Living Trans* at RIT: Hidden Issues for a Hidden Group

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“My body- and its difference from normative ‘maleness’ gets in my way at nearly every juncture: dating, talking about my history, doing things I enjoy, going to the restroom, choosing clothes- the list goes on. These are all mundane, day-to-day things; as a transperson, virtually every moment of my waking life is colored by the realities and structure of my body,” Tristan Wright writes on his blog because sometime fish have wings.

Wright is a member of a well-hidden community within the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York. He and many others identify as trans*, a label that adds a layer of complexity to anything and everything. A lack of understanding has lead to discrimination, humiliation and even violence towards trans* individuals in other communities. Despite the safety and acceptance at RIT’s campus, many still choose to hide themselves for their own safety.

Gender Identity

The term trans* (with the silent asterisk) encompasses everyone who does not fit the sex or gender identities given to them at birth. This includes cross dressers, androgynous individuals and people undergoing a change of their gender or sex. The affects of one’s presented gender is normally not felt until they attempt to go outside of the expected boundaries.

Legal sex is one of the biggest hurdles that trans* people face. A child, once born, is labeled male or female by their genitals; the child is assumed cis and the information is recorded on the birth certificate. In the United States, this mark of sex is sent with other information to the Social Security Administration, school districts, insurance, the Internal Revenue Service, etc. The legal sex is connected to the person’s legal name, which is normally never changed unless a woman gets married (men taking the wife’s name causes legal issues). A name change can be done with a court hearing and a few hundred dollars, but a legal sex change can be trickier.


Image: Requirements for altering birth certificate sex in the US.
Purple: Sex on birth certificate altered upon request
Grey: Altering sex on birth certificate requires court order
Light blue: Altering sex on birth certificate requires sex reassignment surgery
Navy: Altering sex on birth certificate requires both SRS and legal name change
Red: State does not alter sex on birth certificates for transsexuals
Source: Wikimedia commons

Most states require a court order in order to change a birth certificate, with many also requiring sex reassignment surgeries (SRS) as well. 3 states currently bar altering of the birth certificate. SRS costs thousands of dollars, which is not always covered by insurance, along with lengthy psychological evaluations and medical loopholes for a trans* person to traverse.

This means that most trans* students at RIT are legally their birth sex and have their legal name. Legal names are required on documents, as Financial Aid keeps in contact with the IRS. This means that legal names are listed on student IDs, on professors’ class lists and as display names in RIT’s email system.

Val Pizzo, president of RIT’s trans* club Tangent, had issues with this. With short hair and a rugby shirt, he easily presented as male, but the second-year student still has his legal female name and sex. During his required freshman discovery class, the professor set up an activity that split up students by gender; she planned it before meeting the group and used the sex markers attached to the student’s names on her class list. On the first day, Pizzo was asked why a male-looking student had a female marker on the sheet. Pizzo laughed it off and told the professor that it was a mistake, though he knew it was because his legal sex and presented gender didn’t match.

The professor seemed understanding, but throughout the quarter she kept referring to Pizzo by his female name and used female pronouns for him. Pizzo eventually pulled her aside and explained his situation, though the professor kept using the female pronouns and identity. He wasn’t too bothered by it, but he knows that’s not always the case. “For other people, especially in smaller classes, it can be an ordeal.”

Class lists are built using MyCourses, a software suite that RIT utilizes to allow a class to communicate within and share information and files. The data for students is pulled from the main data banks, though an individual’s information can be altered by asking the right people, Pizzo found out. The student ID can be changed to only have a last name, though the student’s picture is still necessary. The email display name can also be changed by speaking to IT services. Pizzo and other trans* group leaders note that none of this information is easily available.

Living Trans* on Campus

All freshmen coming straight out of high school must live in the RIT dorms as long as their parental or guardian home is more than 30 miles away from campus for their entire first year. Students are allowed to pick which dorm and roommate they have as long as the other person is of the same legal sex as them. For trans* students, this presents a thorny issue: Do they live with a person they have no idea about how they feel on trans* people? Do they come out to every potential roommate? Or do they hide their identity and try to pass as their unwanted gender when they’re in their room?

There’s an option available especially for trans* students. An incoming student fills out a form, including a short essay on what the student needs in order to be comfortable in housing. This allows RIT Housing to match students with understanding roommates. If there’s no match, the student will be placed in a single room instead, which costs an additional $1,200 per year.

Shaemus Spencer used this option to find a roommate, where he was roomed with another female-to-male trans* student. He originally wanted to live in Special Interest Housing, where a fraternity-like club lives all in one floor of a dorm. Neither Art House nor the House of General Science House had a member who would be a suitable match for him, so Spencer lived on a normal co-ed floor. The only people who knew of his trans* status were his roommate and the floor’s residential advisor.

Spencer was able to use the male restroom on his floor without any issue, though there was also a unisex/disability compliant bathroom on the floor. Trans* individuals have issues with public bathrooms, as it can cause them to be forcibly out their identity. As Wright wrote “The ability to easily go to the bathroom is widely undervalued. If I have to pee, I have to hope there’s an available stall in the nearest bathroom. If there isn’t (which usually happens when I’m at a large meeting or other event and we’re on a restroom break) I find myself going on a little voyage in search of one, awkwardly walking in to the restroom, looking for feet in the stall, and hoping that no-one is thinking too hard about what I’m up to. Then, of course, I wonder if my bathroom-mates are paying attention to my “business”, if they notice the sound of me peeing with my feet facing the “wrong” direction. Can they tell I’m sitting down to pee? Do they wonder why?”

Trans* people being harassed for using public restrooms is a well documented phenomenon, so many elect to use gender-neutral bathrooms at their homes or in public. The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) currently requires at least one compliant bathroom per building, which sometimes can be a unisex bathroom. The oldest parts of the campus were constructed in 1964, before ADA bathroom compliance was in effect.

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This means that older buildings have few, if any, “safe” bathrooms for trans* students. The art college is based in two connected buildings (7A and 7B or Gannett and Booth) that are each four floors tall with a basement; there is only one ADA unisex bathroom between them. Newer buildings tend to have at least one, though anything built past January 2010 do not have this information publically available.

All dorms, despite some being built in the ‘60s, have at least one unisex bathroom per floor, allowing all trans* students to have a safe space. After freshmen year, students can live wherever they wish, with on-campus apartments and suites having the usual non-gendered bathrooms most people have in their own homes. Students can also have anyone they wish as roommates past their first year as well.

The Field House hosts a large gym, pool, athletic courts and hosts most of RIT’s wellness courses, a required part of graduation sans doctor’s note. There are gendered locker rooms, another known place for trans* people to face harassment. Normally the locker room has to be passed through to reach the pool, though there is a more circuitous way to get there; most trans* people are not comfortable enough to wear swimwear in public so this has not been a vocalized issue. The Field House does have two unisex bathrooms in the basement that could be used for changing, though they are out of the way and do not offer a safe place to store items or to shower.

An odd issue facing trans* students on campus is the mail system. Students living outside of the dorms have mailboxes that are used by everyone in a unit, so the name is not taken into account. Students living in the dorms have mailboxes that are handled by the student post office for the eastern half of campus. Letters, postcards and mail small enough to fit into a mailbox are sorted by name, so if a person’s non-legal name is used, the post office will cross it out and add the legal name instead. This happens as well for packages that need to be picked up; eastern on-campus apartment students face this issue as well.

The western half of campus has its own post office, and it does not have this issue. When students sign up for their mail key at the beginning of the year, they fill out a form that includes their name and what other names they might receive mail as. This allows trans* students to receive mail without it being tampered. The eastern post office sign up is automatic, as any keys or info is taken from Housing.


The first major step that brought the RIT trans* community to the spotlight was more of a stumble. The student-run weekly magazine, The Reporter, wanted to write a feature piece on trans* people on campus. The February 4 issue featured a female-looking body on all 6,000 covers to match the main feature piece “Infinite Circles: RIT’s Transgender Community.” The piece focused on two students, Melissa Maron and Tristan Wright, who was a first year at the time.

In the article, the only issues brought up were name changes on school documents and the “slightly…irritating” lack of safe bathrooms. The piece spoke about how Maron founded Tangent, the only trans*-specific student group, but shows an unflattering picture of her taken in profile, making her masculine facial features and prominent Adam’s apple obvious signs that she is male-to-female trans*.

“That was one of the worst issues ever that I was in charge of,” Mady Villavicencio said. As the editor-in-chief of The Reporter, Villavicencio was responsible for all final content, including imagery, within the magazine. The public comments on the piece note how “Infinite Circles” is redundant, which the magazine received flak about, but the GLBT community brought to her attention that the piece had multiple issues to it.

By focusing on only two people, “Infinite Circles” was only able to focus on a very small slice of “transgender” life. Language used was unclear or not defined or was used improperly. “There is a lot of disagreement within the GLBT community about definitions and beliefs,” Villavicencio noted. “I ran [the [piece] across as many of the GLBT Center friends and alums as possible.” Due to the lack of time and other pieces requiring attention, she had to hope that the trans* students interviewed were able to “speak for themselves.”

Villavicencio looks back and notes that because she spent time with GLBT people that she was already aware of issues and terminology and didn’t think of including them. The writer, Michelle Spoto, and section editor, Alex Rogala, had issues because they didn’t have this background knowledge, Villavicencio said.

The piece also ran several weeks after a user-submitted blurb offended the trans* community, so they were already wary of The Reporter, “so that might have tainted the perception of the piece.” The pictures were taken at the last minute, with Joi Ong having to create portraits at the last-minute. “Honestly, if I were to do it again, I would have waited to publish.”

Villavicencio spoke throughout the writing of the piece with Christopher Henry Hinsely, a transman who is now the GLBT Center Coordinator and staff advisor for Tangent.

“Since they’re marginalized, they really need a safe space,” Hinsely said. This need of a safe-space is what led Maron to create Tangent, which is now lead by Pizzo. The group has club status, allowing it to reserve rooms and to access funding, but it is not open to everyone, causing it to break RIT club rules. This disobedience is due to the nature of the club. “It isn’t very open to cis students because the mission isn’t to educate, but to help each other,” Hinsely said.

Tangent used to have only a few regular members, but now it features over 20 students who attend on a regular basis; the doors are open to trans* and questioning students from local schools who don’t have their own trans* group as well. At meetings, members support each other, share stories about their experiences and share clothes when a member decides to change how they present.

Trans* students are also welcome at ritGA, RIT’s gay alliance, as well as the GLBT center to access resources or to have a safe space. RIT’s deaf/hard-of-hearing population also has an LGBT club called Spectrum. All the GLBT-focused groups receive extra representation in Student Government thanks to the executive board OUTspoken.

Originally there was an LGBT-specific senator that would represent the large community by themselves, but there was too much work for one person. OUTspoken is currently lead by president Wright and vice-president Jillian Strobeck. Strobeck, as president-elect for next academic year, is aware of the young group’s issues.

“In the past, I feel that OUTspoken has fallen short.” She explains that with the multiple LGBT-focused groups on campus, it isn’t always clear where lines are drawn. Out of fear of “stepping on ritGA’s toes” OUTspoken has been lax, focusing instead on setting up social events for the LGBT community. Strobeck says that next year she plans to address the lack of unisex bathrooms in older buildings, though she’s not sure how the issue would be fixed.

Improving Trans* Life

“Socially it’s been great,” Spencer said of trans* life on campus. “Administratively it’s been hard.” RIT is very accepting of trans* lifestyles, students have found, but information isn’t always open. Pizzo said “When you really need this info is when you apply as a freshman.” Knowing about groups such as Tangent and OUTspoken as well as the process for getting names changed and safe housing chosen is vital to assure a safe experience for an entering student.

The RIT Health Center allows students to continue hormone therapy and to continue any psychological or psychiatric therapy they may have started, though this is also not advertised. General therapy and health resources are made known, but long wait lists make it hard to be seen in a timely manner.

Though RIT’s campus generally is supportive, there are still instances when transphobia happens. Pizzo shared that a female-to-male trans student was once friends with a girl, who one day said he was spending too much time with her and told RIT he was sexually harassing her. During the disciplinary hearing, the girl continuously misgendered the trans* student and referred to him as she. He asked her to use his preferred pronouns, as she had done so when they were friends and knew that doing otherwise hurt him. Pizzo said another trans* student was given trouble for being on an all-female floor, which made some people uncomfortable.

Faculty and staff can participate in safe-space training, where they learn about LGBT issues and how to be empathetic. People who pass the free seminar get a sticker to place on their door, denoting that they’re open to be approached. Not many take part, Strobeck said, and she plans on increasing visibility in the program.

“There will always be trans* people who will never be out,” Pizzo said. “They will always be stealth.” This is due to the world at large being transphobic, which is slowly improving.

For now, trans* students can feel safe at RIT. The university’s president Bill Destler donated $10,000 to The Northeast LGBT Conference that took place at RIT April 12-14, show his support for all members of the LGBT community both on campus and the world over.

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