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Boston fraternity raises money for transgender member's surgery

February 28, 2013|By Marisa Gerber and Tina Susman | This post has been corrected, as indicated below.
  • Donnie Collins is a member of the Phi Alpha Tau fraternity at Emerson College.
Donnie Collins is a member of the Phi Alpha Tau fraternity at Emerson College. (Emerson College )

A rally for the transgender community echoed from an unexpected corner of the country this week: a Boston fraternity.

Members of Emerson College’s Phi Alpha Tau fraternity made national news by raising money to pay for Donnie Collins’ gender transition surgery.

The 20-year-old visual media arts student, who was born a girl, figured there was only one group that could make his $8,125 female-to-male breast surgery happen: his insurance company.

Then came the dreaded phone call. It was almost exactly 14 months since Collins had started taking testosterone and a few days after he pledged Phi Alpha Tau that he found out his insurance wouldn't pay for the surgery.  “I cried,” Collins said in a video he made this week and posted online.

His fraternity brothers stepped in. They recorded a video, posted it online and asked for help – for Collins and for others like him.

“We’re looking to raise $4,800,” one of the fraternity members, Christian Bergen-Aragon, said on the video posted on crowd-funding site IndieGogo this month.

“But we want to let people know it’s a very different sort of campaign we’re trying to run here,” he added, explaining that a major part of the effort was to get people to “make noise” about the situation. “We’re looking to tell a story more so than raise money. We’d much rather have 100 people donate  $10 than 10 people donate $100.”

By midweek, fellow members of his fraternity had a pleasant predicament to solve: Where should all the extra money go? By Thursday morning, people had pledged to donate more than $19,800.

They asked Collins , who said he wanted the money to go to the people who helped him. He picked the Jim Collins Foundation.

Tony Ferraiolo, a certified life coach who helped start the foundation, which raises money for gender-confirming surgeries, met Collins when he was a teenager at a boarding school in Connecticut.

“He was struggling, like any other kid who walks in,” Ferraiolo said. “Feeling like they’re alone.”

Over the last three years, though, he has marveled at Collins’ growth.  

“I watch them go from hopelessness to hopefulness,” Ferraiolo said. “When you believe in yourself, you’re unstoppable. And that’s exactly what Donnie Collins is.”

Ferraiolo got a message from Collins this week about the extra money. “I was in tears,” Ferraiolo said.

He was proud of Collins, but he had known the youth would do big things. It was the fraternity that surprised him.

“These guys are so cool,” Ferraiolo said. “For such a gendered-type of thing – a frat – to do this. Wow, I mean they’ve really raised the bar.”

While the rest of the country let out a collective “A fraternity did what?” Emerson College didn't view it as extraordinary.

Jason Meier, the college’s director of student activities, said he wasn’t surprised by what the school’s 111-year-old communicative arts fraternity did.

“We’ve always been very open and welcoming to the LGBT community,” Meier said. “When they decided to support Donnie, it was just another day.”

[For the record, 7:08 p.m. Feb. 28: An earlier version of this post misspelled the last name of Emerson College’s director of student activities as Meir. His name is Jason Meier.]

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marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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