A question of gender: a handful of schools are reaching out to the growing populations of transgender students, but faced with housing shortages and other challenges, accommodating them isn't so easy.
A Microcosm of Society
Despite the various ways in which transgender--or "trans"--students define themselves, there is one thing they tend to agree on--that traditional dorm life, particularly the idea of being assigned a same-sex roommate, is disconcerting. Unlike typical roommate concerns ("Will he snore?" "Will she be messy?"), transgender students' fears are far more serious. They wonder: "Will I be understood? "Will I feel threatened?" As it is, homophobia is stilt prevalent across U.S. campuses, just as it is outside university gates.
"We still live in a community where being 'out' in a residence hall isn't necessarily a positive experience," says Jeanine Bessett, GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) member of the Association of College and University Housing Officers (www.acuho.ohio-state.edu) and assistant director of Residence Education at the University of Michigan. "We still have our share of harassment--things written on doors and walls, and other anti-gay behavior."
In fact, FBI data show that 37 percent of hate crimes reported by colleges and universities in 2002 were based on sexual orientation more than any other category of prejudice-an increase of about 24 percent over 2001. And while the world in general is becoming more accepting of the gay population (as evidenced by a few states' recent attempts to Legalize gay marriages), transgenderism is an entirely different concept. "Homosexuality is one thing. +But, gender identity is even harder for folks to get their minds around," Bessett says.
Furthermore, the college campus is, by nature, a gendered space. Its physical design, equipment, and Labeling dictates male- and female-designated spaces, white its social architecture reflects values of the predominant heterosexual culture. It is hardly a transgender-friendly Landscape. Then again, transgender students are only one of many campus minorities. In fact, it's difficult to gauge the size of transgender populations on and off campus. "Even just trying to estimate the transsexual population is impossible, since no one funds studies of trans people," Currah says. In addition, adds Bessett, the transgender label is highly subjective.
Rise in Activism
But trans students haven't Let the public's common misperception of them stifle their efforts to be heard and acknowledged. In fact, they've never been so vocal. While some trans students have recently confronted administrators directly, others have formed advocacy groups or joined forces with on-campus GLBT groups, for support. And, contrary to assumption, transgender students do not attend only uber-Liberal, East Coast colleges; they are in number at colleges and universities nationwide, and are making their presence known.
There are many reasons for the surge of activism. "Over the past decade, trans people have begun to speak out about their Lives more than ever before," says Jamison Green, board member of the Transgender Law & Policy Institute (TLPI). "This has opened the door for people who experience gender variance; to not only recognize themselves, but also to find a social framework for their experience at a younger age, and to be less afraid to speak out themselves."
Transgender freshmen, because they are often required to Live on campus, have been particularly vocal about their housing concerns. In truth, most freshmen want the experience of Living on campus, and transgender students are no different. The key, say those close to the issue, is to find a way for these students to Live comfortably in the context of traditional housing. And it's not as if transgender students have been asking for separate building wings or special dorms; typically, they request a "single" dorm room and easy access to a unisex bathroom. Some transgender students are even willing to be paired with transgender allies or other transgender students.
AT BROWN UNIVERSITY, LEFT, students with "unusual circumstances" are eligible for single rooms, but there are no guarantees. BELOW, alternative Lifestyle students are welcomed with rainbow cake to Brown's LGBT Resource Center.
Unfortunately, their housing needs can't always be met. As much as schools want to be gender sensitive and accommodating, right now many are Limited by a shortage of dorms and a tack of funds to build more. In an effort to be fair, many schools have implemented a housing-assignment Lottery system. But for the transgender student, an unlucky tottery number can be devastating.
At Northeastern University (MA), a junior who identifies as mate though he was born female had an unfortunate Lottery experience in his sophomore year. He repeated his request for a single dorm room after having lived in a single his freshman year. "He was told that there wasn't enough housing to go around and that he shouldn't hold his breath for a single," says Carol Lyons, co-advisor of Northeastern's undergraduate GLBT student group, and dean of Career Services. The student was, however, put on a waiting list so tong there was little hope of securing a single. In the meantime, he expressed that he would not be comfortable Living with females, especially since he was undergoing male hormone treatments at the time. Despite his plea, he was told that he would have to be placed with a female roommate while he waited indefinitely for the elusive single room. Because he was pre-surgical, the university considered him to be female. "Living on a female floor would have been awful and unacceptable," Lyons says. The transgender student never did get the single room, and so ended up living off campus.
Case-by-Case Decision Making
What's to prevent this kind of scenario from happening again and again?
"That's a good question," Lyons says, adding, "I don't have an answer for that." In fact, Northeastern is just one of the many schools that have adopted the somewhat controversial case-by-case approach to solving the transgender housing problem. Without a structured policy in place, the fear is that some transgender students will indeed fall through the cracks and feel compelled to move off campus or even remove themselves from the school altogether, in search of more transgender-friendly environments. "Handling decisions case by case just isn't good enough," Lyons says.
Still according to Christine Phelan, a Northeastern spokesperson, case by case is the only viable way to handle such situations. "Housing is at a premium here; we have students clamoring to stay on campus. While we strive to be sensitive to all our students, there are issues of supply and demand," she says. "Furthermore," she adds, "by creating a sweeping policy for transgender students, you assume that each student wants to be treated the same way, which is untrue. Each student has different needs."
Gender-Neutral Living: A Solution?
Clearly, the challenged campus housing climate has made it more difficult for many schools to accommodate students with special needs. Yet, colleges and universities have been accommodating students with disabilities and emotional and social disorders for years.
Says Justin Harmon, director of University Communications for Wesleyan University (CT), "We accommodate students who are sight or hearing impaired; we know which facilities are best for them and place them accordingly. Why not do that for transgender students?"
That point of view was behind Wesleyan's decision to pioneer the first-ever "gender-neutral" floor last fall Simply put, in a gender-neutral living situation, students are not required to room with others of the same sex. And while gender-neutral living is typically intended for students who are transgender, students who identify with GLBT issues, and even some heterosexual students, also find this a comfortable option. Wesleyan's floor features 12 beds and eight rooms--including a combination of singles and doubles--and accommodates both freshmen and upperclassmen. Surprisingly, though, the housing option will be eliminated next year.
"It was an experiment; a worthwhile one," Harmon says. "We were trying to solve the challenge of roommates. We Learned what we set out to learn and we know what we need to, in order to go forward." The truth of the matter is that the floor fell victim to too much publicity, says Harmon. "The crash of media attention made it impossible to protect those students' privacy. We became a target," he explains. "Not only did we receive lots of hate mail from the religious right, but we risked segregating and labeling kids in the hall--some of whom were not transgender, but were sympathetic to those who were." Going forward, Wesleyan will now handle students' requests on the infamous case-by-case basis. Fortunately for Wesleyan, Harmon says, the school has the facilities--enough singles, and enough unisex bathrooms--to accommodate the special-needs students that way.
The Domino Effect
Other schools are adopting versions of Wesleyan's original gender-neutral housing approach. The University of Southern Maine just announced that, next fall, two of its dorms will offer gender-neutral living. One will house a gender-neutral floor while another will offer randomly designated gender-neutral rooms--both options will be available primarily to upperclass students. USM will not assign roommates; students will make roommate requests.
"The only criteria to live on the floors is to be a matriculated, full-time student," says Denise Nelson, director of Housing at the university. "We're not asking their reasons for living there, or who they're living with. It doesn't matter to us."
The concept was instituted as a pilot program, Nelson says, developed in response to requests from students and parents, to accommodate a broader range of students--whether siblings, transgender, disabled, or heterosexual students. The university has set aside 50 beds, including a combination of singles, doubles, and four-person suites. In order to make the students more comfortable, the new housing application will feature a write-in box for gender, which students can fill in as appropriate.
"Gender-neutral living reflects what's happening in society," says Nelson. "When you're 20 years old and living off campus with your brother, best friend, or boyfriend, no one is asking what your relationship is, why you're living with that person, or questioning whether you should be. Residential life programs are just trying to mirror the options that students have access to in the greater community."
Understandably, some schools have real questions about offering gender-neutral housing. "What happens if it fills up and people who need the floor can't get it?" asks Steve Wisener, associate director of Residential Life at Carleton College (MN). "Would it be first come, first served? What about parents' reactions?" Currently, Carleton College doesn't have any formal housing policy in place for transgender students, though a transgender box was recently added to the school's housing form. "We've already had one student check the box, and we're in the process of figuring out what a good accommodation for that student would be," Wisener says. "The more proactive approach we can take, the better. We honestly believe that students are going to come to us with these issues, so why wait for them? We'd rather be the ones to set the wheels in motion."
A Question of Gender
Brown University (RI), for one, doesn't see the need for gender-neutral housing, and doesn't offer single dorm rooms to freshmen. "Transgender students would probably end up with a roommate," says Mark Nickel, director of the Brown News Service. "Ideally, we'd like to match them up with another transgender student. But that doesn't always happen." Nickel says that students with "unusual circumstances," or those who offer a compelling reason to live in a single, are eligible for this option. "Being transgender is not a compelling enough reason," he maintains. However, Brown is making one kind of effort to reach out to its transgender population: On the housing questionnaire this fall, in addition to the "male" and "female" classifications, students will be able to check a "gender-neutral" box.
"We chose the term 'gender-neutral' because we feet it covers a wide range of gender expressions," Nickel says. "It gives students a more convenient way of self-identifying. It also takes the responsibility of initiating this dialogue off the student." With the addition of the questionnaire, Nickel says, the university hopes to get an improved sense of its transgender population so that it can better place trans students in comfortable living situations.
Another way to accommodate trans students is via "special-interest" housing. The University of Massachusetts at Amherst has had great success with its 11-year-old "2 in 20 Program," a residential community for GLBT students and their allies that was student-initiated.
"We're ahead of the curve on the transgender issue," says Matthew Patashnick, a residence director at the university. "It was a complicated procedure to create this safe place, and there were protests on campus because a lot people viewed it as segregated housing. But it's not, it's a community." Some 45 students currently live on the "2 in 20" floor--about 10 of whom identify as transgender. "It first started out as 10 to 12 students, and for the last few years, we've actually had a waiting list," says Patashnick. "Some students are just happy to Live in the building even if they don't physically live on the floor. The building itself is very supportive of the floor, and looks out for it."
Although special-interest housing is working well at UMass Amherst, gender-neutral housing is not an option for the university--not yet, at least. "We are bound by certain university regulations that mandate that a student must be assigned to a roommate of the same legal gender," says Patashnick. "This has definitely been an obstacle. But since only people who identify as GLBT or allies can live on the floor, everyone who lives there is accepting."
Tufts University (MA) also has a similar housing option: the Rainbow House. Built in 1998, it boasts eight rooms (two of which are doubles), and 10 beds. The House's mission is "to provide lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and ally students a housing option where their sexual orientation will not be an issue of conflict," according to the Tufts Web site. In a forward-looking approach to the issue, the university Web site now has a "Housing Options for Transgender Students" page, which is easily accessible from the GLBT site.
"Tufts has always considered a student's special circumstances on a case-by-case basis," says Siobhan Houton, a spokesperson for the institution. "This year, we just pointed out that the policy for special consideration still exists." White Rainbow House rooms are available to upperclassmen only, freshmen, too, will be accommodated, says Houton--in single rooms within traditional housing. Students are picked to live in Rainbow House based on their safe-space concerns, the level of their participation in the Tufts GLBT community, and diversity (gender, race, and class year). White interest in the Rainbow House can vary, Houton says this year the school had a waiting List for the rooms.
Preparing for the Future
As the transgender community grows, and many predict it will, schools will have to reevaluate their current housing policies and legislation.
"Schools are still trying to figure out how to handle these students," says Gary Schwarzmueller, executive director of ACUHO. "Oftentimes, the solution for one group of students puts others at a disadvantage." Still, schools cannot just ignore this growing population of transgender students, he points out.
And according to TLPI's Green, "People whose gender expression is outside the 'norm', or who are undergoing a transition, should have every right to share housing with people who are not going to ridicule or attack them. Any prejudice that causes people to suffer must be challenged, and gender is an area of human experience that is only now being openly investigated and discussed."
As for the school administrators who believe their institutions don't have transgender students, the experts say: Think again.
"It's still an issue on the fringe," says Schwarzmueller, but he adds, "Just like anything else, ultimately it will leak into the mainstream."
Law and Order
One way for schools to make transgender students (as well as faculty and staff) feel supported is to pass laws that protect them. Having legislation in place makes it easier for schools to create and enforce transgender-friendly housing practices. "A lot of it has to do with legislation. Many schools are moving toward adding non-discrimination policies that include gender identity, which is a step in the right direction," Says Jeanine Bessett, GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) member of the Association of College and University Housing Officers (ACUHO; www.acuho.ohio-state.edu) and assistant director of Residence Education at the University of Michigan.
More than 20 schools have already adopted this kind of legislation (including Connecticut's Wesleyan University), and about 10 others (such as Boston's Northeastern University) are currently considering amending their non-discrimination policies in such a manner, according to the Transgender Law and Policy Institute (www.transgenderlaw.org).
"Then there are universities that tack on the language to their policy but don't do much else," says Shannon Minter, TLPI board member and attorney. "Fortunately, most use it as a basis to adopt detailed anti-discriminatory policies. And part of what it means not to discriminate is to provide safe, appropriate housing."
To find out more about various college and university transgender policies, go to www.transgenderlaw.org/college.--AK
Top 20 Gay-Friendly Colleges
Gay Community Accepted Schools (according to The Princeton Review, 2004 edition)
New York University Sarah Lawrence College (NY) Mount Holyoke College (MA) Smith College (MA) University of California-Santa Cruz New College of Florida Grinnell College (IA) Bryn Mawr College (PA) Wells College (NY) Wellesley College (MA) Harvey Mudd College (CA) Bard College (NY) Boston University Reed College (OR) Barnard College (NY) Vassar College (NY) Macalester College (MN) Carleton College (MN) Emerson College (MA) Haverford College (PA)
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|Date:||Jun 1, 2004|
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