Exercising Voice in Support of Trans Inclusivity: A Portrait of Mauve Shelly Kay

I was introduced to Mauve Shelly Kay a couple of years ago through my partner Daniel and quickly connected with her quick-wit, sharp humor and unabashed laugh. One thing you quickly realize when meeting Mauve is her soft approach to very tough topics and how she guides these discussions with ease, but also determination. She is determined to educate and advocate for transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people to foster inclusivity. Mauve agreed to share her work on campus to influence policy, processes and reduce institutional barriers. She shares her suggestions regarding steps needed to make improvements, as well as how cis-gender people can be a voice and join the fight on these critical issues. What follows is our conversation about her goals in moving equality and equity forward through intentionality in policy changes, and navigating the current campus climate.

Can you tell us a little about your background?

I have lived in Oklahoma since I was four years old. I grew up and went to school in Noble and have since lived in Norman, on the historical lands of the Osage and the Wichita and in the Absentee Shawnee and the Citizen Potawatomi Nations. I attended the University of Oklahoma and received my bachelor’s degree in Letters with a minor in History of Science. I loved these degrees because they allowed me to explore a wealth of subjects and look at them from an interdisciplinary perspective.

When did you begin your career at OU?

I started working at OU when I was a concurrent student [high school student taking courses] in 2008. I’ve been at OU for 10+ years now! I’ve been in my current position as an administrative assistant in the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost since 2014.

As someone who has been using her voice to challenge the status quo on campus and move equality forward for transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, what are you hoping to achieve?

I’ve been working on trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming equality since 2016, the year I came out. As a transgender and non-binary woman and member of the University of Oklahoma community, it is important that I exercise my voice in support of trans inclusivity on campus. Through my experience as a trans woman, discussions with other transgender people on campus and dialogues with OU community members and administrators, I hope to bring awareness and facilitate change in university policies that affect trans members of the community. These policies include name change processes, health insurance coverage, bathroom access and gender inclusive housing options, among others. Institutional barriers such as these place an undue burden on trans people to learn and navigate bureaucratic systems with little to no guidance.

Two things I’ve fought for are transgender healthcare coverage and updates to university name change procedure. I fought to assure that trans staff and faculty would retain their (minimal) gender affirmation medical coverage during the switch from Blue Cross to Cigna. As late as 2015, OU would not cover any trans-related healthcare, until a former student fought for and won coverage. I authored a policy document recommending changes to OU’s convoluted, bureaucratic and frankly Kafkaesque name change procedures. When I changed my name, I had to go to five different offices on campus to update my information. I still receive emails and paperwork addressed to my old name. I advocated for a single form name change procedure, where the individual would need to fill out one form, and the system would push this change to the multitude of databases that OU uses. Unfortunately, while improvements were made, the university did not go so far as to implement a single form procedure.

Can you tell us what steps are needed to move LGBTQ+ equality and inclusion forward?

I believe that policies that do not actively consider the needs of trans people are not merely inconvenient; they are harmful. It is emotionally distressing to have to repeatedly assert our identities, to out ourselves in unfamiliar spaces. These cannot continue to be matters for individual trans people to navigate on their own. There must be policy in place to secure the safety and wellbeing of transgender people at the University of Oklahoma. OU needs to take seriously the daily concerns of its LGBTQ+ students, staff, and faculty. Visibility does not pay the rent. Proclamations don’t fill prescriptions. Cis people cannot continue to compromise trans safety in our names, without our voices heard.

Regarding direct steps that need to be made, we need better and more affordable (read: free) healthcare services, mental healthcare and gender-neutral housing. We need a president willing to confront the deep inequalities and violence that OU was built upon. We need job security and housing security and food security. We need cis people to fight for us when we’re not in the room. We need invitations to join the discussions being had in the room. We also need payment for our labor as we teach others about these critical issues.

What are the emergent needs in OU’s transgender or non-gender binary population?

The majority of OU’s nondiscrimination policies are based on federal law and policy. As these nondiscrimination policies are stripped back by the Trump administration and the judiciary, OU needs to make clear that it will continue (or start) to protect its vulnerable populations. Though I don’t believe, given OU’s track record recently and historically, that the institution is interested in protecting anyone other than the cis white men who lead and profit from it.

How can and should we make changes to this, so all campus community members feel like they matter?

We have to begin by acknowledging OU as a settler institution built on stolen land. Until the lies of colonialism, the lies of the frontier tamed by whites, the western mythos of the land run and the oil boom and yes, the name “Sooners” are wrestled with by settlers (and Sooners) themselves, we will not be able to make the changes necessary to make everyone matter. Until the lies that we are progressive, we are the liberal heart of the state of Oklahoma, that liberal enlightenment is the beacon that casts out all evil are truly, truly examined, we will not be able to get past our own smugness to make changes on campus. OU is not the liberal paradise (or hell) that liberals (and conservatives) make it out to be. It is a place with deep-seated institutional and historical violence. It is not safe. Progress, moving forward cannot be a salve to our white guilt, an absolution of our sins. We must contend with our past and our present to build a future.

How are you feeling about being a member of the OU staff in the current climate? What have your experiences been as you have become more vocal about these issues?

For nearly a year, I can’t remember a conversation at work or in my personal life that [didn’t] mention the layoffs happening at OU. Staff live in constant fear of losing their jobs, with no idea when or where the next cuts will come. Our lives have been put on hold. How are we supposed to plan our futures when we don’t know if today is the day we get fired? Staff haven’t seen cost of living raises in nearly five years. And instead of supporting us, we’re put in constant fear for our livelihoods.

Gallogly criticizes the excess spending of the Boren administration, the unnecessary building projects and the new housing center while a building is being erected with his own name on it (Gallogly Hall). Gallogly’s vaunted financial savings are built on the backs of laid off staff, cuts to international and humanities programs, and putting vulnerable students in danger of deportation due to an unwillingness to delay bursar holds. Meanwhile he hires new vice presidents at $300k+ salaries.

Under capitalism and a complete lack of social safety nets, a job is life. Taking a job from someone puts them at risk, puts their family at risk, puts their health at risk with loss of healthcare, loss of food security, loss of housing security. And I don’t know where we’re supposed to go, as layoffs are rampant everywhere. Where are laid off workers supposed to go when the jobs are drying up in every sector?

Do you have any advice for us as we work to become a more safe and inclusive community?

Give vulnerable people money. Help us cover our healthcare costs. Help us make rent. Buy us lunch sometime! If you’re in a position of financial security (looking at you, tenured faculty and administrators) and you feel powerless against injustice, give money directly to your struggling employees. Redistribute your wealth directly rather than wait for Jim Gallogly to have an Ebenezer Scrooge change of heart. You can make this difference in people’s lives.

At proFmagazine we are focused on having fun and promoting self-care. What do you do for fun and how do you manage your self-care?

I’m a big horror movie fan and try to watch as many as I can, the grosser the better! I love to cook for people. I probably play too many video games, but they help me get out of my headspace and relax. Take me to an art museum and we’ll be friends forever.