NEWS

  /  

May 13, 2008

Transgender students navigate campus attitudes and resources

Earlier this quarter Luka Carfagna and a group of friends showed up at Stagg Field for a kickoff IM men’s soccer match. But after arriving at the stadium, student IM representatives told Carfagna that he couldn’t participate on the all-male team because Carfagna, who identifies as transgender, looked biologically female. When Carfagna protested, two of the students referees turned around and snickered.

“They said no girls allowed. I said I identified as transgender and they just looked at me, like ‘What is that?’” Carfagna recalled.

“You have to pick a gender if you’re going to play. I wasn’t able to play. I will not be able to play under my gender of choice.”

Carfagna, a graduate student in a one-year masters program, is a female-to-male transgender student who identifies as genderqueer—a term Carfagna believes captures the transgressive and transformative nature of his sexual identity. For those like Carfagna who describe themselves as genderqueer, the term enables identities that lie within, between, and beyond the male-female gender binary. Carfagna recently began using his preferred name “Luka” and masculine pronouns among close friends, but still introduces himself as Lindsey in class and in wider social circles.

After the run-in with IM sports, Carfagna was at a loss over where to turn within the University administration for advice and support. Unlike peer institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard that employ full-time professionals dedicated to addressing LGBTQ affairs and concerns, the University does not staff a LGBTQ dean.

“Support-wise, I’ve kind of explained it like I’m walking around with no skin, like I’m going to bleed out any second. I have to teach them, ‘Well no, don’t call me that.’ I don’t want to have to explain this to everyone. I’m forced to find support on campus, and in the process, I’m educating people as well. It’s kind of a pain,” Carfagna said.

While the University does not staff a LGBTQ professional for students on campus, it does offer support services and groups through the Student Counseling and Resource Service (SCRS) and its new building at 5710 South Woodlawn Avenue, which it unveiled last quarter.

SCRS offers weekly LGBTQ OpenSource groups for interested students, with separate groups for gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, queer students of color, and trans-identified individuals.

A fourth-year trans-identified student, who requested anonymity in order not to jeopardize his leadership roles on campus, said that Pronoun Hoedown-—SCRS’s trans OpenSource group—has garnered broad attendance since its inception.

“We do a lot of things other campus groups do. We have snacks, conversation; there’s a lot of joking around. We ask how people’s week went. But with the added emphasis that this is a gender-friendly space. Whereas in another context a transgender student might feel hesitant to express their preferences—I want to be called by this name, I prefer this set of pronouns—at Pronoun Hoedown, people know that they don’t have to face those kinds of judgments,” he said.

“[I]t might be the one hour of the whole week that people can be themselves in a way that feels good for them,” he added.

Red Tremmel, a trans-identified Ph.D candidate in the history department and a resident head at May House in Max Palevsky said that in his opinion, the University has been generally receptive to issues and concerns raised by the campus trans community. The University housing office is currently negotiating a housing proposal that would allow students to select gender-neutral options in dorms. The University administration also responded to student concern about the lack of gender-neutral restrooms on campus, installing single-user restrooms on the upper levels of the Regenstein library and in the Ratner athletic facility.

“I love single-user bathrooms. I’ve been a graduate student here for a long time, and there’s not one single day when I go into the Reg and I’m not happy to use the single-user bathrooms. And I really cannot commend the University enough for their compliance when students brought that up. Overall, I feel that this University has been really responsive,” Tremmel said.

Despite the University’s response to the needs and concerns of the campus’s trans communities, some trans students said that the University lags behind its peer institutions in its LGBTQ policies and services.

Carfagna was actively involved with LGBTQ activism as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont but decided against openly identifying as genderqueer in the classroom after moving to the University of Chicago.

While University statutes do include a non-discrimination clause that addresses sex, religion, national origin, age, disability, racial background, and sexual orientation, Carfagna said that the policy rarely affects everyday campus life for trans and genderqueer students.

“I’m not sure what this University stands for. This University has a non-discrimination clause, but you really don’t see it in the practice of this University,” Carfagna said.

“At my old university, faculty were educated. We put policy into practice. All professors got e-mails at the beginning of the year on [proper responses to] a student who wants to be called this or use these pronouns. All the departments had to be assessed on whether they were trans friendly. I don’t see that here.”

The life of the mind: perks and pitfalls

At a university where students proudly tout self-derogatory shirts with popular slogans highlighting the U of C’s preference for theory over practice, Carfagna said that despite its perks, “the life of the mind” has its downfalls.

“I think that identity issues in general are not a priority here. There’s a certain color blindness, a certain identity blindness that I think is promoted in part by this whole dedication to life of the mind. But what people don’t realize is that this mind is housed in so many kinds of bodies, bodies from so many different cultures,” Carfagna said.

For other trans students, the University of Chicago’s academic culture levels the playing field both in and out of the classroom. The anonymous fourth-year student said that he afforded particular priority to the University’s co-ed history and its dedication to the life of the mind during his college search.

“One of the reasons I picked the U of C is that it has always been a co-ed institution. This isn’t true for Smith, Mount Holyoke, or Morehouse. There are other colleges wrestling with [trans concerns] that have a much harder time,” he said.

“The second reason was our history of prioritizing the life of the mind. The U of C recognizes students’ eccentricity, quirks, [and] one’s academic and mental accomplishment. Trans students have many other personal characteristics,” he said.

Since its inception in 1996, the University’s Center for Gender Studies (CGS) carved out an academic niche for queer studies on campus. Since the late 1990s, gender and sexuality studies departments nationwide have given increasing attention to trans studies.

“I think the emergence of transsexuality and trans studies was not particularly surprising. And I think people were ready for it,” said Stuart Michaels, a University sociologist and the CGS undergraduate program chair.

Next fall quarter, the University’s sociology department will acquire two scholars who specialize in transsexuality and transgender studies. Kristen Schilt, currently a professor at Rice University, has studied trans subculture in the workplace. Currently the director of New York University’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Studies, Don Kulick specializes in linguistic anthropology and has researched trans cultures of Brazil, Papua New Guinea, Italy, and Sweden.

“That’s going to be a huge change. From the moment I started teaching here in 2001, there was trans stuff on the syllabus. Coming out of queer studies, it doesn’t seem like something you can resist,” Michaels said.

Michaels said that while the University’s intellectual climate is for the most part welcoming to queer- or trans-identified students on campus, he also echoed Carfagna’s concern over the tendency for theory and practice to diverge.

“Theoretically and intellectually I don’t think there’s a resistance to it. But what it’s like on the ground, what that person’s experience was outside of classrooms, in the dorms, I can’t comment on,” Michaels said.

But despite his recent run in with with IM sports, Carfagna said he does not blame students for lack of knowledge about trans issues on campus. For the future, Carfagna hopes that University-led educational initiatives will abate transphobia on campus and raise awareness about trans student life.

“Have I been asked some invasive questions? Yeah, but people just want to know. The incident at intramurals, was I upset at the students? No. Were there two people that went off and laughed like I was some kind of freak show? Yeah. Was it embarrassing? Yeah. But am I going to sit and cry about it? No, because they haven’t been exposed to trans issues. And that’s not their fault,” he said.

“They did the best they knew how. But they put me in a situation where I had to either not play or protest on behalf of my identity. At my old institution, people used to complain, ‘Oh, another diversity training, oh, another thing to talk about.’ But at the end of the day, pretty much everyone knew what a trans student was. It wasn’t scary. It wasn’t unknown either.”