USC Falls Behind Top Competitors In Transgender Accommodations
In his wallet, Fisher, a first-year grad student at the University of Southern California, carries around a small piece of paper: a campus map with 12 markers indicating the locations of gender-neutral bathrooms.
Fisher is a female-to-male transgender. Born as Daniella, Fisher began his transition in 2008 and has since been living full-time as a male.
Fisher is part of an increasingly visible student population at USC that openly identifies as a transgender, an individual whose gender identity and expression differs from his or her birth sex.
This academic year alone, USC has seen a tenfold increase in the number of transgender students. Other universities nationwide—from the University of Pennsylvania to Stanford University—have observed a similar trend.
As a result, a growing number of campuses have begun accommodating their transgender student population in the last few years. They've added gender identity to nondiscrimination policies, offered gender-neutral housing options, built more gender-neutral restrooms and broadened student health insurance plans to cover hormone therapy and transitional surgeries.
Fisher's brown hair sits shortly cropped on his head; a sleek black skinny tie hangs stylishly around his neck; his light face sports a pair of piercing blue eyes and a winsome smile.
But perhaps due to his feminine voice or his long, skinny frame, Fisher’s presence does not necessarily emanate a wholly conventional masculinity.
“You never know how you’re perceived,” he said. “Fifty to 60 percent of the time I get ‘sir’. The rest of the time people see me as female.”
This makes certain everyday tasks—some as seemingly straightforward as using a public restroom—quite tricky.
When far from one of the dozen buildings on campus with a gender-neutral restroom—a single-occupancy facility bearing both male and female signs—he finds himself in quite a predicament.
Most of the time, he chooses to use the men’s restroom, but it’s not without anxiety.
“Sometimes I do ‘eenie meenie minie mo’ based on my outfit,” Fisher acknowledged. “I’m wearing booty knocker shorts today and maybe I’m not gonna pass in the men’s room.”
USC as an institution—despite the relentless efforts of student organizations and the LGBT Resource Center—notably falls short in many areas of trans-inclusivity.
TRANS COMMUNITY @ USC
In previous years, USC was aware of one or two transgender students per academic school year who would either enter the campus or come out as trans, said Vincent Vigil, director of USC’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender [LGBT] Resource Center. This year, Vigil estimated around 10 such students who have introduced themselves to him.
“There could be 50 [trans students] for all we know, but 10 have made contact with our office,” he clarified.
Vigil said he thinks this spike can largely be attributed to the national acclaim the university has received for its LGBT inclusivity. This past summer, Campus Pride, a nonprofit resource for LGBT college or college-bound students, awarded USC with a perfect score on the campus climate index of gay friendliness for the fifth consecutive year.
USC added gender identity and expression to its nondiscrimination policy in 2004, one of the first universities in the U.S. to do so.
As a result, in 2006, the Gender Equality National Index for Universities and Schools (GENIUS) highlighted the institution as a diversity leader in this field.
“[This reputation] has helped us by attracting more LGBT students to come here,” he explained. “[But] it has hurt us on the transgender spectrum because we don’t have gender-neutral housing yet, for example.”
“Now we’re getting prospective trans-identified students who are coming here, so numbers are gonna continue to increase. In terms of our transgender inclusivity, there’s some stuff we need to improve.”
PEEING IN PEACE
On September 1, the Daily Trojan published two opinion pieces debating the necessity of installing more gender-neutral restrooms on campus. While one column deemed the push vital to the safety and comfort of transgender students, the other side called the expansion “unnecessary”, pointing to USC’s reputation for its tolerant and progressive student population.
The writer argued: “… At a place where an LGBT student is purportedly treated as an equal to any other given student, do we really need to waste time, thought and money on a project that would likely be superfluous?”
Dylan, a USC sophomore and a trans man, said he was baffled when he read the column.
“In the politest way possible, [the writer] has no idea what they’re talking about,” Dylan said. “They’re writing about an experience they don’t have and writing about accommodations they don’t need.”
Dylan, who didn’t want his last name published, came out as a female-to-male transgender last spring and started his transition the following summer. He began living full-time as a male since the beginning of this academic school year.
Just like Fisher, Dylan carries around a list of on-campus gender-neutral restrooms in his wallet.
The LGBT Resource Center’s website lists 12 buildings on the University Park Campus with gender-neutral bathroom facilities. However, many of them are in remote areas where most students don’t frequent, Dylan said.
“For instance, I don’t go to the Norris Dental Center or the Freshman Writing House or the Gerontology Center or the Neuroscience building,” he explained. “That really doesn’t make it convenient for someone.”
When he doesn’t have easy access to a gender-neutral bathroom, Dylan said he uses the men’s room about 90 percent of the time. That’s because he has “a fair amount of passing privilege,” he added.
“That means, although my voice is very feminine, my presentation is pretty masculine,” Dylan explained. “I get read as male most of the time, especially now that I’ve cut my hair a couple of times. So if I go into the men’s room, people aren’t gonna question my presence in there.”
Dylan recognizes that this is a privilege he has; those who aren’t so lucky are subject to anxiety, harassment and even violence, he said.
“If I were to use the women’s room right now, people would be uncomfortable because I look like a guy,” Dylan explained. “But if I also didn’t feel safe using the men’s room, then what’s my option?”
Fisher, agreeing with Dylan’s concern, said he has had his share of awkward—and even precarious—bathroom situations in public. People have even threatened to call the manager on him several times, he said.
“[In a women’s restroom], we’d be waiting for a stall, and [a woman] would look at me and I’d look at her, and she’d be like, ‘Am I in the wrong restroom?’” Fisher recalled. “She’d look shifty and uncomfortable and whisper something to her friend. This is a repeatable scenario. It’s happened to me a number of times.”
While he has not had such issues in public men’s restrooms yet, he imagines it would be significantly more serious as “men can get aggressive and there’s a physical danger there,” he said.
Fisher’s concern is not unreasonable. Hate crimes against transgender individuals are known to be rampant in public accommodations.
In one high-profile case back in April, a transgender woman in Baltimore, Maryland was viciously beaten by two girls in a McDonald’s after using the women’s room.
“They said, ‘That’s a dude, that’s a dude and she’s in the female bathroom,’” the victim told the Baltimore Sun. “They spit in my face.”
A video clip of the incident shows the girls repeatedly kicking and punching the victim's head until she appears to have a seizure.
Although Fisher said he has not been outright attacked verbally or physically in restrooms on campus, he acknowledged that he does not always feel at ease.
“Having to think about these things constantly is exhausting,” he said. “It does impact your schedule and your awareness. Gender-neutral restrooms would take away all that anxiety.”
Fisher would not have this problem at Stanford University, where every single building on campus has at least one gender-neutral bathroom, said Adam Detzner, house manager at Stanford’s LGBT Community Resources Center.
“There are plans to build more, particularly in residences,” Detzner added. “Each time a residence undergoes a renovation it receives a new gender-neutral restroom.”
THE FULL PACKAGE
Fisher is holding off on starting a regimen of hormone replacement therapy.
It’s partially due to personal choice, and partially due to shortcomings in USC’s student health insurance package, he said.
Hormone replacement therapy plays an integral part in transitioning from one sex to another. With regular doses of testosterone or estrogen, an individual can alter his or her balance of sex hormones.
After switching its student health insurance provider last year from Anthem Blue Cross to Aetna, USC is now one of 41 universities in the United States that covers hormone therapy, according to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute.
Under Aetna’s student health coverage, visits to see a clinician at University Park Health Center are free except for certain tests, procedures or prescriptions. If the student is referred to a physician outside the health center, visits, tests and prescriptions are covered at 90 percent, according to Aetna’s student coverage plan.
Recently, the LGBT Resource Center collaborated with the health center to identify two doctors within the USC network who are trans-friendly or have experience working with the transgender population, Vigil said.
This is a step in the right direction, but more can be done to improve the university’s transgender health care, he conceded.
USC’s student health insurance does not provide any coverage for transitional procedures, such as gender reassignment surgeries.
“I think it’s ludicrous that hormone therapy is covered without surgery too, since the risks of starting a regimen while ovaries continue to produce estrogen are known,” Fisher said. “I would consider hormone therapy after surgeries are covered.”
Currently, 26 universities in the nation cover expenses for such procedures.
“Take a look at University of Pennsylvania,” Fisher added. “It looks like they started doing it right.”
Last August, UPenn began covering hormones, mental health treatment and surgeries of up to $50,000 for its transgender students. This expansion came after UPenn’s undergraduate LGBT umbrella group, the Lambda Alliance, lobbied for the policy change. Soon, the Student Health Insurance Advisory Committee backed up those efforts.
“It actually was passed more quickly than we thought it would,” acknowledged Erin Cross, associate director of UPenn’s LGBT Center.
Like UPenn, all 10 of University of California campuses cover both hormone and gender-reassignment surgery costs.
The University of California Health Insurance Plan was freshly launched this fall semester after university representatives and the UC Office of the President reached an agreement to expand medical benefits.
The UC-wide health insurance now provides a lifetime maximum of $75,000 for transgender procedures and medical expenses authorized by the UC system.
“It wouldn’t be a 100 percent coverage when it comes to surgeries,” explained Nancy Tubbs, director of the UC Riverside’s LGBT Resource Center. “There might be 80 percent coverage if you go out of network, but 80 percent is better than not having coverage at all.”
According to Vigil, no efforts have yet been made to expand USC’s student health insurance to include the costs of transition-related operations.
THE ROOMMATE ISSUE
Before Dylan had come to terms with his transgender identity, he pledged into a sorority during the fall semester of his freshman year.
By spring semester, he was living in the sorority house.
“That kind of put everything in overdrive, estrogen-wise,” Dylan acknowledged. “I was like, wow, I’m living with like, 60 girls. That’s a little bit intense.”
So over the summer, Dylan contacted Vigil for help.
“I told him my situation, that I identify as a trans man, but I’m in a sorority,” he said. “I said, ‘What do I do? I can’t live here.’”
Vigil made last-minute arrangements for Dylan to live on the Rainbow Floor, a special community for LGBT students and allies located in Century Apartments. However, as USC’s housing policy assigns roommates based on birth sex, Dylan was placed into an apartment with three girls.
Although his female roommates have been “very wonderful” and introduce him to others as their male roommate, he acknowledged that it’s hard not to be disappointed.
“I wish we had gender-neutral housing; it would make everything a lot easier,” Dylan said. “USC policy really needs some rehandling.”
Under the current university policy, openly transgender students like Dylan have two trans-friendly housing options on campus: either reside on the Rainbow Floor or request a single room with a private bathroom.
The latter option, however, has a blaring limitation, Vigil said.
“We don’t want to isolate our transgender folks into a single room where maybe they don’t feel a part of the floor or a community and don’t have that roommate experience,” he explained.
According to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute, 81 colleges and universities in the United States currently offer a gender-inclusive housing option, in which students can choose a roommate of any gender. Many more are considering or testing the option, including UCLA, which is in talks of implementing a new coed policy beginning next fall.
UC Riverside was the first public institution in the nation to extend this option to all students.
Launched in the fall semester of 2005, the program took almost two academic years to implement, UCR’s Tubbs said.
What initially started out as an initiative to build a theme hall for LGBT students and allies quickly evolved into a project retrofitting an entire residential building for gender-inclusive housing, Tubbs said.
“As we developed that project with housing, we realized that we needed to find ways to make it trans-inclusive,” she explained. “The polices at the time, which assigned students based on biological sex, would not allow that.”
On the reconfigured online housing application, UCR students can now indicate whether they require or are interested in living in a gender-neutral suite. In addition, housing faculty as well student staff, residential advisors and program coordinators attend professional training session every summer to raise their awareness about LGBT issues, Tubbs said.
“The routine training with staff has been part of the success,” she said. “It’s so [that] they understand the purpose of the theme hall, gender neutral housing, and ways to address issues from the public. It’s relatively basic training, but at least it brings up the questions and gives them resources.”
The positive impact of this trailblazing housing program has been very evident over the years, she added.
UCR’s housing staff frequently receives inquiries from colleagues all over the nation who want their universities to follow a similar path. Tubbs has also received calls from parents requesting for more information about the program’s accommodations.
“It’s incredibly powerful to know that parents are looking out for their sons and daughters and want to make sure they had a safe place,” she said. “They wanted their kids to feel comfortable when they arrived at UCR.”
Not only that, Tubbs explained that having gender-neutral housing encourages dialogue and raises awareness about non-binary genders in the UCR community.
“It opens up the conversation with our entire campus about why we offer this, why it’s important to acknowledge we have trans and gender nonconforming students on campus,” she said. “It’s a constant reminder.”
USC currently has no plans to offer gender-neutral housing in the immediate future, said Carol Schmitz, director of residential communities, USC Residential Education (ResEd).
But that isn’t to say that students haven’t given it a shot.
Last spring, a campus organization called Trojans for Equality drafted a proposal that pushed for gender-neutral housing. However, the group ultimately retracted it after a meeting with ResEd staff, said junior Joshua DeMilta, the group’s vice president last year.
While Schmitz said she understood the concerns expressed about the current housing policy not meeting the needs of transgender students, she admitted this is still a relatively new phenomenon on unfamiliar turf.
“I don’t think we’re quite there yet,” Schmitz said. “My impression as I engage with different stakeholders at USC is that a lot of groundswell and interest for creating gender neutral housing isn’t in place at this point.”
As of now, USC is interested in addressing the needs of individual students rather than considering a university-wide policy change, she explained.
“What has somewhat been the process has been assigning those students to single spaces,” Schmitz said. “We’ve been looking at them case by case, and we have for years. But that doesn’t mean it could not potentially change at some point.”
Vigil agreed that generational politics—among other factors, such as money—acts as a big obstacle to implementing this policy change.
“Your generation is a little bit more inclusive to the idea,” he explained. “However, your generation isn’t the one making the decisions here at a private institution.”
Rather, the call is made by trustees, the board of governors, the university president and provost, as well as parents and faculty members.
“[Those] who are of a different generation, of a different mindset,” Vigil added.
For a policy change as progressive as gender-inclusive housing, Vigil said it’s set out to be a three-tier process—one that is “not gonna happen overnight.”
Because many are still unfamiliar with transgender issues and needs, educating them about gender-variant people should be the starting point, he said.
“By educating them, they’ll see that this is where the discrepancy is, and this is what we can do,” Vigil explained. “Start with the basic problem and then we can get to a solution.”
The next step would be to help them understand the transgender student’s experience and the importance of having a gender-neutral housing option for the purposes of safety and building a community.
“Then finally, we can hopefully try to create some sort of action,” he said.
While Vigil’s current efforts as faculty are dedicated to this first step of educating upper administration, student advocates are busy pushing forward the agenda of gender-neutral housing on their own.
DeMilta, who currently serves as Undergraduate Student Government (USG)’s director of diversity affairs, conducted an online survey in October that tested the student body’s general opinion about gender-inclusive housing.
It was modeled after Stanford’s own survey that helped the university achieve a gender-neutral housing option in 2008, he said.
Of the 530 students who took DeMilta’s survey, almost 80 percent said they would support a pilot phase that would allow students to live with people of the opposite gender.
Senior Riss Emond, who is the resident advisor on the Rainbow Floor, sent in a proposal to her supervisor in late October, listing recommendations on how to make the Rainbow Floor more gender inclusive. It was subsequently submitted to Schmitz at ResEd.
The one-page proposal, written by Emond with the aid of Vigil and a staff member from student affairs, models itself after Stanford’s current gender-inclusive housing policy.
While it would require students of the same biological sex to share a room per USC’s current housing policy, the proposal recommends the allowance of apartment-mates or suitemates to be of any gender.
This means, someone like Dylan, a trans man, would still be unable to room with a biologically male student on the Rainbow Floor.
“The concession on our side is huge,” Emond said. “The administration may not recognize this. They might think they’re doing something huge if they accept the proposal, but they’re not.”
However, Emond said meeting the administration halfway is necessary to ensure better chances for the proposal to be approved.
“I recognize that USC policy, specifically administrators, do not understand this need of students,” she said. “Administration is behind in gender and sexuality research, or else they would know this.”
So for now, a quasi-gender-inclusive housing option on the Rainbow Floor will have to do.
“To reach any concession with them allowing any form of gender-neutral housing is a great step,” Emond acknowledged.
The proposal is currently under review.
From gender-inclusive housing to a comprehensive health insurance package, USC falls short in a number of trans-inclusive policies. However, Fisher said he remains hopeful that the hard work of individuals like Vigil, DeMilta and Emond will bring forth significant progress.
“It’s still inadequate,” Fisher acknowledged. “But what good policy there is, I think it’s just reflective of the people making it happen rather than the policy making it happen for the people.”
Dylan agreed, saying that he thinks the overall USC campus is “largely in favor of accommodating for those outside the gender-normative community.”
“But the policy doesn’t necessarily follow, and obviously that’s more a bureaucratic problem,” he added. “How do you convince people that these policies need to be changed on the administrative level?”
It all comes back to the basics: educating. Creating visibility for the transgender community is of utmost importance to make crucial trans-inclusive policy changes at USC in the future, Vigil said.
“For us to be a real movement, we need to build our numbers, build allies,” he said. “We want to be able to create a safe environment, to live up to our name.”
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