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Transgender students push change on college campuses

Aria Carpenter (right), a transgender woman, and her boyfriend, Devon Keeley, a transgender man, who are both seniors at Lesley.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — At first, Jake Hammel was relieved when his Lesley University art history professor let students introduce themselves on the first day of class, rather than calling the roll. But then she stopped him, and asked why his name didn’t match the one on her roster.

The reason: Hammel is transgender, and goes by a different name — and gender — than he was assigned at birth. But the school requires his original, female name to be listed on the class roster.

“I think that transgender issues are something that Lesley doesn’t want to deal with yet, and I’m a little confused to why,” Hammel said.


Transgender men and women are the latest group of students to cause a wave of social change on college campuses nationwide. Many feel discriminated against on issues as basic as where they may live, what name they are called, and where they feel comfortable using the bathroom, and they’ve begun asking college administrators to make fundamental shifts in campus policies.

Some schools seem to have made adjustments without much fanfare. The student insurance plans at 86 schools nationwide, including Harvard, Northeastern, and Tufts, cover hormones and gender-reassignment surgeries for students. But students at other schools, such as Lesley, feel they must constantly crusade to be treated fairly.

Hammel is part of a growing coalition of transgender students at the Cambridge art and teaching college who say they have felt stymied by the administration when they have asked to use a name other than the one on their birth certificate, on their student ID or e-mail address, and on official class rosters, so teachers will know what to call them.

Lesley Dean Nathaniel Mays acknowledged the school isn’t where it should be. He said administrators are looking for ways to solve housing and name issues.


“It is a work in progress. I don’t want to say that we have perfected this. We are learning from our students,” said Mays, who oversees student life and academic development.

Other colleges in Boston have already made these types of changes. The Massachusetts College of Art and Design, for instance, allows students to choose the name on their student IDs, and choose roommates based on their gender identities, rather than the sex they were assigned at birth.

Boston University’s medical school has gone further. It has not only found ways to encourage transgender and other
LGBTQ students to apply and make them feel comfortable on campus, it has also incorporated transgender medical issues into its curriculum.

At the BU medical school, the shift to incorporate LGBTQ issues into the curriculum was controversial at first, but the school is now considered a pioneer.

“I think people always imagine the reaction is going to be stronger than it is,” said Douglas Hughes, the school’s associate dean for academic affairs.

Leading the charge at Lesley is Aria Carpenter, a transgender woman who got involved a few years ago after she learned about a transgender man whom the school would not allow to room with another man. Until recently, the school only allowed people of the same sex assigned at birth to room together, but the dean said it now allows students of the same gender identity to select each other as roommates.

Carpenter started an online forum for transgender students to talk about issues they face, and the group blossomed. She has met with the dean several times but said she has seen little systemic change as a result.


Students are still frustrated that they are required to use their legal name on their school ID and e-mail address, and would like more gender-neutral bathrooms on campus.

“We’re just trying to exist as students,” Carpenter said. “And it’s not like we’re looking for special treatment; we’re looking to not be discriminated against based on who we are, and we’re looking to be respected.”

Mays, the dean, said the school is looking for a way for their computer database to add students’ preferred names and a way for students to indicate on school paperwork which pronouns they use.

Students said they still feel like administrators lack a basic understanding about what is important to transgender students. Last year at orientation students and staff wore pins to indicate which pronouns they use. The dean wore all three: he, she, and they (a plural pronoun that some people use in the singular as a gender-neutral option).

The dean said he hoped to show that he represents students of all genders. To some transgender students, however, it seemed the dean — by wearing all three — was making light of something they take very seriously.

“It’s utterly belittling,” said Devon Keeley, a transgender student who is an orientation leader.

For people unfamiliar with transgender issues, the vocabulary can seem unusual at first. Not all transgender people can afford to legally change their names or undergo hormone replacement therapy but many, after they have transitioned, use a new name and refer to their old name as their “dead name.” To misgender a person — to refer to them by an incorrect pronoun — can be extremely hurtful. Transgender students at Lesley said they tire of having people ask them to explain transgender terms to them; they believe people should educate themselves.


“If you are saying you’re too old to understand transgender identities, if you’re too old to educate yourself about transgender identities, then you shouldn’t be working in education,” Carpenter said.

The colleges that have altered their policies regarding gender identity have done so largely at the prompting of students.

At the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, much of the credit goes to Alex Nally, a student who identifies as genderqueer, which means one’s gender falls outside the categories of man or woman.

The school now allows students to use a preferred name on their ID and diploma. There are 29 gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, and students may room with people based on their gender identity, not the sex they were assigned at birth.

At BU Medical School, new thinking about transgender issues emerged largely because of one pioneering professor and a student who transitioned very publicly during medical school.

Medical students now learn not only how to treat transgender patients with respect, but also about the hormone regimes for people who undergo hormone intervention and gender reassignment surgery, which has come to be known as gender affirmation surgery.


Colleges have increasingly recognized that staff and professors, and other students, need outside help to understand what is most important to make transgender students feel accepted.

Mason Dunn, executive director of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, said his group has conducted more training sessions for colleges in Massachusetts.

They also help schools write policies on topics including name changes and housing, and brief them on nondiscrimination laws like the one passed in Massachusetts in 2016 that allows people to use restrooms that match their gender identity and protects transgender people from discrimination in public places like restaurants, malls, and libraries.

It is significant, Dunn said, that colleges have begun to talk about transgender rights, but that’s only part of the problem.

“Even if they make all of their policies the most inclusive, if they have housing opportunities, ability to change name, gender markers, it means the campus is safer but students don’t just exist on campus,” Dunn said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.