Let’s say you walk into Yale University Health Services tomorrow to, say, complain of a tummy ache. The cheerful receptionist, before making you wait for approximately six hours, asks you to fill out a form on which you are asked to describe your “gender identity history.” It’s not happening here, but at Wesleyan, that’s the everyday reality at what I am assuming, based on Yale experience, is a delightfully lovely student clinic. At that school, and several others around the country, transgender issues are forcing schools to reexamine policies — policies that are utterly taken for granted — that understand gender as an entirely binary system.
If you haven’t heard about transgender issues around here, you’re likely not alone. Transgender people, I might explain, are those who feel uncomfortable with the gender of their birth, or who fall outside of standard definitions of gender and sex — i.e., male and female. The upcoming Trans Issues Week at Yale (March 29-April 2) may do something to remedy the situation. The announced purpose of the event, sponsored by the Yale Women’s Center and the Larry Kramer Initiative, is to “[increase] awareness of transsexuality and its relationship with feminism.” The more theoretical aspects of the events may, at this point, be far beyond what the average Yalie needs to understand to grasp the importance of dealing with such issues. On the other hand, I am beyond thrilled to see such an event taking place at Yale.
As it is, transgender issues are pretty much as nonexistent at Yale as they can possibly get. Perhaps even more strange — and disconcerting, especially at a University that prides itself on its accepting attitude — is that other schools are light years ahead of Yale in their approach to transgender issues. A recent New York Times article by Fred Bernstein identified, among several others, Brown, Smith and Wesleyan as schools having visible transgender populations, and visible responses to their demands.
I will concede that, given the opposition to moves for gay rights, and, across the country, court cases involving challenges to marriages in which one partner is transsexual, it is perhaps not surprising — or unwelcome — to some members of the Yale community that such issues are broadly ignored here. Such an attitude is beyond careless. It is Yale’s responsibility, however, to establish forward-looking policy, not hasty responses to being far behind the trendsetters.
What do we need at Yale right now? Do we need hallways that would allow students to live without identifying their gender? Should Yale be overly sensitive to potential students’ needs? Frankly, I think the idea of describing my gender identity history on a health form is ridiculous. As a professor of mine recently commented, that would be like YUHS suddenly deciding to do pap smears on everyone (of course, I wouldn’t put it past them given the frequency with which they test for pregnancy). But the political correctness of it all betrays an understanding of the problem that some Wesleyan students might face. At least a third checkbox on, say, Yale applications, could be advisable.
One of the Wesleyan students mentioned in The Times article said that Harvard, when he visited there and asked about transgender issues, “sent [him] from office to office, not knowing how to react.” Given the silence about such issues at Yale — not to mention Yale’s stunning bureaucracy — I can’t imagine that student would have gotten a better welcome here. To exploit some rivalry for a cause, I can’t believe Yale would want to be associated with Harvard on this issue.
Wesleyan has several dozen gender-queer people in a student population of 2,700. The transgender population at Yale is certainly much smaller. Trans-friendly policies are likely partially responsible. But those students who went to Wesleyan before these new policies developed clearly felt more welcome there to begin with. And the policies Wesleyan has since initiated only served to make the campus more inviting, in the way that gay-friendly policies made certain campuses more welcoming 10 or 15 years ago.
Frankly, there is nothing in Yale literature that, beyond including “sexual orientation” in the nondiscrimination policy, specifically addresses the question of accommodation for gay individuals at Yale. This was made crudely apparent last year when the University failed to respond to student requests for co-ed housing for those who wanted (or needed) it. I can’t even begin to imagine what would happen to, say, a Yale student born female who began receiving hormonal treatment and had surgery to become a male over the summer. What would University policy require as a housing situation (Yale does, after all, guarantee housing all four years)?
Some people might argue that this silence — that is, the lack of specifically transgender activism at Yale — means that the University does not have to develop any policies relating to transgender people, that it doesn’t need them. We think of Yale as being a place where culture happens, but recently, Yale’s modus operandi has been to wait for a group to demand something before anything is done about it. I don’t think that Yale would, as an institution, discriminate against any transgender student. I do believe, however, that in American society today, transgender students require an obviously open and warm atmosphere, and that a lot could be done to make Yale’s extended welcome more apparent. Hopefully, events like Trans Issues Week will force the administration to take notice. But ultimately, this is not just about transgender issues. This is about any group that is marginalized in wider society that is struggling to gain acceptance and accommodation. As a cultural center of America, Yale has a duty to take facilitating steps without being prodded. This is a time to be proactive, not reactive — or as it stands now — inactive.
Jessamyn Blau is a junior in Morse College. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.