A recent study by the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies department said the University of Connecticut should address the needs of gender minority students by increasing access to gender-neutral bathrooms and expanding faculty training.
The preliminary findings are based on a series of 39 online surveys responses and in-person interviews conducted by WGSS staff and undergraduates in which gender minority students were asked to describe their experiences on UConn’s Storrs campus. Students identifying as transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary and otherwise genderqueer described unreliable access to gender-neutral bathrooms as one of their top concerns.
For some, this was due to a genuine preference for neutral facilities, while others preferred single-stall accommodations to avoid transphobic harassment from their peers, said WGSS professor and principal investigator Barbara Gurr.
“Some students pass, and some students don’t,” Gurr said, using the term "passing" to describe a person’s ability to be perceived as a cisgender (not transgender) man or woman. “Some students are gender nonconforming and may not visually fit the box of one gender or another, so students would really prefer a choice.”
This issue has gained national attention since North Carolina’s discriminatory HB2 law legally required transgender individuals to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth. Despite supporters’ claims that the bill is designed to protect young girls from being sexually assaulted by “men posing as transgender women,” none of the 18 states that have anti-discrimination laws guaranteeing transgender individuals the right to use the appropriate facilities have seen an increase in attacks, according to a coalition of 200 national, state and local organizations that work with sexual assault survivors.
“Passing” also had a significant influence on students’ experiences in the study. Gender minority students who described themselves as passing were likelier to view UConn’s Storrs campus as “very comfortable,” while their more visibly transgender peers reported higher risks of harassment, bullying and physical violence.
Sherry Zane, another professor of WGSS, said she became involved in the study after a transgender student came to her about expanding the content of her women’s studies class to include gender minority experiences. In addition to inviting transgender students to speak during lectures, Zane decided to use Gurr’s in-person interviews as an opportunity to record their experiences for a wider audience.
“My goal specifically was to get mandated training throughout the university for everyone, so not just students but faculty and staff,” Zane said.
Zane said she hopes to have the video included as part of the university wide Diversity Awareness Training when the Office of Diversity and Equity revises the program this summer.
Thanks to Title IX, which has been interpreted by the Department of Education to protect transgender students from discrimination, Zane said public universities across the country may soon be required to make similar changes.
Knowing professors have a basic understanding of what it means to be transgender would help gender minority students focus on their education without fear of being misgendered (called by the incorrect gender) or otherwise called out in class, said Matthew Brush, a seventh-semester WGSS and human rights major.
“There were plenty of students that expressed the idea that most of the faculty aren’t outright hostile toward trans students, but they haven’t had the education,” said Brush, who interviewed students and helped produce the video. “As someone in the community, I would love to see professors getting a least a basic glossary of terms.”
Giving transgender students a voice through the video project could help the UConn community understand that they are just students like everyone else, Brush said.
Despite having room for improvement, UConn is still ahead of many of its peer institutions when it comes to transgender issues, Gurr said.
In the 17 years since UConn was ranked the 12th most homophobic college in the United States, the Huskies have regularly cracked the Advocate’s top 100 list of LGBT-friendly schools. This puts UConn in the perfect position to lead the charge on addressing the needs of gender minority students, Gurr said.
“A whole lot of folks at UConn have worked really hard to make our campus accepting and supportive for LGBT students,” said Gurr. “We’ve gone from being one of the most homophobic campuses in the country to one of the most LGBT friendly, and that’s amazing. It puts us in a really good situation to get even better.”
Among UConn’s greatest strengths, according to the study, are its gender-neutral housing program and the Rainbow Center, which offers numerous support groups and in-depth lectures on LGBT related topics.
“This is my first semester at Storrs (I had previously gone to a regional campus), and by far the gender inclusive housing is the best part of my experience here. I feel much safer than I ever had been there; it is an extremely valuable program,” said an anonymous student referred to as “Jane” in the study.
While implementation of the program hasn’t been perfect, Residential Life has improved it significantly by working with focus groups to move the community to East Campus from Garrigus Suites, one of the most expensive housing options on campus, Gurr said. East Campus’ lack of elevators makes it a poor choice for gender minority students with limited mobility, however.
“The lack of elevator is the big issue, because it erases and also makes the floor inaccessible to disabled trans people and people who are going to have a hard time walking up stairs. They super didn’t consider the fact that there would be a lot of people in binders on that floor,” said an anonymous student referred to as Nic in the study. “Culturally it was a great location for it but accessibility-wise not the best.”
Binders are used by transgender people with breasts to flatten their chests, as part of their gender expression, but can cause scarring and lung constriction that makes physical exertion difficult.
The WGSS department plans to release the remainder of their gender minority study during the Spring 2017 semester, but Gurr readily admits that the research has limits.
“I have no doubt that we did not reach enough of the community,” Gurr said. “And I say this because when you talk about transgender, gender nonconforming, nonbinary, you’re talking about a very large umbrella. Gender identity and expression is a really huge cosmos of gender that is really everyone who is not cisgender. I think the people we did reach are, in fact, people who are comfortable in some degree talking about this. Many people in this community live in stealth, they’re not necessarily comfortable talking to researchers, talking to strangers, or even people they know.”
Seventy-one percent of transgender people hide their gender identity to avoid discrimination, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality. While UConn doesn’t collect data on this population, .3 percent of people in the U.S. are estimated to be transgender, although this may not account for gender nonconforming, nonbinary and otherwise genderqueer individuals.
Statistically, this would mean about 53 of the 17,989 undergraduate students in Storrs for the fall 2015 semester identified as transgender—that’s more than the number of Native American undergraduates on campus during the same period.
Gurr said her research team tried to spread the word throughout gender minority students’ networks of friends and classmates, but their reach was limited by the social risks surrounding this community.
Although the online survey was completely anonymous, Zane said she believes transgender women of color and students who don’t pass might have been reluctant to participate in the video out of fear of being harassed, attacked or professionally disadvantaged.
UConn could get a more complete picture of this community in the future by conducting a comprehensive study of gender minority students on campus, similar to its recent research on sexual assault, Gurr said.
Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.