Music

My Name Is Ren

As you read this, there’s a good chance I’m practicing music. And if I’m practicing music, most likely it’s on a vibraphone. To me, the vibraphone feels natural. Playing it makes me, well, it just makes me happy. It isn’t an instrument you see very often. Maybe you’ve never even heard of one.

Only two people knew how to play [the vibraphone], so in a way it became my companion and a symbol of my own life experience. Different. But not by choice.

You could say the vibraphone and I have a lot in common.

If you were to read my bio, you wouldn’t find anything startling. I’m a music major who’s focused on jazz and soon to graduate from UCF. Right now I’m considering pursuing grad school or a career in music therapy in the near future — but really I’m taking time to figure out what’s right for me. Five or ten years from now, I hope to compose and produce my own music. I’m only 21 years old, so there’s a lot ahead for me to learn and a lot for me to dream.

Whatever I do music-wise, the vibraphone will be with me. I remember seeing it in a corner of my high school band room after I’d come out as transgender. In a school of 1,800 students, I felt very much alone, especially when kids harassed me. That’s when I noticed the vibraphone sitting there. Only two people knew how to play it, so in a way it became my companion and a symbol of my own life experience. Different. But not by choice.

My life changed when I arrived at UCF. Here I finally felt accepted. Never once have I felt “othered” on campus. I figured it would be that way when it came time to decide where I’d go to college. You just never know for sure until you move onto campus and start classes. The school met my three most important criteria: 1) a good music program, 2) a place where I could use Bright Futures to limit my debt, and 3) a supportive and safe LGBTQ community. Any high-school senior can relate to the first two. But only a very small percentage of us can truly relate to the importance of number three. We’ve been through a lot.

As a child, everyone called me by my given name, Cheryl. Nothing wrong with that. But even growing up I felt different from the girls I hung around. “I’m a tomboy,” I thought. Like everyone else, I went from that innocent stage through a few others. However, nothing seemed right. I’d hang out with guys — not for romance but because we were so alike — and wonder … why don’t I feel like a girl?

In my middle school, another girl was thinking of transitioning. Some of my friends joked that I could do that, too. I tucked the idea into the back of my mind. Then, in high school, things got really difficult for someone named Cheryl. Just walking down the halls and going to class and being called Cheryl was hard. I didn’t even recognize myself in the mirror. I hated it. This was not a phase that would pass.

And so I transitioned.

A friend suggested I use the name Ren, which I accepted temporarily. But then I discovered in Confucianism that Renmeans being genuine. So I kept it as my own. Then I decided to use Yve as my middle name, which is my grandfather’s name and honors my Haitian heritage.

And that leads me to my family. You can imagine that my mother didn’t respond well when I wrote her a letter detailing that I’m now a trans guy. She initially told me I could be a man, but not in her house and that I should throw out my clothes. So I stuffed all my dresses and skinny jeans into a trash bag. I only kept my t-shirts and basketball shorts. Two weeks later, mom took me to Burlington Coat Factory and bought me a whole wardrobe of men’s clothes. I’m not sure why she came around, but it meant a lot. My grandma has accepted me, and my aunt, my siblings, and my uncle on my dad’s side.

You’ll find a place where you can be yourself and where you won’t fear for your own safety. For me, this is the place.

I’m fortunate to have a relationship with my family, and to have a home at UCF. It’s no surprise that Campus Pride Index named UCF the Best College in Florida for LGBTQ+ students. The community is strong. Pride Commons is a place where we can hang out with each other. There are gender-inclusive restrooms on campusNursing students are being trained to treat trans patients. Before my freshman year, the admission application gave me options for housing with other transgender students. I roomed in a dorm with three other trans men, each of us with our own room. One of the most important life events is being accepted into my fraternity, Phi Mu Alpha. All those guys have been so supportive of me, especially my big brother, Blake, and my little brother, Hailey. I never imagined that level of support outside of an LGBTQ+ space.

My journey to graduation was full of challenges. I changed my major, had to move back home for a while, faced the same struggles college students across the nation dealt with during the pandemic along with struggling with PTSD. As much as I’ve learned in the classroom during my time in college, life lessons about persistence and being my own advocate. I learned to ask for help and leaned on support services. Knights Pantry and UCF Cares provided me free food and essential items. Counseling and Psychological Servicesprovided me the professional help and personal resources I needed to take care of my mental well-being. Student Health Services was my lifeline when I suffered a concussion this semester. UCF has so many resources and I find more every day. I would advise every student to do their research.

Through all of this, I was able to make an impact through Lavender Council, a student advisory board for the LGBTQ+ community at UCF. I helped facilitate Safe Zone Trainings and events to help LGBTQ+ students here connect and feel represented. I had the chance to attend Creating Change, the largest LGBTQ+ advocacy conference in the country. I connected with Estelli Ramos, an LGBTQ+ faculty member here who helped me and other students understand it’s OK to be ourselves and keep our faith. I even made efforts to start a student organization for trans masculine people here. And although I wasn’t able to fully form the group before my graduation or accomplish everything I set out to when I first started at UCF, I’m proud of what I have been able to do here. I learned so much more than I could have ever expected. I had two goals when I walked into this campus: become a better musician and a better advocate. I accomplished both, and had a lot of fun along the way.

I want to say thank you to all the wonderful people I’ve met in my time here. I met many great musicians, and other students determined to make a difference on campus. I received exceptional mentorship from faculty and staff at the College of Music and beyond. You all supported me through all of this and made my college experience that much better. There’s too many of you to name, but you know who you are.

Most people don’t know my story … until now. I’m willing to cross this bridge. Understand, people in our community aren’t looking for attention. We just want to be respected and to be seen as we are without issue, like anyone else. Some questions are not OK to ask, like, “Have you gotten the surgery?” It isn’t your business.

This story is far from over and far from perfect. I still struggle, I still make mistakes, but I feel fully equipped to deal with my current struggles and whatever else comes my way. I’m still figuring things out, but that’s what makes life fun. I don’t know where I’m going, but I love where I’m at. I can’t wait to see how far I go.

And for people who can relate to my story, know that where you are isn’t always where you’ll be. You’ll find a place where you can be yourself and where you won’t fear for your own safety. You don’t have to have all the answers, you don’t have to have your whole life planned out just because you have a degree.  For me, this was the place that taught me that great lesson, and many more. And it’s even better when my vibraphone is nearby.

Ren Joseph
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Tags: College of Arts and Humanities Diversity and inclusion LGBTQ Services Music Pegasus Briefs School of Performing Arts student

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