Commission looks at transgender issues on campus

by Elena Rozwadowski

For many University students, choosing which bathroom to use or which gender box to check on a form isn’t a big deal.

But for transgender students on campus, these situations can be uncomfortable or even unsafe.

That’s why the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Ally Services Office, the Queer Student Cultural Center, and students and members of the community teamed up to create the Transgender Commission, a new effort to help deal with some of the challenges faced by transgender students on campus.

Rusty Barceló, University vice president and vice provost for equity and diversity, will speak at an open house today to introduce the commission to the campus.

“This group really emphasizes the importance of diversity here on the University of Minnesota campus,” she said. “We all have a lot to learn from each other.”

The commission is made up of people from all over the Twin Cities, including University students, students from other universities and people in the local GLBTA community.

GLBTA Services graduate assistant Ross Neely said the commission is really about evaluating the environment on campus and making it more accessible to transgender students.

“We want to work to improve lives through education, advocacy and institutional change,” he said.

The problem

Former part-time student and commission member Max Gries said there were a lot of challenges to face as a genderqueer (Gries’ preferred term for transgender) person on the University campus.

“I had issues finding a comfortable and safe bathroom,” Gries said, because sometimes violence can erupt from a misunderstanding in a public rest room.

Gries said genderqueer students often are targets of violent crimes. Even within the GLBTA community, genderqueer people are attacked because they are misunderstood, Gries said.

There also are challenges for transgender students in residence halls and other community living situations, said GLBTA Services Director Anne Phibbs.

“Showers, restrooms and your living space is something that can quickly become unsafe if there’s someone there who does not understand,” she said.

Transgender students also face uncomfortable situations in the classroom. Phibbs said something as simple as a gender box on a form can create an uncomfortable situation for a transgender student.

“Many forms just re-create that gender binary; you have to pick one or the other,” she said.

Other issues include health care and general awareness on campus, things that the commission hopes to find ways to improve.

A solution

The commission has been working with several groups to address some of these issues.

Commission members have been working with Facilities Management to have more gender neutral rest rooms in every campus building. They also are discussing some health benefit options with Boynton Health Service.

In fall 2007, GLBTA students will have a new place to call home in the residence halls. Lavender House will take over part of a floor in Comstock Hall for any student who wishes to live in a gender-friendly environment.

Residential Life employees will work to educate students about gender and gender-preference issues through classes and activities, Phibbs said.

“The goal is to have it be a site for one more community on this campus,” she said.

Both Gries and Phibbs said education and awareness are the key to moving forward.

“Trans(gender) folks really need allies,” Phibbs said.

The most important thing to remember, she said, is to keep an open mind .

“Everyone can be an ally and everyone should be an ally,” she said.