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Rutgers Reaches Out to Transgender Students

Joanne applied to Rutgers early in her senior year of high school. By the time she arrived on campus the following fall, she was Brian.

“I grew up in a small town and for my entire school life was miserable. I never fit in. For a while I thought I might be butch lesbian, but deep down I always felt like a guy,” Brian said. (His last name has been omitted and his first name changed for this article.)

With support from his mother and counseling, Brian began hormone treatments toward the end of high school. He couldn’t wait for a new start at Rutgers, which he chose for its diversity and reputation for tolerance. “I read [in a college guide] that Rutgers is considered among the top LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender]-friendly colleges.”

And, he said, his first days on campus confirmed it.

Though legally male when he got to New Brunswick, Brian had applied to Rutgers as Joanne. He contacted the university’s Office for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities (SJE), expecting his name change request to become mired in bureaucracy. But the staff took the situation in stride, putting him in touch with the right people at the registrar and in housing. In no time, he had a new name in the database, and a single room.

“The LGBT office helped me navigate the system,” Brian said. He hears stories from transgender friends who feel alienated at their schools or have been harassed. “Rutgers is doing its best to accommodate the trans community,” he added.

Rutgers administrators say they would like to do even better. “We want to bring Rutgers up to the level of top-tier universities,” said Cheryl Clarke, on leave from her directorship of SJE and acting dean of students at the Livingston Campus.

Clarke cites the University of Michigan, Ohio State University, and the University of California (UC) system among the top transgender-friendly public institutions. The vast majority of UC employees and students have access to hormones and SRS (sex reassignment surgery) insurance benefits.

Clarke was the first chair of the Gender Identity Taskforce, created by the Office of the Vice President of Student Affairs in 2005. Its charge was to foster safe, welcoming environments in Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick for students who identify as transgender, an expansive term covering a variety of identities and expressions. The spectrum can range from those who develop a gender identity different from their biological sex to those who feel they don’t fit into traditional gender roles. “Trans” individuals may or may not take hormones or undergo surgery.

In 2006, the taskforce issued a report suggesting steps Rutgers could take to become more trans-inclusive. The recommendations cut across areas where students are most likely to encounter discrimination: healthcare, residence halls, restrooms, locker rooms, records and documents, housing, programming, and student life.

Many of the proposals have been implemented. Some required minor modifications – for example, adjusting forms to include gender-neutral options and increasing the number of unisex bathrooms. Others involved procedural or structural changes, such as creating a living-learning community inclusive of gender differences and establishing a network of professionals across departments to address the needs of transgender students.

In the fall of 2008, the Office for Social Justice Education hired Jenny Kurtz, who had worked as an adviser to the Resource Center for Sexuality and Gender at Smith College, to coordinate and consolidate university efforts to enhance the quality of life for LGBT students. (Kurtz serves as SJE’s acting director while Clarke is on leave.)

“When I got here, the first thing I asked was, ‘Where are all the transgender students?’” said Kurtz, who holds a bachelor’s degree in women’s studies and psychology and a master of education in social justice education. Trans students at Rutgers don’t feel comfortable coming out, so it’s difficult to gauge the size of the population, Kurtz said. She hopes that by increasing education and awareness, that will change.

 “My goal is to create a visible community of folks who identify as transgender,” she said.

To that end, SJE has stepped up its efforts to raise awareness about transgender issues. The office has expanded training workshops on gender identity to departments university-wide. Online employee training will be available soon. In early October, the SJE office moved from College Avenue into expanded quarters on the Livingston Campus. Its new location in Tillett Hall includes a lounge and resource center.

One of SJE’s most powerful tools is the “liaison network” – a group of professionals designated to support students during their gender exploration and social or physical transition. Depending on the issue, students are referred to the appropriate liaison in areas such as housing, facilities, residence life, health services, and the registrar, Kurtz said.

The university’s support of the transgender community is not limited to students. Within University Human Resources, the Office of Employment Equity assists trans employees and their departments in facilitating understanding and ensuring that the workplace environment is free of bias. Office director Jayne Munkacsi Grandes notes that her staff is available to discuss trans employees’ concerns confidentially and provide counseling on employment matters and other assistance.

Support is also available to alumni. For instance, graduates of Douglass College who have transitioned from female to male may be issued diplomas from Rutgers College upon request from the registrar. A new organization, Rutgers University Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Alumni/ae Association—RU BiGLATA—provides a means for alumni to support the current LGBT student community.

Brian, now a junior, has noticed, gradually, more gender-diverse students at Rutgers beginning to come out. While he doesn’t advertise that he’s transgender—”I spent enough of my life being looked at differently”—he’s not ashamed of it. He has, in fact, confided in several professors. “My major is evolutionary anthropology, which lends well to a faculty who would understand diversity of human life,” he said.

For the most part, however, Brian chooses to keep his identity private. “For every person who is accepting, there are five who are repulsed,” he said. “Your energy gets tied up in wondering who is going to feel threatened by your existence and what their response will be.”

Brian has become involved in university efforts to create a more trans-inclusive climate. He is one of a small number of students on the Gender Identity Taskforce and is a member of a sex, sexuality and gender discussion group that meets weekly on the New Brunswick Campus. He also serves as the occasional resource to transgender students considering Rutgers.

“In many ways, school has been a lifesaver for me,” he said. “It’s important for someone who’s struggling with these kinds of issues to know that there’s somebody out there who understands.”

Click here for a chronology of LGBT history at Rutgers.

Reprinted from Rutgers Today – RutgersToday.rutgers.edu.

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