ULV re-evaluates gender identity

CAPA liberal studies major Aiden Aizumi is an activist for transgender issues and has spoken six times on campus in this year alone. He transferred to the University of La Verne from a community college. Aizumi made the transition from female to male five years ago. Aizumi and others on campus are spreading awareness and are involved in dialogue about whether ULV is transgender-friendly. This includes awareness, education and facilities. As a transgender person on campus he feels La Verne is doing “pretty well” with facilities, but there could be more awareness and education. / photo by Helen Arase
CAPA liberal studies major Aiden Aizumi is an activist for transgender issues and has spoken six times on campus in this year alone. He transferred to the University of La Verne from a community college. Aizumi made the transition from female to male five years ago. Aizumi and others on campus are spreading awareness and are involved in dialogue about whether ULV is transgender-friendly. This includes awareness, education and facilities. As a transgender person on campus he feels La Verne is doing “pretty well” with facilities, but there could be more awareness and education. / photo by Helen Arase

Bernarda Carranza
Staff Writer

Five years ago 25-year-old senior liberal arts major Aiden Aizumi underwent a significant transition in his life — he transitioned from female to male.

“I don’t bring it up if it’s not necessary, it’s not like this random conversation like when I introduce myself to somebody,” Aizumi said.

Growing up, Aizumi recalls being a tomboy, having short hair and “masculine qualities,” he said. But it was not until middle school that he started to feel uncomfortable and uneasy with his body.

“I hit puberty (and) suddenly things didn’t feel like they were quite right and all of a sudden my body was different than I imagined it was going to be or even felt. I just felt like ´OK, maybe you’re supposed to feel weird,’ like who feels comfortable going through puberty?” Aizumi said. “But then it never went away; my friends adjusted and grew into like these really great young women. And I was still really uncomfortable and I just didn’t embrace my body in the same way and it wasn’t in the same way that some of my friends went through like ‘Oh, I wish I was skinnier or whatever,’ it was just like my body as a whole.

“The whole thing feels weird. I don’t know what to do with it and it just got more and more uncomfortable. I just couldn’t quite get to that place of like, I love my body. Even being a woman, like to embrace that, it was just foreign to me like it didn’t make sense,” Aizumi said.

On August 15, 2012, Campus Pride, a national nonprofit organization for students and campus groups that work to build a safer college environment for LGBTQ students, along with The Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine, released an article titled, “The Top 10 Trans-Friendly Colleges and Universities.” It contained a list of colleges and universities that not only provide a safe environment for LGBT students, but have also implemented inclusive and supportive policies for trans and gender non-conforming students. Campuses such as New York University, Ithaca College and University of Pennsylvania were listed for their gender-inclusive housing options, having an active LGBT student center as well as a strong trans-awareness program.

However, these are only some of the few colleges and universities in the country that advocate for this group. According to The Advocate, only 10 percent of colleges and universities have trans-inclusive nondiscrimination statements and “research suggests that trans people face higher rates of harassment when compared to cisgender lesbian, gay, and bisexual people.”

Today, two years after the publication of the article, more college campuses have been added to the Campus Pride LGBT-Friendly list, but the trans- student population is still a minority group that is often marginalized and ignored.

Aizumi said his family, was supportive of him in the larger picture but it took some time for his parents to adjust. The first time he came out as a lesbian, his dad was supportive while his mother needed time to understand and seek resources. When he decided to undergo the gender transition process at age 20, his mom had done enough research on the matter to be supportive. But that part, took longer for his dad to accept, he said.

“This time my dad needed some time to go through his own process of mourning of losing a daughter and adjusting to that,” Aizumi said.

“Occasionally (my mother) would slip up on like my name or using the right pronouns, but that’s just out of habit. If you use one set of names and pronouns for 20 years and then you’re supposed to just switch them it’s not that easy,” he said.

Aizumi was taking one of education professor John Bartelt’s classes last fall when the topic of trans issues came up in the syllabus and he told his story. Bartelt asked Aizumi to speak in his other classes about his experience, his struggles and his gender transition. Aizumi gives an overview of his life from childhood until now. He talked about the difficult transition of coming out as a lesbian in his sophomore year of high school and the bullying he faced.

“People were kind of just mean. They would say things as I went down the halls, and it was really inappropriate stuff, like things that nobody should be saying out loud anyways,” Aizumi said. “By the end of my senior year I just didn’t want to go back to school. I didn’t go to graduation, grad night, prom, any of those things.”

Now that he has transitioned, Aizumi speaks about the changes in personality he has seen in himself. He recalls being quiet, depressed and socially withdrawn. His grades were low because he did not want to go to school and face the rejection, he said. However, he said his mother has noticed the change, he is now willing to go out and “interact with the world.

“I guess the way I see it is everything has to be in a balance and because I wasn’t in alignment or my body wasn’t in any kind of balance with my mind, everything else was in chaos too, my social life and my grades and dating,” Aizumi said. “Every other part of my world, even how I interacted with my family, wasn’t quite right, like I just really didn’t care. And then once things were kind of balanced again with myself, everything else just fell in the place too, it just sort of happened naturally and it didn’t feel like I had to force it like before.”

Aizumi now speaks in Bartelt’s classes because he believes that through his experience he can help not only students understand trans issues better, but also help educators and inform them in case a student is going through a similar process, or how to handle discrimination and bullying situations.

“I just felt like it could be potentially beneficial for other students to know (and) just hear my experience,” Aizumi said. “Even though it’s only one experience out of however many it’s still a little bit of insight and they can kind of understand if they run across another student or if they have another student of their own.”

“It’s personalizing that makes all the difference, when you know people, when you know the other you can’t distance yourself from it, or separate yourself from that person,” Bartelt said.

In addition, the University has taken steps to promote a safe and inclusive environment for every LGBT identifying student and also raise awareness among cisgender students to encourage an educated and tolerant environment.

National Transgender Discrimination Survey

Safe Zone Training and Campus Pride Survey

One step that many colleges and universities, including ULV, are taking toward becoming an LGBT-friendly campus is filling out the online Campus Pride Survey. According to the Campus Pride website, The Campus Pride Index/Survey is “a vital tool for assisting campuses in learning ways to improve their LGBT campus life and ultimately shape the educational experience to be more inclusive, welcoming and respectful of LGBT and Ally people.”

The survey covers different sections of a college campus such as facilities, housing, curriculum, student organizations, etc.

“By responding to the questions it gives us an idea of what we are doing well and what we are lacking,” said Chief Diversity and Inclusivity Officer Joy Lei.

Based on the responses, Campus Pride determines whether it is an LGBT-friendly campus by rating each section from one to five stars. They send the final report back to the college or university breaking it down into sections and providing information on what they need to improve.

ULV fills out this survey annually and has scored three out five stars in the past, Lei said. According to Lei, one of the reasons, ULV is scoring three out five is because this campus does not have an LGBT center or office.

“Certainly, one thing that you have to keep in mind that what makes it difficult about filling out this survey is that it’s one survey for everybody so you can have a UCLA, where that large of a student population it makes sense to have an LGBT student center but for us which such small student population, we don’t necessarily need a center but we need enough to adequately support our student population,” Lei said.

The Office of Multicultural Affairs as well as the Office of Diversity and Inclusivity work directly with the students and the Gay-Straight Alliance to address LGBT issues.

Additionally to filling out the Campus Pride Survey, a Safe Zone training program is given to staff, faculty and some students two to three times a year depending on the need, said Bartelt, who is a Safe Zone trainer himself. In the training, topics of gender and identity are discussed to give educators the tools to help deal and understand LGBT issues.

“There’s that beginning of building trust, building a safe place to come, to share, all those type of listening skills, active skills and then being aware of issues all are done in safe-zone training,” said Dean of Student Affairs Loretta Rahmani.

One part of the training is recreating scenarios where three people get together, two act out a role and a third person observes and gives feedback, Bartelt said. The training is for faculty, staff, resident assistants and directors in order to provide them with the tools and language to handle situations of discrimination against an LGBT member.

“At the end of the training, you don’t have to at all, but if you feel in your heart that you can be completely open and affirming we give you the option to put a sticker on your door that says Safe Zone,” Bartelt said. “It’s kind of weird because we should be a safe world, a safe campus instead of a zone. But it’s a start, at least students know where they can go and be referred.”

Gender-neutral bathrooms and housing options

Along with education and Safe Zone training on LGBT issues, the ULV has began providing the right facilities to accommodate transgender or gender non-conforming students. The colleges and universities that scored high on “The Top 10 Trans-Friendly Colleges and Universities” were the ones that had the most inclusive options when it came to housing and bathrooms.

“I think it is a combination of just general education and understanding and providing the facilities or the resources or the support system for students that actually identify that way,” Aizumi said. “Because the education part comes more for like the general student population that doesn’t identify that way, but then the facilities and other stuff goes for the students that do.”

Since 2012-2013, gender-neutral bathrooms and housing options have been implemented in ULV. There are a total of 13 single stall unisex/gender-neutral bathrooms located in different buildings on campus.

In addition, a gender-neutral housing option was launched in 2013.

“The idea was to provide an environment so that it could be an inclusive, gender-neutral environment,” said Associate Dean of Students Juan Regalado. “You didn’t have to identify as transgender or different gender but you needed to know that there was a desire to create an environment that was more of gender expression.”

The gender-neutral suite is located in Vista residence hall. Regalado said that a common misconception when people think of a gender-neutral suite is they think it is co-ed housing. However, this is not the goal, he said. The gender-neutral suite is specifically for students who seek an environment that is inclusive of any gender, Regalado said.

Students interested in applying for this suite have to fill out an application for this suite that is provided online under the housing section. Students have to answer an additional three questions explaining why they are interested in a gender-neutral housing community, information (they feel comfortable sharing) about their gender identity and how they would contribute to an open environment of gender expression and sexual orientation.

“We talked to people in UC Riverside who have been at the forefront of gender neutral housing and they let us know it wasn’t so much about having a specific building or space, but just spaces that would facilitate that inclusive environment,” Regalado said.

Regalado said they work with transgender students and counseling to try and provide a personalized accommodation for them depending on where they are in their transition process. If they are in the beginning stages of transition, the process is private.

Regalado said in the past they have engaged in continued discussions with students to accommodate their needs. If a transgender student is seeking only a private space, they can apply for a single room in Oaks, if they are seeking a private space and private bathroom the housing office can provide this to them in Brandt or Stu Han. And if they are searching for a space within a community who is supportive, they can apply for the gender-neutral suite in Vista.

“The key thing that we are learning is that just because you identify as transgender doesn’t mean that you want that environment,” he said. “If you identify as transgender and your gender transformation process has begun where you want to be is not so much in a neutral space or a space of what your gender used to be, you want to be where your gender is,” he said. The gender-neutral housing option is still in its pilot phase.

National Transgender Discrimination Survey

Taking action

Four years ago, 23 faculty, staff and Gay-Straight Alliance members had their first ever one-hour meeting to discuss LGBT issues on campus, Bartelt said. In the meeting, they came up with 12 comprehensive initiatives to be launched towards becoming a LGBT-friendly campus.

“I think the University of La Verne has always been sort of open to LGBT stuff but I think it’s been mostly in the last five years or four years when we really started to say we really have to take some action here,” Bartelt said.

Some of those initiatives were to generate a “Safe-List” printed annually in the Campus Times, to include a statement of openness in faculty’s syllabi, recognize an LGBT supportive commencement rope or sash and to identify and re-designate single-occupancy restrooms as gender-neutral, among other initiatives.

Today, four years later, most of these 12 initiatives have been met or are still in the process of launching them, said Bartelt. Starting an LGBT student scholarship has been one of them.

In an email Bartelt sent to faculty in November 2013, he states the progress ULV has made since that meeting.

“We are essentially now seeing the entire list of items in action, and have launched numerous other initiatives since then (including a Queer Theory course and a refurbished GSA) as well. Please ponder how impressive that is. …How impressive you are. And how it all began with one hour of your time and your heart. Wow,” Bartelt said in the email.

For senior psychology and kinesiology major and president of Gay-Straight Alliance, Andres Avila, the changes in the past years have also been evident. He recalls activist John Corvino speaking at ULV in 2010 about stigmas in religion about homosexuality.

“Once he actually spoke I saw the changes happen within the campus, it was more LGBT friendly, more open about homosexuality,” Avila said.

Despite the steps taken towards creating a safe and inclusive environment on campus for LGBT students, Lei said students have not been addressing more issues and raising awareness as much.

“It’s been very quiet, in terms of voices that have been letting us know what the needs are, what the experience has been at La Verne,” Lei said.

Lei is currently doing a Campus Climate Survey for students specifically about diversity and inclusivity.

“I would love to say that it has been perfect and ideal and great but I think the reality is that it hasn’t always been perfect, ideal or great and I think part of it is the awareness of being a gender inclusive environment,” Regalado said. “In terms of being a sexual orientation inclusive environment we still have places to go and some of that is based on where the students are and what is going to make them feel most comfortable.”

Steps towards becoming a trans-inclusive campus

As The Advocate expressed in its article, there are a few campuses across the nation that have trans-inclusive policies and statements. This group is often not taken into account because they are a minority, Aizumi said.

“I think sometimes people think well, ‘It’s such a small population, why do we have to include it (trans-inclusive policies)’ and really in a campus like this it’s probably just a handful of students. And they’re probably thinking, ‘But why?’” Aizumi said. “But it’s still important because there are going to be other students that come down the road and it’s not to say that at some point they’ll be the majority but you still have to protect all your students.”

There are steps that colleges and universities can implement towards becoming trans-friendly. Providing the facilities for this group is necessary but raising awareness and education goes hand-in-hand.

“Building a room or having a sort of space can only go so far but it is really changing the ethos of the people and the attitude of the people that make an environment welcoming,” said adjunct professor of philosophy and religion Tracy Hawkins.

According to Hawkins, one solution would be is if students had more control over how their name appears in school related purposes.

“A lot of times on like official documents the school publishes people’s legal names but if they have transitioned recently or something, their name may not match their gender identity anymore and to have their legal name published seems really problematic,” Hawkins said. “For someone who is transgender their birth name may be not at all what they identify with.”

ULV has already implemented this solution.

“One thing that we did and made sure that it happened was the option on the faculty member’s role sheet to be able to have a place to put in your preferred name,” Lei said. “So, for a transgender student who (is listed) by their given name they can also put in their preferred name so that when their teacher’s call roll they don’t call them by their given name which may not match their gender identity.”

Raising awareness on the trans community and talking about these issues is important to ease the transition process for someone who identifies with this gender identity.

“If somebody had told me when I was younger or given me information I would have been able to say how I was feeling sooner but it wasn’t something people talked about, you didn’t even hear at that point in TV or in any sort of media,” Aizumi said.

Another solution is to include a mandatory class on sexuality and gender that discusses issues of gender identity and expression.

“I think one thing sort of in general about college campuses is that, it seems to me that if we are going to be a liberal arts college and we are going to assume that people graduate from here with like a broad knowledge of the world and how to participate in it, then a class on issues of gender, race, class, sexuality should be something that every student needs to take,” Hawkins said.

One of the issues Hawkins and Regalado discussed, was that people who are trans fully identify with their new gender identity and it is often difficult for them to be public about their transition.

A third step or solution is to for all students to be educated on the issue and advocate for the potential trans student in their community, circle or group.

“In some ways when you are being a trans-ally you are being an ally for the invisible person, because you don’t know who is trans in your community,” Hawkins said.

“But with trans issues, if people don’t want to identify as having transitioned, then it’s going to be hard to have their voices heard about any sort harm that they are experiencing. So I think to be a really trans-friendly community it takes cisgender people educating themselves and then being sensitive enough to address issues sort of on behalf of the hypothetical trans person that may be in the classroom with them but that they don’t know is there,” Hawkins said.

A possible step for ULV to become more trans-friendly discussed by Hawkins is for fraternities and sororities to get involved in the issue. To raise awareness, bring speakers and make it known preemptively to every student that even though their organization is gender segregated they accept students who have transitioned, she said.

“I feel like maybe this fraternity/sorority thing is a place where since it’s already gender segregated it gives the appearance of being trans-exclusive, so if it were explicitly made to be inclusive, I think that would go far to change the ethos of the student body,” Hawkins said.

ULV has taken many steps towards building a safe and tolerant environment for LGBT students on campus. However, all faculty and students interviewed agreed that more can be done to raise awareness on the trans community. This is an issue not only at ULV, but nationally and worldwide. According to The Advocate’s article, trans students are “three times more likely to fear for their physical safety on campus.”

A combination of education, awareness and building facilities to accommodate trans or gender non-confirming students is necessary towards creating an inclusive environment that supports every student, regardless of their gender identity.

“You have to start by widening the door of inclusion it gets wider and wider and it’s sort of one of the last frontiers of things that people just feel are out of their heteronormative perspective,” Bartelt said.

It is not only the responsibility of faculty, staff and the college/university to build a safe environment, but students can also educate themselves and advocate for minority groups to create openness and support.

Aizumi said, “I could probably tolerate a professor that didn’t know because I’m not there to be in my class to be out, I’m there to do math or whatever but it’s the students that I have to interact with on a day-to-day basis that like to me should have the information or at least be aware. I’m not saying anybody has to agree or disagree but just that they are aware and understand.”

Bernarda Carranza can be reached at bernarda.carranza@laverne.edu.

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