Transitioning Perspectives: A closer look into policy

As the lives and perspectives of the transgender community have become more public, so too has the history of misrepresentation of trans lives in the media, misdiagnoses of gender identity as mental illness, and the ongoing need for trans-affirmative resources for youth and adults.

The trans community at JSC and in Vermont have identified another area of concern: discrimination through public policy and the difficulty of accessing mental health services for youth.

The final installment of “Transitioning Perspectives” will examine how public policy has shifted and continues to shift for transgender people at JSC and at the Vermont State House in Montpelier.

In 2016, JSC was assigned a 3.5 “campus index score” by the national nonprofit Campus Pride Inc. The rating system is based on a 1-5 rating scale inclusion factors like academic life, LGBTQ support, recruitment and retention.

While JSC received high scores for housing and residence life [4.5] and policy inclusion [4], the college only received a 1.5 for campus safety.

As a transgender male at JSC, English and secondary education major Shane Wyman sometimes worries he will be ostracized or harassed at college, while searching for apartments or even when using the bathroom. “In some areas, it’s perfectly okay for a trans person to use whatever bathroom they need to use – or with a gender nonconforming person,” he said.

“…every single step that you take, you have to be conscious of the fact that you are trans,” Wyman continued, “and if somebody finds out, it could either be fine or it could really cause some problems for you.”

As co-chairs of JSC’s Diversity Task Force, Director of Residence Life Jeff Bickford and Director of Athletics and Recreation Jamey Ventura say that all students are welcome to talk to the committee to voice any concerns regarding trans-specific issues; however, without more student input, Ventura says it is difficult to address issues they are not aware of yet.

In addition to designating gender-neutral bathrooms for each campus building, the committee also wants to help people locate them.

“The way of figuring out the most appropriate way is to just label where bathrooms are in general, given that there’s very little signage in all our buildings about anything,” said Bickford.

Bickford notes two major gender-inclusive policy changes made specifically for trans and gender nonconforming JSC students in recent years: a “believe the student” policy was adopted to help students choose the living situation that best fits them while avoiding any additional paperwork.

Along with offering gender-neutral housing and bathrooms, Bickford says the policy has worked well to benefit students regardless of gender identity or orientation.

“It doesn’t have to be a situation where we’re looking for very old-fashioned binary or divisions of floor designations,” Bickford said. “Lots of people who identify [within the] binary are more comfortable with that and having options throughout campus makes sense.”

Bickford also developed a “preferred name policy” with JSC’s Pride Alliance for public safety officers and resident assistants to follow when reporting incidents. “Frankly, we did that from the point of view of someone who might identify as trans and have a preferred name that just isn’t [legal],” said Bickford. “It’s really being respectful to the students’ wishes if we have a reason to believe they might prefer a different name.”

The policy allows students to say if they go by a preferred name, rather than assume that someone might go by a preferred name and out them accidentally.

For JSC’s Athletics Department, Ventura says it is important to him and his colleagues to recognize that even small incidents such as being in the wrong locker room on road trips can be traumatic for a trans-identified athlete. “Part of it is that students may not want to be outed and if we don’t know it’s obviously very difficult to project or make arrangements for that,” said Ventura.

“We are aware of it and we talk about it as a staff and stay up to date with what’s going on in the NCAA and how other schools are being supportive and other practices we can adopt [at JSC].”

Like JSC, the Vermont legislature has also actively supported the rights of trans and gender nonconforming individuals in recent years.

Vermont Rep. Bill Lippert, a longtime LGBTQ activist in Vermont, says the decades-long oppression of LGB-identified and transgender people inspired his role in sponsoring gender identity nondiscrimination bills in Montpelier over the last 17 years.

In 2000, when former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean signed the civil union bill [Act 91] into law – which served as a precursor to full marriage equality – Lippert says he also tried to push for gender identity nondiscrimination legislation, but was unsuccessful early on.

Rather than abandon the legislation, Lippert committed himself to pursue laws to help those in the transgender community live more comfortable lives publicly.

“I became the lead sponsor in 2006 of gender identity nondiscrimination legislation,” said Lippert, “and in the course of working on that issue, I had the opportunity to meet many more trans people. At that point, I was the chair of the house judiciary committee, so I had the opportunity to help put that on our agenda.”

Former Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas signed a slightly modified version of that same bill in 2007 after initially vetoing it in 2006, according to Lippert. The bill banned gender identity discrimination in credit services, public accommodations, employment and housing throughout Vermont.

As sponsor of that law, Lippert says the opposition toward him and the LGBTQ community became more intense than when he advocated for marriage equality.

Lippert, who is now chair of the House Health Care Committee, and newly elected Rep. Selene Colburn, have sponsored two new house bills [H.230 and H.333] to improve the lives of trans youth and adults.
H.333, which was approved by the House on April 21, proposes that all public single-stall restrooms be marked as gender-neutral.

Lippert says H.333 aks for a modest financial commitment to refurbish gendered restrooms to be gender-neutral.

According to an April 14 SFGate article by Cory Dawson, Vermont’s Buildings and General Services Commissioner Chris Cole estimates the changes to cost $2,000 for Vermont.

H.230, meanwhile, proposes to eliminate parental consent for minors who are questioning gender or sexuality.

“With the high rate of challenges that are faced by young people who are struggling with sexual orientation and gender identity – including a much higher rate of suicidal ideation or self-harming, alcohol or drug abuse – and a higher rate of suicide itself,” said Lippert, “it’s critical in my mind that we make access to supportive counseling available even in those situations where a parent might have a very negative reaction to the child bringing that issue up with them.”

Lippert understands that while H.333 and H.230 are ways of helping the trans community legally, widespread inclusion has yet to become reality for many trans people facing discrimination in public spaces.

“I think one of the largest and continuing challenges is in our schools to ensure that – we have the laws on the books – but we need to have the reality be on the ground,” said Lippert. “We continue to have to bring full inclusiveness into all the institutions and I think schools are a particularly challenging setting. There are many positive things happening, but there is more to be done there.”

“I feel like being open about being trans as a teacher in a school – kids are in an important stage in their development – and if they’re seeing a trans person, then it normalizes it for them,” said Blair Koonz JSC biology and secondary education major. “I guess that’s part of advocacy.”

As a future high school teacher, Wyman also says that threats of discrimination may keep him from being public about his identity despite the changing laws. “Going into education as a trans guy and being a trans teacher, it’s something that I don’t think I’ll actually be public about because when there are kids involved,” said Wyman. “Parents can be a flip of the coin on how they’re going to react to their child having a trans teacher.”

At JSC, students such as Koonz express concerns ranging from the policies of medical insurers to how one could legally change over their gender on their identification documents more easily.

And though she appreciates the protections Vermont and JSC afford her, Koonz says being out as trans is difficult when being open is not always safe and when health care is hard to access.

“Not every state makes it easy to update your birth certificate to have the correct gender markers,” said Koonz. “A big one for a lot of trans people would be medical and just the lack of trans care and doctors who have literally any experience with trans people. Transition is expensive and how much is covered varies wildly depending on the insurer in what they’re willing to cover and what they have to cover. In a lot of cases, they don’t have to cover anything related to trans [people].”

JSC music theory major Peython Echelson-Russell asserts that one way to improve medical policy for trans people is for insurers and providers to adopt an “informed consent model,” in which the patient is granted access to medical treatment and surgeries without needing therapy and other intervention.

Another transgender student, who requests anonymity, says she hopes to start a trans support group at JSC with trans adults for social support and to advocate for policy to protect them from discrimination.
“I’d like to see a group somewhere on campus for trans people,” she said. “I think it is dangerous, frankly, and irresponsible to be a campus with such a large LGBT population and seemingly not have people who specialize in addressing these issues on campus on counseling staff – I think that’s problematic.”

The purpose of the Diversity Task Force is to engage students, staff and faculty alike in discussion to address issues like public policy and gender identity discrimination.

Even so, Ventura says student participation remains low.

“Some students have said, ‘I might be interested in that,’ but we have not been able to have them come to the meetings,” said Ventura. “Our agenda’s driven by who’s there and what issues need to be focused on and what has come up. That’s how we start to tick things off the list.”

For some transgender students, privacy may be a reason for the lack of participation on the committee, a concern that Bickford says he is open to working on with them. “Risking an outing that they’re not prepared for, I understand that,” he said.

“And anyone on the committee, if they came in and said that a student came and talked to me about this and they’re not really in a place where they feel comfortable with being the public face of this issue, but it’s an issue we need to work on as a group – I’m 100 percent behind it,” Bickford added.

Even with the fear that the Trump Administration may roll back existing legal LGBTQ protections, Wyman won’t concede what he says are inherent civil rights for the entire transgender community.

“I think it’s time we step it up a notch and have some federal policy protecting trans people,” said Wyman. “That can go from making sure that medical insurance isn’t discriminating against trans people to having our surgeries covered by medical insurance and [not seen] as cosmetic anymore on all grounds. The right to play on whatever sports team your gender coincides with and using the appropriate bathroom – all that stuff – it’s time for it to be a national policy.”