Former Niles resident to be recognized as true self for award ceremony

KALAMAZOO — Before Julia Ftacek accepts the Graduate Research and Creative Scholar Award Thursday evening, she will inevitably look down at the program that bears her name printed neatly across the paper, clutched in the hands of dozens of audience members. Then she will hear her name “Julia” called out as she is recognized for her exceptional research and work on the topic of 18th Century literature. 

While hearing or seeing one’s own name in public might seem insignificant to some, for Ftacek it will be a powerful moment where her true self is reconciled by the community. 

Ftacek, a 2009 Niles High School graduate, is a transgender woman. Growing up in Niles, Julia said she did not know much about what it meant to be transgender. It was not something taught in schools or that she had even heard much about. But she continually felt that something was amiss. 

“I was assigned male at birth and I felt that was not right essentially my whole life,” Ftacek said. “A number of LGBTQ issues were not covered or brushed aside [at school]. I had never seen a transgender person in the media, unless it was at the extent of a joke. It was harder then to even know what I should be feeling or understand what I was feeling.”

Ftacek is now in her second year of earning a doctorate in English literature at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. On campus, she is also a teaching assistant who helps to guide students through introductory literature courses. 

As Ftacek experienced, coming out to society to reveal one’s true identity when formerly recognized as someone else does not just take bravery, but a lot of work. There were her classes, professors and people that she interacted with daily who know her as someone else.

“In academia, your name carries a lot of currency in regards to publication and conferences and that’s how people know you is a name,” Ftacek said. “I’ve had to come out like this to people a number of times already. It never feels easy.”

Ftacek recognized that a huge part of her transition was made less difficult by the resources provided by the WMU campus, which included access to mental health professionals and physicians that could help her on her journey to transition.

While her close friends knew the transition she was going through, others did not. When she settled on the name Julia a couple of months ago, she began taking steps to convey her true self to others. So, when she was notified about a month ago that she would receive an award, she knew that the name she wanted to hear called to receive it was her true one. 

Ftacek contacted personnel from the graduate program via email about two weeks ago and explained the situation. She asked the program to recognize her as Julia Ftacek. Initially, she said she was apprehensive about the type of response she might get from the request. 

“It’s just a strange thing to tell someone that this name you have known me as for so long or this name that is in the system is not who I am,” Ftacek said. “It is an anxiety inducing moment.”

Ftacek said she also worried over the more “mundane element” that perhaps it was too late and the programs had already been printed.

Ftacek got a response from the college on April 16 that she said was very moving.

“I ended up posting it on Facebook because it was so sweet,” Ftacek said. “Not only was it not a problem, but the person in contact with me was extremely sensitive to the issue.”

The email continued to say that the college seeks to recognize and protect people’s identities and offered Ftacek further resources and a space to talk about the issue if she felt the need.

For Ftacek, the acknowledgement from the college meant more than just a name.

“To finally start being recognized as ‘yes’ what you felt is legitimate and the identity you choose to present as from now on is also legitimate, that is a powerful thing,” Ftacek said. “Especially when it is tied to my career and my time at school. To have that recognized is unimaginably powerful.”

While Ftacek said she is not the first transgender person to go through this on WMU’s campus, she hopes that every victory like this one inspires others to be true to themselves. 

“I was hoping that if there is someone out there questioning their identity and if they saw how relatively easy it has been for me and how sort of happy I am being accepted that way that it would help them out, too,” Ftacek said. “Do what feels safe and comfortable. But also, I would suggest not being afraid of advocating for yourself. If you understand yourself as safe in that environment, stand up for yourself.”

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