Ready or Not, Here They Come!

Columnist Cheryl Costa examines the impending transgender tsunami of college-bound students

“Is your college or university ready for the transgender wave of students?” I asked this question to a group of about 40 college employees, support persons and students at the Philadelphia Trans Health Conference, held June 4 to 6. The answer I received was a resounding “No!”

The essence of the lively discussion that followed strongly suggested that many college administrations overwhelmingly have their heads in the sand with regard to LGBTQ students. The academic gathering agreed, however, that the tsunami of trans-youth is coming fast. Hang on to your seats!

For the record, this reporter is a trans-person who transitioned from male to female in the mid-1980s. The average age of a person undergoing a gender change in those days was estimated to be in the mid-30s. I was 34 when I started the process and 37 when I finished. I have been Cheryl for the past 26 years.

Thirty years ago the behaviorist and psychiatric community believed that transgenders were “rare.” Looking back at the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) commonly used during my transition era, the prevalence rate of trans-persons were thought to be 1 in 30,000 for male to female and 1 in 100,000 for female to male in the overall population.

The 2013 DSM-V, however, reveals new statistics: 1 in 200 (.005 percent) for male to females and 1 in 500 (.003 percent) for female to males. Combine those numbers with the recent coming out of Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce), and a bright light is now being shined on the trans-community. Of the 5,000 persons in attendance at the Trans Health Conference, more than 4,000 identified as trans-persons.

Some readers are surely saying, “Who cares?” Well, it matters a lot for policy makers, health insurance companies, and every sort of business and educational institution.

In a 2011 study performed by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, Gary J. Gates, Ph.D, offered a conservative estimate of 700,000 or more trans-persons in the United States. Where are all these trans-persons coming from? The honest answer is they were always there, alone and suffering in silence.

Thirty years ago, I knew perhaps a dozen people like myself. With the huge growth of the internet throughout the 1990s, isolated trans-persons were able to make friends and get information on where to find help. In 2003, it wasn’t uncommon to meet trans-youth in their late teens to mid-20s. These days it’s not unusual for gender counselors to be dealing with transitioning youth from ages 8 to 22.

Derek Villnave, program manager for ACR Health’s Q Center, affirmed that statistic. “A couple of months ago I went up to New York’s North Country to evaluate the need for a LGBTQ community support center,” he recalled. “I was expecting 15 or 20 youth and adults for my presentation. I was shocked when 75 showed up.”

Communications directors from Central New York’s post-secondary educational institutions were asked about their schools’ LGBTQ preparedness. Each institution was presented with a range of questions related to: restrooms; student housing; administrative support for use of preferred names prior to legal name changes; social groups on campus; and the school’s overall diversity posture.

Curiously, the first question most trans-persons are confronted with when they announce their situation is: “What restroom is the transitioning person going to use?” This tiresome question has been historically asked by institutions ranging from schools, employers and churches since the first American gender change surgeries were performed by Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in the 1960s.

I had to deal with this dilemma in the mid-1980s. After 18 months it finally took an escalation to high-level executive management to resolve the issue: I was “assigned” to use the gender-neutral restroom in a little-used auxiliary lobby area. I have heard countless stories from trans-persons over the years who were also treated this way.

Susan Schilling, dean of student services at Bryant and Stratton College, said that trans-students have been rare, but the school is committed to accommodating their student’s needs on a case-by-case basis.

Julie White, vice president of Student Engagement and Learning Support at Onondaga Community College, stated, “We are committed to the Title IX philosophy of reasonable accommodation.” White explained that they have traditional gendered-specific restrooms, as well as wheelchair-accessible and gender-neutral restrooms. Students are encouraged to visit the facilities they feel most comfortable using.

Chase Catalano, director of the LGBT Resource Center at Syracuse University, said that several restrooms in the dormitories have been designed to accommodate most situations. “Our older buildings faculties are a work-in-progress,” Catalano said, pointing out that students are welcome to use whatever restroom they feel most comfortable using, although he doesn’t guarantee that social annoyance will be avoided.

Ann Bersani, Campus Life and Leadership coordinator at Le Moyne College, said that the school takes pride with its individual attention to student concerns. She emphasized that all the dormitories and most of the other campus buildings have gendered and gender-neutral restrooms.

The situation is different at Empire State College, which has more than 40 campuses around the state. Mary Morton, the Title IX affirmative action coordinator, explained that because most of the colleges’ offices are located in leased commercial spaces, those sites have adequate facilities for everyone. “But if special accommodation is requested,” Morton noted, “we address it on a case basis.”

Regarding campus student housing at Empire State College, Morton explained that most students are age 35 or older, with only about 2 percent as traditional freshmen right out of high school. As a commuter school, there is no need to maintain student housing.

SU, OCC, Bryant and Stratton and Le Moyne each have traditional dormitory facilities. Le Moyne has hosted only a few trans-students, and that special requests are addressed on a case-by-case basis. At Bryant and Stratton, specialized dormitory requests to date haven’t been made; then again, the Syracuse campus only has about 90 students in dormitories.

OCC did not have any specific housing requests by LGBTQ students, either, although White stated, “We just recently have had a couple of requests that we’re looking into.” SU, the largest institution in the region, has LGBT dormitory facilities. “It’s totally optional,” Catalano explained.

Another area transitioning students have to deal with concerns name changes on school paperwork, records and issues with gender markers. While the schools expressed a desire to accommodate students with regards to preferred names, the problem boils down to the registration software used by the schools, which might or might not have a preferred name field available. At the Trans Health Conference, one attendee stated, “Students spend huge money for tuition and the school can’t or won’t grant students the respect of calling them by their preferred name.”

The school administrators spoke with pride about their on-campus student groups. SU has a Pride Union that handles social activism and hosts a yearly drag show. Bryant and Stratton hosts the Human Rights Circle group. OCC maintains a Gay Straight Alliance group. Empire State College has a recently formed statewide LGBTQA club. And Le Moyne has the organization CARE (Creating Awareness and Reaching Equality), which has hosted a drag show for the last two years.

The schools are also committed to the concept of diversity. According to White, OCC has an excellent working relationship with SU’s diversity program, while Catalano pointed out that staffers receive regular training on the topic. “Overall, we know it’s a collaborative effort of making the best of limited resources,” Catalano said.

There is also professional educational support available at ACR Health’s Q Center, 617 W. Genesee St. “Our agency’s team is equipped and experienced in presenting to students, faculty and college administrations,” Villnave said. ACR also provides educational support to government agencies and private businesses.

The educational institutions acknowledged that there are a lot of intelligent, diverse youth coming their way. It’s safe to say that we’ve come a long way in terms of progress for fair and respectful treatment for trans-people at regional schools.

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