Lehigh considers obstacles, resources for transgender students

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Last year, Evan Boyle, ’15, refused to use restrooms on Lehigh’s campus. He tailored his day around finding comfortable restroom environments, often simply waiting until he was able to go back to his dorm room.

“When I was identifying as a female…I still dressed the way I dress now, which is very masculine, and I was told ‘Hey you’re in the wrong bathroom’ by girls and it’s very uncomfortable,” Boyle said. “So for a period, I stopped using public restrooms unless I knew it was gender neutral or unisex.”

Lehigh alumnus Zz Riford, ’14, who is now a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, said despite the fact that his new school has some gender-inclusive bathrooms, he still has trouble finding a comfortable atmosphere. He does not have access to a gender-inclusive restroom in his office building, and he said he often goes to the less-frequented bathroom on the first floor of the building so he can “hide out.”

“As soon as you start thinking about it, all of a sudden, you can’t even use the bathroom in public without worrying about someone kicking you out,” Riford said. “It’s a horrible thing.”

Eli Rosenberg, ’17, said he often felt uncomfortable using the men’s bathroom. He said that he was worried he would see someone else and receive a “weird look” or be kicked out.

“No one ever said anything, so some of this might have been in my head, but knowing that you don’t look like you’re supposed to be there, it weighs on your mind,” Rosenberg said.

Finding comfortable restroom environments is just one of the many obstacles transgender individuals face on a daily basis.

Nationally, transgender individuals face high levels of discrimination, harassment, unemployment, poverty, homelessness and suicide, according to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force. A 2011 study conducted by the task force found that among its sample of 6,450 transgender and gender non-conforming individuals, 63 percent of respondents reported experiencing a serious act of discrimination and 41 percent of respondents reported attempting suicide, compared to 1.6 percent of the general population. Additionally, respondents were four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 per year.

“It’s a tough world to be a transgender person for sure,” said Trish Boyles, the director of the Pride Center. “(A huge percentage) of transgender people say they’ve been rejected by their family when they come out with respect to their gender identity, and all of that sort of trickles down into other arenas of life such as healthcare, housing — there’s just massive amounts of discrimination. People are denied services and not able to find places to live purely based on their gender identity.”

Residential and facilities obstacles

According to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force study, transgender individuals attending a university have also reported high rates of harassment, with 35 percent of respondents reporting bullying, 5 percent reporting physical assault, 3 percent reporting sexual assault and 2 percent reporting expulsion due to their gender identity or expression.

The task force also reported 5 percent of respondents being denied campus housing, 20 percent being denied gender-appropriate housing and many respondents being denied suitable bathroom facilities.

According to Boyles, some of the biggest challenges for transgender students relate to these housing and facilities issues.

“Big challenges for transgender students have mostly to do with things that we kind of take for granted about our living environments,” Boyles said. “For example, we’ve not had any true gender-neutral housing that was a safe space for trans students, and that’s unfortunately common at a lot of universities.”

According to Boyles, one of the challenges with creating safe living environments for transgender students is the result of the inherently gendered nature of college campuses. Many college campuses, including Lehigh, divide living arrangements by gender, with the exception of gender-neutral housing options.

Rosenberg said that one of the issues associated with housing that he has encountered at Lehigh stems from the Common Application, which prospective students use to apply for admission to the university. Rosenberg said that when he applied to Lehigh, the application required that he check a box indicating whether he was male or female. There was no transgender identity box or an option to explain special circumstances. At the time of applying, Rosenberg decided to check the box for the sex he was assigned at birth: female. As a result, Rosenberg was placed with a female roommate in first-year housing.

“Those little boxes annoy (me) to no end because I never really know what to put down,” Rosenberg said. “I ended up putting down female at the time… and because of that, I was treated as female throughout the entire housing process. Thankfully, my roommate was absolutely wonderful when I came out to her and it didn’t faze her at all but I can see a lot of ways where that may not have worked out as well as it did.”

The strictly male-female aspect of housing is also amplified on college campuses with Greek life. Social Greek organizations are separated by gender, with females joining sororities and males joining fraternities. Additionally, as is the case at Lehigh, many of these Greek chapters are given living spaces on campus, with the genders once again separated.

“I think in a lot of ways, Lehigh can be a little tougher environment than other universities,” Boyles said. “One, because of the predominance of Greek life here and the residential nature of Greek life… It’s not necessarily that any individuals in those programs are doing things to make it so, it’s just the way it’s set up. It’s very gendered. It’s very heteronormative. There are clear expectations for men, clear expectations for women, and so a student at Lehigh’s campus that kind of transcends those boundaries, that can be a much more dangerous thing to do at Lehigh.”

Megan McMichael, ’17, a member of Greek Allies, also said it is difficult to make the Greek system a spectrum because the organization is inherently gendered. She said that because of this binary, the choices for transgender students might be limited in terms of joining a social Greek organization.

“The campus is something ridiculous like 40 percent Greek, and then you think about a lot of the people who aren’t Greek are (on) sports teams, and sports teams are also inherently binary,” Elizabeth Campbell, ’15, the president of Greek Allies, said. “So you have very little organizations on campus that are not one sole gender typically. I do think that’s got to be very difficult to figure out where to fit in.”

According to Carter Gilbert, an assistant director in the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Affairs, the process for a transgender student looking to join a Greek organization would be highly individualized, and would depend on factors such as individual circumstance regarding identity, legal documentation and organizational policy.

“Fraternities and sororities — their membership benefits are not restricted,” Gilbert said. “Trans students can receive a lot of benefits around joining a gendered organization if they feel that is something that they want, and we need to make sure they feel comfortable and safe in those environments.”

Gilbert said that because this process would look very personalized, transgender students looking to join a Greek organization are encouraged to consult the OFSA for support and resources. Gilbert said that in most cases, the answer would not be “no,” and that the office would work with students to find them a safe, comfortable and welcoming organization.

According to Boyles, Lehigh’s administration is working to improve Lehigh’s environment for transgender students, especially with regard to residential services and facilities. Boyles said that she works one-on-one with students and meets frequently with administrators and staff members to coordinate on such initiatives. One of these efforts was this year’s designation and labeling of 70 gender-inclusive restrooms in academic and residential buildings on campus.

“By and large the biggest problem that I have is finding a bathroom I can use where I don’t get stared at,” Riford said. ”I’m really glad that now Lehigh is finally getting gender-neutral bathrooms put on campus. That’s really awesome and a really big step for making Lehigh safe for transgender people.”

Riford said that at his new university, there are also gender-neutral restrooms, but they are not widespread across campus. This issue is present at Lehigh, as well. Boyles mentioned that although these 70 bathrooms are a big step for the university, there are still gaps in the system. According to Rosenberg, because Lehigh’s gender-neutral bathrooms are only single stalls, it can be difficult to seek out these facilities in between classes, especially because not every building has one of these restrooms.

“Gender-inclusive bathrooms are wonderful, but if they were everywhere then it would make things a lot easier for students,” Rosenberg said. “In the meantime, transgender people just need to go to the bathroom, and really there’s no reason that a trans person should not be able to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender identity.”

In addition to these restrooms, Boyles said that she has worked with residential services to create the PRIDE Community, a special-interest house that will be open next year for students interested in a gender-inclusive living environment. The LGBTQ-oriented community will be housed in Warren Square A with the Live.Learn.Serve. community and will be a true gender-neutral space with gender-inclusive shower facilities and restrooms.

According to Jenn Scaia, the assistant dean and director of residence life, the living space will be accompanied by LGBT educational programming, as well. She said that there are currently six students signed up for this living community with a few spaces reserved for first-year students who might be interested in living in the house and a few students on the waiting list.

Rosenberg, who will be the Gryphon for this community, said that this house will serve as a “safe house” for students because its residents are expected to be welcoming and receptive to all types of identities.

Boyles commented on Lehigh’s current gender-neutral housing option located in Brodhead house, saying that its original intention to be a safe space for transgender or gender non-conforming individuals was not completely fulfilled and Scaia said that the newly envisioned PRIDE community would serve to better satisfy the needs of these students.

“It was pretty much 100 percent heterosexual couples or heterosexual friends that wanted to live together,” Boyles said. “The LGBT students, when I got here, just laughed at it. (I think they felt) it was a slap in the face to them because it was called ‘gender-neutral,’ but it was really more like co-ed housing.”

Boyles also said that although the PRIDE Community is a step in the right direction, administrators are working on more ways to accommodate transgender students in non-community residential structures, such as first-year dorms.

Academic and administrative obstacles

Although housing options pose a barrier for some transgender students, many difficulties also arise in the academic realm. For many transgender students, the act of coming out to professors can be a daunting task. According to Boyles, a transgender student may fear coming out to faculty because they do not want their gender identity to impact the way they are treated in the classroom setting.

Boyle said that he has chosen to not come out directly to members of the faculty. He said that his reasoning for keeping his gender identity from faculty is a balance between not feeling comfortable or close enough with his faculty to do so and because he is graduating in May.

“(I’m) feeling like I have to split myself between my academic identity and my social identity,” Boyle said. “For my social identity, I’d say I’m more out and proud, but in the classroom, people still know me as Eryne and as a girl and that kind of sucks but I’m also graduating soon so I don’t really feel the need to correct them.”

Riford also discussed the process of coming out to professors, but said that his new school has a system where a student can change their preferred name on class rosters. He said that because he changed his preferred name in the system, he no longer has to worry about coming out to professors.

“Here, I’m Zz,” Riford said. “And now that I do pass as a guy, I don’t have to worry about coming into a class the next year and being outed immediately by my name to a professor. That’s a big one.”

According to Boyles, many academic obstacles for transgender students relate to policies and the culture of the university.

In regard to policies, Boyles said that Lehigh is really just now starting to look at the university’s policies and determine how exclusive or inclusive they may be to the transgender community. In lieu of clear and explicit policies, she said that obstacles transgender students might face at Lehigh are currently handled on a case-by-case basis.

“All the partners involved really want to make the campus more inclusive,” Boyles said. “Generally speaking, (in) each case that I bring to different programs or departments, we end up with a good resolution. The problem is, we don’t have transparent and visible policies.”

Boyles said the lack of codification and specificity with regard to some policies on Lehigh’s website also makes it difficult for prospective LGBT students to gain a clear understanding of Lehigh’s environment. She said that prospective students who might be interested in knowing how easy it will be to find a comfortable living space, or change their preferred name or gender markers at Lehigh will be unable to publicly find this information, which may deter them from applying to the university. Boyles said that policy development, revision and visibility is a priority for the university.

Beth Guzzo, the assistant director of diversity recruitment in the Admissions Office, and Luis Almonte, an assistant director and the admissions liaison for the Pride Center, said that they work frequently with Boyles on policy revision and outreach for prospective LGBT students.

Almonte said that one of the biggest issues for prospective transgender students is the phrasing of questions on the Common Application in regards to sex and gender. He said that although the university is restricted in its ability to change the Common Application, the university has made alterations to questions regarding gender identity on admissions surveys for prospective-student programming and visits.

On admissions surveys, such as the ones distributed to those interested in participating in programs such as the Diversity Achievers Program or Diversity Life Weekend, prospective students are asked how they identify as opposed to what is their sex or gender. Guzzo said that she has also implemented gender-inclusive housing for these overnight programs to ensure that prospective students are comfortable in spending the night at the university.

“A lot of discussions are happening,” Almonte said. “We’re not where we need to be, but the discussions are happening within the office that hopefully will get enough fire power behind us and enough support behind us.”

Almonte said that the Admissions Office is quick to provide resources for prospective LGBTQIA students and work with these students to help them gain a better understating of the accommodations at the university.

On CampusPride.org, a resource Almonte said is used by many LGBT prospective students, Lehigh receives a rating of four out of five stars for LGBT friendliness, and four and a half stars for LGBT recruitment and retention efforts.

Cultural change and education 

In addition to policy revision, Boyles emphasized the importance of education and awareness for the transgender community.

According to Boyle, educational efforts can alter environmental culture, which could in turn create a safer environment for transgender students.

“It’s mostly logistical and structural things that can help the transgender community, but it’s also a cultural thing,” Boyle said. “We have a lot of people at Lehigh that are similar to each other and have similar mindsets.”

Boyle said that educating the community is a two-way street, and that the transgender community should be open to questions and the cisgender community should do research and ask questions if they are interested in being an ally. He said that coming from a place of understanding and being receptive to different lived experiences is a great first step.

Boyles also said that making an effort to educate oneself or ask members of the transgender community questions is significant, as being afraid and ignoring the community can have larger detrimental effects in the long run.

“I think one of the things that is difficult for trans, gay, lesbian and bisexual students here is that sometimes they feel invisible,” Boyles said. “They feel like no one knows they exists…and I think a lot of time they get avoided because people are afraid they’re going to offend them.”

Riford said that a significant aspect of acceptance is using the preferred pronouns and name for an individual. He said that although asking what pronouns someone uses may seem offensive, the transgender community appreciates this question because it shows a level of acknowledgment.

Boyles, however, emphasized that learning about identities and asking questions is a difficult task, and often individuals are going to make mistakes or offend others.

“If you’re really engaging and learning about all of these different identities, you’re going to screw up,” Boyles said. “You’re going to say a word wrong. You’re going to offend someone. You can’t prepare yourself enough to make that not the case. And it’s importance on both sides of that, one if you do screw up, to listen to the feedback that you get, take it in and you know now and you can change your behavior for next time. It’s also important on the side of the person who might be offended to not react in a personal way but to just help educate that person and trust that that person is asking questions out of a sense of wanting to know more from a good place.”

Boyles said that there are several resources available on Lehigh’s campus for LGBT education, including programming and guest speakers from the Pride Center and Spectrum. Boyles also said that there is a variety of educational material available in the Rainbow Room, and that all individuals, regardless of sexual or gender identity are welcomed to utilize this resource. Greek Allies is also spearheading a program for Greek organizations, where chapters can be recognized as a Greek Ally Chapter by participating in educational programming and certifying a few of their members as allies and educators.

“We’re going to make improvements, and we will be more of a welcoming environment for trans students,” Boyles said. “Every year, we will be a little bit better. But it is a difficult path right now for a transgender student at Lehigh.”

*Read story regarding some misconceptions associated with transgender identities as addressed by Lehigh students, faculty and staff.

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