There’s been a lot of ink spent in the off-campus press on the recent gender-neutral housing proposal, but most of it has ignored one targeted community: trans students. But gender-neutral housing is just one of several issues facing the trans community at Columbia. From the new issue of the Blue and White, hitting a magazine rack near you soon, Gavin McGown explains.
On a wet night this October, more than 200 students filed into a transformed Lerner Party Space. Screens had been hung in front of the windows and, beneath darkened house lights, glowsticks and pink ribbons added flashes of color. Some partygoers raved to pulsing music on an impromptu stage on the dance floor while others lounged on couches scattered across the room. With most clothing only optional—“Drag, underwear, or whatever makes you feel sexy” was the dress code—the scent of bodies filled the air.
This was GenderFuck, the crowning event of Queer Awareness Month’s Trans Week and the brainchild of Miranda Elliot, CC ’10 and co-chair of Queer Awareness Month 2009 committee. Elliot proposed the ideas for Trans Week and GenderFuck two years ago after noticing a lack of transgender-focused campus programming. “A lot of trans people I know here say that they feel like the only trans person here, so I wanted to help change that,” she said.
Elliot’s interest in the issue also led her to co-found the University’s first transgender advocacy group, GendeRevolution, which sought to fill the gaps between existing campus queer support and the needs of the transgender community. Soon after followed a partnership with QuAM, opening the door for the incorporation of events like Trans Week and GenderFuck, beginning in 2008. “Before we existed there wasn’t a group that was specifically dedicated to transsexual identity and advocacy,” says Liz Lamoste, CC ’10 and a board member of GendeRevolution. “You could say, ‘Well, trans is covered in every queer group,’ but we know that’s not the case.” Though transgender issues may have found expression within the campus queer community through the voice of GendeRevolution, Elliot and others say the work of transgender activism is just beginning.
One of the biggest problems to date has been the absence of a large and visible transgender campus community, a void which has made it difficult to coalesce and organize support. Elliot points to the fact that many Columbia trans individuals are “stealth”—that is to say, they do not publicly acknowledge their gender transition. Others—like T. Thomas, a transwoman and post-doctoral student at the Columbia University Medical Center—do not want to actively identify as “trans,” because they do not consider themselves having moved from one gender to another. “Right now I’d consider myself a woman with a complicated history,” said Thomas. Others choose to go stealth out of concerns for privacy and personal safety.
Continued disagreements within the queer community itself have compounded the problems. “They haven’t addressed trans issues as much as I think they should have,” said Anna Steffens, BC ’10 and co-president of the Barnard queer student group Q, of the Columbia Queer Alliance. Three years ago, for instance, the pink “Safe Space” fliers distributed by Everyone Allied Against Homophobia to first-year Barnard and Columbia dorms did not include “transgender” among the identities listed. More recently, CQA’s decision to work with the Columbia branch of the National Marriage Boycott, a student movement seeking the repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, has been controversial. “It’s not necessarily the most inclusive activist campaign,” said Steffens, who points out that marriage rights are beyond the scope of most trans activists, who instead are focused on securing much more basic legal guarantees to housing, medical care, and employment.
Perhaps most importantly, University policies are vague on the subject, creating an ambiguous and not altogether supportive environment for a transgender community. “Barnard is not a comfortable place for trans men,” said Madeleine Lloyd-Davies, the other co-president of Q. “For the majority of Barnard students, if they see a male-bodied person, that’s a man to them.” Part of this expectation comes from the college’s admissions policy: Barnard, explained Lloyd-Davies, has a legal mandate to admit “card-carrying women”—those who are female according to documentation. Consequently, because most states do not allow individuals to begin the process of legally changing their gender before their 18th birthdays, many transwomen do not have the necessary paperwork for Barnard even to admit them.
For students who begin their transitions while in college, Barnard has eschewed creation of a standing policy in favor of dealing with them on an individual basis. Such was the case with Rey Asher, a transgender student who transferred out of Barnard within the first few weeks of his freshman year. Barnard does not offer singles to first-years, and Asher, who requested that his roommates refer to him by male pronouns, felt unwelcome in both his housing situation and the school in general. “I felt that [then-president of Barnard] Judith Shapiro was biased towards my presence, and didn’t understand what I was doing at a women’s college,” said Asher, who is now in the School of General Studies.
Not all transmale Barnard students have had a negative experience transitioning at the college, though. “I loved it here. I was really, really happy here,” said Kyle Lukoff, a transgender alumnus of Barnard who graduated in 2006. Lukoff began to transition in his sophomore year, asking his friends to call him “Kyle” and refer to him with male pronouns. “There were a lot of slips, but that’s to be expected,” he said. “I think I dealt with it gracefully.” As for the administration’s response, Lukoff believes his high profile as a campus activist helped ease the transition. “I was very well known, so a lot of people might have respected me as an individual.”
Barnard’s case-by-case standard grew out of a 2003 case when a resident adviser came out as transgender. “This was the first time a student stood up and said, ‘I would prefer male pronouns,’” said Will Simpkins, program director of Community & Diversity Initiatives at Barnard. “I think [the reactions] were more reflective of a fear that our status as a women’s college was in jeopardy… What does it mean if we have students who prefer to use male pronouns?” The student was able to graduate with his preferred name called at Commencement. “Ever since,” said Simpkins, “it’s been like clockwork,” in that another student will come out as transgender once every two or three years.
Against this background of small numbers, internal disputes, and administrative shifting sands, Columbia’s transgender activists say they are struggling to make the university environment more trans-friendly, beginning with the creation of gender-neutral bathrooms. Elliot calls the campaign a priority that GendeRevolution has worked for from the start. “Bathrooms are where a lot of people’s fears get played out,” she said, noting that, for transgender people, bathrooms are as much an issue of safety as of dignity.
But GendeRevolution’s bathroom campaign has proved difficult to carry out. Lack of student support has been partly to blame: an event planned last year would have mapped out the location of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, but after publicizing the event and securing promises of involvement from other campus queer groups, only four people attended, two of whom were from GendeRevolution. “It’s frustrating to hear people pay lip service to trans issues, and then not show up when there’s an opportunity to actually do something really important,” said Elliot.
Space and financial constraints are added obstacles, as many existing campus bathrooms are not single-use toilets. Sarah Weiss, CC ’10 and CCSC vice-president for policy, spoke of a student council meeting with Scott Wright, vice president of Auxiliary Services at Columbia, who expressed to her it was simply not feasible for the university to construct more bathrooms.
GendeRevolution is hoping for more success on a second, related front, the campaign for gender-neutral housing. Elliot pointed to Asher’s experience at Barnard as being one of the catalysts for the campaign. “A system that assumes that everyone at Barnard is a woman, and that everyone at Columbia is a man or a woman, doesn’t really address the realities of some trans people as either existing between those two categories or as outside or as not what they’re perceived to be,” she said.
Started by Janelle Batta, BC ’11, the housing campaign has already yielded some success. Barnard’s SGA passed its first policy last year that would permit students to room together regardless of gender. “It’s helpful to trans students, obviously, but it also sends a better message from the college than ‘You’re going to live with this person because of your gender,’” said Anna Steffens, Q co-president and SGA diversity representative. Because Barnard and Columbia housing allow students from both schools to pick into the housing lottery together, the SGA policy, although passed, will not be enacted until a similar allowance is worked out by the Columbia administration.
Such a proposal was passed by CCSC and ESC in November and is now under review by the administration. Cowritten by members of the CCSC policy committee, GendeRevolution, and EAAH, the proposal will apply only to sophomores, juniors, and seniors and will not be limited to any particular set of dorms. “I see opening it up to as many residential halls as possible as a way of increasing choices,” said Sean Udell, Columbia College junior class vice president.
The policy as written will not apply to freshmen, however. Learned Foote, Columbia College junior class president, explained that their inclusion could turn into “a logistical nightmare.” He added that “we have to be realistic,” because liability issues might arise for the University if first-years under 18 opt into gender-neutral housing without parental consent.
Housing employees and members of the Housing Advisory Committee seem to be broadly supportive, although they are careful to point out the obstacles that will have to be navigated in implementation of the process. “There may be certain computer pieces to it that we have to figure out,” said Joyce Jackson, associate director of Housing Services. “My other concern is about vacancies.” Jackson elaborated that it may be difficult to fill the spaces in gender-neutral doubles that become vacant mid-year because of students departing to study abroad.
The issue of gender-neutral bathrooms may play a role in the housing campaign, as well. “What is a problem for me is opening [gender-neutral housing] for all doubles, when most of our buildings still have male-female bathrooms,” said Cristen Scully Kromm, assistant dean for residential programs. Students involved in the campaign point out that many who would enter gender-neutral housing would not need gender-neutral bathrooms. Still, for those who would need such accommodations, better signs and location information would be necessary.
Administrators say that would be easy to provide. “Nobody had asked for it before, but once they’d mentioned it and said it was a concern—that’s an easy thing for us to change right away,” said Scott Wright. He added that a number of recently completed and upcoming housing renovations—like those on the first floor of Furnald and on eight floors of Wien—include the addition of single-use restrooms, which could easily be made gender-neutral. “We built them with more than one purpose or student in mind,” said Wright.
As these policy changes are in the works for the university community at large, change is afoot within the queer community as well. Internal rifts appear to be on the mend, thanks to new efforts at dialogue. “I’ve tried to make CQA appealing to multiple identities,” said Laura Torre, vice president of CQA and organizer of a new monthly event for queer awareness called “Third Thursday,” a seminar dedicated to discussion and analysis of a range of queer political issues. The first such event this October addressed transgender issues directly with a discussion about the inclusion of “Gender Identity Disorder” in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. “I think we were interested in this issue not only beause it dealt with a part of the queer community that is underrepresented, but also because it is an issue of current interest and current work,” said Torre. Combined with Queer Awareness Month’s Trans Week and GenderFuck activities, many queer student leaders see this new programming as evidence of a more supportive campus climate for variations on gender identity.
They would also be quick to say transgender advocacy on campus is far from finished. “I think campus events and administrative changes have increased the amount of dialogue around queer issues and trans issues specifically, but, that being said, we have a whole lot of work to do in terms of making this campus a welcoming place for trans students,” said Steffens.
GendeRevolution founder Miranda Elliot agrees: “The gay community has come a long way. There’s a lot more effort to see that trans issues are being involved—that said, there’s a lot that needs to be done.”