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Understanding a changing landscape: the transgender student experience at UMN

Following national attention, the discussion around transgender rights continues on the University of Minnesota campus.
Former University of Minnesota student Luna Brekke marches across campus in support of transgender rights on Thursday, Nov. 8. 
Image by Courtney Deutz

Former University of Minnesota student Luna Brekke marches across campus in support of transgender rights on Thursday, Nov. 8. 

Before classes start for the school year, Andy, a senior at the University of Minnesota, emails their professors to ensure their name and pronouns are respected. But this isn’t always effective.

“Every time I introduce myself, because of how politicized my identity is and how polarizing it is — immediately, in everyone’s mind, politics and religion [are] brought up,” said Andy, who preferred to not be identified by their last name to avoid being outed to their family.

Andy identifies as nonbinary — one of many identities within the transgender community.

Growing discussions over a proposed gender pronoun policy at the University reflect a national conversation about transgender rights. A federal memo by the Trump Administration obtained by The New York Times seeks to define gender as a biological characteristic determined at birth, erasing federal recognition of the transgender identity.

Controversy comes to UMN

During this year’s Paint the Bridge event — where several student groups painted sections of the Washington Avenue Bridge —  College Republicans painted, “The proposed pronoun policy mocks real social issues.” Shortly after the event, “Queer power” had been spray-painted over the panel.

The panel referred to the University’s proposed pronoun policy, “Equity and Access: Gender Identity, Gender Expression, Names and Pronouns,” which is expected to be implemented in fall 2019. The policy allows University members to specify a name or gender that is different from their legal documents. The policy states it aims to protect gender identity and expression from harassment and discrimination.

In a tweet sent shortly after the vandalism incident, College Republicans said the spray-painted message was an attack on their First Amendment rights. College Republicans declined to comment or be interviewed for the story.

Many transgender students say they feel personally attacked by the panel.

“[College Republicans] are saying this is something inherent about your humanity … that is detrimental to society,” said Jimmy Cooper, a gender-nonconforming University freshman. “[This] is … not true, and it’s also just mean … many of us see things like this on a daily basis.”

In response to the panel’s message and the memo, students organized a march across the Washington Avenue Bridge on Thursday. Directly after the march, Haruka Yukioka, Queer Student Cultural Center relations manager and a nonbinary student, spoke to the crowd of approximately 60 people and criticized the University’s response to College Republicans’ panel.

Transgender students and others sent a statement to the University Board of Regents after the march. It stated they felt the federal memo and College Republicans’ panel were an attack against them. They also said the panel is inconsistent with the University’s current nondiscrimination policy.

Yukioka said systemic changes are initiated with minor actions, like the federal memo.

“It is hurtful when you hear these things from an administration. It’s difficult right now to know that you’re being mocked, or that your existence doesn’t matter. That’s a hard reality to deal with,” Yukioka said.

Andy said they didn’t expect the University to take steps to enforce guidelines regarding pronouns.

“[The University] is attempting to balance being a … government institution that can’t limit freedom of speech with a mission statement that includes … equity and diversity,” Andy said. “I appreciate that that is a difficult balance to strike.”

Campus experiences differ for transgender students

The transgender student population faces unique barriers regarding health, well-being and safety. Many transgender University students say the incorrect use of pronouns, or misgendering, is part of their everyday experience.

“I’ve been misgendered by nearly every professor that I’ve had,” said University student Lyd Mor, who said they changed their name in the University database system years ago. “I’ve had one … use me as a teaching tool in a GLBT department [and] out me in front of the entire class.”

Transgender and gender nonconforming students feel less comfortable and safe than their peers at the University of Minnesota, according to data from the 2018 Student Experience in the Research University survey of 7,948 undergraduates.

Nationwide, transgender students experience depression and anxiety at higher rates than cisgender students, those who identify with the sex assigned to them at birth, according to a national student experience report by Rutgers University.

One-fourth of trans-spectrum students reported suicidal thoughts in the past year, according to the Rutgers study of more than 6,600 trans-spectrum students in the United States.

Aren Aizura, a professor in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies department, said he’s heard from students having difficulties with care surrounding transitioning and mental health services at Boynton Health.

Students echoed Aizura’s concerns. When seeking general care, especially mental health services, Cooper said assumptions from health providers are often unfairly tied to gender identity.

“I … think that Boynton actually has really good intentions,” Aizura said. “They have done a lot of work over the last five years to make their trans health care provisions much better.”

Coralie Pederson, a nurse on Boynton’s transgender health team, said the clinic holds multiple training sessions on inclusive care. She has seen a major transformation in her five years at the clinic for providing a welcoming and inclusive environment.

“The importance is to provide … access and welcoming and inclusive care,” Pederson said. “We’re making, hopefully, all of those things better so [transgender students] can be healthier, so that they can succeed.”

Aizura said a long-term effort is underway for accommodating transgender students.

“I think that the campus climate is one of the better campuses to be trans at … in the United States,” Aizura said. “But there’s a really long way to go. It’s really about a lot of detailed things.”

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