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Transcendentalists aim to make campus friendly to all genders

This article was originally published on March 16, 2015.

The student group known as Transcendentalists is not a reading group, but they are trying to transcend the cisgender-normative and trans-phobic culture on campus. Formed at the beginning of this semester by members of SAGA, the Sexuality and Gender Alliance, the group aims “to improve representation of trans and non-binary people on campus,” says member Hannah Taft’17.

The organization meets Fridays at 4 p.m. in SAGA, and J Heinz’15, a founding member, facilitates. About a dozen students show up each week, and they always start by introducing themselves with name and pronoun.

Members form task forces to approach the goal from different angles. The Transcendentalists want to improve and increase the number of gender-neutral bathrooms on campus, train faculty and staff to improve how these identities are discussed in class, make the Health Center more welcoming to people of all genders, ensure all new buildings contain facilities open to all genders, such as gender-neutral locker rooms in the Powerhouse; remove students’ non-preferred legal names from internal electronic systems; and recruit more trans and non-binary applicants, among other goals.

Rather than focus on the attitudes and knowledge of students, the Transcendentalists primarily aim to create a “safe academic space,” by focusing on the administration, staff and faculty. The group  “came out of a number of people not feeling comfortable or heard in class,” Heinz says. “From there, we can move on to peers. If we don’t have the support of faculty and staff, then we can’t begin to think about students.” Heinz says. “If you have a professor who’s misgendering a student, why would you gender them correctly?”

When professors start class with roll call, they tend to use legal names, not preferred names. This puts the trans students “at risk of being outed in spaces where they may not feel safe,” explains Taft.

A better approach could be reading last names or simply letting students introduce themselves. Also, professors and classmates may not be aware of someone’s correct pronouns. And it can be “intimidating” to correct a professor, says Sarah Hodkinson’18, who works in a subcommittee on this issue.

“Just because you don’t think there’s someone trans in your class, that doesn’t mean there’s not a trans person in your class,” Heinz adds.

Heinz and Reid Caplan’16, another member, have been meeting with members of the administration to implement preferred names into the College’s administrative system. Names would be visible in places such as the email list, IDs, Portal, Moodle and Faces pages.

Another goal, adding gender-neutral bathrooms, is important for the physical and emotional well-being of everyone, not just trans and non-binary people. “Students of all genders and sexualities can feel uncomfortable in gendered bathrooms, and having a space where everyone can pee without being judged is good for safety, mental state and preventing urinary tract infections,” says Heinz. If someone doesn’t feel comfortable using a bathroom, they might wait several hours, with negative health effects.

According to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst’s queer organization, the Stonewall Center, more than 150 campuses around the U.S. have gender-neutral bathrooms.

In 2005, Beloit students lobbied for gender-neutral bathrooms to be put in place in every new building, but this was never put into effect.

Currently, the ground floor of Aldrich Hall is gender-neutral, and is the only gender-neutral space open to incoming students. All of 815 is gender-neutral, though the building is only open to older students.

The task force wants to start by implementing these bathrooms in the Library. Physical Plant is still planning and budgeting the effort, so Taft says this might not happen until next year. Stakeholders from the library are in support of the initiative, but the exact transformation is not set. Likely one (or preferably, both) of the basement-level bathrooms would be gender-neutral with signs reading “all gender.”

Another project would be providing training and informational pamphlets for individual departments and larger scale groups of faculty and staff – including admissions, Physical Plant, and faculty. The training would involve educating the campus about gender, sexuality and issues specific to trans students. They are also hoping to create mandatory educational videos, similar to the sexual assault videos first-year students view before New Student Days.

Group members hope to see concrete change by the end of the semester, and continue to work with administration to enact sustainable improvements. “I’ve realized how prepared they are to [make changes] and how much they want to listen to the voices of the students,” Heinz says.

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