I knew I was in trouble when my first letter from my dream school addressed me by the wrong name.
Frantic, I called the college, explaining that I was transgender, and informing them of my chosen name and pronouns. The person on the phone apologized profusely, said they would update their records, promised to fix the mistake.
However, from my experience as an undergraduate, I knew that what I was told was too good to be true. Seldom is anything “fixed.” I remembered how my face flushed when the wrong name was called out at graduation just months before, outing me in front of my entire graduating class; I remembered the dread I felt, being misgendered at the beginning of every semester. Mistakes like these aren’t fixed with a phone call, no matter how many times you call.
The best you can hope for is an apology, and in the end, that’s all I got.
If there’s anything I’ve learned during my college years, it’s this: When you’re a transgender university student, it is a constant battle to be recognized as your authentic self — even at the most progressive schools in the country.
I am a transmasculine graduate student at a women’s college. Despite not being a woman, I believed that I would feel at home. My college holds a legacy of social justice activism, and a firm commitment to diversity; I had high hopes, sharing this idea that women’s colleges are on the cutting-edge of trans* inclusion. However, upon arriving, I learned firsthand the distance that we still have to go.
In recent months, a number of women’s colleges, mine among them, have received high praise for establishing an official admissions policy that admits transgender students. This is certainly a step in the right direction. Whether or not the official admissions policy states it, there will always be gender diversity at women’s colleges — acknowledgement of this is important. And as safe spaces for people of marginalized gender, women’s colleges are uniquely situated to meet the needs of transgender students.
However, most trans* students will tell you that things are not always as they might seem. Universities across the country, women’s colleges included, are doing a whole lot of recruiting — but what does this mean for admitted students? Many trans* students, including myself, do not always feel safe or respected once they arrive. Numerous universities have made serious efforts to bring greater numbers of LGBTQ students to their campuses, but upon admission, these students find that the institutions are ill-equipped to meet their needs.
In my opinion, bringing transgender or queer students to a campus that is not safe is nothing short of irresponsible.
From day one, it was a struggle for me to even be seen. The battle began with my school ID, which staff members insisted could not have my actual name on it, but rather, would have my birth name. Even after coming out as trans* and explaining my situation, a staff member turned to a coworker and said, “She wants her ID to have a nickname.” She? Her? Nickname?
It was a slap in the face. Why wouldn’t they recognize my identity on a card that wasn’t even a legal form of identification? Why didn’t staff members know how to handle the situation? I eventually got my ID with the name Sam on it, but it took leaping through flaming hoops and tap-dancing on my hands before they would let me do it (metaphorically speaking, of course).
I was outraged to find out later that there were other trans* students who were not so lucky, and did not win this battle.
And it wasn’t just one incident. It was a systemic issue at the college, a constant that I came to expect. It was followed by numerous letters and emails where my birth name was consistently used, despite having “Sam” in the preferred name registry. Even after contacting numerous staff members to clarify my name and pronouns, it was as if I were invisible.
A staff member even said, quite flippantly, that the problem would be solved if I would “just legally change my name.” As if there aren’t complex reasons for why transgender people delay or do not legally change their names at all.
I applied to this college as Sam, live my life as Sam, am known and move through this world as Sam. My transition and naming of myself were powerful steps in living my fullest, most authentic life. Many folks wonder why the name and pronouns matter so much. It’s an issue of recognition and validation — as I’ve mentioned before, when we neglect to validate someone’s identity, it can make them feel unsafe, disrespected, and excluded.
Every financial aid consultation, every scheduling phone call, every interaction with staff became triggering and stressful — after one too many birth names and one too many “ma’ams,” I began to wonder if this commitment to transgender students was really just a front.
Why was it so difficult to get my name right?
By connecting with other transgender students, I discovered that I was not alone in my struggles. A fellow grad student told me that as a trans guy, he was placed in an all-women’s dorm his first year on campus, and faced resistance from administrators who told him he could not be moved; similarly, his diploma and alumni records defaulted to his birth name, a name he never once used at the college.
To be clear: Students should always be referred to by their chosen name, in every form of communication, which sends the clear message that the college respects and validates their identity. Further, the diploma they receive should follow suit – a diploma earned by Joe Smith should be awarded to Joe Smith. This should be simple, and it is not an issue of technicality or legality, but instead, an issue of dignity.
There were other major issues that I had to see to believe. I, too, struggled with housing. My college offered me no assistance in finding safe off-campus housing, asking me, in all seriousness, if I’d ever heard of Craigslist. I had moved across the country to an unfamiliar city, and had no idea where a transgender person could find somewhere safe to live. I was stuck.
Horrifyingly, I also found out that SAFE training simply did not exist for staff members — there was no telling if they even knew what I meant when I said I was trans*.
Without proper training, there is no way a college can consider themselves qualified to handle the increasing number of transgender students on their campus.
I am proud of these colleges for changing their admissions policies, and excited for the next wave of trans* students who enter these colleges. But I am also afraid for them. While admitting transgender students into women’s colleges is an important milestone, the fact still remains that many trans* students still struggle to have their identities recognized once they step foot on campus, and still struggle to find safe housing and safe spaces, both of which are essential.
Transgender students shouldn’t have to face an uphill battle when they enter these universities, especially those that advertise themselves as being inclusive. Yet in my experience, it is transgender students that shoulder the burden, rather than the institutions themselves that insisted on admitting more of us in the first place.
Transgender students need validation, respect, and safety. Admitting us is simply not enough.
My experiences, both as an undergrad and graduate student, point to a larger need for institutions of higher education to examine their policies – or lack thereof – and address the ways in which they are including or excluding transgender students, not merely from accessing an education, but also from feeling safe and validated when they’ve made the decision to attend that university.
This includes trans-specific training for staff, campus police, counselors, and health providers; competent counseling and health resources; designated safe spaces for queer students; preferred name registries that apply across the board (mail, email, class rosters, diplomas, alumni relations); gender neutral bathrooms; safe and appropriate housing; and designated advocates on campus who are easily reached, well-versed, and can address and respond to the complex needs of all queer and trans* students, including those of color.
And most importantly, transgender students should be made aware of these resources at their orientation. Resources are not helpful if they aren’t known or accessible.
I believe that women’s colleges are unique and powerful spaces, standing in direct opposition to gender-based oppression and, instead, creating an environment where marginalized communities can thrive. I also believe that transgender students know intimately the weight of that oppression, and, no doubt, have something at stake here. Their presence at women’s colleges is important, so long as they, specifically trans men, are mindful of the spaces that they occupy.
Furthermore, I am proud to attend a college with such a strong commitment to inclusivity, diversity, and social justice.
But those commitments can’t just be buzz words used in the recruitment process, promises made to prospective students to woo them. These commitments need to result in action. These commitments require ongoing work, and that work does not stop at admissions – rather, it begins there.
You’ve talked the talk. Now let’s see you walk the walk.
UPDATE (11/14/14): A response article has been written.