Making the Transition: FSU Pursues Transgender-Inclusive Iniatives

Frostburg State University has increasingly become home to a diverse group of students from a variety of backgrounds. With 4,915 undergraduate students attending FSU in the 2014-2015 academic year, Bobcats come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and identities. As the Frostburg campus becomes more diverse in regards to student population, it gets closer to accurately representing the American public. One particular demographic that has garnered national attention very recently is the American transgender population.

A wave of publicity and legislation has occurred in the US that directly concerns and impacts transgender individuals across the 50 states. About a year ago, the June 9 issue of TIME Magazine published a front-page article entitled “The Transgender Tipping Point” which described trans issues as “America’s next civil rights frontier.” With national attention on the transgender community, FSU, nestled in the Appalachian Mountains, is making changes on campus in an effort to be more inclusive and welcoming to all students, including those who identify as transgender.

To better understand transgender issues, particularly in higher education and at Frostburg, The Bottom Line spoke with individuals across campus who deal with policy changes and student affairs in an effort to comprehend the transgender experience at FSU.

Julie Hartman-Linck, the coordinator for Frostburg’s Women’s Studies program, serves as the faculty advisor for the resident LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) student organization, Spectrum. Hartman-Linck introduced The Bottom Line to the world of transgender issues by exploring gender identity in general and helping to define what it means to simply identify as transgender.

Gender Identity

Gender identity, as described by Hartman-Linck, concerns the innate psychological self-identification of an individual – it’s how one sees oneself. The majority of individuals around the world identify as “cisgender,” meaning that one’s gender identity matches their socially-perceived biological sex. Transgender individuals are simply individuals whose gender identity does not match their original biological sex. The gender spectrum is a bit more complicated than these two sets of binaries, though, Hartman-Linck asserts, with some individuals identifying as “gender non-conforming” or “gender fluid,” occupying the middle ground of gender identity.

It’s important to note that gender identity is not the equivalent or even relatable to sexual orientation. While transgender individuals fall under the LGBT umbrella, sexual orientation and gender identity are completely different. Hartman-Linck described the difference as gender identity being “who you are” while sexual orientation is “who you are attracted to.” Both gender identity and sexual orientation do, however, relate to the broader discussion of gender expectations in general and challenge the overarching system of binaries and heteronormativity. Hartman-Linck asserts that it is “no coincidence” that the historic Stonewall riots advocating gay rights occurred during the second wave of feminism in the 1960’s.

While transgender identities have increasingly occupied newsrooms and living rooms in recent years, Hartman-Linck asserts that there are historical examples of transgender individuals – some even during the American Civil War period. While not a new issue, the publicity and media coverage of gender identity has shed new light on the topic, with Hollywood introducing the American public to transgender characters and individuals.

In the Media

Take bona-fide television star and transgender actress Laverne Cox, who plays trans inmate Sophia Bursett on the critically-acclaimed and immensely popular Netflix Original Series, Orange is the New Black. Cox, who was the first transgender actress to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award, was recently listed as one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” and appeared on People Magazine’s “World’s Most Beautiful Women” list. As a quite visible advocate for the transgender community, Laverne Cox has become a regular on award shows and red carpets.

On April 24, Diane Sawyer’s much-anticipated 20/20 interview with Olympic legend Bruce Jenner broke headlines as Jenner announced his female gender identity and plans to transition. The reality star, once dubbed the “Greatest Athlete in the World” revealed that he has been taking transition hormones since the 1980’s in the intimate interview.

In Politics

Outside of Hollywood, the political spheres of both Washington, D.C. and Annapolis have tackled transgender issues and legislation with increased velocity as of late. Tim Magrath, a professor in the Political Science department at Frostburg, shed some light on how LGBT issues, in general, have unfolded in US legislatures.

When asked how he perceives public opinion towards LGBT individuals and civil rights, Magrath looked at the historic progression of the nation. He recalls the Clinton administration of 1992, when the president wished to integrate gay and lesbian Americans into the armed forces. He was “shouted down by the parties and the military” and the result was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). A “shaky start in the presidency,” Magrath asserts, DADT was on the books for nearly two decades. In 2010, however, the military, Department of Defense, and Obama administration passed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Repeal Act of 2010,” ending the policy. The lack of backlash, Magrath asserts, demonstrates the necessity for the repeal, which came under public scrutiny after 9/11.

As a matter of public opinion, Magrath cites the collective shift on LGBT issues, especially on the LGB front, as the result of “generational replacements.” With an increasing portion of the population, especially Millennials, knowing LBGT friends and family, attitudes have shifted in favor of LGBT issues like gay marriage and antidiscrimination statutes. Magrath states that “young people are decidedly in favor of LGBT rights” and even points to the Log Cabin Republicans, an organization within the GOP that advocates for gay and lesbian rights. “Any political party concerned with the sustainability of the party,” Magrath asserts, will find it “necessary to accommodate the views of a large emerging portion of the electorate.” Magrath expressed the sheer speed with which the current LGBT movement has progressed, stating that it has been “more profound, in regards to attitude change, than the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s regarding race.”

Campus Housing

Frostburg is no exception to the shift in public opinion and policies. Just this year, Hartman-Linck taught FSU’s first course entirely dedicated to LGBT studies – an honors course, no less. And the 2015-2016 school year will bring significant changes to campus in an effort to be more inclusive to all students, including transgender students.

Brian Medina, Area Coordinator of Residence Life at FSU, spoke with The Bottom Line about new gender-inclusive housing at FSU, to be implemented in the fall of 2015. Spearheaded by Medina, who wrote the policy both at FSU and Towson University, the new housing “focuses on creating an inclusive environment where students can live in the same room with any student – regardless of sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression.”

The new housing is not, Medina stresses, transgender housing. The gender-inclusive housing will, however, particularly benefit transgender students. “Open to all students,” this housing will create clusters in Westminster and Fredrick Halls, while Edgewood Commons has always maintained a policy of gender-inclusiveness. While “not intended” for romantic couples, the new housing will technically make it eligible even for cisgender, heterosexual couples to reside together. This is particularly interesting when one considers that gay and lesbian couples have been allowed to roommate together in same-sex halls since the creation of the university. Medina cautions couples, though, and reminds students that residence life will intervene in any situation where roommates or couples create a dangerous living environment.

Restrooms

Frostburg’s current efforts to increase inclusiveness and provide a safe environment for all students extends beyond the new housing option. Throughout the upcoming summer, Medina states, Jason Hill and FSU Maintenance will transition all of the single-stall bathrooms on campus into unisex facilities.

An initiative supported by Student Affairs, the facility transition will only occur in bathrooms in which there is one stall – community style restrooms will remain unchanged. Citing potential questions concerning the need for such a change, Medina states that educational material will initially be placed at the new unisex restrooms, explaining the rationale behind the transition. Concerning the change, Hartman-Linck pointedly states: “we all use the same restrooms at home.”

While the university is actively attempting to make FSU a more welcoming institution, transgender students still face difficulty on campus.

Name Changes

Hartman-Linck states that one of the largest issues trans students face is the process of changing one’s name in the FSU systems. Trans students sometimes face difficulty with their name in the classroom, where professors are provided with their legal name. To avoid awkward encounters, trans students often have to reach out to their professors beforehand.

FSU Registrar Jay Hegeman elaborated on name change policies for students, stating that, “by convention, PeopleSoft [the university’s human resources database and portal] displays the legal name.” Hegeman stated, however, that there have been conversations about changing this and that sufficient student interest could prompt the university to work with developers to change this feature. Hegeman considers this possibility “worth considering” but states that it has never been brought up.

Under the current system, students have the option of updating their legal name using the Personal Data Update form available on the FSU website. To change a student’s name, one must submit a copy of one of the following documents with the new name: US birth certificate, driver’s license, court order, marriage license, dissolution decree, or passport. To legally change one’s gender in the state of Maryland, one is not currently required to complete sex-reassignment surgery. An additional form is available at FSU to change gender. Hegeman states that FSU models its gender change policies after the state MVA and that FSU was one of the first institutions in the region to offer the option to change gender.

Support Systems

The Bottom Line interviewed a transgender member of the FSU community, to be known as Melanie for the purposes of this article, to gauge campus support and resources. When asked if she faced difficulties on campus during her transition, Melanie stated that she found FSU “receptive” to her transition but a lack of a clear process made it difficult to know what needed to be done. While transgender faculty and staff have the benefit of Human Resources to guide them through the bureaucratic process, Melanie expressed frustration that a similar office does not exist for the students, stating that there is “no structure” in place for transitioning students. The Bottom Line met with Emily Caputo, the university’s Title IX coordinator, who stated: “in my experience… schools of FSU’s size usually don’t have [specific] resources [for transgender students].” Caputo elaborated, stating that while there is not a one-stop-shop for transgender student assistance, several smaller office across campus help students acquire resources and support.

The Bottom Line reached out to Human Resources for clarification on policies concerning transgender faculty and staff. An appointment was made and subsequently cancelled by Human Resources, who stated: “we do not have any policies on transgendered employees.”

When asked to elaborate on her transition and transgender experience, Melanie stressed the fact that every transition is different. “It’s an individual experience,” Melanie states. She recognized and is thankful for what she calls her passing privilege, or the ability to live publicly as a transgender woman and not attract stares due to her physical appearance. Not all individuals have passing privilege, Melanie states, and many transgender individuals are in danger every day of their lives.

Challenges

Transgender individuals across the country are still subject to a wildly disproportionate amount of violence and hate crimes. In just 2015 alone, seven transgender women have been murdered. In 2011, a video went viral of a transgender woman being brutally attacked in a McDonald’s outside of Baltimore, Maryland. The video and attack led to the passing of legislation in Howard County, Maryland, which seeks to protects transgender individuals from such violence.

Police Chief Cynthia Smith does not recall any violence on the FSU campus specifically concerning transgender students or staff. However, she states, “that doesn’t mean we haven’t had concerns that we’ve had to deal with… things happen that aren’t always reported.” Chief Smith states that she hopes all students would feel comfortable coming forward if they were placed in danger and reminds students that she is a SafeZone Ally.

In particular, transgender women of color are specifically targeted for violence. When asked about this trend, Robin Wynder, Director of the FSU Diversity Center, states that the “African-American community has had challenges in the past accepting that identity group, mostly on religious beliefs.” Wynder continued, stating that “fear comes out of ignorance.” She went on to relate her first experience with a transgender individual, which occurred on the FSU campus. Wynder “got to know and fall in love with her” after “hearing her story.” The student Wynder speaks of “did face a lot of difficulties on campus” but Wynder believes that “her experience helped to combat a lot of that.”

Overall, however, things seem to be improving for transgender individuals across the nation and at home on the FSU campus. Before leaving office, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley signed into law the landmark Fairness for All Marylanders Act of 2014, which prohibits “discrimination based on gender identity with regard to public accommodations, housing, and employment.” Current governor Larry Hogan opposed the Act in bill form.

As national sentiment shifts, Frostburg takes steps to foster a welcoming and inclusive environment. Initiatives like the gender inclusive housing and unisex restrooms seek to create a safe and equal learning environment for all Bobcats. As students and individuals around the country seek to find ways to find their truest self, it would seem that FSU is embarking on something of a transition of its own.

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