College presents logistical obstacles for transgenders

by Amanda Cohen | 5/4/07 2:44am

Editor's note: This is the final article in a three-part series on the experiences of transgender students at Dartmouth. Today's article examines the aspects of the College predicated on gender.

Before transitioning from female to male, Corey Mallon '04 transferred from Dartmouth during his sophomore year. The College, while well-intentioned, he said, lacked the education and resources to make it a supportive community. Mallon found a more welcoming community at the University of Vermont, where he enrolled in 2003.

"To be fair, there was just a total lack of knowledge by professors, by the Rainbow Alliance. It's no one's fault, it's a systemic problem," Mallon said. "I wasn't at a place where I could do a lot of the education as well as deal with issues myself."

Pharmacology graduate student Kelly Heim, who has fully transitioned from female to male, said that the issues surrounding transgender identification are often ignored because transgender students are less visible on campus.

"That's the whole idea of transitioning: we want to blend in," Heim said.

Because the issues have not been brought to the forefront, adviser to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students Pam Misener said many people do not realize the ways in which the campus asks students to identify gender.

At Dartmouth, students are asked to implicitly declare a gender each time they enter a bathroom, and many forms and applications ask students and faculty to select gender.

Sasha Bright '09, Kris Gebhard '09 and Tiger Rahman '09, who are all transitioning, said they seek out unisex bathrooms when they are available, although doing so is not always a possibility.

If a bathroom is single-stall, there is no need to designate it by sex, Mallon argued. He suggested that the College create a pamphlet available to students during orientation with the locations of the unisex bathrooms and the single-stall showers on campus.

Heim said that being approached for presumably entering the wrong bathroom "can be extremely unnerving and frightening."

"[Such experiences] can happen anywhere, and I think this place is no exception until we put this nondiscrimination policy of transgender students into practice."

Dartmouth updated its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity and representation in June 2006, following the lead of Harvard University, Brown University, Columbia University, Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania. According to Giavanna Munafo of the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, Dartmouth waited until Harvard changed its policy before updating its own, although the topic had been discussed for years.

"Historically, it's just not in our nature to just blaze down these trails all alone," she said. "I don't think that we tend to be out, ahead on these kinds of potentially contentious social issues."

According to Mallon, transgender students are less likely to make themselves visible in a community that is not already knowledgeable about the experiences of transgender students.

"We have to create a welcoming environment for any group of people, and we need to sort of show ourselves as allies before we can expect people to feel comfortable coming forward," he said.

The pattern is cyclical, Misener explained. If issues around gender identification are not discussed, transgender students may be less willing to come out, and in turn their "invisibility" may make community members less likely to dialogue about the subject.

Misener said that a lack of discussion in the area means that people don't question the way in which they assign gender.

"Anytime we ask people to declare their sex or gender without giving them any other option, we potentially create an opportunity to make someone feel either unsafe or uncomfortable, or just not included, not represented," she said. "I think there are a lot of ways every day that gender presents itself that, for those of us who are privileged around our biological sex and gender identity, we don't even notice."

Michael Amico '07, a member of the all-male a cappella group Cords, said that for his group, eligibility based on gender is "not defined, it's assumed." Later, Amico said he realized there is much to be gained from questioning the type of masculinity his group projects.

Amico, who is also a member of the Tabard coed fraternity, which transgender students interviewed described as a safe space, said he believes organizations which are gender-exclusive need to question the reasons behind this determination. In his performance group, he said, gender exclusivity is necessary for the harmony.

"If [a student] produced a sound that worked with our group, and that person identified as female, I would not have a problem with that," Amico said. "I'm not saying that the group wouldn't."

The implementation of gender-neutral housing, slated to debut next fall, is one way the College is making transgender students feel more comfortable.

"To assign gender to students and sort of dictate what gender environment they should feel most naturally comfortable in is ridiculous," Rahman said.

The College has also increased its medical resources for transgender students. Heather Hersh, who began working at Dick's House in the fall, is a psychologist with expertise in transgender identification. John Turco, the director of health services, is an endocrinologist who works with transgender patients in transitioning and hormone therapy.

The college has also made a notable effort to welcome transgender alumni, according to Joanne Herman '75, who transitioned in 2003. Herman hesitated to return to campus until 30 years after graduating.

"My last memory was of an environment that was very hostile towards people that were different," she said.

When she did return to Dartmouth for a Dartmouth Gay and Lesbian Alumni Association reunion in 2005, Herman said she was pleasantly surprised with the acceptance she felt.

"There was this incredible welcome and this feeling like I was perfectly, not only entitled to come back, but that I was welcomed," she said.

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