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The Task at Hand: Assessing the State of Trans Life at Tufts

Campus | February 6, 2017

“Trying to get gender neutral housing last year was terrible,” said junior Ray Bernoff. “It’s fair, in that the people with the higher numbers have a better chance, but it’s not equitable since there are people with higher need for gender neutral environments.”

Securing gender-affirming housing, as Bernoff described, is just one of many structural difficulties that trans and nonbinary students at Tufts face. Much of Tufts’ infrastructure—from housing, to bathrooms, to gender markers on IDs and SIS/Trunk—relies on students’ binary genders, and often the ones they were assigned at birth.

“The majority of having any kind of safety or comfort at Tufts comes almost completely from self-advocacy and looking for resources that are not easy to find,” said Bernoff.

This, along with a general lack of visibility of trans students on campus, motivated Nino Testa to create the Transgender Support Task Force. When Testa took on the role of LGBT Center Director in 2014, he began comparing Tufts’ policies with the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals’ list of Best Practices for Supporting Transgender Students.

“I saw that we were not where we needed to be,” said Testa.

Testa began working with individual departments at Tufts, but soon realized that “coordinating formal policies and informal practices at such a large scale really meant getting people in a room together to talk about intent and impact.” In the fall semester of 2016, Testa teamed up with then Chief Diversity Officer Mark Brimhall-Vargas to form the Transgender Support Task Force.

Sophomore Mar Freeman heard about the Task Force from Testa at the end of the 2016 spring semester.

“I facilitate T-Time [a discussion group for trans students] and am really involved in other LGBT Center groups, so Nino thought I would be interested.” Freeman said that this was generally the case for all of the students—around five—who attended the Task Force meetings.

Testa confirmed that he and Brimhall-Vargas selected students based on their previous involvement in campus dialogue about transness.

“We asked students who were active leaders in the queer community, worked at the LGBT Center, and/or had written powerful, critical pieces about their experience as trans and nonbinary students in the Tufts Observer,” Testa said.

Within the structure of a task force, a large group size can sometimes be limiting. Testa worried that too large a group would make the Task Force feel “more like a town hall as opposed to a working group.” So, only a handful of active students on campus were selected to participate.

“I was surprised that he didn’t think of me,” said Bernoff, who heard about the Task Force last semester from his housemate who was invited to join. “I’ve been pretty actively trans in a somewhat political way on this campus for, like, two years…why didn’t I hear about this? And why did I hear about it from someone who maybe wasn’t supposed to tell me about it?”

Trans and nonbinary Tufts students—both those who were invited to join the Task Force and those who were not—were unclear as to whether or not the Task Force was a secret group, and whether or not they could tell their friends about it.

Sophomore Conrad Young echoed this sentiment. Young, like Bernoff, did not hear about the Task Force until last semester during a Queer Students Association meeting. She was upset about the apparent secrecy of the group.

“It’s just so counterintuitive because it’s for the good of a marginalized community at Tufts—that should be public knowledge and information.” According to Young, the selectivity of the Task Force created a “moment where there was this huge tension within the trans community at Tufts.”

Freeman agreed that although it makes sense for Testa and Brimhall-Vargas to have selected students who were already active in the LGBT Center, that approach fundamentally overlooked groups of students who “do activism work but don’t really get involved with things put on by the university.” Freeman added, “For a lot of trans individuals, T-Time and LGBT Center aren’t spaces for them to be, so they don’t get to know Nino very well, so they aren’t invited.”

Both Freeman and another Tufts undergraduate, who wished to remain anonymous, commented that the makeup of the student representatives on the Task Force was not representative of the trans population at Tufts.

“All of the students were White. That’s huge.” Freeman said, stating that this is also “pretty representative of people who attend LGBT Center events in general.”

“White trans communities differ from trans communities of color…trans people of color in this institution are working under two intersecting modes of silencing,” said Young, “and to not have any students on this task force only serves to literally further that silencing.” To Young, the job of Testa and Brimhall-Vargas was to advocate for marginalized groups on campus, and their selection of solely White trans and nonbinary students to sit on the task force further hurt the very communities they were supposed to serve.

“Even across racial locations, it’s such a small community [that is] really diverse in interests and in locations on campus, so it’s really hard to organize and come together as a trans community,” said Young.

According to Anne Moore, Program Specialist in Scholar Development, that’s the goal of the Task Force moving forward: to reach out to a larger portion of the trans population at Tufts through surveys and focus groups. Moore, along with Professor Misha Eliasziw of the Tufts Graduate School of Medicine, will be co-heading the Task Force since both Testa and Brimhall-Vargas left Tufts last semester. Moore and Freeman both see the Task Force as a mechanism to involve a larger group in trans issues at Tufts.

“We’re working with focus groups now,” said Freeman, “which is something that I’m personally assigned to in the group.” They said this is where the broader student involvement will happen—not within the Task Force itself, but rather in the structures, like focus groups, that it facilitates.

Moore said that the main goal of the Task Force is to put together a report on the state of trans life at Tufts to submit to Provost David Harris. The report will focus on three areas: bathrooms, housing, and name and gender marker change.

“I see this being ‘inside the system’ kind of work,” said Moore. “If you can have the official report on the state of trans life, that’s going to be an indicator that this is a place where the institution is interested in putting time and resources.”

Task Force will tackle issues that affect trans students on a daily basis: constructing more all-gender bathrooms, redesigning the housing system, and streamlining the process by which students can change their names and pronouns on official University documents. Additionally, Testa expressed hope that Eliasziw, who was already on the Task Force last semester, will “help ensure that the scope of the task force [doesn’t] end up being Medford-centric, as is so often the case.” Moore views these changes as “very baseline to make sure the basic day-to-day human needs of trans folk are being met on campus.” She hopes that the Task Force will have even further lasting effects.

“Beyond, in a long term way, I’m hoping that these conversations will help contribute to an overall campus climate that is more inclusive, friendlier, and welcoming.”

 

If you are interested in participating in the Task Force through surveys and focus groups, contact Anne Moore at anne.moore@tufts.edu or mar.alan.freeman@gmail.com.