Transphobia and Exclusion at Georgia State
Georgia State has a trans problem.
I know how this sounds. Our university is incredibly liberal, it’s in the middle of Atlanta in fact— one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the country. But while the people may be friendly, I’m not talking about them. The problems I’m writing about are institutional. Georgia State University marginalizes its queer and trans students at every turn.
To start, GSU has no comprehensive preferred name or pronouns policy. Only legal names are listed on class rosters, ID cards, and online platforms such as iCollege. In the past, I’ve been forced to out myself as a trans woman to professors before class began, opening myself to discrimination in the process. Not all professors can be contacted before class begins, resulting in many trans students being deadnamed or misgendered publicly in class.
We are entirely beholden to the good will of our professors, and not all professors are accommodating of these requests. My friends have been forced to drop classes because their professors refused to use their correct name and pronouns, while cisgender students seldom face scrutiny for their name requests.
Other trans folks have been mocked or accosted for their pronoun preference and forced to out themselves to other students when confusion arises. Trans students’ safety and well-being is entirely left up to the whims of their professor, and each trans person is charged with the emotional labor of explaining and defending their identities to their professors.
GSU’s infrastructure is particularly problematic. Even now, a year after changing my name with Auxiliary Services, I still encounter systems in which my old name appears. I’ve contacted the IT department several times about the issue, but systems regularly regress and many have not been updated since. I’m completely unable to leave the past behind me because of GSU’s horrific infrastructure.
Student housing is particularly troublesome for transgender students. My transition started during my freshman year, and was lucky enough to have roommates who were by and large accepting and accommodating, even in the awkward situation we found ourselves in, sharing a dorm room in Piedmont North.
Luck is key here. I’ve been overwhelmingly lucky. My sophomore year, spent in the Lofts, was awkward and unnerving. While one of my roommates was a good friend (a cisgender man), our other roommate (another cisgender man) was unknown to both of us. I spent the entire year increasingly uncomfortable in my own living space, especially as my body changed and my breasts grew increasingly difficult to hide. I hid my transsexuality from him until well after I started living as female full-time. I was suffocating in a closet, unable to live authentically. I felt unsafe in my own home.
Our protection from violence and abuse in the GSU dorms is left to luck, and not everyone is so lucky. Until my junior year, Georgia State had no clear option or policy regarding transgender people. Their ‘fix’ for the issue, “Gender Inclusive Housing”, was introduced in Fall 2015:
GIH is a housing option in which two or more students share a multiple occupancy apartment or suite regardless of students’ sex, gender identity or gender expression. In other words, this option allows for same gender or other gender identities to live together regardless of biological sex.
Already Georgia State leads in with cissexist language.
What Georgia State may mean by biological sex is, at best, substituted with legal sex, i.e. the M or F on one’s license. Yet there is no clearly documented means by which one could update their sex with the university, and in Georgia, gender marker changes require expensive reassignment surgery that many trans people, particularly those in college, may not be able to afford.
At worst, biological sex will be treated as immutable, forcing all trans people, regardless of transition or surgical status, to be grouped with their assigned gender by default. It’s unclear how to interpret this because of the vague wording, but it’s hard to say when there isn’t any documentation on how one would change their gender anyway.
To group us with our assigned sex is to reify that we are that sex (that transfeminine folks are actually men, and that transmasculine folks are actually women). It is to say that our lives are artifice, unreal, and inauthentic — that when we come home, stripping off our makeup and chest binders, that we are inescapably our assigned sex behind the ‘show’ of our gender expression.
Though GIH may provide trans people with a temporary solution to relieve some discomfort, the program is poorly documented. The housing application includes the option, but one is required to file the GIH form separately for every period in which one participates in GIH. It‘s not enough to sign the disclaimer once, and selecting this option on the housing application does nothing.
Every time I’ve opted to live in GIH, I’ve been incorrectly assigned to male housing, thus having to fumble through bureaucracy to fix the problem. Email after email, phone call after phone call. This past summer, the person in charge of GIH opted not to return my emails for weeks — putting me in a time crunch to fix my summer housing assignment at the last moment. In the end, it required an RA to forward my pleading email to the director of the building before anything was done about my situation.
I am post-transition, post-name change, usually read as a cis woman, and I have the independence and social ability to navigate GSU’s bureaucracy to get things done. For many trans people, often suffering from anxiety and depression, this just isn’t realistic. Many fall through the cracks, forced to live closeted with their assigned gender, leading to discomfort all around, not to mention potential abuse. Transgender international students, those with mental illness, and the poor are most strongly damaged by these policies which put them in impossible situations, forced to fend for themselves.
Outside the dorms, students are again met with spaces and services exclusionary to trans students. Gender-neutral bathrooms are few and far between on campus, often located in obscure spots in far-flung buildings across campus. There is no list or map of these facilities offered by the university, and knowledge of them spreads mostly by word of mouth.
Many of the largest buildings at the Downtown campus, including Library North, lack gender-neutral restrooms. The only unisex restroom in Library North is a single stall hidden in the coffee shop — which is often crowded beyond belief. The only other restroom near the library is across Unity plaza, hidden in a narrow hallway on the far side of Kell Hall.
Transgender housing and bathroom access, as well as other forms of discrimination, have a significant impact on the mental health of trans individuals. Georgia State’s own Kristie Seelman pulled data from the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey to study the affects of such policies:
Of those 2,325 trans people, 46.5 percent reported attempting suicide at some point in time, compared with 4.6 percent of the general U.S. population. Those who’d been denied gender-appropriate bathroom access or campus housing were at significantly higher risk for suicide: 60.5 percent and 60.6 percent, respectively, had attempted it.
This sort of discrimination is not at all uncommon for trans individuals. It’s a real, concrete fact of transgender life, as reported by many transgender folk. The study further notes:
…nearly 25 percent of trans people who attended college say they’ve been denied access to bathrooms, asked to leave, stared at, or questioned about their gender and whether it matched the sign on the door. More than a fifth were blocked from housing that aligned with their genders.
Transgender people are in a state of emergency. Neither the federal government or the state of Georgia protect us from discrimination on account of sexual orientation or gender identity. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, one-fifth of transgender people report being homeless at some point in their lives, and one-fifth were denied housing on account of their gender. Even services designed for the homeless deny us access:
…the majority of those trying to access a homeless shelter were harassed by shelter staff or residents (55%), 29% were turned away altogether, and 22% were sexually assaulted by residents or staff.
College dormitories are a haven for students, particularly those for which private housing is impractical or unaffordable, and commuting is not an option. Georgia State’s policies turn this haven into a nightmare, creating a hostile learning and living environment for transgender students.
How can you embrace diversity while marginalizing your queer/trans students? As Georgia’s largest university, in the Southeast’s largest city, GSU has a moral imperative to address these concerns, and to ensure the protection of trans folks on our campus. GSU is failing our community.
Originally published at leximch.wordpress.com.