When Jayce, a student at George Fox University, a Quaker school in Oregon, made plans last year to live in the dorm with his friends, he had little awareness of the hailstorm of controversy that would erupt.
School administrators immediately informed Jayce that he could not live in a dorm with his male friends and would, instead, be required to live in a single campus apartment because he was born biologically female. Despite having completed his gender reassignment according to Oregon law, he was to be treated as female for the purposes of housing.
Jayce contacted the Department of Education (DOE) to file a complaint against the school. However, he was quickly told that they had no jurisdiction over his case. The college had, just days earlier, requested (and received) a religious exemption from DOE’s newly minted regulations outlawing transgender discrimination, joining a growing community of religious universities hoping to opt out of serving transgender students.
At the same time that some religious colleges were shoring up their resistance to transgender students, women’s colleges were employing an opposite approach. Wellesley just recently joined the ranks of a growing cadre of elite single-sex colleges (Mills and Mount Holyoke) who have altered their policies to welcome transgender students identifying as female.
How this shift will pan out for transgender students has yet to be determined. In the past, numerous legal and policy questions have come up in higher-ed over transgender students. Important among these are their safety and welfare on college campuses.
Transgender students face significant obstacles even though many of the issues seldom receive attention. Even when LGBTQ issues get discussed, they are largely centered on same-sex marriage and employment discrimination. Little public attention is paid to other forms of rights violations.
Studies show transgender students are harassed and assaulted at disturbingly high rates during the course of their education in K-12 settings. The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS) shows that almost 80% are harassed while still in school, and over 30% physically assaulted. Harassment at the hands of teachers and other school staff is not uncommon either.
While harassment and assault rates decrease to 35% and 5%, respectively, in college, significant challenges still remain: with 20% of the NTDS survey participants reporting being denied housing that accommodated their identified gender and 5% being denied campus housing altogether, discrimination persists.
In this environment, even the most basic decisions—which bathroom to use or where to live—can set-off anxiety and opposition on campuses.
Thus, for now, within the single-sex setting, the forecast is hazy.
On the one hand, single-sex colleges have a history of thinking about gender as more than a simple assignment of male or female.
For example, Mills College articulates: “Womanhood takes many forms, and our enrolled women students include those who were assigned the sex of female at birth as well as those who were not.” They assert a far broader definition of “female” than has traditionally been employed in higher-ed.
Such colleges may also have a more diverse mission than their single-sex status would imply. “Women’s college is a bit of a misnomer,” explains Julia Marciano an undergraduate at Smith—an all women’s college that ignited significant national pushback two years ago when they rejected a transwoman’s application because federal financial aid documentation listed her as male. “They’re places for minority genders, where those genders can flourish, learn, and feel safe,” says Marciano.
But, on the other hand, there are also those who, while being sympathetic to transgender students, fear that any policy or practice that dilutes the focus on women (for instance, using gender-neutral pronouns or electing female-to-male students to leadership positions) would undermine the purpose of all women’s colleges to provide a safe and affirming space for women.
Indeed, in a world where women continue to experience economic, social, and political degradation, this mission has value. Perhaps in response to this fear, after Mount Holyoke extended admissions to transgender students, some students requested transfers out of the college.
But transgender student advocates, like Marciano, assert that this perspective misstates the experiences of transgender students. “It’s not men who are applying. It’s women, with experiences of being women.”
These debates will continue, and transgender students—those at religious colleges, single-sex schools, and schools in between—will remain center stage. Some are reaping the benefits, but many still contend with significant risks.
College hostilities impose high risks with tragic consequences. Suicide, depression, and drug abuse are much more prevalent among transgender students because of the discrimination they experience.
Even at schools like Mount Holyoke, which offer a far less restrictive definition of gender compared to other colleges, the fight for equality has its drawbacks. Transgender students, like Briar Harrison, still must fight misrecognition and are increasingly battle-fatigued.
“If I go to class, and a professor uses the wrong pronouns for me,” explained Harrison, “I have a choice: I can sit quietly and not say anything, but it’s going to trigger me. It’s going to distract me and cause me to feel anxious, depressed, and take me out of the frame of mind I need to be in to learn. If I choose not to fight it, it will never get better. But at the same time, fighting is tiring.”
And even with a college education, transgender individuals are more likely to live in poverty or experience workplace discrimination because of their gender identity.
Perhaps the most easily observed outcome of the recent push and pull between religious and single-sex colleges over transgender students is that we are now at least talking about gender identity and the blatant bigotry experienced by those who dare to challenge their assigned sex or gender norms.
In the race for greater acceptance of LGBTQ individuals, those who identify as transgender have traditionally played third or fourth fiddle to the visible, public, and increasingly successful efforts to advance gay and lesbian rights. Now they are demanding (and receiving) critical, and long overdue, public acknowledgment.