TV & Radio
Posted on Mon, Aug. 29, 2005
Newest campus minority are kids who shun original sex
BY ALYSON WARD
Knight Ridder Newspapers
FORT WORTH, Texas - (KRT) - In 2003, when Andrew Jones signed up for campus housing at Collin County Community College, the housing department assigned him to a four-bedroom apartment ... for women.
One of his new female roommates was OK with the set up. But the other two rooms were like a revolving door; women would be placed in the apartment, realize what was going on, and move right back out.
"They couldn't keep anybody in there - I guess (the women) were uncomfortable," Jones says.
It wasn't a computer error. According to school records, Jones was female. But he had renamed himself Andrew and was living and dressing as a man; soon he would start taking hormones that would help him develop even more male traits.
Jones didn't suffer in silence.
"I told them I needed another room," he says.
And the housing department responded: Jones was reassigned to a two-bedroom apartment with a friend of his, another transgender student.
Jones is now a senior at the University of North Texas, where he continues to push for improvements as a part of UNT's transgender student group, Transcending Gender Denton. Established last fall, the group's priorities are to help secure safe and comfortable housing, unisex restrooms, up-to-date health care and moral support for transgender students.
This sort of development is happening on too many campuses to count. Transgender students are becoming a visible - and vocal - presence at universities across the nation, and schools are scrambling to update policies and campus facilities to accommodate them.
In fact, four of those students will be profiled this fall in an eight-part documentary that airs Sept. 20 on the Sundance Channel: TransGenerationfollows four students through a year of their lives, illuminating the struggles they face as college students in Massachusetts, Colorado, Michigan and California.
Why are transgender students becoming so visible? Well, college life is structured by those male-and-female categories: Sports teams. Social organizations, especially sororities and fraternities. Restrooms - in dorms, gyms and elsewhere on campus. And residence halls. Even though coed housing is becoming more common, roommates are almost always the same sex. It just makes sense, right?
It does unless your gender, the social identity that makes you experience the world as a man or a woman, doesn't match your sex, the physical anatomy that makes you male or female.
And if you're, say, a college freshman who has to live in the dorm, to which one should you be assigned - the women's hall or the men's hall? If you're good at soccer, which club team will you play on? At the library, should you go to the men's room or the ladies' room? In years past, if students didn't fit into the boy/girl system, they didn't say much about it. But a new generation is asking schools to make changes - and the schools are responding.
Lucas came to Smith College as a woman, but he graduated last spring as a man. His senior year, he had enough confidence in his new identity to take part in TransGeneration, the upcoming documentary. But it wasn't always this way.
"When I first came to campus, (the transgender community) was almost like a secret society," Lucas says.
But when Lucas was a sophomore, the student government president proposed a change in the wording of the student constitution. Because Smith is a women's college, the constitution was full of feminine pronouns. As a "gesture of good will" to transgender classmates, the students voted (by a slim margin) to replace all shes and hers with gender-neutral wording such as "the student."
"It was a miraculous victory," says Lucas, who campaigned for the change. That victory, he says, emboldened transgender students to become activists. Last year he helped lead a group of Smith "transactivists."
"We realized people are listening," he says. "We don't have to be scared anymore."
The restroom revolution
"This restroom is open to everyone." That's the sign on the door of each gender-neutral restroom at Oberlin College in Ohio. You can find one in the student union building and on some floors of residence halls. And now students hope to have them designated in academic buildings, says Eric Estes, director of Oberlin's Multicultural Resource Center.
Oberlin had what is believed to be the country's first "Trans Awareness Week" back in 1998, a week of discussions and lectures - and the annual Drag Ball. And just last year, the school began to offer a two-hour workshop called Transgender 101.Oberlin isn't the only campus that has changed its facilities to accommodate transgender students. It's just not always as easy to get it done.
In 2001, students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst staged a "Restroom Revolution," urging the administration to designate one gender-blind restroom in every residence hall.
About 30 students, plus friends who supported them, got organized. They wrote letters. They had meetings. University officials rejected the idea at first, but the school compromised in 2003 by designating unisex restrooms in two dorms and a campus building.
The same sort of student demand has resulted in gender-neutral restrooms at Sarah Lawrence College, the University of New Hampshire, the University of Chicago, Beloit College in Wisconsin and several other schools.
At the University of Pennsylvania, students have the option of gender-neutral housing for the first time this fall. At Brown University, freshmen who entered in 2004 were the first to be offered a gender-neutral option - a dorm with lockable bathroom facilities designed for one person. And the University of Southern Maine also began to offer the option last year; the campus has gender-neutral halls in two of its campus dorms, and more than 40 students lived there last year.
Don't think it's happening only on the East Coast. Ohio State University, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Wisconsin all have a transgender policy in place and deal with requests on a case-by-case basis. And in Minnesota, Carleton College has a number of special-interest houses for students to choose, including The Q&A House, designed for gay and transgender students.
Texas Christian University and the University of Texas at Arlington report no student requests for gender-neutral housing or other accommodations. But at the University of North Texas, the 15- or 20-member transgender student group is actively working to find housing options on campus, and its Web site offers a list of safe and unsafe (for transgender students) bathrooms on campus, including the university's two unisex facilities.
"We've encouraged, with any new construction and remodeling, for there to be a family restroom, which seems to work really well," says Daniel Emenheiser, UNT's director of diversity education. And though there's no designated housing yet, a request for accommodation is usually granted.
Today, more than 100 U.S. college campuses have professionally staffed offices or centers that handle gay and transgender issues, according to the National Consortium of Directors of LGBT Resources in Higher Education. That's nearly twice the number there were in 2002, so it's growing fast.
The office at the University of Texas at Austin, called the Gender and Sexuality Center, opened just last year. And transgender students have started coming forward to request housing assignments or to voice other needs.
"It's only happened a handful of times, six or seven times," says Ixchel Rosal, the center's director. "But for us, that's a lot, because apparently it never happened before."
It's not that there are suddenly more transgender students than ever before, she says. They're just feeling free to publicize their identities, "to bring their whole selves to campus."
The idea that gender isn't just a male-or-female division but has areas of gray is becoming more widespread not just on campuses, but in American culture in general. We now freely talk about metrosexuals - men with a sense of style that used to be strictly a woman's domain. And now we use "pomosexual" (the "pomo" stands for "post-modern") to describe those who believe in this in-between-gender-roles territory.
"It used to be that you didn't identify as `transgender,'" Rosal says. "If you went through a complete transition, you were just identified as the gender you transitioned to."
But now, "there are so many different ways that people identify," she says. "This opens up a space between male and female for some people."
Of course, not everyone believes in that space.
The issue has drawn the attention of opposing forces. Several prominent conservative leaders have spoken out against the trend already.
Last fall, Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, criticized the trend toward transgender-friendly campuses, calling it "moral insanity."
The Rev. Louis P. Sheldon, chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition, published an essay criticizing one school's "attack on the reality of male and female."
And the Washington, D.C.-based Concerned Women for America has spoken out against the "normalizing (of) alternative forms of sexuality," citing accommodations made for transgender college students.
Though the idea doesn't please him, conservative commentator Chuck Colson has declared transgender students "the newest fashionable minority on college campuses." But those involved on campuses say they've seen it coming for a long time.
"These students aren't coming out of the woodwork because it's trendy," Rosal says. "These are issues society has always dealt with - and people have been closeted and have led very small lives as a consequence." It took seven years for the students to gain the "critical mass of support" to get the UT center open, she says.
"My hope is that it's an evolutionary thing," says Shane Whalley, a therapist and a lecturer in UT's School of Social Work. Whalley is leading a workshop about "living in the gender gray" at a national transgender conference in Seattle next week.
Younger generations seem more open, she says, to the notion of a gender gray area.
Laura Michalchyshyn, Sundance Channel's executive vice president of programming and marketing, says that's exactly why Sundance is airing TransGeneration.
"We realized this is a social reality," she says. "It's significant, and it's here to stay."
A GENDER-GRAY GLOSSARY
Transgender. Transsexual. Transvestite. What's the difference, you ask? Here are definitions that'll make the whole issue a bit more . . . transparent.
Transgender: This word is used to describe all types of gender-variant people; it's an umbrella term for those who feel their biological sex doesn't fully match their gender identity.
Transsexual: This is a term for people whose gender identity (man or woman) differs from their sexual identity (male or female). They might have undergone surgery and/or hormone treatment to permanently alter their appearance, but not always.
Genderqueer: This term is used by the trans community to describe anyone who falls somewhere in between the black-and-white categories of male and female. This can include transgender people, but other people call themselves genderqueer simply because they don't agree with or fit into the gender roles and expectations set by society. And others believe that gender is more of a spectrum or a continuum and that they are somewhere in the middle.
Ze and Hir: For the most part, when you're referring to a transgender person, use the pronoun that matches their gender identity. If a person considers herself a woman, refer to her as ``she," and vice versa. But some people don't like to be lumped in with one gender or the other. There's a whole new set of pronouns you can use. Spellings vary, but here's a popular version: Use ze instead of ``he" or ``she" - Ze is a freshman this year. And use hir (pronounced ``hear") in place of ``him" or ``her" - Hir dorm room is tiny. These pronouns aren't universally popular yet, so don't look for them in the dictionary.
© 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
Visit the Star-Telegram on the World Wide Web at http://www.star-telegram.com.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.