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VOICES

Transgender-Friendly Dorms Still Lacking On Campuses Nationwide, Despite Recent Improvements

A Gay-Straight Alliance school bus at Seattle Pride.

CREDIT: Flickr user jglsongs.

George Fox University, a small Christian college in Oregon, recently refused to recognize a male gender identified student as male because he was designated female at birth, even though the student had legally changed his sex to male through the state of Oregon earlier this year.

A petition for the student, Jayce, who withheld his last name from the press to avoid any potential harassment, was started by his mother Janice and has been circling around Change.org gathering signatures in support of Jayce’s appeal to have access to the housing he feels comfortable in.

But Jayce is far from the first student to be denied access to housing because of school policy on what constitutes male and female. These cases don’t just apply to higher education either. A case in California involving a seventh grader who was forced to sleep in “quarantine” on a school trip was settled last year.

Ilona Turner, Legal Director for the Transgender Law Center, said her organization gets calls from students around the country that are facing problems accessing dorms that match their gender identities.

“It is true that an increasing number of colleges are adopting friendlier policies that either don’t insist on segregating by gender or allow transgender students to self identify for purposes of housing placement,” she said, “but it appears to me that the majority of schools probably still have a ways to go in terms of their policies.”

As of 2012, only about 10 percent of colleges and universities had trans-inclusive nondiscrimination statements, according to The Advocate. That number has since risen, but as seen with the case from George Fox University, not every school is entirely accommodating for LGBT students.

Campus Pride Index regularly reports on LGBT-friendly campuses around the country. Schools such as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan, New York University, and Princeton University all rank in the top for LGBT friendliness.

At Penn, for instance, gender-neutral housing has been around since 2005 after students requested the housing in 2003. The school’s media relations representative made it clear that at Penn, gender-neutral housing is widely-accepted and even “considered unremarkable.”

Natalie Basil, Director for the Office of Residential Life at Brown University, which has a transgender-friendly policy on housing, said she believes it’s important for universities to be “student-centered and student-focused.” Accommodating all gender identities can aid in accomplishing this. The university began offering gender-neutral housing in 2008 for upperclassmen.

Students are appreciative of the options to choose housing that best meets their needs regardless of their gender identity. The feedback I’ve received from students who don’t necessarily identify on the gender binary is a feeling of relief,” she said. “It is one less obstacle they have to manage while already juggling a rigorous course load or transitioning to college life.”

The Transgender Law Center’s Ilona Turner said when students don’t have access to housing that meets their needs, they sometimes take legal action. This can include bringing appeals within the school, as seen with Jayce and George Fox University, or filing complaints with a local or state human rights agency.

The Department of Education, Turner continued on to say, has made it clear discrimination against trans students is a form of sex discrimination, which is prohibited under Title IX. Denying trans students access to school facilities based on sex, she said, is “discriminatory and unlawful.”

Nineteen-year-old Eli Erlick, executive director and co-founder of Trans Student Equality Resources, started her organization after years of troubles in school following her coming out at the age of eight. Now, she assists schools in adopting trans-inclusive policies through workshops and speeches. Erlick didn’t have access to restrooms when she was growing up, and her situation inspired her to get involved in activism.

“I’ve worked with a lot of colleges,” Erlick, who currently is entering her sophomore year at Pitzer College in California, said.

Pitzer College has an “amazing” policy, she said. The school allows trans students to be placed wherever and with whomever they want. In the application, the college asks, “What is your gender identity?,” and gives the options of male, female, and fill-in-the-blank.

Some colleges and universities are not as progressive, she said. Erlick has worked with a lot of women’s colleges in order to allow trans students to have that college experience. Recently, Mills College in California became the first all-women’s college in the U.S. to openly allow transgender and non-gender conforming students.

“One of the most shocking statements I’ve heard from the administration has been that they don’t want first-generation students to be uncomfortable with male-bodied people in the room,” Erlick said.

A major hurdle for transgender students are some of the “myths” about the issues that are thought to result from allowing transgender-identified students to integrate into whatever housing, male or female, they choose. Turner said there’s an unfounded fear that there will be “a threat to others in sex-segregated spaces.”

“We know from the schools that do not have transgender-friendly policies that that’s simply not the case. In fact, transgender people are far more likely to be the victim of harassment or attacks from others,” she said. “It’s unacceptable for a number of reasons to require that a transgender student be housed in a [dorm] with their birth sex rather than what they live their life as.”

The University of Michigan strives to make campus as LGBT-friendly as possible, and provides education programs and panels to help achieve that goal. Many other schools do the same, but Michigan seems to have the “personal touch.”

Josh Peipock, Associate Director for Residence Education at the University of Michigan, said providing housing that meets the preferences of all gender identities is the “core mission” of the school’s university housing office. The current options they have in place, like gender-inclusive housing, have been around for three years. This school year, the amount of students opting for gender-inclusive housing has doubled from 2013 – 2014, he said.

It takes time to develop a policy that works, and Michigan’s was based on the needs voiced by students. The school will continue to grow to accommodate diversity, and specifically transgender students, in the coming years, Peipock said.

For schools that don’t have these policies yet, he said it’s important to “work to incorporate the student voice into your proposals and building alliances with other offices on campus.”

Though housing still has some way to go, there have been strides made when it comes to campus restrooms. Northwestern University, alongside many other universities, has recently embraced gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Students of any gender expression or gender identity are free to enter these restrooms as they like, and there are more than 150 schools across the U.S. with similar restroom policies.

Orange is the New Black actress and LGBT activist Laverne Cox brought the restroom policy issue to light earlier this year as she expressed support for a suspended trans student. The student, Andraya Williams, said she was harassed for using a women’s restroom at Central Piedmont Community College.

Kelsey Meany is a reporter with Generation Progress.

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