While navigating the challenges of transitioning during her senior year at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), Morgan Hunlen helped create a safe place for future students to land.
A trained pilot and transwoman, Hunlen graduated from MTSU with honors in spring 2016. But before she left, she flew into uncharted territory to benefit future MTSU students and visitors to campus.
During the national debate over which restroom transgendered people should use, the 22-year-old searched out 90 family, unisex and single-user restrooms on the MTSU campus to find out which could be accessed by the public. Of the 90 she found, only seven can be used by the public, but at least they have been plotted on a map.
“I knew I wasn’t alone that there were other people out there like me. Some weren’t using the bathroom at all on campus,” Hunlen said about why she took on the task during these turbulent times for transgender people.
A graduate from the aerospace department, Hunlen has been obsessed with flight and “the magic behind it” from a young age. “You can literally fly around the world in a metal can,” she said, wistfully. But it took more than an obsession for Hunlen to search the MTSU campus for the 90 potential gender-neutral restrooms. It took a drive to do what’s right.
Flying into unknown
Hunlen came out as genderqueer at 19 years old. When she came to college, she discovered “the idea of gender as a malleable thing.” She said she always knew she was different but didn’t have the language to talk it until college.
“I was a very fem boy but not gay,” said Hunlen, who wore a button with her preferred pronouns, “she, her, and hers”.
While she was at MTSU, she wasn’t quite comfortable with herself as a transwoman even in a women’s restroom. She had a difficult time finding a safe space. Then, she found MT Lambda, the oldest LGBT+ student organization at a Tennessee university, Hunlen said she had found a safe place to land. MT Lamba was one, but there weren’t many safe places on campus.
MT Lambda’s mission is to provide a safe and secure environment for everyone in the LGBT+ community at MTSU, according to its website. It works toward its mission through political activism, education on LGBT+ issues, community engagement and social support. Thanks to the efforts of MT Lambda, MTSU became the first public college or university in Tennessee to include sexual orientation in its nondiscrimination policy in 2001. MTSU added gender identity to that policy in 2009.
With her newfound support, Hunlen first started dressing fem for MT Lamba, then for going out with friends on the weekends. She did more and more as her true self calling it “a slow burn.” Then in January 2015, Hunlen went full-time fem in Tennessee. She was flying without a parachute, which was difficult, especially in the homogeneous aerospace department. “I didn’t have any allies there,” she said.
To make matters worse, there weren’t any restrooms where she felt comfortable in the Business-Aerospace building, where most of her classes were. The closest was in the neighboring College of Education building.
The support provided to her by MT Lambda allowed Hunlen to take flight into the unknown and begin her transition in fall 2015.
It was like the first time she flew a plane.
“It was exciting to see the world from that perspective. Making it move and watching it fly was special,” Hunlen said. She said it was exciting and special to come out as her true self. “Everyday I wasn’t on hormones was a day I wasn’t the way I wanted to be. Now I’m growing into the person I want to be,” Hunlen said.
Now a crew scheduler for GoJet Airlines and living in St. Louis. Mo, Hunlen is on a journey to her truth. She has no final destination in mind, but she’s enjoying the trip along the way. Her route can be changed as she changes, Hunlen said. “As I continue to grow and become more accustomed to myself, it can be adapted,” Hunlen said, adding her body dysphoria has lessened since she started hormone therapy.
Setting a course
Hunlen’s senior year, in fall 2015, MT Lamba spearheaded an effort to rebrand family restrooms and unisex, single-user restrooms as gender-neutral restrooms.
There were only a handful of single-user restrooms on campus that had proper signage, explained Dr. William Langston, faculty advisor for MT Lambda. “Depending on where someone was, they might have to walk five or more buildings away to find one,” Langston said.
Hunlen said she had experienced just that. “I would leave class, leave the building, walk to the (College of Education building) and do my business or wait for someone to come out,” she said, likening it to segregated bathrooms in the 1950s. Because she was dressing fem, she said she could have used the women’s restroom but with the political climate in Tennessee, she didn’t feel comfortable.
Just as people with disabilities who might need help from a caregiver of a different gender or families with small children, gender non-conforming and transgender people needed a better way. With Langston’s assistance, MT Lamba went to the administration and asked for better signs.
“Making it clear to everyone who could use the restrooms would increase access, and also remove the problem of someone deciding on their own who got to use the restroom,” Langston said. But there was no definitive list of restrooms.
Langston asked MT Lamba to take on the project with a list of eight restrooms to start.
Hunlen volunteered and walked the campus with a friend, searching high and low for restrooms that could be converted. Together they found 90, but Hunlen wanted to make sure.
Then she took the pilot’s seat and flew through the project, finding all 90 restrooms in three or four hours.
The restrooms were all over the 1,000-acre campus in dorms, administration buildings and classroom buildings. In the end, she confirmed there were 90 but not all of them were accessible to the public, Langston said.
“After walking the campus with facilities services and prioritizing the need to re-sign the restrooms, the list was actually a lot shorter than that,” he said.
Some no longer existed, weren’t available to the public, or already had appropriate signage.
“However, Morgan’s list was the foundation for the final list. The impact is that we have at least one properly signed single-user restroom in every building where it was possible to have one,” Langston said.
Now the longest distance anyone who needs a gender-neutral restroom has to walk is one building and the university’s administration agreed to post the same signage in all new buildings and renovations.
MT Lamba has also published on its website a list of gender-neutral restrooms, which includes seven restrooms in five buildings across campus.
“Proper signage contributes to the campus’ welcoming atmosphere for everyone,” Langston said. The new signs say “This restroom may be used by any person regardless of gender identity or expression.”
The first wave of rebranding took place in spring 2016. Then in March 2017, MTSU Student Government Association voted to change family restrooms to gender-neutral restrooms. The measure passed just a few days before an attempt at another “bathroom bill” died in the Tennessee State Senate.
“Putting signs out like this will let others know they are safe,” Hunlen said. The rebranding is just part of the overall effort by MTSU to become more inclusive.
Langston said the university supports MT Lambda’s efforts to make the school more inclusive. The organization has implemented a Safe Zone program that trains resident assistants in dorms, hosts an LGBT+ conference, and lists resources on its website.
Through these and Hunlen’s efforts, MTSU has made sure future generations of LGBT+ students have a safe place to land.
“I have helped make MTSU a more diverse and inclusive place and that’s a good thing,” she said.
More info …
A list of gender-neutral restrooms on MTSU campus can be found at mtsu.edu/lgbt/campus_resources.php#trans-facilities. More information about MT Lamba can be found at mtsu.edu/mtlambda.