For Transgender College Students, A New Year Means Educating Professors — Again
From reminding instructors about preferred names and pronouns to finding safe housing gender-neutral restrooms on campus, many transgender students are tasked with starting over each school year.
When Nick Hamblin transitioned last summer and returned to college in Golden, Colorado presenting his male identity, he not only had to overcome the typical anxiety and pressures of going back to school, but also had to make sure professors would refer to him by his preferred name and pronouns.
"Really, every semester I have to inform my teachers and give them a bit of Trans 101, so they can get through," said Hamblin, who studies geological engineering at Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.
Hamblin, who returned for the new fall semester earlier this month, said he hasn't encountered any problems. "It's actually been fine," he said. Last semester, though, one of his teachers requested to meet with him in person to talk about his name and pronouns — just "to make sure it wasn't a prank," Hamblin told BuzzFeed.
The 23-year-old is among countless transgender students going back to school around this time of the year across the country, who must actively work with administrators and counselors to feel comfortable and accommodated on campus. This is because the needs of transgender students are often overlooked, according to Eli Erlick, a transgender activist and director of Trans Student Equality Resources.
"Each college and university should consider comprehensive transgender inclusive policies," Erlick said. "Schools should offer forms that allow students to fill in their gender identity and have students enter their own name in the college systems. Students shouldn't have to email their teachers every semester."
Erlick, 19, just moved in for her second year at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, and with her organization she works to raise awareness about issues transgender students encounter in the education system throughout the country — a task that much of the time involves educating school administrators and officials, she said. Erlick frequently hears from transgender students who have had challenges with access to restrooms and student housing that match their gender identity.
"Many colleges don't ask what a student's gender identity is in applications for housing and enrollment purposes," she said. "The lack of inclusiveness in these systems is just such a setback for transgender students. And bathroom situations are always a mess."
Recently, historically all-women's colleges have come under scrutiny for how transgender students are treated in admissions policies. Just this month, Mills College in Oakland, California became the first women's college to implement a clear transgender-inclusive admissions policy to reflect its practices.
"It's a matter of having it published so that we aren't requiring transgender students to jump through additional hoops," Brian O'Rourke, vice president of enrollment and admissions, told BuzzFeed. "Our goal is to graduate students. Ultimately, we felt it was important and a first step to provide a more inclusive policy for students."
O'Rourke said the school and a gender equity division of its diversity and equity committee — comprising students, faculty, and stuff — will now start to address overall campus best practices to be more inclusive in its culture and learning environments on campus.
A growing number of colleges and universities offer gender neutral restrooms. Hamblin said that such restrooms are few and far between at his school, but that he has become comfortable using the men's restroom — the biggest source of anxiety he experienced right after transitioning, he said. Additionally, over 150 colleges offer gender-inclusive housing, or housing in which students can room with roommates of any gender, according to Campus Pride, a national organization for LGBT students and education groups.
When Emet Tauber was a student at Drexel University in 2012, despite his male identity, the school housed in residence hall for female students. Tauber was also unable to change his name on a student identification card and in school systems because he hadn't changed it on legal documents. When he informed a professor of his preferred name and pronouns, the instructor outed him by bringing it up in class the next day, he said. He has since transferred to more a more "trans-friendly" school in New York City.
"I feel like a lot of people are deterred because they don't have the legal things in place to show their name and gender identity, and for that reason, the college doesn't recognize them for who they are," Tauber, 20, said. "You have to write emails to professors. It gets awkward, and it gets messy, especially if you have a professor that doesn't understand. That might deter you from going to college."
Only 77 schools allow transgender students to use their chosen name on campus records and documents, class rosters, and student directories, according to a list by Campus Pride. And just under 60 schools offer coverage of transition-related medical care in student health insurance. However, well over 700 colleges and universities have nondiscrimination polices that include protections based on gender identity and gender expression, according to the organization.
"Students enter campuses that don't always recognize their trans* identity," Rebby Kern, media and communications and programs manager at Campus Pride, told BuzzFeed in a statement. "It is not a student's responsibility to teach the campus to be trans-friendly. The more campuses adopt policies that allow for trans students to have their gender respected through gender markers, name changes, housing and safety the higher a student will perform because they feel safe and recognized. Institutions should be committed to making these changes."
These days, Hamblin said that sometimes he worries if a teacher will slip and call him by the wrong name, but that in his case, "all of my teachers have been very respectful about it and it's been just fine," he said. "I don't worry about is as much now."