Gender Bent

Harvard's non-discrimination clause doesn't cover its transgendered students, faculty, and staff. Advocates are working to change that.

Despite the fact Harvard’s nondiscrimination code omitted “gender identity and expression,” “Eric,” a transgendered man who asked not to be named for fear of being “outed,” came anyway. He hoped for the best of his undergraduate experience, but as he had feared, it didn’t meet his expectations.

After unofficial living accommodations were made for him in one of the upperclass Houses, he decided to move off-campus and join an unknown number of transgendered students who remain virtually invisible to students.

All of his transgendered friends have experienced at least verbal abuse because of their gender identities. But it’s not the harsh words that get to him. It’s the fact that Harvard doesn’t provide institutional protection for people like him.

Because of this, Eric hasn’t “transitioned”—in other words, he hasn’t begun to live full-time as a man at Harvard.

“I think a lot of people wait to transition until they’re out of Harvard, because they feel that they’re going to experience discrimination,” he says.

Eric still isn’t sure if he wants to transition. But he knows his undergraduate experience could have been better.

Eric, and transgender activists across the University, hope to change the environment at Harvard. The first step, they say, is changing just one sentence in the University’s non-discrimination policy to include protection for “gender identity and expression.” Most advocates know that Harvard’s disparate parts do their best for transgendered students. But they insist that until the official policy changes, the culture at Harvard will remain hostile to transgendered students, staff, and faculty.

AN ILLUSTRIOUS PAST

Alex S. Myers ’00, a biological female living as man, came out at Harvard as the first openly transgendered undergraduate in 1997 and subsequently founded the Transgender Task Force (TTF). The task force, which at the time was a student-initiated group, sought to educate the Harvard community about transgender issues and urge the University to change its nondiscrimination policy. Myers and the group put together a package of proposals and went straight to the administration.

But the response wasn’t quite what they’d hoped for.

“What I got wasn’t discrimination,” Myers says. “I was an oddity, different than anything else.” He claims that because the administration did not know how to respond to the needs of a newly visible minority, they simply chose not to respond at all. Myers graduated in 2000, and the drive to change the policy was all but abandoned.

In 2004, the BGLTSA tried again, launching a successful campaign to remove gender-specific signs from single occupancy bathrooms to make them more accessible to transgendered students, staff, and faculty. Seven years after Myers’s initial proposal, the fight for formal recognition was revived.

Since that smaller victory, BGLTSA and the TTF are after a much greater one. They are again urging the administration to include protections for “gender identity and expression” in the University’s non-discrimination charter, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “race, color, sex, sexual orientation, religion, age, national or ethnic origin, political beliefs, veteran status, or disability.” The TTF, which now has members appointed by the University, has worked alongside allies like the Harvard Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA).

BGLTSA co-chair and TTF member Mischa A. Feldstein ’07 has been pushing the change with the University’s Office of the General Counsel (OGC) and Vice President of Human Resources Marilyn Hausammann for over a year, but he’s been disappointed by his meetings. Of course, a major policy change would also require the approval of the Harvard Corporation, but going to the General Counsel was the first step.

“I feel like we never make headway,” Feldstein says.

“The administration has not been unfriendly with trans students,” says TTF member Rachel K. Popkin ’08. But she and fellow advocates insist that case-by-case arrangements for transgendered students have not been enough, as evidenced by Eric’s case. The University, they claim, must formalize its policy to make the community a safe space for all.

TRANSWHAT?

In an informal survey, FM asked 25 students what they thought the term “transgender” means. Many said that a transgendered person is “someone who’s changed their sex,” or “someone who’s had an operation.” Some couldn’t even get that far.

“I’m not really sure,” says Valerie Y. D. Sakimura ’06.

The TTF is doing its best to make sure that students are better informed. They’ve recently hosted regular workshops called Trans 101, in which they explain that transgender is actually an umbrella term for individuals that have unconventional gender identities (identifying as a woman or a man, as traditionally conceived) or expressions (expressing femininity or masculinity) that do not fall within the traditional male/female binary. Often, these identities and expressions do not correspond with those of their biological sex.

The term transgender includes a diverse group of people, including transsexuals and cross-dressers, even those that haven’t had “the surgery.”

THE MAN WON’T BUDGE

Teach-ins like Trans 101 have certainly made headway. According to the leaders of the Trans 101 workshops, professors no longer get a gendered list of students, only names. Students’ health insurance covers the prescription of sex hormones. The administration has accommodated housing requests on an individual basis. And for the first time last year, transgender resource information appeared in University Health Services (UHS) student planners.

But even with the public awareness campaign, the TTF has had a tough time getting the Office of the General Counsel to budge. TTF members claim that the OGC has stalled meetings to negotiate a change to the non-discrimination code. Although General Counsel Robert W. Iuliano ’83 assured the TTF that they would reconvene over intersession, the group has not met with Iuliano since November 8. As of press time, a meeting is slated for the second week of April.

According to Popkin, while the administration portrays itself as trans-friendly, their attitude is one of “don’t call us, we’ll call you.”

“You know, it’s really hard to know what the administration is thinking when they do things like refuse to agree to not discriminate,” says Feldstein, “but it’s hard to not receive that negatively.”

But Feldstein might be jumping the gun.

Joe Wrinn, director of the Harvard News Office and a spokesperson for the University, says that the University is “actively considering the issue,” but that the meeting was delayed because of scheduling concerns. “University officials had hoped to meet with the group sooner than April,” he writes in an e-mail, “but various other issues arose that were not related to this issue but forced a change in schedule.”

Despite the office’s apparent interest, many campus advocates are tired of getting the run around.

“I can say the way this issue is being treated is as though its not a priority for the administration, and it’s a priority for us,” Feldstein says. “There are students right now who want to see that they’re not going to be discriminated against. They’re not gonna wait 20 years for caselaw for the univeristy to decide whether it’s O.K. to discriminate or not.”

His BGLTSA co-chair Ryan R. Thorenson ‘07, agrees. “The administration has a certain conservative slant in terms of changing institutional behavior. The nondiscrimination code is regarded as a big change,” he says. “More specifically, this is an issue where the college thinks it can wait four years, and the student activists will graduate.”

Those activists cite other schools which have moved faster as examples for Harvard to follow.

“The precedent has been set by other universities and we’re just lagging behind—having finals after winter break, that’s ok. It’s fine to say we’re different and unique in a certain way. But this is just not OK,” says MK Eagle ’06, the BGLTSA’s community chair.

Other universities have transitioned to more trans-friendly policies, but with varying degrees of success. Wesleyan University scrapped gender-neutral housing after a pilot year because of opposition from certain members of the university administration.

The University of Vermont (UVM), however, has had a better “gender bending” track record. Students who prefer gender-neutral housing, which includes gender-neutral private bathrooms, may request it on their housing applications. The university also has gender-neutral bathrooms across campus and offers the option for students to change their name on their student IDs, even without a legal name change.

Change at other schools wasn’t achieved immediately or without resistance. “There’s a lot of adversity here—people struggle,” says Dorothea V. Brauer, director of LGBTQA Services at UVM. “Vermont is not eager to be up front and socially experimental, but [we are] also known for a kind of tolerance of individual difference.”

Though Harvard is known for its tolerance, too, it is also notorious for slow policy changes.

OFF-THE-RECORD, PLEASE

Some advocates say that the best spokespersons are those who are transgendered. The catch: until the environment is safer, those students do not feel comfortable coming forward. Of the students and faculty The Crimson identified as transgendered for this story, all preferred to speak anonymously to avoid repercussions.

“It’s a challenge that every movement like this has faced—in any sort of push for non discrimination, you start with a group that by definition isn’t protected. It makes it very difficult for that group to openly or vocally demand certain things,” says Thoreson.

The more palpable effect, though, is that without an open transgendered community, few students to understand exactly what the word transgender even means.

Taktin M. Oey ’08, for example, says that he only vaguely understands that a transgendered individual is “someone who cross-dresses or had an operation.”

And he asks, “Are there even any at Harvard?”

Students aren’t the only ones who are under-informed. Eric, when he lived on campus, did not want to reveal his identity to those faculty members who are supposed to be students’ greatest advocates.

“I didn’t feel comfortable identifying myself as trans to my House master, who would’ve had a role in my grad school applications and job applications,” he says.

A more common form of discrimination transgendered students face is insensitivity from peers and staff. Many people, for example, ask questions that transgendered students feel violate their privacy.

It always comes down to the goodies.

“When people at Harvard hear that I’m trans, they constantly ask me when I’m having an operation,” reads an excerpt in the TTF pamphlet “Trannys Talk Back.”

JUST SEMANTICS?

Resistance, though, has often come from other sources as well. There is a vocal opposition on campus to a change in policy.

Arvind H. Vaz ’08 does not think there’s any need to change the code. He feels that it forces particular values on unwilling students.

“It’s intolerant of Harvard itself to force its values on religious institutions or groups who may not share those sentiments,” he says. He says it would be acceptable to include intersexed individuals–those born with genitalia or secondary sex characteristics that are neither exclusively male nor female–in the nondiscrimination code because, “if you’re born that way, it’s a disability.” Vaz, however, does not believe it is Harvard’s prerogative to protect a group that some students do not acknowledge.

“I feel like [protecting transgendered individuals] was the intent of the rule when it included gender,” says Mark D. Lurie ’07, speaking of the sexual orientation clause. “I understand how someone who is transgendered doesn’t feel included in that, but I don’t think [the administration] had ill intentions.”

“The difference between sex, gender, and sexual orientation. Nobody seems to get that,” says Michael A. Greenspan, a Boston activist who frequently speaks to Harvard students about transgender issues. Greenspan “came out” during his freshman year in high school, and has since transitioned fully as a man.

Greenspan is quick to criticize individuals who feel the current code covers transgendered students

“It’s just semantics for people who have the luxury of calling it just semantics,” says Greenspan.

OPEN TO SUGGESTION

Although the average student doesn’t know too much about TTF’s current struggle (at least according to our rough survey), they are mostly supportive of their transgendered peers. Once convinced the present code does not include transgendered students, most students believe it’s only a matter of time before the administration budges.

The TTF and BGLTSA have offered the Trans 101 workshops in many Houses to boost awareness, but the turnout has not been stellar. Feldstein says that attendance has been “moderate,” but at recent sessions there were hardly half a dozen audience members.

Feldstein doesn’t seem disappointed, though.

“I would say the people who do come have been really receptive, and I think there’s a lot of potential there for people who are interested in getting involved [in raising awareness] to get involved,” he says.

Several student groups have been extremely supportive of the TTF, and outright opposition, Feldstein says, comes mainly from individuals. “There’s definitely resistance in some parts of campus,” he says. “There’s also support in surprising places.”

One of those supporters has been the Undergraduate Council (UC), which has made a consistent effort to educate its members about transgendered issues. “It’s certainly an issue on campus that I know little about,” says UC President John S. Haddock ’06 who attended one of the first Trans 101 training sessions.

Although the UC nondiscrimination code does not yet include “gender expression,” it has included “gender identity” since 1997, at the behest of Myers. Last week, the UC passed a bill to allow co-educational housing for Harvard undergraduates, and they await the University’s response.

“It’s an opportunity to do away with the binary nature of housing at Harvard and to recognize that students will have the right to live with whatever genders they are most comfortable with,” says Haddock.

Other members of the Harvard community are less openly ready to accept transgendered students. They aren’t necessarily critical; they simply haven’t taken a stand.

Professor Harvey C. Mansfield ’53, often noted for his outspoken views on gender, has yet to take a position, but perhaps out of more practical concerns. “As things are, I’m in enough controversy right now,” he writes in an e-mail.

But manly professors aren’t the only ones on the fence.

Although a member of the Harvard Republican Club (HRC) attended one of the first training sessions, the HRC does not have a formal stance on transgender issues.

“The issue is not addressed by the current Republican Party Platform,” writes HRC president Stephen E. Dewey ’07, “so we do not have a default position on it.”

The hope is that once the issue becomes more public, campus groups will have to shift out of neutral and take a stand.

SYMBOLIC VICTORY

Although the potential for discussion and debate may exist, the absence of administrative protection does not allow transgendered students to emerge and begin to challenge the culture of discrimination.

“That you can be fired or not admitted to Harvard for not performing according to your gender identity is kind of jarring to a lot of people,” Thoreson says. “You wouldn’t think that’s fair grounds for dismissing or denying someone fair housing, but technically it still is.”

According to activists, the issue is bigger than it seems. The nondiscrimination code doesn’t only affect students. Although Harvard boasts about extending employee benefits to same-sex couples “long before the practice became commonplace in the region,” it continues to deny written protection against discrimination towards employees who identify as transgendered. As one of the largest employers in Massachusetts, Harvard’s non-discrimination policy potentially affects a large number of people.

“The current absence of such a statement carries its own strong–and very unfortunate–message and we want to see this remedied very soon,” says Robyn T. Ochs, a member of the executive Committee of the LGBT Faculty and Staff Group and a staff member in the Romance Languages and Literatures Department.

Although the TTF doesn’t know the exact number of transgendered employees, faculty or students living in the closet, they claim it doesn’t matter. They say that even if it’s one or one thousand students, Harvard should still change the code.

“It’s a constant process,” says Barusch. “But the policy will be permanent.” In her eyes, the insertion to the code will say to other employers and universities that “at Harvard, this is a community norm—we don’t discriminate.”

The world may not change when the nondiscrimination code is amended. It’s “one of the initial steps,” says BGLTSA political chair Joshua D. Smith ’08.

WHAT’S NEXT?

But even if the nondiscrimination code changes, the path ahead for transgendered students is far from smooth.

After the policy changes, says Smith, the TTF must pursue gender-neutral bathrooms at Harvard’s graduate schools, as well as attract more healthcare specialists to the University. Altering the words is crucial, but not neccesarily enough.

“It’s important not to lose sight of the big picture,” he says, “to make trans students feel safer.”

Smith acknowledges that change cannot come overnight. Even the BGLTSA is no stranger to the slowness of institutional reform. A sign in the Holworthy basement still points people to the “BGLSA” headquarters. Only during Myers’s 1997 campaign was a “T” added to denote the group’s support of transgendered individuals.

“Times change, new issues come up,” says Smith. “[Things] won’t change immediately, but that’s OK,”

Is adding the “T” the next logical step for Harvard?

Eric hopes so.

“I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience here overall,” he says, “but a major con was the fact that they [Harvard] reserved the right to discriminate against trans students, faculty and employees.” And that, at the end of the day, is the most salient part.



Sachi A. Ezura, Mark F. Giangreco, Jr., and Katherine O’Donnell contributed the reporting of this article.