Thursday, December 15, 2005

Student Op-Ed: Putting the 'T' in 'LGBT'

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From the Daily Cardinal (UW-Madison): Putting the 'T' in LGBT An in-depthlook into Trans culture on campus: Lifestyle choices and challenges in everyday life. Emma Lierley / The Daily Cardinal It is interesting that just a few simple letters put together can mean so much. Take, for example, the letters LGBT. Most students on campus could tell you what the letters stand for (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender), but a surprisingly small amount of students could tell you what they all mean, especially the T. While transgender topics are largely grouped with lesbian, gay and bisexual issues, there is a difference centered around the distinction between gender and sexuality. Transgendered people are distinguished from transsexuals, or people who have altered their biological sex through means of hormone therapy and surgery. Transgendered persons generally feel, for various reasons, that the prominent gender society classifies them as false and inconsistent to the gender which they feel themselves to be. They understand that gender is independent from socially classified sexual categories (male and female) and sexuality (heterosexual and homosexual). The relationship between biological sexual identity, sexuality, gender identity and gender classifications is nebulous and often hard to navigate, even for transgender students. Transgendered students on campus do not have a large presence, but some argue that this is not because there are none. “I would find it unlikely that there aren’t any Trans students [on campus]—given the law of averages. I’m guessing that they don’t know about the resources or they don’t feel comfortable coming forward,” said Wayne Gathright, a local Trans activist who works with the Madison Area Transgendered Society to provide support groups for people in the Madison community and the greater area, attracting people from as far as Fox Valley and Milwaukee. Eric Trekell, the director of the LGBT Campus Center, agreed with Gathright. “I am a bit mystified as to why there isn’t a larger, more visible Trans population on campus,” Trekell said. He added that ,while there was a large Trans presence in the greater Madison community, due to what he saw as Madison’s tolerant reputation and the availability of trans-related medical services, it is not evident on campus. Trekell spoke about the ways in which the LGBT Campus Center tries to accommodate Trans students. “We certainly, conscientiously try to engage in programming for trans students … but I don’t know what we’re not doing that we need to be doing,” he said. “We face some of the same challenges with LGBT students of color [as we do with Trans students], asking ourselves ‘do they feel like the Campus Center is a safe place for them?’ We know how to work on those issues, but not Trans issues because students don’t come talk to me about it,” Trekell added. “Transgender people have very different issues to deal with than do lesbians, than do gay men or bisexuals,” he said. Gathright spoke about some of the added challenges that Transgendered individuals often tend to face. “Being gay and lesbian is somewhat more accepted [because] you still fit into the gender dichotomy—for the most part you still are male or female. Being Trans is something that tends to make society in general uncomfortable,” he said. “One of the two constants that most people grow up with is that there is male and female and never the two shall meet; being confronted with something outside of the dichotomy is very uncomfortable.” “Especially, for students, if they have had to hide this all their lives. Coming out is very hard. When I first admitted to myself that I was Trans, I had known since I was young, but there is still that psychological hurdle to get past—from the abstract to the reality, from knowing it personally to exposing it to other people. It’s a hard step to make,” Gathright said. For students who identifies themselves as Trans—a blanket term that is often used to cover a wide range of identities including transgender, transsexuals, cross-dressers and intersexed people (those born with genitalia from both “sexes”)—college can be rather daunting. “When you are talking about gender, you are actually talking about three topics—sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression,” Gathright said. He said he identifies as a heterosexual male with a female expression, and so would conventionally fall in the “cross-dresser” category. Just as there are many different Trans people, there are many different ways to express being Trans, but a common theme for all Trans individuals is a rejection of the binary concept of gender and sex. This can cause problems on a college campus, which is largely based around the gender binary tradition of society. In terms of student housing, health and recreation, much of college life is structured around ideas of males and females as being separate. “The male and female split in sports and housing is engrained in University life,” Gathright said. “Housing is starting to change a little bit but there is still the male wing and the female wing … one thing the University needs to work on is to provide housing where Trans students would feel more comfortable.” He also noted the “bathroom issue” or the lack of adequate unisex bathrooms on campus. Trekell cited other areas lacking in gender-neutral space, like the campus recreation centers as well as most of the older buildings on campus. Marianne Whatley, the director of the Women’s Studies program on campus and a professor for a class on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex health issues, found similar problems. She called for more education about Trans issues in general, as well as a look at what she called “safety issues.” “The bathroom issue, for example. The campus should provide more single-occupancy, gender-neutral bathrooms so that someone who might get thrown out of both bathrooms feels safe,” Whatley said. She also stated that hate crimes should be recognized as such and taken much more seriously. “Around the country it is not uncommon for people to be beaten up for whatever is violating the gender norms of the someone who is drunk and hostile happens to hold,” she said. A 1997 UW-Madison report on LGBT issues on campus was responsible for bringing about many of the positive changes that students see today. A review of the report and an affirmation of its goals took place in April 2004, which commended the Housing committee for creating the LGBT Housing Liaisons, Safe Zones and diversity training within student housing. Trekell also described the ways in which he has been able to work with University Housing, exploring what gender neutral housing would look like. Also, one of the primary goals of the report, setting up an LGBT studies certificate program, was completed in 2003. The 2004 report recommended that this certificate be changed to a full-fledged degree in LGBT studies by 2008, similar to that of the Women’s Studies program. Similarly, the 2004 report gave credit to University Health Services, for providing resources for students identifying as LGBT. Whatley said she agrees with the positive view of UHS. “UHS cares a lot about [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] issues, but there are lots of ways a place can be made more friendly, like posters relevant to LGBT students in a positive way, looking at how questions are asked without assumptions of sexual identity or sexual practice.” “Those kinds of assumptions are going to undermine really good communication [between doctor and patient]. Open questions, in an open way and without any assumptions of someone’s identity are best. Really, they are just basic communication issues.” She emphasized that there were many ways in which a doctor could be surprised by the gender expression of a person if it happens to differs greatly from the biology of the same person. Along with UHS, Whatley identified a number of other adjustments that she felt were positive steps the university was taking to make a more inclusive campus. The fact that a new LGBT certificate program was adopted by the College of Letters and Science, and that UHS nowprovides domestic partner benefits, were steps in the right direction, said Whatley. The University has recently adopted the stance that individuals cannot discriminate based on gender identity. Officially, that position was previously not present in the anti-discrimination charter. However, Whatley touched upon other areas which were not quite so positive. She said she felt that the fact that UW as a whole does not provide partner benefits to faculty and staff, making those people in need of benefits feel like “second-class citizens.” “Wisconsin right now as a state can feel hostile to a lot of LGBT people because of the proposed amendment to get rid of civil unions,” Whatley said. “The question is, will UW provide a positive space?” Original source