College is where some build new identities and find different ways of being. Many are in a new town away from childhood friends and family, freer than ever to explore ourselves, and decide who or what to be.
“Once I declared my identity, I was more comfortable with presenting as my identity,” Sam Doss says. Doss identifies as a non-binary person, or genderqueer. Being away from home gave them the freedom to express themselves the way they wanted to. Doss works as a cook in the Department of Sports Nutrition at the University of Oregon. “I had to explain it to my cis friends,” Doss says. “They didn’t know it automatically. I was born female, but I have never identified with female. And that takes a long time to figure out because gender is not something that is taught in schools. The idea that there are more than two choices isn’t taught.”
Media coverage of transgender people and issues are becoming more prevalent, though it might be difficult for cisgender people (people who identify with their biological sex) who have little to no knowledge of transgender communities to understand what being transgender is.
Transgender students are a variety of ages, ethnicities, races, economic classes, and sexual orientations. Some are out and some are not. Some will identify strongly with the language of the transgender community, others won’t. Some will transition and live as a gender different from the one assigned at birth, some won’t. And some will choose a path that lies in between or completely outside of society’s concept of what gender can be.
The perception of gender is generally confined to male and female by society it perceives it that way. But, people are more complex than that. Simplifying people into categories with the criteria of having either a vagina or a penis is arbitrary. To many trans people, that binary reinforces a way of looking at gender that mitigates personal experiences. In essence: gender is not defined by what’s between your legs. When thinking about trans people and trans issues, it needs to be said that there is not a single way to be transgender, just like there is not a single way to be a woman or a man.
Cisgender students face some of the same challenges as transgender students: Do I have enough time to eat breakfast before class? I have an assignment due tomorrow, but I haven’t even looked at it yet. What classes should I take next term? But there are many challenges on campus that trans individuals must face that many other students have the privilege of not having to think about. Some of these challenges include: inclusive housing, non-discriminatory health care and support; sex-segregated spaces like bathrooms and locker rooms; potential discrimination based on expression of gender identity; records and documents that reflect their gender identity.
Doss says that presenting the way they want to is possible because the Pacific Northwest is a generally safe place to be out, specifically the campus area. “I can present how I want, and feel fairly safe doing it, which is nice because a lot of parts of the country, or the world, you can’t,” they say. “I do not speak on behalf of all genderqueer people; we are individual humans like everyone else, but being trans around campus is being part of a community that is fairly strong and awesome.”
But this doesn’t mean that Doss and others in the trans community around campus don’t experience some negatives. Doss says they have been misgendered at work, “I’m kind of rocky with my boss, but in Oregon, trans identities are protected. In a lot of states they aren’t. But as far as friends go, once people understood what I was trying to say, they were pretty much in support of it.”
The University of Oregon is fairly safe and accepting of trans people. In a 2012 post from The Advocate, a news source for the LGBTQ community, the university was reported to be in the top 10 trans-friendly colleges and universities in the U.S. The list was compiled by the Campus Pride Index. “Only about ten percent of colleges and universities have trans-inclusive nondiscrimination statements,” the article says.
Nondiscrimination policies that make campus so trans-friendly include gender identity/expression with transition-related medical expenses covered under student health insurance. With transition costs covered, trans people who are transitioning can focus on their mental and physical health. Dr. Brent Horner, staff psychologist at the University Counseling and Testing Center (UCTC) says, “We prioritize and make a point of trying to make ourselves available, accessible, safe, and affirming to our transgender students.” The Health Center as well as the UCTC ask about gender identity without making students check female/male boxes.
According to Dr. Horner, the Health Center has created the Transgender Care Team. The Team works with trans students as a support service so that they can start hormone therapy on campus at the Health Center. And the two branches of on-campus health work together closely to make sure that they are on the same page when it comes to health standards.
Currently, the Health Center and UCTC work under The World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH) standard. If the UCTC wants to help students gain access they must agree follow this standard as well. To get trans-specific health care, such as hormones, there are four eligibility requirements a person has to meet: age of majority (typically 18 in the U.S.); persistent, well-document gender dysphoria; capacity to make a fully informed decision and consent to treatment; and, if significant medical or mental health conditions are present, those conditions must be reasonably well-controlled.
“For our purposes, we don’t need to see a paper trail of gender dysphoria,” Dr. Horner says. “I think there’s a narrative out there that often trips people up where if you’re trans you knew it at age 3. I think, for some people, that narrative is close to the truth, but I don’t think it’s most people.” Dr. Horner believes that all people recognize their gender identity at different places in life. This narrative is not something the UCTC goes by, and even though it’s a common fear, people shouldn’t be worried about trying to fit a certain narrative in their search for health care. He also wants to emphasize that having a mental health concern does not prohibit people from receiving support, something he cites people are afraid of. With that fear comes the potential to hide their true feelings. “It is so normal to feel anxious when you are experiencing dysphoria and getting misgendered left and right,” Dr. Horner says “I would much rather this be a place where we can talk openly about that and we can support students than having students think they have to propose a perfectly composed kind of case.”
Elle Mallon, who is a non-binary trans femme and identifies with “she/her” pronouns, is the Gender, Sexuality, and Diversity advocate for the ASUO. She doesn’t think WPATH is the best system out there. She has been working with the Health Center to get a different standard of care. She says that WPATH is a “paternalistic approach to trans people and their bodies,” and advocates for a system of informed consent. Informed consent “lets people know what they are getting into and lets them do it. This is the standard of care for cis people, Mallon says.“But when it’s trans people you have to have this production to get everything together.”
Dr. Horner shares Mallon’s concerns about the WPATH system. “People feel pathologized, stigmatized. There’s something really hurtful and painful about that,” he says. “I don’t blame people for being pissed. And I don’t blame people for being sensitive and careful.” Bodily autonomy is a huge trans issue. Being trans used to be seen as a disorder or character flaw, but this is not the case now. Dr. Horner explains that the current diagnosis is gender dysphoria, which is progress, but also still limiting. He finds there are areas that can be improved on and stopping at what has been done for trans people now would not be beneficial to them. And his sentiment seems to be shared among his peers, “I believe the team feels pretty strongly about seeing where we unintentionally create barriers because our hope is not to get in the way,” Dr.Horner says. “Our hope really is to provide access.” In the future, Dr. Horner wants to see the system simplify. The current system and team is still learning and it will take time. Dr. Horner sees improvement, but there is still work to be done to make it better.
Along with the Health Center and UCTC, the university is taking steps to make the campus more trans-friendly. Already it has made it possible for students to use a chosen first name, rather than a legal name (if it hasn’t been changed on legal documents) on campus records and documents such as directory listings and course rosters. Students can also change their gender on their campus records without evidence of medical intervention, making it inclusive of trans people who don’t wish to go through, or can’t go through, medical procedures for whatever reason. And there are gender inclusive restrooms in centrally located buildings that are open and accessible to all students. But the work is not done yet. Not all buildings have gender-neutral bathrooms, health care standards still have room for improvement, and information about services provided to the trans community are not always stated explicitly or easily accessible. In Mallon’s position with the ASUO she helps run campaigns on campus. “This year, we’ve been working on a campaign to get more gender inclusive bathrooms on campus and make them findable,” she says. Doss describes the campaign as trying to get all single-stall restrooms labeled and signs changed to be gender inclusive in every building. Doss says that a lot of health issues come up due to non-inclusive bathrooms such as “purposeful water deprivation and bladder issues.”
According to a study done by the Williams Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law, 54 percent of transgender people have experienced health complication because of the lack of access to gender-neutral bathrooms. The goal of the university’s bathroom accessibility campaign is to create spaces that will make people who are part of the trans community feel safe and decrease the chances of health problems. There are many groups on campus helping the campaign including the Women’s Center, the ASUO Executive Branch, and the LGBTQESSP (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Education Support Services Program). Mallon mentions that the campaign has been going well and the last step is to get commitment in writing from the Provost’s office.
One other group helping with the campaign is the university’s gender inclusive Greek Chapter, Theta Pi Sigma. Mallon, along with being the diversity advocate for ASUO, is a member of the group. She says that the chapter “was founded on our campus with the intent of creating a specifically queer space within Greek Life and also try to eliminate a lot of the reasons why people don’t do Greek Life. “We try to make it as affordable as possible and as welcoming to people of all identities.”
Mallon has also worked within the ASUO Senate to make their space more inclusive by encouraging them to use better terminology when they do pronoun check-ins. She has supported adding a trans advocate, and queer student of color advocate to the LGBTQESSP. She, along with other advocates, would like to see a pronoun policy on DuckWeb that is similar to the first name policy where someone could choose the pronoun they identify with so it would appear next to their name on the roster. Mallon also focuses on getting cultural competency training for faculty, staff, and even students. “The transgender community is a lot bigger than people realize,” she says. “The problem is that it’s very spread out. There’s not a trans student union where people can gather and feel safe in their identity. We have the LGBTQA, but sometimes you get people in there who don’t really understand transness or don’t know how to be respectful to trans people. It’s not that they intend to be disrespectful it’s just that there are mistakes made.”
For prospective student Wesley Ryan, who identifies as male and uses he/his pronouns, the trans community is a tight knit group with lives just like everyone else. He finds that it is time for trans people to be more open. Not just around cis people, but around fellow trans as well. “There are trans people who never want to be publicly trans and I want them to be able to do that,” he says. “But the only way they can live the way they want to do is for others to be visible and be visible with other trans people.” Ryan wants cis people to see that transgender people are just that, people. “I think a lot of cis people forget that trans lives exist before we’re murdered, before we kill ourselves. We also really like things like: less discrimination at work, a place to live, and affordable health care; reasonable things. I just wish people would remember that more often. We don’t just die tragically for your cause. We also live,” he says.
Doss and Mallon share the same sentiment as Ryan. People should be treated with respect as human beings, transgender or not. “I’m just a person like everyone else,” Doss says. “I get up early in the morning. I put on my uniform. I walk to work. Serve breakfast. Get off by 1pm. Go workout for like an hour. Go on the computer, Netflix, or hang out with friends. Like a normal person.”
Safety and inclusion of all students on campus does not stop with rules and laws about anti-discrimination. It starts with changing the community’s mind about trans individuals. As a campus community, we need to educate ourselves to make sure that campus is a place where everyone feels welcome. Although it has already been said, it needs to be said again: trans people are human beings and should to be treated as such. Laws do not change the underlying problems in the way people think and act, but with some work and shifting the way we collectively think about the possibilities of people and gender we can make campus a safe space for everyone to live, explore, and learn.
In an earlier version of this story, we improperly used terminology which may have been offensive to members of the trans community. We apologize. — Ethos