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

Article excerpt

From filling out a college application to choosing a restroom, students must continually identify their gender. For most, the task is mindless. But for a growing segment of the student population--namely, transgender students--it is an action that can trigger discomfort and even confusion. Broadly speaking, transgender refers to those "whose gender identity or expression is somehow not traditionally associated with the sex assigned to them at birth," explains Paisley Currah, board member of the Transgender Law and Policy Institute (www.transqenderlaw.org). "That also includes pre-operational, post-op, non-op, and 'can't afford' op folks too." Others, known as "gender queer," refute the notion of gender altogether. (For more about transgenderism, type in the keywords "Transgender 101" on the www.hrc.org Web site.)

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. …