College life in Philly

Are Philly’s colleges equipped for transgender and transitioning students?


It’s been 50 years since the LGBT equality movement started in Philadelphia. So Billy Penn decided to look at the transgender experience in the city today, from data to personal stories to health challenges and anti-discrimination policies. This is Trans Philly.

While nearly 1,000 colleges nationwide have adopted nondiscrimination policies that mean transgender students can’t be discriminated against on campus, trans advocates say many schools have more to do to create a welcoming environment.

From gender-neutral housing options to policies that allow students to use their preferred names and genders, schools across the country have a variety of policies in place that are intended to make trans students feel more welcome — more than 150 schools already have gender-neutral housing options, and that number is growing.

Some say it goes beyond that, though.

“We need to work to create that type of welcoming environment,” said Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s newly-confirmed physician general and a transgender woman. “It’s important for universities to have a fantastic LGBT center with activities and support, as well as medical care, offering advice about transgender medical care, and it’s important for the university health insurance to be able to pay for LGBT health care.”

Here in Philly, some of the larger schools are working to put options in place for transgender students. Temple will pilot gender-neutral housing options this fall and is working toward implementing a system so that students can be identified by a chosen name instead of a legal one.

Kimberly Chestnut, director of Temple’s Wellness Resource Center, said she’s been a member of a task force for several years that has pushed for gender-neutral housing options on Temple’s campus in order to have a more inclusive community.

The new housing option will be branded as “open housing” and will be open to all students — not just trans students — to provide flexibility in the roommate selection process. Temple also has a number of gender-neutral and one-stall bathrooms on campus, and has plans for more as the school takes on massive new renovations.

At St. Joe’s, gender-neutral housing options aren’t technically available, but school spokeswoman Patricia Allen pointed out that first-year students who identify as transgender or in transition may be offered private rooms with access to a private bathroom. Additionally, upper-class students in transition can apply to be placed in individual campus apartments.

The school will also have 15 individual restrooms in buildings around campus that are indicated as gender-inclusive by the end of this summer.

At Penn, gender-neutral housing options are available for students and the school also appears to be the only college in the city that allows transgender students to easily change their name on campus records like course rosters and directory listings. The school  also offers health insurance that covers transition-related medicine including hormones and gender reassignment surgery. Officials from Penn didn’t respond to a request for comment.

For some schools though, it’s about offering a welcoming environment for transgender students and ensuring that gender-neutral housing options always remain that: an option, not a requirement.

Daye Pope, transgender rights organizer at Equality PA, said every student is different, but that some can feel isolated in special rooms or individual dormitories. One of the best ways to accommodate trans students, she said, is for campus housing officials to meet with them and assessing their needs.

“Find out what they would prefer,” she said. “And it’s usually helpful to offer gender-neutral housing options and restrooms, and also respect if a trans women or man comes to them and says, ‘I want to live with other people of my gender, and not the sex I was assigned at birth,’ and to house them accordingly.”

Chestnut, the Temple official, said that even if all the policies they want to be in place for trans students aren’t there yet, they’re working to better implement them over the coming years.

“Even if a student trans or otherwise is reviewing Temple as an option and they might not be able to find everything they need, there are options available,” she said, “and certainly the community is open and inclusive even if all the programming isn’t officially in place.”

Want some more? Explore other College life in Philly stories.

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