In 2011, Eliza Gray, staff writer at Time Magazine, boldly labeled the Transgender Rights movement as America’s next civil rights struggle.
RIT’s Safe Zone training process defines transgender as an individual who is gender nonconforming, such as those who were assigned the incorrect sex at birth and later in life may or may not decide to surgically change to outwardly reflect their preferred gender identity. For the majority of the article, trans* will include an asterisk in order to be as inclusive as possible of all members of the incredibly diverse community.
The trans* community is a group of people who are often treated poorly, subjected to violence and ignored by the government for basic rights such as health care and marriage equality. This lack of rights for members of this community may cause them to feel as though they are outcastes, but remaining the sex they were assigned with may cause them to feel like strangers in their own body.
Obstacles in the US
Quite a bit of the language in marriage equality laws doesn’t allow for members of the trans* community to marry. For example, a trans man may have problems marrying a woman in a state without marriage equality, because of the name and gender listed on a birth certificate or driver’s license.
“It’s extra complicated for trans* people because they could look like me,” explained Val Pizzo, a third year Marketing major, a trans male and the president of Tangent. “I mean I still have a female on my driver’s license, birth certificate, everything. If I wanted to marry a woman it could still be considered same sex marriage.”
Same sex marriage can be a problem for the trans* community because of a lack of understanding of what trans* means. Trans men and women are often still referred to by their birth gender by the government and unsupportive or confused family, friends and public and private officials.
The Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, SONDA, took effect in N.Y. in 2003 and prohibited the discrimination of an individual based on their sexual orientation. This includes bisexuality, asexuality, heterosexuality and homosexuality but leaves out any mention of protection for any member of the trans* community because its focus remains on sexual orientation rather than gender identity. There is currently no law in N.Y. that outlaws the discrimination of an individual based on their gender identity.
For this reason, members of the trans* community often feel reluctant to express themselves in the way that they feel most comfortable for fear of losing their jobs. For example Sandra, a fifth year Game Design Major and a woman who was assigned male at birth, requested anonymity for this article to protect her future employment opportunities.
The Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act, GENDA, would end much of this discrimination if passed. According to the Empire State Pride Agenda Foundation, 2 out of every 3 trans* individuals in N.Y. have experienced discrimination at a job at some point in their life. GENDA makes discrimination based on gender expression illegal for those seeking employment, housing, public accommodations, education and credit.
Henry Hinesley, the staff coordinator for the Q Center and a professor for classes such as Intro to LGBT studies, explained that he feels health care is one of the top three obstacles that the trans* community faces in general. Up until recently it had been incredibly difficult for many trans* community members to go through with a sex change if that was a part of the transition that they wished to participate in. This was often due to a lack of insurance coverage, the extensive costs of such surgeries and the lack of recognition by medical professionals. According to Pizzo, many insurance agencies or doctors require notes from psychologists. Some doctors will refuse to do any transformative surgeries unless the individual has insurance at the time of the visit.
The recently passed Affordable Care Act (ACA) prohibits discrimination that would previously have made it difficult for trans* people to get health insurance coverage. This in turn makes it a little easier for those who would like to get transformative surgery. Despite these advancements, the ACA doesn’t specify what discrimination is, leaving it up to the states. According to RH Reality Check, only six states and Washington D.C. are interpreting the law to mean that non-discrimination includes transition care and everything related to it.
Another issue with health care is a lack of understanding by doctors and nurses for the trans* community. For example, Pizzo explained that there was a time when a nurse laughed at him after he told her he was born female, making his visit uncomfortable and making it difficult to tell her personal details related to the visit.
“No matter who you are, we try to encourage you to get medical check-ups like mammograms and prostate exams,” said Pizzo. “That’s incredibly uncomfortable for trans* people because they’re likely uncomfortable with their bodies and on top of that the risk of their doctor being completely confused or judgmental or amused.” For this reason, a trans* individual may avoid checkups or appointments, putting them at risk for life threatening conditions.
RIT and the Trans* Community
The list of obstacles goes on; it is difficult to come up with a truly comprehensive list of all the struggles this community faces. For many, RIT is considered a safe haven. The pride flag is proudly displayed for all to see in the SAU, we have a long list of resources and clubs for the many members of the LGBTQQIA community and a majority of the faculty and staff here go through Safe Zone training to be as educated as possible about our diverse campus.
Although older buildings on campus may not have gender neutral bathrooms, all new buildings are required to have one. Hinesley also stated that there are currently three courses that deal with “queer material” to help educate students on the community. RIT’s policies include gender expression, which is a progressive step that many other universities across the United States have not taken.
Although students are still unable to put their preferred name and gender in certain systems on campus, students can get their preferred name and picture on their student ID. Hinesley explained that there is work being done currently to ensure that trans* students can do this on systems such as SIS soon.
Also in the works is a more inclusive policy for incoming trans* students. For freshman at RIT, students are required to live with someone of the same gender or pay more and live alone in a single. The system for trans* students to live with someone they are comfortable with is a confusing one currently but Hinesley explained that the LGBT task force is working on a better solution. Despite these advancements, there are still problems that the trans* community faces at RIT.
Sandra explained a lot of discrimination at RIT since coming out. For this reason, she started Tigress, a new club and support group on campus specifically for trans* women.
One of the specific problems that Sandra discovered on campus involved housing. After the first year at RIT, she explained that trans male students are allowed to room with cis men, cis women and other trans men whereas trans women are only allowed to room with cis men and other trans women. Although this may seem subtle, this arbitrary rule separates trans women from other groups on campus.
Sandra has also had problems with RIT’s Greek life. Originally a member of Sigma Chi, she wanted to enter a sorority after coming out. She jumped through endless hoops to be considered for a sorority with little success. One sorority turned her down because she was still technically a member of Sigma Chi, another turned her down because she was still recognized as male in N.Y. Even after changing her driver’s license, the sorority saw other reasons to keep her from joining by saying that she could only go through the recruitment process once a year. She explained that the rules that prevented her from joining were both national rules as well as chapter specific rules.
Although the entire trans* community often feels shunned or uncomfortable at some point in their lifetime, Sandra said that there seem to be micro-aggressions against trans women in particular.
This can create a problem for trans women who are seeking academic help, want to participate in events or want to become more active on campus because they are worried they will be judged or not accepted as “normal.”
Despite their differences, Hinesley, Pizzo and Sandra all agreed that many of the problems that the trans* community faces could be solved with an increased understanding of the community.