In Focus: Northwestern community evaluates culture, resources for transgender students

April 21, 2014

When Bea Sullivan-Knoff played a drag queen in an adaptation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” last year, she connected with a part of herself she never knew existed.

“That was the first time I had that fully embodied femininity, and it was a transformative experience for me,” the Communication junior said. “I felt like I was embracing a part of myself that I didn’t know had been in there that strongly.”

Sullivan-Knoff was male-assigned at birth but does not identify within the gender binary. She defines herself as a “transgender lady” — a self-created term she prefers over identifying as a female.

At Northwestern, Sullivan-Knoff is part of a small community of transgender students who continue to see improved resources and facilities. But members of the transgender community say many areas still need to see improvement, including the availability of gender-neutral bathrooms and housing, as well as a greater understanding of what it means to be transgender.

Being transgender at NU

Transgender individuals are those whose gender identity or expression differs from the sex they were assigned at birth, according to GLAAD, an LGBT advocacy organization.

The Williams Institute, a national organization focused on gender identity law, estimates there are about 700,000 transgender adults in the United States.

Sullivan-Knoff came out as transgender while studying abroad in Argentina in the fall. She shared her story through a letter on her study abroad blog.

“It was a process of years of very slowly, slowly getting comfortable with more and more aspects of my gender expression, like starting to paint my nails in high school,” she said. “It started happening a lot faster when I got to college.”

Although an NU survey compiling data from the last few years suggests .32 percent of undergraduate students identify as transgender, the number reflects a small sample size and does not account for students who chose not to share their gender identity, said Devin Moss, director of NU’s LGBT Resource Center.

Overall, Sullivan-Knoff and other members of the transgender community believe NU is an accepting place. National nonprofit Campus Pride, which ranks colleges based on LGBT-friendliness, awarded NU five out of five stars.

Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse, a database of transgender policies at colleges, also lists NU as one of 730 schools that have nondiscrimination policies regarding gender identity, one of 149 that offer gender-inclusive housing, one of 75 that allow students to use their preferred name on university records and one of 51 with student insurance covering gender-reassignment surgeries. The University of Chicago, Duke University and Washington University in St. Louis also appear on all four lists.

Though Sullivan-Knoff has not directly experienced discrimination on campus, she said NU lacks a unified transgender community. A Facebook group for transgender students only includes about 10 people, she said.

“It is a pretty isolating experience,” she said. “I’m going to start looking at communities outside of campus just so I can have that sort of support system that doesn’t really exist in a substantial way on campus.”

McCormick sophomore Al French, who identifies as a transgender male, said the biggest problem he has encountered at NU is people “misgendering” him.

“I have instituted a three-strike rule for people I’m friends with, which is you get it wrong three times and I punch you,” he said.

French said he has only had to act on this rule once.

Redmond Lhota, a McCormick junior and the former co-president of Rainbow Alliance, identifies as genderqueer. He said his experiences with the LGBT community have been positive.

“I’ve found a lot of really inspiring people because I was able to find other trans individuals who had similar experiences and that was really amazing,” he said. “I would say the queer community here is really accepting of trans individuals.”

Beyond biology

Moss said being transgender is about more than one’s physical or biological characteristics.

“It’s truly a construct, and I know that some people link it to what their genitalia look like,” Moss said. “That’s not the definition of transgender. It’s all about how one identifies their own gender expression.”

Sullivan-Knoff does not believe her biology influences her gender expression. She doesn’t plan on undergoing any medical procedures, with the possible exception of laser hair removal, to change her body.

“I would rather just have the existence of my living be its own form of activism that challenges what people think about what is true about gender,” she said. “It is really oppressive the way that society is structured, and it’s denying a lot of possibility and freedom of expression.”

Lhota is currently taking testosterone and said that in the future, he would consider top surgery. Top surgery refers to the removal or cosmetic addition of breasts.

“(Testosterone is) what I had access to and I’m incredibly lucky to have access to that,” he said. “Top surgery would make me feel a lot more comfortable.”

French has not had any medical procedures but would like to have hormone treatment and top surgery in the future.

Housing hurdles

One improvement the transgender community at NU has been advocating for is better gender-open housing options, which are currently offered in 1835 Hinman and Foster-Walker Complex. Gender-open housing allows students to live with whomever they would like regardless of gender.

Gender-open housing was first approved in Spring Quarter 2010 for the 2010-11 school year. In 2009, the Gender Protection Initiative, a group formed to make NU a more inclusive environment for gender-nonconforming students, successfully fought to add “gender identity” and “gender expression” to NU’s non-discrimination policy. GPI also led the effort to create gender-open housing on campus.

Initially, 17 students applied and were accepted to live in gender-open housing in Hinman, and 16 of them took the spots. However, during the summer all but six of the students dropped out of the program, leaving just one room of co-ed roommates. Neither of those roommates identified as transgender.

At the time, conflicting views defined the program’s unsuccessful launch, with some students saying there was a lack of communication with administrators. However, administrators said the high level of dropouts reflected a lack of interest in the program.

(In Focus: A program ‘doomed to fail’)

 In March 2011, administrators denied most of the requests in another GPI proposal. The proposal asked that freshmen be able to live in gender-open housing and in different residential halls than was ultimately approved.

“The immediate reaction was extreme frustration, bordering on anger. It was not at all what we were expecting,” former GPI president Zach Wichter (Medill ‘13) told The Daily at the time.

Mugsie Pike (Communication ‘10), who served as the president of GPI during the 2009-10 school year, said the group encountered a lot of difficulties when trying to work with the University. Pike is intersex and prefers the pronoun “they.”

“Anytime a criticism was made of the administration, the response was, ‘Well you guys are too hostile for us to work with you,’” Pike said. “In regard to housing, the University said they already accommodate trans students satisfactorily. However, the trans students that were supposedly accommodated were the people in the group saying, ‘No, you haven’t actually accommodated us.’”

Mykell Miller (McCormick ‘10) also served as a president of GPI and wrote a letter to The Daily in October 2010 about the failed launch of gender-open housing.

“The administration’s poor handling of the gender-open housing pilot is an embarrassment to the University,” Miller wrote. “It is sickening that I feel more accepted now that I live in Michigan, the state whose assistant attorney general has stalked a gay student without getting fired, than I did at Northwestern.”

(Letter: NU’s handling of gender-open housing has been an embarrassment)

Creating ‘welcoming’ residences

Mary Goldenberg, assistant dean of students and case manager at Residential Services, said there are now about 50 beds available for gender-open housing, but not all are being used.

“We’re here for all students and we want all our students to feel as comfortable as possible,” Goldenberg said. “Why wouldn’t we attempt to offer our transgender students the ability to live in a housing situation where they would be more comfortable?”

However, Weinberg junior Petros Karahalios, who previously served as the Associated Student Government senator for Rainbow Alliance, currently lives in the gender-open housing suite in Hinman and said he does not believe any of the students living in his suite identify as transgender.

French has never lived in gender-open housing, opting for the female suite of the Communications Residential College instead.

“Probably part of why the gender-open housing doesn’t have as many people in it is because it is in these big, impersonal dorms,” he said.

French added that 1835 Hinman and Foster-Walker do not have the same “welcoming” atmosphere of residential colleges.

When Lhota entered NU, gender-open housing was not available for freshmen. He could have lived in gender-open housing his sophomore year, but he said the options were not appealing.

“It was more important to me to experience the community in a res college than to try and live in gender-neutral housing, and I didn’t want to be segregated from the rest of the population,” he said. “So I kind of just made the suite I lived in gender-neutral.”

Lhota agreed with French, saying the residence halls that offer gender-open housing lack a community.

“You should be able to both have housing that fits your gender identity and still be able to find communities of people with common interests outside of being trans or outside of being queer,” he said. “Trans people aren’t just trans. They’re also everything else. Gender-neutral housing separates trans students from the general population and kind of pigeonholes trans students.”

However, the future of housing will allow more flexibility for gender-neutral housing, said Paul Riel, executive director of Residential Services. Riel said planned residence halls will not have common bathrooms for an entire wing. Instead, bathrooms will be shared among a few rooms in a suite.

“If we did more gender-neutral housing, the new buildings would permit that to occur quite nicely,” Riel said.

(Northwestern to replace communal bathrooms, expand Chapin in Master Plan)

‘A public space’

Sullivan-Knoff said gender-open housing is only part of the problem. For her, locker rooms at campus gyms such as Blomquist Recreation Center are a major issue.

“It sucks because I have to use the men’s (locker room) because there’s a difference between a bathroom and a locker room,” she said. “A locker room is a public space of revealing your genitals, essentially,” she said.

However, a gender-neutral locker room is being added to the Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center as part of renovations that will be completed this fall, said Bonnie Humphrey, director of design and construction at Facilities Management.

Deciding which bathroom to use can also pose a problem. Sullivan-Knoff prefers to use the women’s bathroom because that’s where she feels most comfortable.

“I fix my makeup and I don’t want to do that in a men’s bathroom where people are going to look at me weird,” she said.

Transgender students are leading efforts to increase the number of gender-neutral bathrooms at NU. Although there are some gender-neutral facilities located throughout campus, including in Technological Institute, Harris Hall and University Hall, there are not currently any in Norris University Center, University Library or the Mudd Science and Engineering Library — three main hubs of student life.

However, members of ASG and the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee have been working with Facilities Management to create gender-neutral bathrooms in both libraries. At this point, the proposals depend on whether the University approves the funding for the project, which UBPC has requested.

If the funding is granted, the current women’s bathroom near the Information Commons on the ground floor of University Library would be converted into a gender-neutral bathroom. The men’s bathroom would become a staff restroom, and the male and female staff restrooms would be designated for students.

Carrie West, assistant director of facilities planning at Facilities Management,  said this project would not require much work and could be completed over the summer.

The proposal for Mudd Library includes building a new restroom near the current male and female restrooms on the main floor. This new restroom would be gender-neutral but require significantly more time to finish.

Anna Kottenstette, ASG student life vice president, said adding gender-neutral bathrooms has been a priority since last year.

“As the student government, it’s our job to represent all students and to make sure there are adequate resources to make students’ lives as comfortable as possible,” said Kottenstette, a former Daily staffer.

Kelly Schaefer, executive director of Norris, said her staff is looking at possible solutions to address the lack of a gender-neutral bathroom in Norris.

Moss, the director of the LGBT Resource Center and Facilities Management are also creating a map to show all gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. Moss said he hopes the map will be completed by the end of Spring Quarter.

Revising the records

Students can only change their name on official records if they have already done so legally. But since September 2010, NU has offered the opportunity to file a preferred name that appears in the university directory and on class rosters, said Keri Disch, associate university registrar.

French said the option to use a preferred name has been really helpful for interactions with professors.

“As far as most of my professors are concerned … they are like, ‘Yeah, you’re Al. You have another name?” he said. “So, that’s really good.”

However, Lhota said the process of officially changing his name with the University, after legally changing it, was especially difficult. Lhota said there are still some records that have the wrong name because the process is not streamlined. For example, he found changing his NetID to be a struggle.

“When I had to do it, it was basically finding a loophole in the system that some people involved with NUIT were willing to do it, but others weren’t,” he said. “It wasn’t standard practice, but it’s kind of triggering to see those old initials all over the place.”

For the class of 2018, the required health form will provide space for students to list their preferred gender identity, said Lisa Teel, manager of health information management services. The form will also mandate students mark their sex at birth.

“We have to have the sex of the student because some things like lab tests, the normal ranges are based on the sex,” Teel said.

She added that the updated health form allows the medical providers to already be aware if a student identifies as transgender.

“I think it’s really important for what their providers discuss with them,” she said. “There can be unique health situations for some of these students and it’s important for them to be comfortable.”

Christopher Johnson, director of risk management and safety, said every aspect of gender reassignment surgery is covered by NU’s student health insurance. Johnson said this coverage was added about four or five years ago, and NU was one of the first schools to offer it as part of student insurance.

Following in NU’s footsteps, University of Illinois trustees voted in March to add coverage for gender reassignment surgery to their health insurance plan for students at the Urbana-Champaign campus.

But from Lhota’s experience, NU’s support services were not always welcoming. Lhota said when he tried to visit Counseling and Psychological Services during the fall of his sophomore year, he was directed to an outside agency.

“They basically described themselves as either not having the staff to accommodate more students or knowing enough about trans issues,” he said.

However, Lhota acknowledges CAPS’ treatment of transgender students could have changed since he sought help.

“This was also before a lot of the CAPS reforms went through, so I don’t know how it is recently,” he said.

John Dunkle, executive director of CAPS, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

More than symbolic reform

In February, ASG passed a resolution pledging its support for the transgender community. The resolution was spurred by a discussion of issues that transgender students face at the Association of Big Ten Students, a student government conference with representatives from all of the conference’s schools.

Karahalios said the resolution marked an important symbolic step, but he is skeptical of whether it will lead to any tangible reforms.

“I would really like to see what ASG does about it and what is going to happen, because there are a lot of issues that trans students face and that need to be addressed at Northwestern that quite frankly are not addressed and have not been addressed very well,” he said.

Karahalios listed more gender-neutral bathrooms, better housing options for transgender students and transgender awareness as areas where the University can improve to better experiences of transgender students.

ASG President Julia Watson said she is planning to work with the University to include gender-neutral bathrooms in every new building. She also said she wants to determine how to make gender-open housing more community-focused.

Collaboration between ASG and the University would signal an important step toward progress. The most effective changes for transgender students arise from students and administrators working together, said Rebby Kern, Campus Pride’s media, communications and projects manager.

“Institutions have to take a stand and create institutional change through policy to really help those hurdles be overcome, even more so to create an awareness and social change on those campuses,” she said.

Moss is in the process of designing a survey to send to members of the LGBT community to determine what areas of campus life need more attention. In general, he said, administrators have been very open to having conversations about ways in which to improve campus.

“They’re willing to do whatever is needed to support students,” he said. “Part of that is just knowing what do we need to work on so we’re always open to students — not necessarily bringing up complaints — but just making us aware of where they’re having issues so we can try to smooth those out as best as possible.”

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