In summer 2014, the University of Florida lacked an established line of communication to assist students like Reilly-Owen Clemens, a transgender woman.
As she watched transgender individuals struggle to access essential departmental resources, she wasn’t disheartened. She was inspired to make a change.
The Trans Resource Network was forged and founded by Clemens, a graduate student of women’s studies at UF. The network, launched on June 1, 2015, is a cooperative effort between 17 university departments dedicated to assisting transgender students with services like readiness letters, hormone therapy and updated identification documents. The network also offers a discussion group for transgender students to explore their identities.
The directory includes trained representatives from university departments and organizations such as the Counseling and Wellness Center, Student Legal Services, the Student Health Care Center, the Registrar and the UF Police Department.
A More Visible Transgender Population
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, said that transgender people have always a been part of our communities. Celebrity advocates like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner are making transgender issues more prominent, which encourages an invisible population to speak out and be heard.
“Where we’ve seen growth is really in the visibility of trans and gender nonconforming people,” he said. “Particularly our young people who have been forging the way on the front lines of LGBTQ activism.”
There’s no definitive way of knowing how many transgender individuals are in the student population because the social atmosphere and institutional system limit the census, said LB Hannahs, director of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs. It’s difficult to alter gender markers and identification documents, and in many cases, people are unsure of how to proceed.
“There’s no institutionalized mechanism for people to say, ‘Hey, I’m trans,’” Hannahs said. “But more and more people are identifying as trans.”
Hannahs also believes that if the university designates itself as a safe space, more people will be comfortable enough to come out.
“It sends a message that this is a special population that we’re focusing on right now,” Hannahs said.
Educating University Staff
Although the departments’ staff’s knowledge level was inconsistent, Clemens knew the services that transgender students required were interconnected. Hannahs’ office now acts as the link between departments.
“Knowing about trans people doesn’t always translate to knowing how to interact with them or to create a culture and a climate that is accepting and affirming,” Hannahs said.
Catherine Seemann, communications coordinator for the SHCC, describes the transition process as very individualized. While some are in the questioning phase, others are seeking gender reassignment surgery. There are a lot of different pieces to the puzzle, she said.
The Counseling and Wellness Center, or a private mental health provider, will assess each patient before providing a transition readiness letter. The SHCC then oversees the patient’s medical care.
“Each team at the Student Health Care Center has a very thick protocol book that we can go by,” she said. “It’s opened up a lot of positive conversations about how we can make their experience the best while they’re here, no matter what identity they choose for themselves.”
The SHCC balances out existing medical conditions with hormone levels, focusing on monitoring the safety of each person. This is the first time many are being properly cared for because of how trans individuals are viewed, Seemann said.
Sgt. Jeffrey Lamb of the UF Police Department facilitates a dialogue between officers and the trans community to avoid misunderstandings and to alleviate issues before they arise.
For example, officers may be confused when a license photo and gender marker is different from the gender being presented. Lamb believes the education the police department is receiving will help these interactions go much smoother.
“A lot of the challenges they face I had never even considered,” he said. “Now if I run into that situation, I’m aware.”
Hannahs believes that training and education will help staff perform better and make UF a safer, more accepting place; but gatekeeping hurdles still remain.
“If we’re looking at institutional policies and practices, it’s a mixed bag,” Hannahs said. “Is it better than a lot of places? Yes. Is it as good as it should be for a top-tier university? No.”
Trans at UF: A Discussion Group
Trans at UF is a discussion group open to transgender, genderqueer and gender nonconformists and their intimate partners. It was founded in 2011 when Hannahs took her position at UF, but has become a part of the network, recently citing more consistent membership at about eight attendees each week.
Eli Mender, a transgender man and graduate student of sociology, has attended the group since its founding and now leads group discussions.
“It’s a safe space for trans people to share whatever they need to,” he said.
The group also engages in social outings, like having lunch or playing cards. Mender believes the gatherings provide emotional support and an opportunity to learn about available resources.
“Some people might be meeting other trans people for the very first time,” he said. “How do you even know if you’re trans if you’ve never met a trans person?”
The Future for Transgender Students
Although separate advocacy efforts exist in each department, the network shares progress reports once every semester. The Trans Resource Network was created to fill a specific need, but Hannahs hopes the university will ultimately work itself out of that need.
Windmeyer said creating a mechanism to streamline institutional care for transgender students is a step in the right direction, and that more campuses should follow suit.
“The most exciting thing about what the campus is doing is that they’re sending a message that the entire campus should be responsible for the safety and academic welfare of a transgender student,” he said.
The University of Florida aims to be inclusive in its non-discrimination policy since 2010, according to Campus Pride’s Trans Policy Clearinghouse. But for classroom interactions and interpersonal relationships, each experience differs. Transgender individuals are still being misgendered often, Hannahs said.
“You can change a policy or a law, but changing the behaviors, hearts and minds of people in creating inclusion is the difficult part,” Windmeyer said. “That takes having trans voices heard.”
Hannahs wants people to understand that calling someone by their name is important, but urges a deeper understanding of the social construction of gender.
“Having a penis doesn’t have to equal boy and having a vagina doesn’t have to equal girl,” Hannahs said. “People have to understand that crux to really understand the trans experience.”