LGBTQA: Big Letters on Campus

By Darrell P. Aaron,  David Mabe and Courtney Wilk

Editor’s Note: NEJHE has strived to document and improve the experiences of groups historically underserved by higher education, including ethnic and racial minorities. Academia is more tolerant than many sectors, but spending a brief time on any campus reveals that people who are “different” in any way are also underserved and underacknowledged. This article explores the particular situation facing transgender students. —J.O.H.

For most Americans, biological sex and gender are one and the same. Infants usually fit neatly into one of two categories: A newborn is either a boy or a girl. Boys, according to stereotype, are adorned in blue, girls in pink. In short order, most boys and girls will grow up amid social pressures to behave in a manner that aligns culturally with their anatomy. They will play with gendered toys, compete on gendered athletic teams, and, for many of those lucky enough to pursue residential postsecondary education, live in gendered housing. The connection between biological sex and gender norms is woven deeply into the fabric of American society. It affects everything from the way we interact with one another to how we dress and where we use the restroom.

But gender—or what might be called “gender identity” or “gender expression”—often differs from biological sex. “Transgender” people identify themselves as something other than simply male or female. A transgender person might be biologically male but identify culturally as a woman, or vice versa. Moreover, the male/female binary tells an incomplete story even about biological sex. While transgender persons constitute as much as 8% of the population, some researchers estimate that intersex individuals (those whose anatomy is neither fully male nor fully female) account for nearly 1.7% of births worldwide. Given the culturally sensitive nature of nonconforming gender expression and biological sex, data on these populations are often incomplete and hard to nail down. What’s clear, however, is that not everyone fits into boxes labeled either “male” or “female.”

Colleges and universities know little about their transgender populations. Many institutions support student- or staff-led “affinity groups” designed to give students interested in LGBTQA (i.e. lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, straight ally) issues a forum for likeminded personal connections and sustained and safe discussion space. Still others sponsor awareness or education programs for their students about transgender issues or maintain residential facilities that cater to transgender student needs. But, from a data collection standpoint, institutions and, indeed, the federal government use a system predicated on the gender binary; in large part, when colleges and universities collect gender data about their students they ask simply “male or female?”

There are strong indications that gay, lesbian, and transgender student populations—like other culturally marginalized student groups—persist through the college ranks and complete postsecondary training, on the whole, less successfully than their peers in the cultural mainstream. Threats of physical violence, pressures to hide their identities, fear or discomfort in residential settings all contribute to higher-than-normal attrition rates for gay, lesbian, and transgender students at American colleges and universities. But again data are hard to come by. At the national level, institutional data collection processes (e.g. IPEDS reporting) seek student information along gender lines and make no allowance for transgender or intersex students. This practice renders transgender students invisible to data analysis; researchers are not entirely sure how these students are faring from year to year.


At the institutional level, a handful of colleges and universities collect information on student gender identities beyond biological sex, but the trend is in its nascent stages. Institutions like Carleton College, Duke University, and, in New England, Tufts University allow students to communicate a nonconforming gender identity in admissions application forms. These colleges either offer students a blank space in which to describe their gender identities or, in the case of Tufts, they provide a third option—“Other:”—added to check boxes for male and female identities. Either of these strategies involves transgender students in data collection and trend analysis. As college applications convey not only academic qualifications but the personalities, experiences and identities of applying students, as well, these questions also grant transgender students a more representative voice in the college matchmaking process. At some institutions, student identity plays an important role in admission decisions; applicants are asked about their racial and family backgrounds, their personal and academic interests, and even their religions. College admission, at many institutions, is about identity and student background as much as academic qualifications and test scores. Why, then, is gender identity omitted from the conversation at most postsecondary institutions?

Initiatives seeking to include gay, lesbian, and transgender student identities in institutional data collection and admissions decision-making processes are beginning to gain traction. In 2010, Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania joined the nonprofit advocacy group Campus Pride in calling for an alteration to the Common Application. The Common Application allows a college applicant to prepare an admission application by responding to a battery of demographic inquiries, questions about life experiences and interests, and an open-ended essay prompt. That single document—with teacher recommendations, transcripts, institution-specific supplements, and application fees appended—conveys the candidacy of that applicant to as many member institutions as the applicant chooses. More than 400 institutions—including every Ivy League university, Stanford University, the University of Chicago, and each of the top 10 national liberal arts colleges (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report)—use the Common Application. The Common App, as it’s known, accounts for millions of college applications submitted each year, and it requires students to report their gender as either male or female.

Dartmouth, Penn, and Campus Pride petitioned the Common Application to either add a third category to gender (akin to the “Other” box at Tufts) or, in deference to federal reporting guidelines, add a question separate from biological sex relating to gender identity. The Common Application polled its members and decided against altering the document, citing the need to conform to federal guidelines and the potential for increased student anxiety as justifications. Common Application officials suggested that asking a student to report a gender identity outside of the male/female binary, even optionally, would place a student in an uncomfortable or even dangerous position with parents and high school officials. (The dilemma is reminiscent of the debate over don’t ask/don’t tell.) Despite the failure of proponents in securing a change to the Common Application, higher education officials and admissions officers around the nation are beginning to recognize that this issue needs serious consideration.

Student services

Transgender students, an often hidden population on many college and university campuses, frequently face embarrassment and discomfort, as well as safety concerns, when it comes to residential life. A biologically male student who identifies as female, for example, can present a challenge for a residential life coordinator who does not know how to best handle the sensitive issues at hand when accommodating a transgender student. While the student may feel most comfortable living in a female dormitory, there may be concerns from roommates, floormates, and parents who feel uncomfortable with such a placement.

Many institutions have enacted gender-neutral housing as a way to combat any prejudices a transgender student might experience when attempting to find on-campus housing. According to Brown University’s Gender-Neutral Housing Policy, “a gender-neutral optional housing designation simply means that either a single-gender group or mixed-gender group may select these rooms, suites, or apartments.” Such choice is seen to provide more comfort and safety to transgender residents who want the option to choose whom they will live with, regardless of biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc.

According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 50 institutions have gender-neutral housing policies, including New England campuses such as Connecticut College, Northeastern University, Tufts University and the University of Vermont. While Northeastern has a gender-neutral housing policy “in order to provide a welcoming living environment,” such an option is offered only to junior to senior students, meaning that transgender freshmen and sophomores still must choose between the gender binaries if they are to live on campus.

At Connecticut College, gender-neutral housing is available to students beginning in their sophomore year. According to one trustee, Prescott W. Haffner, “the availability of gender-neutral housing sends an affirming message to all students. It reinforces that the college community welcomes people as individuals, whatever their differences.” The policy was enacted in 2009 after a group of students came together, requesting that such a change be implemented on campus.

In fall 2003, the University of Vermont Office of Residential Life “began making selected rooms with private shower facilities available to transgender students upon request,” according to Dot Brauer, director of the LGBTQA (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, Allies) at UVM. That same year, signage on more than 20 gender-specific, single-use bathrooms were replaced with gender-neutral signs. More recently, in fall 2010, residential life began offering students more access to gender-neutral housing.

At Tufts, accommodations for transgender students have been existence since fall 2004, with the creation of the transgender housing option, which allows a transgender student to live with whomever they chose, regardless of gender identity. Yet. this past February, Students Acting for Gender Equality (SAGE) at Tufts put together a proposal for gender-neutral housing, meaning that anyone, regardless of if they identify as transgender or cisgender (meaning a match between biological identity and gender identity) can choose to live together in a double-occupancy room. Tom Bourdon, the director of the LGBT Center at Tufts, notes that a move to gender-neutral housing provides more accommodations to cisgender students, as transgender students were already protected under the transgender housing option. Bourdon does note, though, that allowing all people, regardless of gender identity, to live with one another would “shift the general tone of roommate housing,” perhaps making it so transgender students would not “stand out so much” in their housing decisions.

The need for transgender student services spans beyond residential life, though. In the classroom, transgender students can feel uncomfortable being identified by professors and teaching assistants by their legal names.

In 2003, a University of Vermont, student wrote a senior thesis on how the university could become more accommodating to transgender students. That same year, the university created software for its student information system that “puts students’ preferred names and pronouns on class rosters and identification cards but retains their legal names on financial aid and medical forms.”

This arrangement makes things more comfortable for both students and faculty, as it minimizes the confusion as to how students identify. The system also provides a more comfortable way for students to let professors know how they prefer to be identified without having to “out” themselves personally to professors as a transgender student, which can be a highly uncomfortable and emotional experience. According to Brauer, UVM’s registrar completed the coding work in January 2009, allowing the new naming system to be implemented.

Tom Bourdon sees the University of Vermont “at the forefront” of accommodating transgender students. He notes that Tufts is in the process of upgrading its computer system, which will allow it to enact a similar naming system as UVM.

UVM, in spring 2003, also formed the annual Translating Identity Conference, which has brought greater awareness of transgender culture to UVM and surrounding communities. Moreover, in 2005, UVM’s Board of Trustees approved the inclusion of “gender identity and expression” in the institutions’ non-discrimination and harassment policy. According to Brauer, such activism and awareness has come about through “transgender-identified and transgender advocate and activist students, staff and faculty at UVM,” who have “actively participated in informing and shaping the direction of institutional change.”

When asked why such radical changes were able to take place on UVM’s campus, Brauer responded that there is a “different kind of civic culture” in the state of Vermont, combined with the “progressive politics” that lend themselves to the changes that have been enacted at UVM. Other states, she notes, may be fighting an uphill battle when it comes to implementing such changes: “You’re not always going to have a sympathetic provost, willing vice president, and eager registrar”.

Darrell P. AaronDavid Mabe and Courtney Wilk pursued this project as policy interns at NEBHE and students at Harvard Graduate School of Education. They all now work in college admissions.


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