Janet Miles, CAP-OM (janetmiles) wrote,
Janet Miles, CAP-OM

New Policies Accommodate Transgender Students

Chronicle of Higher Education

Amanda Stevens came out to her classmates before she knew any of their names. And it wasn't intentional.

At her orientation at the State University of New York at Albany, incoming students were told to divide by gender. Ms. Stevens, a transgender woman who identifies as female but is physically male, chose to go with the females. But in the middle of the session, one of the presenters turned to her and asked if she had made a mistake.

"Eventually, I had to out myself," Ms. Stevens says. "It was kind of embarrassing because, to this day, people in my class who I won't have remembered will say, 'Oh, you were in my orientation.'"

For many universities, accommodating transgender students is the next big challenge in becoming truly inclusive. As information about gender expression becomes more readily available, the number of people identifying as transgender at an early age has grown and, increasingly, students go to college already openly transgender. "The climate is changing," says Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and an expert on transgender issues.

Already almost 300 colleges have updated their nondiscrimination policies to include gender identity and expression, and more than 50 campuses have gender-neutral housing. But movement is still slow and scattered—often colleges wait until a student speaks out before discussing the issue—and even those that are ahead of the curve still haven't found all the answers.

"I don't think anyone has it all covered," Genny Beemyn says. "Every institution has a ways to go in terms of providing support and services, though there are definitely some colleges that have been at the forefront."
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Enlarge Image Colleges Rewrite Rules to Accommodate Transgender Students 2

Sally McCay, U. of Vermont

At the U. of Vermont, Keith Williams, the registrar, helped develop a student-information system that can track transgender students' preferred names.
close Colleges Rewrite Rules to Accommodate Transgender Students 2

Sally McCay, U. of Vermont

At the U. of Vermont, Keith Williams, the registrar, helped develop a student-information system that can track transgender students' preferred names.
First Steps

Albany eventually stopped separating students by gender at orientation after Ms. Stevens brought the issue to administrators' attention. But Ms. Stevens and other transgender students still have to request special accommodations in the dormitories, and they still have to e-mail professors individually to request that they use the students' preferred names and pronouns.

The University of Vermont is one of the only colleges that has found an elegant way for students to share their preferred names and pronouns with professors. The university created a software patch for its student-information system that puts students' preferred names and pronouns on class rosters and identification cards but retains their legal names on financial-aid and medical forms. Previously, students who wanted to be called by names different from their legal ones had to approach the registrar or their professors and explain. Essentially, they were forced to out themselves as transgender.

Vermont began discussing the change in 2003, after a student wrote a thesis on ways the university could become more transgender-friendly and specifically cited the student-information system. The proposal remained low on the priority list, however, until faculty members began voicing concerns, embarrassed when they accidentally called a transgender student by the wrong name.

It took six months and more than $80,000 in staff time to create the patch, but Keith P. Williams, the university registrar, says the investment was worth it. Already more than 700 students have taken advantage of the new capability. Though most just use it to list a nickname, such as "Bob" instead of "Robert," Mr. Williams says he knows of at least seven cases where the system was used by a transgender student.

"The customer-service aspect of this is immense," says Dot V. Brauer, director of Vermont's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning and Ally Services.

Mr. Williams is now working to make the software code available to other colleges that use the same software, SunGard's Banner system. He has spoken with SunGard about standardizing the preferred-name option, and is looking into distributing his code to interested colleges at no charge.

Vermont is now considering gender-neutral housing as well, a common first step for colleges trying to become more transgender-inclusive. In the past year, 18 institutions, including Connecticut College and Northeastern University, have passed or effected gender-neutral housing policies, according to the National Student Genderblind Campaign.

"There's only housing for men and women, and for a transgender person that can be a very uncomfortable experience, having to live with someone they don't identify with," says Emilia Dunham, a graduate of Northeastern who helped establish gender-neutral housing there.

When she arrived at Northeastern, Ms. Dunham says, the university would allow students to live with someone of the other sex only if they had had reassignment surgery. She began working with student leaders to construct a proposal that would allow men and women to live together, hoping to make housing more comfortable for transgender students and gay students.

The issue had been brought up before, Ms. Dunham says, but never made it as far as a formal proposal. Administrators ultimately approved the plan, and students can now choose to live with someone of the opposite gender through the normal room-selection process. (First-year students, however, must contact the housing office to request gender-neutral housing.)

Gender-neutral housing policies vary by college. Some designate a specific hallway or wing, while others integrate gender-neutral rooms throughout their dorms. Most offer the option only to upperclassmen, because of the difficulties of pairing students of different genders who do not know one another. Some, including Connecticut College, will reassign first-year students to gender-neutral rooms after they have had a chance to meet their classmates and find new roommates.

In devising gender-neutral housing policies, most colleges consider both transgender students and those who simply want to live with a friend of the opposite sex. Occasionally such proposals face resistance from administrators, parents, or students who are concerned about couples living together, but once people understand the impetus for gender-neutral housing, they tend to favor the idea.

"For some people, it was a new concept," says Amy P. Gauthier, director of Residential Education and Living at Connecticut College. "Once we had more conversations about it, people became more open to it."
'When Values Clash'

That's not to say that every proposed transgender-inclusive policy is readily accepted.

Ixchel Rosal, director of the Gender and Sexuality Center at the University of Texas at Austin, says the center has faced some resistance, mostly from hesitant parents and administrators, as it pushes for transgender-inclusive policies. The university only recently added gender identity to its nondiscrimination clause, and it is looking into gender-neutral bathrooms and housing.

"We're a public institution, so how do you create these public spaces that are welcoming and accommodating to all without anyone feeling their perspective and their values are not being honored?," Ms. Rosal asks. "When values clash, that becomes an obstacle."

Questions of values can also arise at single-sex colleges, which face special challenges in areas like student life and admissions as they grapple with how to be inclusive while remaining dedicated to their core missions.

At other colleges, money is the issue. Some have balked at the cost of changing a student-information system or adding sex transitions to their student health-care coverage.

But one of the biggest obstacles for colleges is that they are entering uncharted territory.

Until 10 years ago, Genny Beemyn notes, no one had discussed the idea of gender-neutral housing. Gender-neutral bathrooms were similarly rare, and colleges were just beginning to integrate sexual orientation into their nondiscrimination policies, never mind gender identity.

There are still a number of unknowns; specifically, administrators and students alike have been wrestling with how to make both Greek organizations and athletics—two traditionally sex-divided activities—welcoming to transgender students.

Shane L. Windmeyer, director of Campus Pride, an online resource for LGBT students, contends that membership in a fraternity or sorority should be based on a feeling of shared brotherhood or sisterhood.

"It is about the individual member buying into wanting to be a brother or wanting to be a sister," Mr. Windmeyer says. "It's not about the biological sex of the person wanting to be a brother or a sister."

But he says that few of the national fraternity and sorority organizations have taken up the issue, and that some transgender students avoid fraternities and sororities because they perpetuate the gender binary.

There are no real conclusions about how to accommodate transgender students in athletics, either. The NCAA requires that students compete based on their legal gender, usually determined by their sex. But when a female begins transitioning into a male, she often ends up excluded because she has to take hormones that can be considered illegal drugs under NCAA rules.

But for many colleges, discussions about Greek life or athletics remain a ways down the road.

At Albany, for instance, the top priorities remain adding gender-neutral bathrooms and updating the university's nondiscrimination clause. Plans could change, of course, and the university intends to continue responding to students' concerns—just as it did with its orientation.

"I don't think I ever would have thought about that, except a transgender student said, 'That was an uncomfortable situation for me to be in,'" says Christine A. Bouchard, vice president for student success. "It just makes it so much more of an educational process for all of us to hear from these students."

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