Decoding DEI: Trials, tribulations and support

By Olivia Henry and Olivia Dupree
Special to Central Michigan Life

In their freshman year of high school, Ace McClelland began to question if they were non-binary but endured setbacks, putting them back in the closet.

“I started realizing something was a bit off around seventh or eighth grade ... At first, I thought I was female to male, I thought that’s where I was going at first before realizing I don’t really fit in that category either,” they said. 

McClelland, 21, is a now a Central Michigan University student who identifies as non-binary. 

McClelland will graduate from CMU in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, ecology, evolution and conservation. They hope to pursue a career involving data and conducting experiments based on that data. 

CMU has become a positive outlet for McClelland. It has offered them the opportunity to explore who they are without the need to fit societal norms. Although going back home also means going back in the closet. 

“There are times I do feel I have to dress a lot more feminine when my parents come to pick me up from school,” McClelland said. “Also, when I am home there is that kind of need to dress hyper-fem/hyper-cute. But when I’m here, there’s not that pressure, I can kind of wear whatever I’m comfortable with.”

They said a few people from their hometown use their preferred name, but majority still use their dead name, which is the given at birth name that is no longer used upon transitioning. On the other hand, many of their friends at CMU use their preferred name and pronouns.

When it comes to family, support comes and goes. Their dad is less accepting than their mom, but he’s a lot clearer with his feelings. 

“If my dad says something very homophobic or transphobic my mom’s going to nod her head and agree,” McClelland said.

Their mom is either all for it, or other times says they’re ‘sexually confused.’ 

“Sometimes she will refer to me as my preferred name and even try to use my preferred pronouns," McClelland said. "The issue is, it’s only once in a hot minute. She’s had moments where she’s like, 'I'm never going to call you that, this is your name, I gave you this name.’ So, she’s very hot and cold."

McClelland also has a half-sister but doesn’t consider them to be close. They said she was one of the first family members they openly came out to, saying they were bisexual. They remember her being quite supportive, but then they never able to come out to her about being non-binary or tell her about their preferred name.

“I think I chose the name Ace because let’s just say, I’ve been through a lot of traumatic things," McClelland said. "In my head I tied a lot of that abuse to my dead name. When I hear the name Ace I think of the first card in a deck, a new beginning type of situation, and I liked that. Finally, being able to turn over this new leaf and finally being comfortable with myself.” 

Yet to officially change their name, they feel they still have one foot in the closet and one foot out. When around people they’re comfortable with, it’s easier for them to be firmer about their pronouns and correct others if they mess up. But coming from a place that’s not the most accepting, it’s made the transition rocky. 

In attempt to come out to someone saying their preferred name was Ace, they received the response, “yeah no I’m, not calling you by that name, your name is this…”

From there, McClelland shut down. But as time passed, they slowly became more comfortable saying their preferred name to others. 

“It went from trying to come out, being shut down, not really talking about it, to slowly getting to talk about it, to having some classes where they referred to me as Ace and then getting to Central, getting my feel for the area," they said. "It’s like, am I safe to say my name is this (Ace)? Or will I have people that are going to be aggressive?”

CMU made their transition and name change smoother. They found comfort in utilizing their preferred name for assignments and introducing themselves with their preferred name and pronouns. They also took advantage of easily changing their name on Blackboard.

However, even changing their name on Blackboard has been a bumpy road. Sometimes professors ask, “why’d your parents name you that?” 

“It’s one of those cases of actually correcting them just gets to a point where I don’t know if I feel comfortable telling them, ‘I have this name because of A, B and C,’” they said.

Before learning how to change their name on Blackboard, professors would say, “your assignment says this as your name, but Blackboard has it as this.” 

Even waiting for attendance was anxiety inducing, knowing the sheet had their dead name listed. They would awkwardly have to correct professors with their preferred name in front of the class.   

Nonetheless, McClelland says they have minor issues with professors and even when correcting them they accept it and move on.

A 2022 CMU Student Climate Survey depicts more than 60% of student respondents were somewhat or very satisfied by overall services and almost 70% were somewhat or very satisfied with the friendliness of staff.

Another negative experience happened in the dorms. McClellan recalled an incident from their junior year which caused them to switch rooms.

One day when McClelland got back to their room from classes, they were talking on the phone about a girl they were interested in. Two of their roommates, who were both straight, were in the common area of the dorm. One of them was accompanied by their boyfriend. When McClelland hung up the phone, they could hear laughing and comments they believed were about them.

As the laughter faded, McClelland heard one of the girls say, “well I won that bet.” And the other girl said to her boyfriend, “babe you know I’m straight.” What he responded with was the moment McClelland became fearful. Through the door they heard him say “well what if she tries something on you.”

“I was really scared because you know as someone who is LGBTQ+ one thing that does tend to be a fear is, if someone finds out and all of a sudden it’s like ‘you’re hitting on me, you’re hitting on me," McClelland said. 

Much of McClelland’s positive CMU experience comes from their involvement in student organizations. 

As a biology major, McClelland has found themself as a member of OSTEM, an organization where LGBTQ+ students can network and create a community in the STEM field. 

Aside from campus involvement, McClelland mentions other resources for LGBTQ+ students, like the Office of Inclusivity and LGBTQ+ Services Office. 

They also said the office is a resource for students looking to change their email name. It’s a resource they wish they knew about sooner but encourages other students to look into it if they want to change their email name.

However, something they said CMU can improve on is having more welcoming for people who are non-binary and building more gender-neutral bathrooms in buildings like Moore, Anspach and Dow.

How do students feel about LGBTQ+ resources at CMU?

Jasper Kreager is a Central Michigan University student and a part of the LGBTQ+ community. Their pronouns are he/they, and they identify as a “queer guy.”

Kreager has been at CMU for about three years and wants to get a mechanical engineering degree after they get their degree in Computer Science.

Kreager said they’re not really involved in any of LGBTQ+ Office resources because they haven’t heard much about them. 

“There's always a hard balance to strike of making sure people are supported," Kreager said. "I think there are things that CMU can do to improve these things.

“There are teachers that I want to believe are well-meaning ... but many refuse to actually go with pronouns, even when corrected repeatedly.”

While acknowledging CMU's efforts, Kreager expresses a desire for greater institutional support.

Amongst the campus life at CMU, concerns by students and community have arisen regarding the staffing and funding of the Office of LGBTQ Services. The challenges faced by the department reveal a number of vacancies and a lack of adequate funding for the community, Kreager said.

“LGBT services and diversity and inclusive services in general (are offered at CMU) a lot, from what I hear, but they keep getting defunded and they keep getting swept under the rug,” Kreager said. 

Kreager thinks there are a lot of good first steps being taken by CMU involving these issues, but there has to be more work to do after.  

“Inclusivity wise, CMU, I want to believe they have good intentions, but there's been a lot of cuts recently to LGBT services, and I believe (CMU staff) are currently trying to hire a part-time assistant to help with the LGBT services, and apparently not paying them enough,” Kreager said. 

CMU’s campus not being able to fund the LGBTQ+ department is raising questions of CMU’s values and priorities, he said.

“All together at CMU, it really is the improvement of services here needed, but it’s also CMU taking it more seriously, because people have been asking for more resources,” Kreager said. “I've heard about some ghosting (from CMU), I've heard of CMU kind of not really taking it seriously, which is a problem when this is a school that loves itself for diversity."

According to 2022 Central Michigan Student Climate Survey Report,  28.2% of students disagree with the statement: “I can openly express my sexual identity/orientation in the surrounding community." And 22.2% students also disagree with the statement: “I can openly express my gender identity/expression in the surrounding community."

What resources are available in Mount Pleasant?

The Mount Pleasant Pride Center opened its doors October 2023. Its goal is to create a safe space for LGBTQ+ community. It has about 40% CMU students using their services. 

“It’s pretty evenly split,” Mount Pleasant Pride Center Volunteer Coordinator Ebay Merlin said. “We’re not overwhelmed by CMU students but we’re also not getting any at all. We’ve had a few but we're also getting a good response from the community. It’s a nice balance. I think it’s a really great way for CMU students to connect with the community at large as well.”

Merlin says they’ve received a positive feedback from the community so far. 

“Everyone that’s walked in has said it’s a welcoming space and that they felt really comfortable, which is awesome and it’s exactly what we want,” Merlin said.

A month after opening, the Pride Center hosted a clothing swap. People donated unwanted clothes and volunteers sorted through it based on item and size. Community members were then allowed to come and shop for free. 

The Pride Center is constantly coming up with new events the community wants to see. A popular event hosted each week is Fiber Arts Fridays. Fiber art consists of natural or synthetic fiber and other components, like fabric or yarn.

Additionally, the Pride Center hosts support groups once a month. Support groups include trans-masc and non-binary, trans-fem and non-binary and one for trans teens and their parents. 

“The only thing, not even negative feedback, the only constructive feedback is that people want some events for kids so we’re trying to plan some more family friendly events,” Merlin said.

Which is why Merlin mentioned they’re starting to implement Thursday game nights. 

Events are open to everybody; however, some require RSVP. 

“Anyone can come, whether or not you’re in the community, you’re questioning or you’re just an ally,” Merlin said. “Everybody is welcome because this is a space that isn’t going to gate-keep anybody. I don’t care what you look like, I don’t care who you love or what your gender is, it doesn’t matter.” 

In total, the Pride Center benefits from around 30 volunteers. Still, a handful of volunteers exhibit low engagement levels. Only about 10 volunteers manage the Pride Center's operations consistently. 

Merlin’s role as Volunteer Coordinator is to make sure people who are interested in volunteering feel welcome and able to come in. 

Many businesses and companies offer services to the Pride Center, such as R.I.S.E and the Mount Pleasant Health Department. The Pride Center also established close relations with Great Lakes Bay Pride. The region’s LGBTQ+ resource organization which serves Bay, Isabella, Midland and Saginaw counties.

The Pride Center aims to guide resources to the LGBTQ+ community compiled from LGBTQ+ friendly establishments. Resources include assistance with finding services for hormones, therapy or even a place to get a haircut. 

“As an LGBTQ+ person, it’s really isolating to go through your life not having anybody to relate to,” Merlin said. “I remember the first queer book I ever read, and I actually cried because I didn't know what it felt like to be recognized ... All my friends and I growing up we all came out as queer later in life, we didn’t know it or maybe we did know it in high school.

"The way queer people gravitate toward each other is very important but there’s some people that just get missed in that, they don’t find their little corner, that’s what this space is for."

Seniors Dupree and Henry are both in the Journalism 445 capstone class that contributed to this series.