For Trans Students, College Can Be a Safe Haven....But What If Campus Isn't Trans-Inclusive?

This week, transgender writer and activist Lance Cox -- who is currently a Junior at an art college -- describes his personal experiences facing barriers to trans-inclusion on campus, and pinpoints where changes need to happen.

[This piece is excerpted from a longer anthology chapter entitled "Did I Ask For This?" in Manning Up: Transsexual Men on Finding Brotherhood, Family, and Themselves (Transgress Press, 2014)]. 

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As I entered my senior year of high school, I couldn't help but count down the days until I could escape my town, my small-minded classmates, and even my family. I decided on an art school that I thought would completely fit my needs: it had a diverse curriculum and a supposedly diverse community, with resources for LGBTQ students and several queer events each semester. [...] I hoped that by leaving my hometown, I could get a new start in the city and leave everyone, including my "former self," behind. 

And, in essence, I succeeded. 

When I started college, I got the fresh start I was looking for, found allies on campus and off, and now have a sizable community of other trans*, queer, and allied individuals that love and support me. 

But at what cost?

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This experience hasn't turned out to be everything I expected.

When I came to campus, there wasn't a process to get one's preferred name on class rosters, IDs or any other documents. I had to email every administrator and instructor I was going to come into contact with and explain not only what the word "transgender" means, but that I will need them to make a mental note of my name and pronoun preference.

I was frustrated by having to disclose my identity without meeting these people beforehand, but I was also scared. I constantly found myself wondering, What happens if an instructor disregards my requests and uses an incorrect name or pronoun during class? What will the other students think? Is this safe?

I didn't have the answers and I was terrified -- not only that I might be misgendered, but that the other students in the room wouldn't know what that meant and that they would react in a violent way.

At the absolute least, being misgendered in the classroom was a huge distraction. Around week ten, after everyone in my classes started to get to know each other, I once had an instructor refer to me with female pronouns. I could sense each of the fifteen students in the room take a breath together, and time seemed to stop to allow everyone to process what had just happened.

After that, not only were my classmates confused because they knew me as a man, but I became completely closed off; it made learning astonishingly difficult. There were times that I would skip class in order to avoid being put in that situation again.

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Gender-inclusive housing wasn't an option for me either and I found myself living with four girls.

I ended up spending most of my time outside of my dorm, in study lounges or with friends, and avoided being "home" as much as possible. My roommates would consistently use my preferred name and disregard pronouns, which made me weary of spending time with them or around anyone I hadn't yet met. 

Every time I walked up to my apartment door, I began worrying that someone would see me enter it or spot our names on it and wonder why there was a male name among four female ones. What would happen if someone saw that? Would they ask someone about it? Would they ask me about it?

My first year in college was meant to be a new beginning -- a way out of a destructive space. The problem is, as an incoming freshman, I wasn't prepared to embark on a journey of activism or become the face of the trans* rights movement on my campus.

Policies should have been in place to accommodate my requests as a transgender student before I ever set foot there. I shouldn't have to be asked time and time again to educate the faculty and staff, regardless of whether or not I would like to do so. Theoretically, I should be able to let my studies come first but the fact is, it doesn't always happen that way.

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For some students, entering college may be a time when drugs, alcohol and socializing are their main focus; for others, student organizations and leadership roles fill that space. For me and other transgender students, activism becomes our main priority because it has to.

The need for safe, gender-inclusive housing and restrooms, a name-change process, inclusive health insurance, and a large range of queer studies courses is stronger than ever. College is a time of awakening, self-discovery, and growth, but until institutions embrace gender variance, higher education will continue to be as dangerous as elementary, middle, and high school can be.

[...]  Today, after finally coming to terms with my trans* identity as well as my queer sexuality, I have found myself in an incredible place. Sure, I'm working non-stop to pay my bills, both transition-related and otherwise, and I'm always a little worried that someone is going to disclose my identity without my consent in the classroom.

But now I choose to tell my story to faculty, staff, and students alike to create impactful change on our campus.

In the year that I've been doing this work, a name-change process has been put in place, single-stall restrooms now have proper, gender-inclusive signage, and we are working on safer, trans*-friendly housing. 

I didn't necessarily seek to be an activist, but I'm not sure anyone does. Activism comes with a sense of necessity: If my college isn't inclusive enough for me to be fully content, how do I make it so? How will what I do affect those who come after me?

So, did I ask for this? No. Is it fair? Definitely not. Does it take away from my studies and other college experiences? Sometimes. But is it important? Is it rewarding? Absolutely.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr. Thanks to Transgress Press and Manning Up co-editors Zander Keig and Mitch Kellaway for permission to reprint the excerpt.