Being transgendered at the U of C

By Nicole Dionne

“When a transgendered colleague of mine was deliberating about how to handle her own coming out process at the university, she looked for policies,” said social work professor emeritus Mary Valentich, who has worked on issues of diversity and inclusiveness at the university for over 30 years. “She said that one of the difficulties was that people in her situation shouldn’t have to scramble to look for something. It should be very evident that the university is an inclusive university and she just couldn’t find it in the policies at that point.”

The University of Calgary currently uses its non-academic misconduct policy and sexual harassment policy to protect transgendered students and faculty from discrimination and harassment. However, these policies and procedures do not explicitly mention transgender, gender identity or gender diversity.

Valentich believes it would be helpful to identify transgender persons somewhere in the policy and state specifically that the U of C is an inclusive university. Nursing faculty associate professor Andrew Estefan, whose research focuses on the mental health of people with various gender and sexual orientations, agreed.

“First and foremost, it’s about making it visible,” said Estefan. “Regardless of what the policy or the document is, when we introduce notions of gender or we introduce notions of difference of experience, transgender should be one of those words that occurs within that policy so that people can see themselves in it. People shouldn’t feel excluded by the language that is used to write policies.”

On March 7, Ryerson University nursing students organized their first Trans-Action for Community Health forum to promote increased inclusion and awareness of transgendered people at the university. One concern raised was that students are unable to identify as transgendered on official university documents.

Currently, all students are asked to identify as either female or male on U of C applications and other official documents. There is no opportunity to identify as transgendered.

“People feel invisible,” said Estefan. “People look at something and they have an option for male or female and there is no way to identify as being transgender. When we do that we exclude people. They feel very much like they are not part of a community which the university wants to create.”

Leon Schwesinger graduated from the U of C’s faculty of fine arts last year. Although Schwesinger had been living as a man part-time for four years, he did not began hormone therapy until two years into his undergraduate degree. Three years and two surgeries later, Schwesinger is now legally considered male.

“I sometimes wish that the identification of sex wasn’t on forms,” said Schwesinger. “Dealing with the male or female portion on forms definitely was an experience.”

The field is not required to process applications, but it is not marked as optional.

“We don’t generally get comments about this,” said associate provost of enrolment David Johnston. “Generally they just select their biological sex or the one they identify with.”

Changing the university’s current application forms may be difficult because they are standardized provincially.

“The application forms used by the University of Calgary are part of Apply Alberta, a province-wide application process that is used for all schools in Alberta,” said Johnston. “If a change were to be made, it would make sense to bring it up at that level, not the level of the University of Calgary.”

For students who complete their transition during university, there are procedures for changing how they are identified.

“We do have students who have requested this and we’ve approached it with respect and as a simple matter,” said Johnston.

Another concern raised at Ryerson was a lack of information about transgender related issues in the nursing curriculum. While the current nursing curriculum at the U of C does cover transgender specific topics of health, a new curriculum is being developed that will better prepare students to be sensitive to their patients’ needs.

“In the new curriculum specifically, we are writing in elements around transgender and around sexual differences so that students get an opportunity to learn about what the health care experience is like for this population, depending on which stage of their transgender journey they’re on,” said Estefan.

Estefan said classroom lectures are not sufficient to give students a particularly broad and grounded introduction to issues of sexual difference. He argued the U of C would benefit from an event similar to the one organized at Ryerson.

“You can talk about it in the classroom, but to actually experience and spend time with people who have gone through a gender reassignment, there is a different kind of learning and connection that happens,” said Estefan.

Other U of C programs offer courses that cover issues of sex and gender diversity within society. Anthropology professor Tania Saj teaches students that gender is not biological and is expressed differently between cultures and time periods. Saj also discusses how biological sex is not as simple as being female or male.

“We have to remember that these binary categories are not inclusive of many people who do not neatly fit these two categories, as many transgendered and intersex people do not,” said Saj. “We have to remember that other societies around the world are not constrained by the two-sex, two-gender system and may have three, four or more categories for people to define themselves.”

Dawn Johnston is a communication and culture professor who teaches courses that focus on sexual and gender diversity. She feels education and advocacy are important for the entire community, not just transgendered students.

“It’s wrong that the onus of discussing gender orientation issues and sexual orientation issues is placed on the transgender and gay communities because these are not just issues that affect them,” she said. “These are human issues.”

Schwesinger believes support from the fine arts faculty made his transition unique and unproblematic.

“Because we are such a small faculty, I was very fortunate to be embraced by virtually everyone,” said Schwesinger. “I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to have taken a degree like engineering and made this transition. I feel that my transition at the U of C was ‘issue free’ meaning that I was embraced for who I was rather then what I was dealing with.”

“I like being seen as a person who is also transgendered and not just transgendered,” he added.

Not all students at the U of C have been as fortunate.

“I have spoken to a number of students who have been in this situation,” said a transgendered Haskayne faculty member who wished to remain anonymous. “Usually what has happened is that they just wanted to talk to somebody to sort of have a little bit of comfort, and to know that one can emerge from this and survive.”

The faculty member felt supportive programs and resources on campus require increased visibility if transgendered students are to make use of them.

“I don’t think the university is a problem environment, but it is hard to get information because it’s not up front,” the faculty member said. “People who are in this situation, they’re often afraid to ask because that in itself would reveal something about themselves that they fear might lead to discrimination.”

The Campaign for Positive Spaces is a national movement that tries to increase the profile of sexual and gender diversity resources on campuses, including the U of C.

“The campaign is designed to raise awareness of sexual and gender diversity, to engage people in conversations and to provide accurate information to address the mythologies and lack of information that is available,” said U of C harassment adviser and co-chair of the positive spaces campaign Shirley Vonya-Wilson.

The recently established Q Centre in MacEwan Student Centre provides further visibility and resources for transgendered students.

“All of our volunteers are trained in peer-support and so for anyone who is questioning, transitioning or just looking for an open supportive environment, our office is open everyday from ten until four,” said Q Centre program co-coordinator Kris Schmidt.

Along with peer support, the Q Centre offers one-on-one support, access to books on transgender issues and referrals to counselling and medical resources. They’ve also supported the Trangender Day of Remembrance, the It Gets Better campaign and the Coming Out Monologues.

“We are both an informative as well as supportive kind of community for them to come find,” said Schmidt.

While programs and initiatives are expanding, there are still things that need to be addressed.

“There’s always room to make adjustments, for example having more unisex bathrooms,” said Schmidt. “With the current environment that we have and support from the administration, issues like this can definitely be worked on.”

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