Transgender students want change

By Alexandra Kukulka

It’s the first day of the semester and the instructor begins to read the attendance sheet, searching the crowd for students after each name. Suddenly, a young man turns red and shifts in his seat, palms sweating and heart pounding as his name is called and a personal secret is revealed.

This is a reality for trangender students at Columbia, as the college does not acknowledge their preferred names on official documents. According to Cameron Spiegel, a transgender male, junior film & video major and president of Common Ground, Columbia’s LGBTQA student organization, the college has limited transgender-inclusive bathrooms on campus and is unaccommodating of housing arrangements. He said he has been working to improve conditions for transgender students since his sophomore year.

“I am not willing to sit back and let this be what it is going to be,” Spiegel said. “I need to fix this while I am here. [If] I am going to be here for four years, I should make this school be accommodating to not just me but other students.”

Spiegel said there is an unidentified number of transgender students on campus, but that he receives numerous emails from incoming transgender students asking about campus policies.

Transgender students are unidentified by the college because it does not ask for extremely personal information on applications, according to Mark Kelly, vice president of Student Affairs.

“[Columbia] better understands that, like sexual orientation, the selection of gender is a far more complicated issue and that someone in the end gets to pick their gender,” Kelly said. “[Columbia] totally supports that.”

Spiegel said he has been trying to implement policies that allow transgender students to use their preferred name on OASIS, Moodle, campus ID cards and U-Passes without having to legally change their names, which can be a lengthy and expensive process. When a transgender student sees his or her legal name after transitioning, it triggers complicated emotions, he added.

“It is mentally unhealthy for them to have to see [their legal name],” he said.

Spiegel said one of his recent successes was revising the applications for king and queen of the Blood Ball, an annual celebration honoring Mary Ann Blood, who co-founded Columbia in 1890. The previous electronic application took student information from OASIS to identify the candidates, which would discourage transgender students from running, he said. This year, Common Ground was able to change the application so students can fill in their preferred name.

“[Common Ground] is able to say, ‘Look, we changed this form. You can’t say as an administration that we can’t change these things because we just did,’” Spiegel said. “It is possible.”

Convincing the school to change its policies is difficult because administrators shuffle students’ requests around, Spiegel said. However, he said he has been meeting with Joy Conway, coordinator of LGBTQ Office of Culture and Community, and Bill Friedman, assistant dean of Student Development, to compile a list of the four buildings that have gender inclusive bathrooms on campus in an effort to raise awareness.

“There are so many students who can’t use the restroom because they feel so uncomfortable going to [a gender marked] restroom … which is known to be a major health concern in the [transgender] community,”

Spiegel said.

Transgender students also have minimal on-campus housing accommodations, he said.

However, he said he has not yet begun on this issue because some concerns are easier to address, such as changing policies on preferred names.

Conway said she meets with transgender students to talk about how to change and implement policies so that they don’t have to experience mental and emotional triggers on campus.

“These [issues] can be constant reminders, even if they seem minor to some folks,” Conway said. “To transgender folks, they are a huge part of everyday life.”

According to Colden Oleskevich, a student at Harrington College of Design who attended Columbia in 2009 and lived in the University Center, 525 S. State St., being a transgender man in the dorms was a challenge because he was forced to live with his female cousin, as the dormitory has a rule requiring all students to live with peers of the same sex.

Oleskevich said his time at Columbia was frustrating because he had to ask teachers before class to call him by his preferred name and had to use his legal name for his student email and OASIS.

“When you first meet a teacher, you are not very close with the teacher,” Oleskevich said. “For [someone] to have to come out to somebody right away, not knowing anything about the person [or] how they are going to react … is really hard.”

According to Oleskevich, Harrington is a smaller school, which made it easier for him to change his name on his ID, email and the student roster.

However, it took him a year and a half to finalize the process, he added.

Columbia is working to complete changes to its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity, Kelly said. The policy will ensure the availability of gender-inclusive bathrooms, name preferences on classroom rosters and an educational campaign to help the college community understand what it means to identify as transgender, he added.

“Does [Columbia] have to continue to work at all these things?” Kelly said. “Like everything, the answer is yes. We are not just going to assume we have it right, but we learn from this and continue it.”