Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover kick-started a national conversation about what defines gender and what that means.
Yet college campuses have buzzed with conversations about transgender issues, unisex bathrooms and the rest for years.
That talk yielded changes, with more in the works, both big and small.
Barnard College, a private school in New York City, this spring became the seventh elite women’s college to admit applicants who self-identify as women regardless of their sex at birth. Stephens College, an all-women school in Columbia, has talked about a similar move for nearly a year and expects to decide before January.
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At public colleges in the Kansas City area, unisex bathrooms and gender-neutral dorms have opened up. Wording in some anti-discrimination policies has been tweaked to protect transgender students.
But “things can always be better,” said Luke Harness, a trans man and graduate student at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and co-founder of the school’s new Trans+ Social Group for transgender students.
Harness transitioned from female to male from 2012 through 2013, about the same time he helped start Trans+. This year, the group became the first officially recognized student organization for transgender students and their allies at UMKC.
Tans+ started with fewer than 10 members and now lists 26, Harness said. With the rising visibility of transgender celebrities — Jenner and Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black” — Harness expects membership in Trans+ at UMKC to climb.
Except for Kansas State University, which said three transgender students signed up for dorm rooms for the fall, officials at area universities said they don’t know how many transgender students currently are on campus or living in dorms. For now, all dorm rooms at UMKC, K-State, the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri are assigned by gender.
“If a student doesn’t let us know ahead of time” that they have some special need where gender is concerned, “we may not know at all,” said Jonathan Pryor. He’s coordinator of UMKC’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and questioning, Intersex, Asexual, or LGBTQIA, services on campus.
But when a student self-identifies as transgender, he said, “we try to make sure we work with transgender students to make sure they don’t feel further marginalized.”
UMKC’s housing website speaks directly to transgender students: “If you are a transgender student looking for on-campus housing, you may indicate this on the online contract or select the gender with which you identify. You may also call our office to talk to someone if you do not feel comfortable selecting one of the gender options on the contract.”
In Columbia, MU is piloting gender-neutral housing in the fall. Fewer than 20 spaces with restrooms offering more privacy than the communal bathrooms found in many college dorms are set aside for special requests, said Cathy Scroggs, vice president of student affairs at MU.
K-State is building a new residence hall and renovating another. Both will have gender-neutral bathrooms and space for gender-neutral bedrooms.
“Ideally, we want our students who happen to be transgender to live among our other students. We don’t want to isolate,” said Nick Lander, assistant director for residence life at K-State. The school also has maps that point out the gender-neutral restrooms on campus.
Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville has had gender-neutral housing since 2012.
UMKC is considering providing some gender-neutral living arrangements for its students. But like at most other area schools, unisex bathrooms are still scarce across campus.
“These are conversations we have been having on campuses for a while,” Pryor said.
After months of discussion, this past school year the UM system added protection for gender identity and gender expression to its nondiscrimination policy at all four campuses in Kansas City, Columbia, St. Louis and Rolla.
And a year ago, UMKC adopted a preferred-name policy that allows students in gender transition to go by a name other than the one given to them at birth but that relates to the gender they identify with. That name can appear on all university paperwork, rosters and emails.
On some campuses, considering gender diversity goes much further than what a student wants to be called.
While at most universities the student insurance policy does not cover sexual-reassignment surgery, Campus Pride, a national LGBTQ student advocacy group, lists 62 schools, including MU and Washington University in St. Louis, with policies that do. MU students use Aetna, which covers hormones and gender-reassignment surgeries. Kansas Board of Regents university student policies cover hormone therapies under their policy’s prescription benefit.
The continuing challenge for state schools, officials said, is accommodating a diverse population of students. Even among the transgender student community, the stories vary.
Three years ago, Harness, who was raised in a conservative family in Lee’s Summit, didn’t even know gender transition was possible, he said. But when the then-21-year-old was between his sophomore and junior years at UMKC and doing work study in the Multicultural Student Affairs office, he heard about an informational event — The T in LGBT — on campus.
“I wanted to go for the free lunch,” said Harness, who at the time did not fully understand the gender identity confusion he says he’d felt his entire life. “I was just sitting there eating my spaghetti, and the panel started talking about transition. I realized that was me.”
Harness wasn’t aware of any support network on campus for people like him.
“It was really scary,” he said.
The first few times he called a Kansas City therapy line for help, he said he hung up the moment someone answered. A year later, in 2013, Harness went through breast-removal surgery and fast became a campus spokesman for transgender issues.
Once a month now, Harness co-hosts “Trans Talk,” a program that’s part of the KKFI radio show “The Tenth Voice.”
While UMKC and other campuses have had a university-managed LGBTQIA center of some kind for years, Harness said there’s still need for transgender support groups like Trans+.
“Most times, when people say LGBT, they are talking about gay, white men,” Harness said.
The rapid growth in Trans+ membership, Harness said, isn’t because more transgender students are enrolling at UMKC. He said it’s more likely because now there’s a place for them to find people with whom they can relate.
Jack Warner, a 21-year-old second-year UMKC pharmacy student and a trans man, said Trans+ changed his life.
“I was looking for solidarity and there, on a wall on campus, was a Trans+ flier,” Warner recalled. “That was a great feeling. I don’t even know if I would be transitioning right now without my group. … They showed me that I could do it. That you can actually be who you are. And that makes me very happy.”
Gender-inclusive accommodation changes are happening on campuses across the country. U.S. News and World Report, in a recent article to help transgender students find a school that fits, suggests students ask four key questions:
▪ Does the school have an LGBT center or student club on campus?
▪ Does the school have inclusive nondiscrimination policies?
▪ Does it allow students to use a preferred name with professors, on paperwork and in email?
▪ Is there gender-inclusive housing?