In a recent edition of the Manitou Messenger, Kit Stookey ’18 wrote an article summarizing some of St. Olaf’s past gendered rules. These range from guidelines about women going out at night to smoking rules (but only for women, of course). At the end of the article, Stookey asks, “What will be the next gendered revolution in gendered rules at St. Olaf?” I agree with Stookey’s suggestion that the question is not if a revolution is coming, but when. Furthermore, as a transgender student and a Gay, Lesbian Or Whatever (GLOW) coordinator I have a few suggestions about where this institutional change would be most beneficial. There are many ways St. Olaf can change to be more accommodating to students of all genders, following precedents set by other schools similar to us.
Let us begin with the subject I am most tired of talking about, but the one that is most often in the news: housing. Residence halls are currently co-ed but each floor is separated by sex. Transgender students are able to stay on the same floor as the gender they identify, which is fantastic. The big problem here is that many students do not feel comfortable with this arrangement. Students who do not identify as men or women are forced to pick a sex to live with, which they may not want to do.
Then, there are students who are male-to-female (MTF) or female-to-male (FTM) that may align with a binary gender, but who don’t feel comfortable living on a floor designated strictly for girls or strictly for guys. (Fun fact, I am one of those transgender students.) I can tell you from personal experience that Residence Life is fantastic on a case-by-case basis at letting people live where they feel most comfortable, but there is simply no system in place for students like me. We find ourselves caught having to make a choice that we do not want to make.
In addition, self-advocacy in the form of asking Residence Life for assistance in this matter is difficult. Many of us don’t develop this skill until we are confident in our gender identities, and that may not happen until we graduate college. So why not have a simple system in place for those who do not wish to live in gendered housing? I am not asking for the entire campus housing system to be redesigned to be gender-neutral. But what’s the harm in having a floor or two available as gender-neutral housing for those who need it, and providing it as an option without having to make a special appointment with Residence Life? We all want to live in a place that we feel comfortable in. Transgender and gender non-conforming students deserve this right as much as any student, and currently the system is not working for us.
Speaking of a system that is not working for us, have you ever tried to change your name in school records? Fact: it’s difficult. When I changed mine sophomore year, I heard from somewhere that you had to email your Dean. That is what I did, and my request got re-directed three times so that the entire process took at least a week. Now I still get to see my birth name every time I log into SIS, but with the added benefit of “(Dylan)” next to it. I recognize that this is likely a difficult reform considering the fact that not all students who want name changes in the records (again, like me) have legally changed their names, but I’m sure there is a more streamlined way to do this. I would highly encourage St. Olaf to explore alternative ways of changing your name than the current system, or at the very least publicizing the current process so that every St. Olaf student knows where to go to do so.
In addition, there’s the issue of IDs. Mine currently has a very beat-up sticker with my name on it covering the old name because I’m still unclear as to whether or not I’m able to get a new ID for free if I have not legally changed my name. Now, you might say, “Dylan, this just sounds like you are too lazy to act on your own behalf.” And you know what? You would be correct. I am indeed incredibly lazy. But this brings me back to my point from earlier: it should not take special gumption to exist as a transgender student on campus. We have things to worry about other than how exactly to change our IDs, and even though issues concerning our gender are important to us it can be daunting to try and tackle them on our own.
Luckily, we are not on our own. The Gender and Sexuality Office, formed by the college upon recommendation by the Title IX Working Group in summer 2016, is doing a lot of work to advocate for students in these areas and more. Coordinator of Gender and Sexuality Sarah Joslyn is fantastic at her job and is a wonderful resource.
However, this brings me to my final suggestion. The College needs to support the office’s work more. The position of Coordinator should be a full-time job rather than part-time, which would provide more resources for hiring and training student workers and do more to publicize the amazing work the office is doing. These actions would all be on par with the policies of other colleges.
I have attended many conferences bringing together LGBTQ+ students and students interested in social change from all over the country, and it pains me to hear them talk about the institutional support they have and the training they are able to receive in these areas from their schools while knowing that we have pretty much the bare minimum in this area. The Gender and Sexuality Office as it stands is a fantastic start, but it needs more awareness and support to function at its highest capacity.
Institutional change is difficult. I understand that. I also understand that there are many factors that play into decisions involving the way the College works, and reform is not as simple as asking ourselves, “Well, why can’t we just look at Carleton and do what they’re doing?” Asking the question will not solve the problems overnight; we have our own unique culture and way of doing things. But there are ways that St. Olaf can better serve its transgender and gender non-conforming population.
To improve, perhaps we can closely examine our current systems, look at others and try to figure out ways to implement things like gender-neutral housing, a streamlined name change process and more support for the Gender and Sexuality Office. I truly believe these things will happen one day in the future, and that at that time students will look back on the days St. Olaf didn’t have these things and chuckle. Until then, it is important to keep the dialogue about gender issues on campus open and to make sure we are truly serving St. Olaf students of all genders to the best of our ability.