Two Gigs of Ram: Adelynn Campbell Takes on Gender Dysphoria with a Korean Bow

 
 

Women don’t remember the first time they heard their name spoken out loud, or what it was once like to blush around a man. They stop noticing they put on a bra or makeup in the mornings. They forget they tuck one strand of hair behind their ear.

Adelynn Campbell does not forget, nor does she fail to notice. She is aware of all these things, because it is still new.

Campbell’s birth certificate, issued by the county clerk of Kent County in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is the last legal document bearing the name she was given at birth.

It is the last legal document stating the gender her doctor declared on Feb. 15, 1995. It says she is male.

To Adelynn, that Caucasian male was never really there.

 

It’s Feb. 28, 2018.

 

Adelynn added money to her metro card at the Rector Street R-train station, swiped through the turnstiles, and sat at the same seat of the bench from every Monday at 4:30 p.m. At Prince Street, she walked a few blocks until she got to the NYU Steinhardt building, where she got off on the floor for the Department of Communicative Sciences and Disorders.

She sat on a curvy red bench, surrounded by two small black tables topped with fake food and a plastic dinosaur for patients to play with. A child with fresh blue lips hugged a bag of veggie straws a few seats away.

Adelynn’s voice instructor arrived and directed her to a small room.

“That’s pretty much right on the money,” she said soon after Adelynn began the voice lesson—Adelynn was reading a line from a passage whose author the instructor insisted “was probably such a weird old man.”

Adelynn hit an F key on a keyboard to match her pitch. Her speaking frequency was 175.5 hertz.

“I think my goal for the end of the semester is 190,” said Adelynn as she tied her hair back into a ponytail, revealing the fake diamond studs in her ears. Adelynn laughed lightly. Her smile was genuine. She didn’t know she would reach that goal in only a couple more weeks.

For several months Adelynn has been learning how to speak more like a woman. Nearly a decade ago, Adelynn was teaching herself Korean, the language of a country where she would live twice.

She might look different from that high schooler in Seoul, but she said she has always been the same. And no one would argue she was any less determined.

 
 Photography by Wes Parnell

Photography by Wes Parnell

About two years ago,

 

Adelynn Campbell scanned her new student ID and took her first step into The King’s College as a 21-year-old female student experiencing puberty for the first time. She wore a light blue pin-striped button-up top, ankle-high pants from Gap, and a pair of black flats. Her makeup and hair were all done-up, and she was absolutely terrified. She walked through the halls, sat in a social psychology class, and hugged old friends. It was her first time doing all these things, as a woman.

She said she came back for one reason: to finish what she started.

“I didn’t expect much,” Adelynn said. “Some people ignore you like they never knew you. It hurts… I miss a lot of them.”

Just a few months prior, Adelynn attended the wedding of a former peer. It was her first event since she had begun transitioning, and Adelynn said she “did not look the best.”

“[At that time], it was very clear that it was just a guy dressing in girl’s clothes…” Adelynn said. “It was all very awkward.”

She recounted running into Gregory Thornbury, who was the President of the college at the time. “He brought me aside and said ‘I’m so glad you’re doing so much better… Do you have anyone on your team? I want to be on your team,’” Adelynn recounted. “I always remember that as being a very gracious moment.”

The King’s College is a Christian liberal arts school of a little less than 500 students in the Financial District, 170 steps from the New York Stock Exchange for a 5’6” woman.

The King’s College divides its community into 10 groups, called Houses, based on biological sex. The Houses comprise a significant portion of student life and serve as an important means of communication for schoolwide events.

Four students are elected to lead each House per year, responsible for organizing competitions, deciding the budget, providing community, and maintaining the school’s honor code. Students are not required to sign a statement of faith—they are expected to uphold a standard of conduct.

“I will not lie, cheat, or steal, or turn a blind eye to those who do.”

In 2013, a freshman from Grand Rapids was placed in the House of Ronald Reagan and assigned three male roommates in an on-campus building on Wall Street.

One of the values of the House was “fraternity,” and Adelynn decided she would try to embrace it full-force.

“Adelynn was very adamant about participating and wanting to get into the culture,” said Mark Burger, who was a freshman in the House of Reagan at the same time as Adelynn. “It just rubbed me the wrong way.” He described it as “frat-like.” “There was this attitude of ‘We’re going to go out and be men and be aggressive’ but at the same time ‘let’s also talk about how we respect women and how we view God.’”

Other members of the House said it was very inclusive.

“It goes back to this idea of brotherhood,” said Tim Stratton, one of Adelynn’s closest friends and her Sophomore roommate, “And this idea… That no matter where you come from, no matter where you are at that moment, that you are together, that you have someone next to you to build you up and push you to be a God-fearing man of integrity,”

Stratton said most of the freshmen were incredibly involved in the House. Adelynn was part of a tight-knit friend group.

“She was always leading the charge in terms of building friendships in the House and making sure that people on the periphery were feeling welcomed and encouraged to be part of the House,” Stratton said.

 
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In November 2015,

 

Adelynn was serving as a faculty assistant for a New Testament course. She was a member of the executive team for the House of Reagan and was living on-campus on Wall Street.

But then she started to lose control.

“You can build up a lot of strength and stamina, but eventually, every line is going to cave,” Adelynn said. “Every person gets exhausted. You can’t run a marathon forever—you got to cross the finish line. The body shuts down to kind of reset itself.”

Adelynn said she hit her breaking point. It was time to reset.

“The way I describe it is if you have an old computer that only has maybe one or two gigs of ram. When you try to do more than one thing… You try to open a Word processor and then you try to watch a YouTube video. What’s going to happen to the computer is it’s going to freeze up, because instead of doing one task and then doing the second, the computer tries to jump between both, and it overheats the computer and gets frustrated. I think that’s basically what my mind was doing.”

She shut down. She was anxious, contemplating suicide, and was severely depressed, all symptoms which are common in transgender individuals, across demographics, education, and race.

The rate of attempted suicide for transgender individuals is 41%. The overall US population attempted suicide rate is 4.6%, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at The Williams Institute at UCLA.

“At one point we had to get rid of all our knives,” Mark Burger said, who was one of her roommates on Wall Street at the time. One of the other two men living there had found a knife under Adelynn’s pillow. “She was very unstable.”

“She would get so physically ill and tired all the time, to the point where she would not go to class, or I wouldn’t see her all day,” said Burger. “She would [stay] in bed…She was very frustrated and very confused. She was going to doctors. They would tell her that, physically, nothing was wrong… She felt very isolated.”

One night she threw a stool at one of her roommates. She lost control. Adelynn said school staff put her in an ambulance and took her to the psych ward of Bellevue Hospital. Adelynn described it as one of the more terrifying experiences in her life. Patients were yelling and screaming. Adelynn said she wanted to die.

The Student Life department at The King’s College declined to comment.

Stratton said Adelynn had been hospitalized freshman year. A lot of men in the House had gone to the hospital to visit her. This time was different—Bellevue Hospital didn’t allow visitors.

“It was pretty traumatic in a lot of different ways,” Stratton said. “I remember it hitting us all really hard… We wanted to help as much as we could, but we didn’t really know what to do."

Adelynn dropped out of school a week before finals. She couch-surfed in Brooklyn for about two weeks.

 
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Four months later,

 

Adelynn was diagnosed with Gender Dysphoria by Dr. Mark Yarhouse, the Chair and Professor of Psychology at Regent University, a Christian college in Virginia.

Adelynn had three options: she could undergo psychotherapy, she could remain gender neutral, or she could fully cross-gender identify.

The anxiety could be managed, but the medical complications she was having would not be touched by therapy alone. She was physically ill.

It took Adelynn a while to make her decision, an intensive period of self-interrogation, much of which she would do alone. Her family was adamantly opposed to cross-gender identification.

“I am still pretty Conservative theologically,” Adelynn said. “I think there is an importance in gender and the way it is constructed. I didn’t see it as an option to hang in between [sexes] or be both… Both genders represent and show us things about the whole nature of God.”

Adelynn decided that changing genders was her only option.

In March, 2016, Adelynn was about to start hormones. She signed a document acknowledging permanent side effects and risks.

She did it alone.

“I know that side effects and safety of these medicines are not completely known.”
“I know these medicines may damage the liver and may lead to liver disease.”
“I know that taking estrogen increases the risk of blood clots that can result in chronic problems with veins in the legs, heart attack, pulmonary embolism, which may cause permanent lung damage or death, and stroke, which may cause permanent brain damage or death.”

The list of risks went on for three pages, but one line was harder to read than the rest.

“I spent a couple months crying because I couldn’t have kids,” Adelynn said.

She signed it.

Adelynn took the last name of an African-American newly-wed couple, Taylor and Gabrielle Campbell, graduates of The King’s College. She was spending nights on their couch, and they gave her the name “Adelynn” at 1 a.m. one night.

“My old name just felt dead. It felt gross and sick,” Adelynn said. “For a long time I felt schizophrenic. I felt like two people.”

Adelynn went to the courtroom, self-represented, alone.

A girl with two lawyers from Yale was in front of her. Adelynn found what she needed to bring on Google.

“Is there a Campbell in the court?” the judge asked. It was the first time she heard her name spoken aloud.

Her name change was published in The New York Beacon, a local weekly newspaper, on April 28, 2016.

She changed credit cards, bank accounts, school records, W4’s, the FAFSA.

“This is like a full-time job,” Adelynn said. “None of it is free.”

State license changes mean showing proof from a doctor that her sex is female.

Federal acknowledgement of gender change required a medical certification that the female sex predominated anything else.

Adeylnn purchased a $200 passport and changed her social security number.

The only documentation left was the birth certificate.

 
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Adelynn was now legally considered a female.

 

The process wasn’t easy, nor was it cheap. Returning to The King’s College bore its own costs as well.

Adelynn withdrew from the House of Reagan upon re-admittance to the college. A lot of her former friendships would never be the same.

“It’s less because of transitioning and more just our relationship changed as she became a woman,” Stratton said.

After withdrawing, Adelynn was now the only student in the school who didn’t belong to a House.

The school updated its Title IX Policy the 2016-2017 academic year. The Student Handbook  promised to update its student documentation based upon legal records and promised that faculty and staff would address transgender students by their legal pronoun. Gender-neutral bathrooms would be provided around campus.

Gender-specific bathrooms and student housing policies, as well as House placement, would be determined by biological sex, not legal gender identity. Adelynn submitted applications to be placed in a female House, all of which were rejected.

“It is a matter of religious faith, conviction, and exercise, which constrains The King’s College to the historic Christian understanding on this matter,” wrote Nick Swedick, Director of Student Life, in an emailed response to Adelynn’s first appeal. “Given our open admissions policies, the College is devoted to ensuring every student feels safe and they have every opportunity to benefit from the College’s programs and activities no matter their opinion on these matters.”

“I’m not there to be militant,” said Adelynn. “I’m not there to fight something. There’s a lot of students at Kings who want me to fight the institution… I understand that there are things that are outside King’s control that are complex for them to weigh. They’re not the enemy. They’re part of the body of Christ, and I need to treat them as such.”

While Adelynn could not officially be placed in a House, she became the honorary member of the House of Barton in the fall semester of 2016.

“To be the one person not involved in that community and floating around isolated has to be discouraging,” said Ali Zieminski, who was the House President of Barton that academic year and worked with Student Life to get Adelynn honorary House membership. “She’s a woman. She has more female hormones than I have.”

Zieminski said her executive team unanimously voted to give Adelynn honorary membership.

Honorary membership meant getting full House benefits—she could be part of a community, attend House events, receive weekly newsletters. She would not be able to vote in House elections, hold a leadership position, live in Barton housing, or represent the House in a competition by herself. She could contribute in a group setting.

“We had one person out of 61 Bartons who didn’t understand what her role was, and so her roommate sat her down and explained it…” Zeminski said. “That was the only blip of concern I heard from my House.”

However, her relationship with the House system would never be straight-forward.

 
 

Adelynn would not be allowed to live in the on-campus housing provided for the members of Barton in a building on Washington Street near Battery Park. However, Adelynn signed a lease for an “off-campus” apartment in the same building.

As one of the roommates has since moved out, three students share a studio apartment together.

Adelynn would not be allow to stay under the same roof as the rest of the House of Barton, either—the House had to pay for a hotel room in order for Adelynn to attend the House Retreat.

Involvement in House competitions would be regulated. She would not be able to participate in the fall basketball competition based on the stipulation in the student handbook that transgender women cannot compete on a female sports team until a year had passed since taking testosterone suppression treatment.

One event that stood out in Adelynn’s mind was one she wasn’t present for. The school hosted a debate competition. Adelynn was working.

A student panel announced that the motion for the semifinals would be: “This House would make all multi-occupancy restrooms at public facilities assigned by biological sex.”

At work, Adelynn’s phone went off with texts from friends at the school.

When she found out, she wasn’t upset about the motion itself—people should be able to discuss any idea. What upset her was that she would not have been allowed to have a voice in the conversation, even if she had been there. She wasn’t allowed to represent her House, and this was a House competition.

“The one thing that really frustrated me about having a topic like that was that I’m not allowed to debate,” Adelynn said.

Members of the House of Barton, however, were livid.

Zieminski complained to the Dean of Students. Housemates cried.

The debate was rescheduled as an event hosted by the debate team—the conversation would not be part of a competition.

Despite the difficulties, Adelynn felt, for the first time since returning to the school, that she had a place she belonged.

“I’ll always be a Barton.”

 

On Feb. 21, 2018,

 

Adelynn arrived in Washington, D.C. to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). On Thursday, Adelynn met up with two other transgender women, Jennifer Williams and Jordan Evans, two activists who had attended the year before.

They all went to the bathroom together, took deep breaths, and fixed their makeup. They pulled a flag out of Williams’s bag, an LGBT flag with the Gadsden snake and the words “don’t tread on me.” They all take out their own signs: “I’m proud to be transgender. I’m proud to be Republican. I’m proud to be American. #sameteam.”

Adelynn, Williams, and Evans stood right outside the conference hall.

“It sucked the energy right out of the room...” Adelynn said. “My heart was pounding because this was definitely the front lines. If you wanted to engage with people that really disagree with you, this is going to be the place to do it.”

The response was generally positive. People approached and congratulated them. A veteran in a wheelchair came up to tell them he was grateful they were exhibiting the free speech he had fought for.

“The messages that people are saying about Republicans are just not true,” Adelynn said, referring to comments she hears about close-minded Conservatives. “I’ve been saying that over and over again. I’ve been face-to-face with them, shaking hands.”

The advocates were featured in the news for several days, including Newsweek and Slate. Adelynn said the response on social media from the press coverage has been less encouraging.

“Let frat boys talk about vaginas if they want to,” Adelynnn said in response to comments she had seen, “that they know nothing about.”

Adelynn rejoined the College of TKC Republicans at her school in fall of 2016. She was elected to serve as the Executive Director of the student organization in the spring semester of 2018.

“I heard a lot of the College of Republicans say that Adelynn is gonna be great. It’s great to have her,” said Joe Enders, a member of the group and a contributor to the Washington Reporter.

Adelynn was very open about her transition in the group. In her speech, she spoke about how she wanted an inclusive Republican party.

“I think what she is bringing to the Republican party is good,” Enders said. “ I think that it’s going to benefit the party overall, to kind of get them to understand that whatever we think scientifically… It doesn’t matter. You are still welcome to be a conservative, whether we disagree with you on that or not.”

Adelynn wants her voice to be heard, which requires listening to the voices of all ends of the spectrum in the Republican party.

“Just because you’re a Trump supporter doesn’t automatically mean that you’re a white nationalist,” Adelynn said. “And just because I’m a transgender woman from New York City doesn’t mean I have to sell my soul to big government… The Republican party is much bigger than what we sometimes think of it as.”

 

The last time Adelynn would see her birth family was December 2016. 

 

She had missed a bus from Chicago and hitched a ride to Grand Rapids with two friends, Sierra Hernandez and her boyfriend, but she needed a place to stay. She called her mother.

Adelynn said her parents ended up picking her up and drove her to a Starbucks for an “intervention” with a church elder around the block.

She said she engaged with them for an hour before asking if she had a place to sleep that night. The church paid for her to stay in a hotel two minutes away from her old home. She could see her backyard from the window.

“That moment in my life probably was the most rejection I have ever, ever received,” Adelynn said.

Adelynn spent the night alone. She threw up. She cried on the floor. The next morning she got on the flight the church had purchased for her to return to New York. She has not seen her family since.

By the end of that month, Hernandez asked if she had anywhere to spend Christmas. When Adelynn said no, Hernandez insisted she come spend it with her and her family.

“We wrapped everything. We did presents at midnight,” Hernandez said. “Nothing felt weird or out of place. It just felt normal.”

Hernandez said they always celebrate Christmas with the extended family, about 70 to 100 people. “[Adelynn] was really nervous,” Hernandez said. “She had never worn a dress out in public before. We did her hair."

Hernandez said they introduced Adelynn to everyone as a sister, as if she had always been part of the family. Adelynn’s face lit up.

Since that first Christmas, Adelynn has become an extended member of the family. Sierra and Adelynn talk between two and seven hours a week. Alex, Sierra’s father, calls Adelynn “angel,” just as he calls his other two daughters.

Adelynn was sitting in Pasta Flyer on 6th Avenue as she talked about that first Christmas with them. There was an empty bowl of rigatoni in front of her.

“The biggest things were the big hugs and being recognized…” Adelynn said. “Being able to function as normally as I could in a family, and not having that history to try to overcome, the perceptions… When you have to fight for your personhood, it gets so exhausting.”

Adelynn turned away and smiled. She was crying.

Most of the transgender friends Adelynn has are progressive. “That’s why I don’t fit in. I’m still conservative. I still have more traditional gender values… There are a lot of things I don’t really agree with.”

Adelynn thinks that gender is binary. She does not know where she stands on gay marriage on a theological level. She still has questions about birth control.

Burger didn’t see her beliefs as a barrier. “There’s people with faith all across the LGBTQ community. Maybe it’s her past sentiment that… still sees that boundary.”

Adelynn has had difficulty finding a church community over the years as well.

“There are two waves of churches,” said May Overmeyer, one of Adelynn’s friends. “One steers clear away and is stand-offish. The other is too accepting. They treat her differently, trying to be progressive, but overly seeking her out.”

As a result, Adelynn feels somewhere stuck in between the transgender and the Christian communities.

“I don’t find acceptance in the church,” said Adelynn. “And I don’t find acceptance in [the transgender] community… I can’t find solidarity in those that don’t have that oneness that is found in the body of Christ...that I think it unique to the Christian community."

 
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Four months after returning to The King’s College in 2016,

 

Adelynn was sitting on her bed in Weehawken, N.J., where she lived at the time. There were two stuffed bears, a stuffed tiger, a neck pillow, and blankets on a mattress. Her laptop with a pink floral case and a Bible sat at the foot of the bed. There was a suitcase in the closet, the suitcase she had been living out of as she couchsurfed for weeks prior to moving in. Her clothes were folded on the shelves. She had four pairs of shoes, three of which she had just purchased the other day. She was really excited about the combat boots.

She sat on the bed and cradled a brown folder in her arms, the folder containing her paperwork, her proof. She opened her laptop and found the typed letter she sent to family and friends in 2015, explaining herself and asking for understanding.

Near the end of the letter were lyrics by Josh Garrells from his song, White Owl.

Child the time has come for you to go
You will never be alone

Every dream that you have been shown
Will be like living stone
Building you into a home
A shelter from the storm

“It’s a tough f---ing road ahead of her,” said Mark Burger. “But there’s a strength in her that wasn’t there before."

“A lot of people say ‘You go girl…As long as you’re happy,’” says Adelynn. “None of the decisions I made were because I wanted to be happy or because I wanted it to be easier… It’s sitting on the bus on the way home and feeling no pain in my body whatsoever. It’s being in class, being able to focus. It’s being able to sleep well, to wake up and feel refreshed, not throwing up 24/7. It’s being able to have sustainable relationships. I can eat food and enjoy life. It makes me able to love and serve God more effectively than I would have been able to before.”

Adelynn said she still has a ways to go.

“I need to learn to be patient, understanding, to look at people’s needs above my own,” Adelynn says. “Those are things that just don’t stop because I’m trans... I try as much as possible to not look at myself as a victim, but to go on the offensive. I can love people no matter what—that’s what God calls me to do… And I fail at this a lot, because you get worn down over a week, and you get so sick of fighting, but [you need to] fight fairly and fight respectfully, with love.”

 

It’s Oct. 2016.

 

Adelynn was leaving Joe’s Pizzeria. Her friend brought an attractive man from Israel out with them. Adelynn had been blushing and spilling her drink the whole night.

The Israeli man said goodbye and leaned in for a hug. Adelynn dipped into a Korean bow and then ran for the subway.

Adelynn laughed at herself. Sometimes bowing and running is the best response a person can have.

 

The original version of this feature was published in Issue 8 of the EST Magazine

CampusJessica Mathews