A look at support for transgender students on campus
Entering university is a daunting prospect for anyone. But for UBC undergraduate student Vivianna, 19, it was particularly nerve-wracking. (She requested her last name be withheld.)
Not only did she move away from her family in Toronto, but Vivianna also transitioned to female after high school.
“I was definitely worried that I would be made fun of, or that I would be an outcast,” the soft-spoken Arts student recalls. “I’m also just a very shy person in general, so it was almost terrifying.”
When it comes to university life as a transgender student, Vivianna’s anxieties are not unusual. That’s where UBC’s Equity and Inclusion Office, and the Access and Diversity department of Student Services, come in.
Rachael Sullivan, an Equity and Inclusion educator, says the UBC community is taking a proactive approach to ensuring the comfort of transgender students, staff and faculty. Through her “Positive Spaces” workshops, conducted with co-educator Donna Lester-Smith, university staff and faculty learn how to better support and understand the needs of the diverse LBGTQ campus community.
Campus housing, in particular, has been particularly proactive, taking part in Positive Space workshops and consultations with other campus community members. For Vivianna, those efforts have helped create a safe and supportive home away from home.
“When I emailed housing about my concerns, they said, ‘We’ll put you in a single room on a co-ed floor,’” she recalls. “That was very helpful, and I was very appreciative of that.”
CJ Rowe, a diversity advisor with Access and Diversity, says the focus on campus is now not only about preventing discrimination and harassment, but on providing greater access to services and supports.
“We are looking at creating more gender inclusive and accessible washrooms across campus,” she says. “We’ve also begun updating the signage policy on campus, so instead of seeing gendered bodies marking a washroom, we’re moving towards what you find there—such as a symbol for a change table or a toilet.”
To the general population, gender-neutral bathrooms might not seem like an important issue, but when it comes to the needs of trans-identified students, they’re a very big deal. Gender-neutral washrooms are very important to the trans community.
“I do get kind of nervous going into public bathrooms,” admits Vivianna, who says she’s made a mental note of where the gender-neutral bathrooms are on campus. (A map of their locations across campus is also available here).
What’s in a name?
Another issue that may not come up for the majority of students is being able to request that student services and faculty use preferred names and pronouns.
For Vivianna, this meant a meeting with enrolment services, and talking to her professors. “My professors were all very understanding,” she says. “They didn’t have any problems with it.”
Today, when a student requests a name-change through their enrolment services professional, the information carries through to the class list that is sent to their instructors. The system is not perfect, admits Rowe, but there’s a concerted effort being made to inform trans students about the resources available to them.
“What we’ve come to unearth is that the university is able to do a lot of things, but what we haven’t always been able to do well is communicate it,” Rowe says.
Culture of acceptance
With a revision in the works for the university’s student information systems, Rowe hopes that better streamlining of information may take some pressure off trans students.
“I think, in an ideal system, students wouldn’t need to be self-advocates, because it would become part of the cultural norms here—it would be just part of how we operate as a community,” Rowe says.
To help achieve that goal, Sullivan is working on providing resources for staff and faculty to better support and welcome trans students and staff.
“We are working on giving staff and faculty a way of talking with their students or colleagues about preferred gender pronouns and names,” she explains.
For Vivianna, who plans to apply to the UBC School of Nursing, the experience of living as a trans woman on campus has proven, ultimately, to be a rewarding one.
“I’m definitely a lot happier now,” she says, with a smile. “Even my friends and family have noticed that I seem a lot more confident and happy in general. Things turned out okay.”
Transgender Day of Remembrance takes place Thursday, November 20. A candlelight vigil will take place on the SUB Concourse 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., followed by a memorial event at the SUB Art Gallery, 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.