Transgender students on campus: Bridging the gap

It was a new semester when Sarah, an engineering student, began her transition from a man into a woman.

“In the first week, there was a lot of stares and confusion. I was the guy named Sarah,” Sarah said.

With the exception of one student, she said, her classmates accepted her transition. That was three years ago. Sarah, who is now a confident woman, still recalls that first stage when adjustments were fragile.

When transgender students undergo changes, others’ reactions are a mixed lot. Some faculty, staff and students have questions and confusion.

Some transgender students on campus have opened up and said basic communication is key to countering such confusion. Still there’s no one solution that fits all scenarios.

There are several definitions of the word “transgender.” One definition supported by the Oxford University Press states, transgender “denotes or relates to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.” Gender identity does not have anything to do with sexual preference.

Male-to-female trans-woman MoHagani Magnetek Adamu recalled a recent situation while attending a student club meeting. An administrator kept using the pronoun “he” in front of students, even though Adamu continually said, “You mean, ‘she.’”

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Adamu, an anthropology student and frequent collaborator at the Northern Light, is confident and forward. But not all students have the gumption to correct administrators in front of a crowded room.

UAA Safe Zone Logo
UAA SafeZone Logo

SafeZone is a campus resource available to students, faculty and staff. The two-hour training session takes participants through modules and activities to become aware of the terminology and different aspects related to the transgender, bisexual, gay and lesbian, or LGBT, community. Those who complete the training gives participants the tools to become better “allies,” people who can help spread education and understanding about certain LGBT issues.

SafeZone trainer Maria Bonifacio said the training is a great educational tool used to better understand transgender students.

“We don’t have as much faculty who have gone through our ally trainings as we may like, but we are gaining faculty support each and every day,” Bonifacio said.

However, Bonifacio said she is happy to see a recent surge in faculty registrations from the English department.

James Rudkin, a term instructor for the English department, said he has been a SafeZone ally for the past 10 years. He has attained training from another university he worked at.

“If anyone, GLBTQ or straight, needs someone to talk to or has questions, I am available.  If I do not know the answer to a specific question or if I cannot meet a specific need, I will do my best to find the answers,” Rudkin said.

Heather Caldwell, an instructor for the English department, said she is registered for training with SafeZone.

“Learning more about the ‘B’ and ‘T’ in ‘GLBT’ is important because they are often overlooked, under-discussed, most stigmatized,” Caldwell said.

Sarah has recommended to the Dean of Students Office that the student registrar’s office should consider adding a column of “preferred names” to the student roll call.

Sarah said this would be helpful for transgender students who prefer another name that suits their new identity and has not been changed legally.

Women’s and gender studies professor Tara Lampert said before she does roll call on the first day of each semester, she passes a sheet around where students can put their preferred name. She said she has had transgender students and understands how that could be a hurdle for those going through transition.

Female-to-male trans-man Danny Ashton Earll, who is also a psychology student, said he has been open about his experiences on campus.

Earll has a recommendation for those students and faculty who are curious and confused: “Don’t be afraid to ask questions because you think you will offend us. Questions help open the door to healthy and open discussion, regardless of the views and opinions of those involved. I’d rather someone stumble over asking me a question than not ask. You never know what can come from asking or answering just one question.”

For more information about SafeZone, email [email protected]

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