At UT, Awareness of Transgender Students is Still a Work In Progress
Over the last three years, nearly 100 colleges and universities across the nation have added non-discrimination policies that included protection for transgender students from harassment and bullying. 10 of those universities are in Texas. However, even with the increase in non-discrimination policies, there is still a lack of awareness and visibility for many transgender students.
Shane Whalley is the Senior Program Coordinator at the Gender and Sexuality Center in the University of Texas at Austin. Whalley first came to UT as a graduate student, and has seen a lot of changes that include the 2008 non-discrimination policy and the installation of 43 gender-neutral bathrooms across campus. Additionally, Whalley says that there have been changes to the way transgender people are viewed.
“I know now when I go into spaces and I say ‘transgender’ people nod their heads like ‘yes.’ Like it’s not new. They may not know all the intricacies in it, but as a concept I think it’s becoming a more familiar topic that people are willing to engage in,” Whalley said.
Other common changes that universities are making include allowing transgender students to change their name and gender on campus records. Whalley says the latest trend is offering student health insurance to transgender students that pay for hormones and gender reassignment surgeries. Nearly 70 universities offer some type of coverage, but that list does not include UT.
Matthew Gracia is a transgender student at UT and has encountered a lack of awareness among some students and faculty about transgender students.
“We kind of feel like we have to explain ourselves all the time. It kind of creates these awkward situations where we’re asked awkward questions. It makes it an unsafe environment to be in mentally and maybe sometimes physically, as well,” Gracia said.
Gracia said one solution that can increase awareness and visibility is to have more vibrant transgender student groups on campus. These groups, while small, can help educate non-transgender students and faculty about the etiquette and issues that transgender students face.
The Operations Manager for Equality Texas, Lisa Scheps, says that the environment for transgender students has changed drastically in recent years.
“I think we are finding an atmosphere of much more acceptance around the state," says Scheps. "I transitioned 12 years ago, and that’s when I became aware of the community and became active. It’s miles different than it was 12 years ago, and that’s a relatively short time. So I think we’re on the right road.”
The UT Gender and Sexuality Center will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. Whalley, who says even though it's anecdotal, because UT doesn't track how many transgender students it has, there's been an increasing number of students coming into the center.