find myself?” His echo was the only response.

Toward the end of that summer, Marc came to a realization that would forever change his life: He wasn’t supposed to be a gay man. He wasn’t supposed to be a man at all. Marc had long felt out of place in his own skin—his hormones and genitalia didn’t match the person he was inside. It was only there in Washington, surrounded by activists and allies, that Marc was finally able to pinpoint who he was.

“I realized that I’m not gay. My gender is wrong,” Jolicoeur says. “I knew that I was transgender. But I couldn’t find a word for it.”

It was a defining moment in Jolicoeur’s life, but it was just the beginning. He spent the next eight months trying to figure out what it meant. He read the bestseller She’s Not There, which chronicles author Jennifer Finney Boylan’s transition from man to woman, and scoured the Internet, especially the popular blog Planet Transgender. In October 2011, Jolicoeur announced at a campus forum that he was transgender. In the summer of 2012, he interned at a local department store, where, on account of his pullover sweaters and pulled-back hair, customers would call him “miss,” and he delighted in their error. But that final hurdle—actually changing his name, actually living as a woman—seemed insurmountable at the time.

“Nothing was final until I left for Switzerland,” Jolicoeur says.

He went there as part of a study-abroad program last fall. Before Switzerland, he stopped in Madrid, where one day he went to use a restroom, only to be told he was in the wrong one. The women’s bathroom was down the hall. Marc wasn’t wearing women’s clothing—just a cardigan, jeans, and a tank top. But he looked, as he puts it, “gender ambiguous.” Similar misunderstandings had happened before.

Nonetheless, it triggered a deep depression—an internal, psychological crisis. And then, on August 22, Marc arrived at that hostel in Switzerland. A concierge was there handing out keys to the rooms, which were segregated into boys and girls. Marc got a key to a boys’ room, but then the concierge looked at him again. Marc was tired and disheveled, and had spent much of the summer depressed, ever since that bathroom incident in Spain. His hair was swept in front of his eyes.

“I’m sorry, miss,” the man said. “I’ve given you the wrong key.” He handed Marc a key to a girls’ room.

Marc froze, but just for a second. He took the key, said thank you, and became Alaine. And when Alaine came back to college this January, she did so as the College of Arts & Sciences’ first openly transgender student.

Before we go further, a quick word about the nomenclature of gender identity is in order. The term “transgender” is something of an umbrella, encompassing groups of individuals who often don’t adhere to binary gender norms. Included are transsexuals—those, like Alaine Jolicoeur, who identify with the gender opposite that of their birth, whether they’ve gone through sex reassignment surgery or not.

Here’s the other thing: The term “transgender” is commonly lumped in with the designations lesbian, gay, and bisexual—as in the acronym LGBT—but unlike those categories, it has nothing to do with sexual orientation. Trans people can be gay, straight, bisexual, or asexual. Rather, “trans” describes gender identity, which is not about sexuality at all, but about one’s internal sense of being a man or a woman.

For all the progress gays and lesbians have made in recent decades, transgender people often remain outsiders among outsiders, experiencing extreme discrimination. In 33 states, including Florida, transgender people can be legally fired for no reason other than their gender identity. (In 29 states, also including Florida, the same goes for gays and lesbians.) In 2007, when the U.S. House of Representatives first passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, House Democrats stripped the bill of protections for transgender people before bringing it to a vote. (The bill passed the House but failed in the Senate.)

The statistics for transgender people are daunting: 90 percent report experiencing harassment or mistreatment on the job, and nearly 20 percent have been or are currently homeless.

“In the back of my mind there was fear,” Jolicoeur says of her decision to live as a woman. We were talking the day the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, in essence granting married gays and lesbians the same federal rights as married opposite-sex couples. She was thrilled with the ruling, but also aware that even as the LGB cause advances, the T’s remain among the most marginalized groups in society.

***

“The defining moment of my life was the murder of my father when I was 11,” Jolicoeur says in a soft, matter-of-fact voice.

She* recalls things this way, like she’s reciting names and dates from a history textbook. She was born January 30, 1991. Her father was murdered in August 2002. She describes August 9, 2002, to January 15, 2003—the period between her father’s death and when the family finally escaped to the U.S.—as “the worst six months of my existence on this planet.”

Jolicoeur was born in Haiti, into an upper-middle-class home, and grew up in a suburb of Port-au-Prince. Her mother was a vice principal at her academy, her father a CFO who railed against institutional corruption. “He was not one of the lucky ones who was able to exile from the country,” she says. “He was murdered by remnants of the regime.”

Her father was killed during his morning jog. A group of men pulled up next to him in a car, got out, and began speaking to him. There was an argument. He tried to run away. They chased him, and shot him 16 times. (A few days later, the men who were hired to kill her father came to her house, looking for the family. They couldn’t get in, so the men shot out the windows instead.)

Jolicoeur was at a summer camp in the U.S. when her father died. She was quickly returned to Haiti, where her mother relayed the news. “It was so very painful,” Jolicoeur says. “There is still a wound inside my heart. He was a quiet individual, extremely brilliant, who had a lot of passion for education and was a strong believer in meritocracy. He was a brilliant man. My father was all about proof and logic in his decision-making. He was very into soccer and reading.”

That January, a family lawyer telephoned Jolicoeur’s mother to say that, because of the difficult situation the country faced and continuing threats to the family, they needed to leave. “That was very difficult for my mom,” Jolicoeur says. “My parents had worked really hard. We had property, all these things. We just sort of lost it all and had to start from scratch.”

They moved to Miami, where Jolicoeur’s aunt lived. In Haiti, Alaine had attended a Catholic boarding school. In Miami, it was a public middle and high school. It wasn’t always easy.

Jolicoeur first suspected she was different at age 4. At 8, she found the entry for “homosexual” in an encyclopedia and thought, “Oh my God, this is me.” But that description was, in the end, inadequate. She dressed differently—eschewing “gender-appropriate” colors—and played with dolls, feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body.

“It’s a fundamental feeling,” Jolicoeur says. “Clearly, I’ve been lied to, lied to by society, by my own environment.”

In 2003, Alaine came out as gay—to her school, not her family. “I suffered a lot for it,” Jolicoeur says. She took honors and AP classes to avoid contact with most of her peers. She participated in the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance. At home, though, she was living a completely different life. Being gay, much less transgender, was unthinkable.

Alaine wouldn’t tell her family she was gay until her first year at Rollins.

*In order to respect Jolicoeur, and for the sake of clarity, from this point on, I will refer to Alaine by her chosen name and with female pronouns, even when discussing events that occurred in the past.

Jolicoeur’s journey of self-discovery—that trip to Washington, in which she realized that Marc was meant to be Alaine—would not have happened without the largesse of the Johnson Family Foundation, a nonprofit led by chairman Jim Johnson ’66 that has, over the years, doled out millions of dollars to LGBT causes.

Every year since 2008, the Foundation has given Rollins about $20,000 to fund an LGBT summer internship program. Two students, chosen through a rigorous application process, spend a summer living on campus at American University in Washington, D.C., and interning for an LGBT group in the area. When they return to Rollins, they do what’s called a “give back” project—a way for them to share what they experienced in Washington. One student, for example, wrote a report about LGBT hiring practices on campus; another worked at the campus health center. Jolicoeur worked with the Office of Multicultural Affairs to form a panel discussion on diversity. (It was there that Jolicoeur first announced that she was transgender.)

The scholarship exists to give LGBT students a chance to see the world through a broader lens, giving them a better perspective on themselves. That was certainly the case with Jolicoeur. On May 7, 2012, a few months before setting off on that fateful study-abroad trip to Switzerland, Jolicoeur wrote a letter to the Johnson Family Foundation describing her experience:

I never imagined that this incredible opportunity to study and intern in Washington, D.C., would have been the answer and solution to the hardships I was facing. Since last summer after my LGBT advocacy internship, my life and the world around me have changed drastically. I remember after discovering what transgender was during my last few days in D.C. while I was getting ready to leave, I was in tears, because throughout my life I have always doubted my gender. I never knew that I was a transgender male and all this time the feelings that I was having of being in the wrong body were normal. … This experience allowed me to discover my transgender identity and taught me how to embrace my identity.


***

Rollins wasn’t Jolicoeur’s first choice. She wanted to be a pilot and enrolled in an aeronautical school. But “the mixture was all wrong.” It was a very “macho” campus, and she was uncomfortable. An advisor there recommended she look at Rollins.

Jolicoeur transferred to Rollins in the fall of 2010. The reception was “wonderful, 100 times better” than she got at the previous institution, both for Marc as a gay man and, later, Alaine as a trans woman.

Jolicoeur, like many other first-year transfer students, stayed on campus that fall, in Sutton Apartments. Abby Prokop, associate director of residential life, was living there too. Jolicoeur fell in love with her dog, and the two became friends. When she decided to become Alaine, she called Prokop from Europe with the news.

“I wasn’t shocked,” Prokop says. “Marc was comfortable dressing as a woman.”

For the College—and for Prokop, who coordinates housing assignments—however, Marc becoming Alaine presented logistical challenges. Housing on campus was only single gender—males here, females there—so where would she fit in? What about Jolicoeur’s college records? She hadn’t legally changed her name to Alaine; doing so can cost hundreds of dollars.

“While Alaine is the first [transgender student in the College of Arts & Sciences], it’s something that’s coming up a lot in higher education,” Prokop says. “It’s something we’ve been waiting for.”

Since she came to Rollins more than four years ago, Prokop has been exploring the idea of gender-neutral housing, a place where students can pick their roommates without regard for gender. Last year, the Office of Residential Life began drafting a proposal. That plan was eventually approved, and the campus’ first gender-neutral housing opened in Sutton Apartments this fall.

Thirty-two students—including Jolicoeur—have signed up. This isn’t specifically an LGBT facility, Prokop says. “Some are [LGBT]. I wouldn’t even say it’s the majority.” Instead, it’s intended to allow all students to live on campus as comfortably as possible, meeting a need for “students who do not fit into current gender binary restrictions,” as the proposal put it. In addition, each apartment will have two private bathrooms, obviating the need for gender-neutral common area facilities.

“As a college, you’re never 100 percent ready,” says Prokop. In recent years, the College has taken steps to make itself more inclusive—not just for Jolicoeur but also for the LGBT population as a whole. Gender-neutral housing was the most recent component. And while Rollins offers support networks for LGBT students as well as safe zone training and student organizations, homophobia (and transphobia) still persists at Rollins—and nearly everywhere else.

***

When I came back, it was different simply because I came back as Alaine,” Jolicoeur says. “I did not know what to expect. My appearance was different. My body was different.” Her friends, she found, were largely supportive. Some had more questions than others, but they were happy for her. “Everyone around me had to adjust to it,” she says.

Her family, however, was another story. She came out to them as a woman in December. “My younger sister was my only support when I came out as Alaine,” Jolicoeur says. “As for my mother and brother, it is still taboo, and still a long process for them to adjust and understand my realities. I don’t know when they’ll come around.”

Meanwhile, Jolicoeur has embarked on the process that will eventually make her a biological woman. It begins with psychological counseling before graduating to physical changes, including hormonal supplements, and eventually leading to sex-reassignment surgery. She’s seeing a psychiatrist now, but the physical stuff will have to wait until after graduation. “You would not want to go through that as a student,” she explains.

The next hurdle for Jolicoeur—a philosophy major with a double minor in women’s studies and French—will be, like other graduating seniors, finding employment. Only she’ll have to find a job in a world in which gender-identity discrimination is perfectly legal, and transgender people find themselves disproportionately unemployed.

“I want not only to bring visibility to the trans issue,” Jolicoeur says, “but to remind people of the love and support Rollins offers as an institution. It’s far more than one can imagine. Sometimes the environment you get, the difference it makes—as a trans woman and a person of color—the importance of what the community offers, it’s just extremely powerful.”


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