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University of Missouri

Seeing Josey

Josey Herrera hasn’t always fit in, but the senior journalism major found self-acceptance at MU.

Josey Herrera

Josey Herrera says they were born born in Miami but made in Missouri. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Josey Herrera doesn’t fit neatly into a box. A former vice president of the sorority Sigma Sigma Sigma. A first-generation American Latino. A member of LSV, the highest honor bestowed upon a woman at MU. A Vagina Monologues cast member. A 2013 Homecoming king candidate.

Herrera is not so much either/or as both/and. But even that falls short. Herrera identifies as transgender, an umbrella term for people whose sex at birth differs from their internal sense of gender identity. Herrera doesn’t identify as he or she, preferring instead the pronoun “they.”

“I’m female because that’s my biological sex, but I don’t identify as a woman. Most of the time, I feel very masculine, but I don’t identify as a man either. I really identify as neither most of the time,” Herrera says. “I encompass a space that is not one or the other.”

Transgender people make up about 0.3 percent of the U.S. adult population, according to a 2011 report by the Williams Institute, a think tank at UCLA; however, many are not public about their identities. Being different has its challenges. In Herrera’s case, not fitting into a male or female category caused feelings of marginalization that lack of family support exacerbated.

“There are a lot of people who would say to Josey: ‘I don’t know who, what, how you are. You don’t make any sense to me. I can’t put labels on you or pin you down,’ ” says friend and fellow Tiger Sugar Hendrick.

Yet after arriving at the University of Missouri to study journalism in 2010, Herrera began to find acceptance from peers and the community. The Mizzou Alumni Association chose Herrera for the 2014 Mizzou ’39 class of outstanding seniors who represent MU’s values, and Herrera was tapped by Mystical Seven, one of MU’s secret societies, which honors students for selfless leadership. In June, the University of Missouri Board of Curators voted to include gender identity and gender expression in its nondiscrimination policy for the four-campus system.

But most important, Herrera found self-acceptance at MU. “I started exploring the person I could be, realizing I could be strong, passionate and aggressive, and I could also be outgoing, silly and fun,” Herrera says.

Josey Herrera

Herrera hugs Ashley Carpenter after being unveiled as a member of LSV, a secret honor society dedicated to improving the status of women, during the May 2013 Tap Day ceremony. Photo by Shane Epping.

Finding Social Justice

Many college students come to Mizzou to explore who they are and who they want to be. That might mean examining religious affiliations, researching different majors, changing political persuasions or investing in various relationships. For Herrera, that also meant examining gender identity and expression.

Associate Professor of Sociology Wayne Brekhus agrees gender deserves examination. “We should be more open to recognizing that gender identity is malleable like other identities. It’s not something that’s fixed and essential. The degree to which we treat gender as something that’s essential and innate is very different than how we treat other identities, such as political and religious identities.”

Friends and family reacted negatively as Herrera explored different identities during years growing up in Miami. Thinking negative body image and self-esteem issues were those of a typical teenage girl, Herrera now knows those struggles were rooted in the desire to look more masculine. “I remember I hated shopping and would avoid it at all costs,” Herrera says. “My mom and I would go to a store, and I would sneak off to the men’s section, but I’d never come back with anything.”

‘The degree to which we treat gender as something that’s essential and innate is very different than how we treat other identities, such as political and religious identities.’

In Columbia, Herrera felt liberated. “It was a really drastic change, not having to tiptoe around things,” Herrera says. “I was born in Miami but made in Missouri.”

Herrera found a safe space on the rink playing roller derby with the CoMo Derby Dames, trying out different personas, including Josie PulHitsHer, a nod to the American newspaper publisher and Herrera’s habit of reading newspapers during breakfast. Herrera also liked the idea of having a first name that sounds feminine but at Mizzou refers to someone who is masculine. Inspiration came from the surname of former Tiger running back Henry Josey (now with the Philadelphia Eagles).

“[Roller derby] built up my confidence and gave me the community support to be myself more,” Herrera says.

Herrera volunteers at the Women’s Center and the LGBTQ Resource Center and is a counselor at Community360, a 24-hour retreat for MU’s student leaders where participants develop awareness, acknowledgement and action steps to promote social justice in the community.

Elisa Glick, associate professor of English and women’s and gender studies, appreciates that student organizations make room for diversity, something the culture as a whole doesn’t do, she says. “The category of transgender only exists because we live in a society that imposes a pink versus blue gender binary on people. We live in a society in which multiple gender identities and expressions are silenced and erased. The problem isn’t those people who don’t fit the binary but rather the cultural imperative to be ‘normal’ with regard to gender.”

Getting involved in social justice organizations and making friends on campus was a way for Herrera to create familial support. Shy since adolescence, Herrera was becoming more outgoing.

Celebrating Stripes

After a news-reporting internship in Boston during summer 2013, which allowed further exploration of gender identity and expression, Herrera returned to Columbia ready to come out as transgender. Herrera thought it would be fun to participate in one of MU’s oldest traditions.

“When Josey started the Homecoming king campaign, it wasn’t, ‘I’m going to tear down the institution!’ says Struby Struble, BA ’04, coordinator of the LGBTQ Resource Center. “It was, ‘This is where I feel most comfortable. And I’m a student who deserves to be celebrated the way everyone else is.’ ”

‘This is where I feel most comfortable. And I’m a student who deserves to be celebrated the way everyone else is.’

With fondness, Herrera recalls the Memorial Stadium crowd’s roar of support during halftime of the Homecoming game Oct. 26, 2013. “Hearing the Women’s Center — because it was my sponsoring organization — get announced to a sold-out stadium was the best moment,” Herrera says. “All I needed was [to have] people [know] this space existed.”

Although Herrera’s coming out as transgender in such a public way was positive for the LGBTQ community, it also spawned a personal crisis. It created a deeper schism in Herrera’s family. It prompted many questions from family, strangers and the media, and Herrera didn’t have all the answers.

“There were these weird internal feelings of turmoil,” Herrera says. “I’ve felt a lot of pressure to identify a certain way. I just wanted time to sit down and think and write about it, but you’re a student and you work and you’re involved and you’re busy, so I didn’t really get the opportunity.”

What kept Herrera going was community and friendship. Hendrick, BA ’13, and Herrera would take road trips to see political and social activist poets Andrea Gibson and Lauren Zuniga. Or after a stressful week, the duo would brainstorm “self-care bombs,” such as surprising people with snacks during finals or making Christmas ornaments for friends around the holidays.

“I see it a lot when love is taken away from people, or they’re not given love from the sources that society tells us we’re supposed to get love from, then they kind of cut themselves off or wall themselves up,” Struble says. “But Josey has so much love to give.”

Josey Herrera

Paige Tenkhoff and Josey Herrera are announced as 2013 Homecoming queen and king candidates. Photo courtesy of Jake Hamilton/MU Department of Student Life.

Creating Intentional Communities

In April, Herrera led a Mizzou Alternative Break trip to Chicago where the students volunteered at El Rescate, a project of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center that provides housing and support services to homeless LGBTQ youth. The cultural center also offers an HIV and STD education program, a bilingual day care, an alternative high school, a community library and literacy program, and an obesity prevention program.

It opened Herrera’s eyes to the power of intentional communities, or planned residential cooperatives. “You have all these resources to make people’s lives better all on the same street,” Herrera says. “Marginalized communities often get moved around because of gentrification, so they built these physical infrastructures so they can’t be moved. It’s like, ‘No, we’re here. We’re not going anywhere.’ ”

Columbia will be home after Herrera’s scheduled graduation date of December 2014. As a reporter at KBIA and the Columbia Missourian, Herrera felt it was important to invest in the Columbia community. It’s like what Zuniga says in her poem “To the Oklahoma Progressives Plotting Mass Exodus”:

“Tear up the sidewalk. Plant a garden. Bake a squash casserole and invite all your terrified neighbors over. … Tell them you are staying here for them. Show them how to love someone you don’t understand. Just do something with those clenched fists and broken heart. … Progress is a series of small, bold moves. Don’t leave. Here is where we need you.” 

In August 2014, Herrera and five friends, including Hendrick, planted roots in Columbia and created an intentional living community that includes a house for the queer and transgender community. Herrera is putting down physical things in Columbia to build up the community. “I can’t expect to be supported if I’m not supporting other people,” Herrera says. “You have to give in order to get.” The roommates plan to hold events and workshops and to be a safe space for people in the community.

“When I came to Mizzou, I was like, ‘I’m going to go in, four years, and I’m out. Bye,’ ” Herrera says. “But there are still a lot of things that need to get done somehow. I love the direction Mizzou is moving in. I love it, but there is so much work to be done. Someone’s got to stay. Someone has to do the work.”