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Trans* forming SAIC

How a Big Push from its Trans* Community Could Make SAIC a Leader among Art Schools


How a Big Push from its Trans* Community Could Make SAIC a Leader among Art Schools

Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris

Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris

Nationwide, trans* (a neologism that includes a range of gender-identities that do not conform with those assigned at birth) students at universities may be at the forefront of a civil rights movement. Students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) have been active in pressuring the school’s administration to make changes, and one result is that the school has been in talks with the Lurie Children’s Hospital and other organizations about the services SAIC students may need.

Last year pediatrician Dr. Robert Garofalo founded the Gender and Sex Development Program at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital. Just down the street from SAIC, it is one of only a few centers like it in the country offering medical and counseling services to youth and adolescents up to age 21 who have “gender-nonconforming behavior or who are gender-questioning and transgender,” according to the program’s website.

SAIC’s Joseph Behen, Executive Director of Counseling, Health and Rehabilitative Services at the Wellness Center, has been researching what services organizations like the Lurie can offer and paying attention to what trans* students at SAIC may need. But there are many ways that both the cultures and the bureaucracies of institutions like SAIC need to change in order to respect the rights of a population whose members are more and more likely to ask for those changes. The American Psychological Association recognizes that “in recent years, transgender people have increasingly been willing to identify themselves openly. Public awareness of transgender issues has increased dramatically, in part because of an increasing number of books, motion pictures and television programs featuring transgender characters and addressing transgender issues.”

One step student activists at SAIC took in 2013 was to request gender-neutral bathrooms on campus. The school now has 16, according to its website; however, all are single-occupancy, rather than multi-person bathrooms designated for use by anyone, regardless of gender. In November, 2013 trans* activist students, with the help of the school’s Multicultural Affairs office, made an attempt to call for policy changes at the school with a panel discussion including several trans* students and faculty. Trans* students, both on the panel and in the audience, asked for more diversity training for students, faculty and staff for trans*-specific support from the administration and for the school’s health plan to cover hormone therapy, transition surgery and counseling for trans* students. Behen assured those at the panel discussion that the school would do everything in its power to create a safe and inclusive environment on campus for trans* students. He has since met with Dr. Garofalo and with the TransLife Project at the Chicago House, a non-profit support program for trans* people. So far Wellness Center staff have received TransLife’s training sessions Trans 101 and Clinical Implications of Working With Trans Students: a 101 For Health and Wellness Providers.

Behen says he plans to “advocate for coverage for hormone therapy and gender reassignment/confirmation surgeries within the SAIC-sponsored student accident and sickness insurance plan during the upcoming annual renewal process,” a change sorely needed by at least some trans* students at SAIC. Natalia Nicholson (MFA Performance 2014), who was part of the panel discussion last year, has been diagnosed with clinical depression related to her inability to gain access to gender confirmation surgery. She is calling for just such changes in the school’s insurance policy, in order to cover the cost of that surgery.

SAIC has a larger number of trans* students than many other schools. The National College Health Assessment, a 2013 study by the American College Health Association (ACHA), which included 153 US campuses and 123,078 students, found the rate of students who identify as trans* across those campuses was 0.2 percent. SAIC’s rate was 1.5 percent, or around 50 students and seven and a half times the national rate.

Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris.

Illustration by Meghan Ryan Morris.

SAIC, if it were to offer hormone therapy, surgery and counseling services through its student insurance policy, it would be the first art school in the country to offer all of these, says Behen. The ACHA notes that 37 colleges nationwide, including UCLA, Ithaca College, Princeton and Yale already do so. Campus Pride, a national nonprofit that advocates for LGBT students, compiled an index in 2012 of the top 10 US colleges and universities that have demonstrated a commitment to trans* students. It lists schools that have added gender identity or gender expression to their non-discrimination policies and offer, according to an article on “gender-inclusive bathrooms, locker rooms, and housing options; providing a means for trans students who have not legally changed their names or had gender confirmation surgeries to use a preferred name and to change the gender on campus records and documents; recognizing trans identities on campus forms; and covering hormones and surgeries for transitioning students as part of student health insurance.”

Though Nicholson says she is happy that SAIC is now attempting to address the concerns of its trans* students, she says it concerns her that they were not addressed sooner. She considers it “negligence for any institution to be unaware of trans* needs, just as it would be if it were unaware of the needs of women and ethnicities.” And she is not alone. Trans* sophomore Florian Palucci pointed out that the conversation at the trans* discussion panel centered on a lack of awareness of trans* issues on the part of the school’s administration.

Still, trans* sophomore Duff Norris acknowledges that “the people in a position to make changes get it, but it’s difficult to get all of the pieces together and the different departments to work together.” Norris’ overall experience as a trans* student, they say (using the correct pronouns to refer to trans* people is an important part of respecting a trans* person’s identity), has been a mixed bag. “I was told before coming to school a year and a half ago that the administration was aware of these issues and that they were trying to get policy changes implemented, but why has it been so hard to get my name correct?”

Norris is referring to documents like their student ID and school email address. While checking out equipment from a lab on campus, their name in the school’s computer system did not match that on their student ID. “The security guards didn’t know what to do, and they were asking me a bunch of questions — and laughing, which means they need diversity training,” says Norris. Being “outed” or “mis-gendered” when someone refers to a trans* person using pronouns inconsistent with the gender with which the person identifies is “extremely dehumanizing,” says Nicholson. Measures like making trans* sensitivity training available to students, faculty and staff, she says, would be a step in the right direction.

Sophomore Florian Palucci agrees that gender sensitivity is essential for faculty and staff among student bodies that include trans* students, because they are in positions of authority and have some measure of control over the general attitude of a classroom and the school. It would be nice, he says, if trans* students “didn’t always have to be the educators.” He advocates for the school to have a dedicated office or staff person for all genders and sexualities. “We pay so much for school; we should be getting more services like that.”

“Rashayla [Marie Brown, Assistant Director of Multi-cultural Affairs] and Patrick Spence [Assistant Dean of Student Affairs] have been super helpful and incredible assets,” Norris says, but simple policies to help trans* students avoid these struggles and systems to support trans* students are what is really needed. “The time I spend advocating for myself distracts me from school work and from the rest of my life. If you acknowledge that these problems can cause significant emotional and mental stress, it’s not acceptable for it to be this difficult.” Norris expressed a desire to move forward in developing support for trans* students through a meeting with SAIC President Walter Massey and others who make policy at the school, rather than “the usual suspects.”

Palucci says students should not have to fight an institution for changes it should already be making, but acknowledges that since institutions simply “don’t work that way, it is imperative that students fight their administrations to change policies that are negligent and unfair.” Behen says the school may not have known about trans* students’ concerns without activists among the student body bringing them to light. Since they have, students like Nicholson feel it is their responsibility to keep pressuring the school for change. “I don’t think they can do it on their own,” says Nicholson. “I think student activism is a necessary component.”

Whether medical care, advocacy or activism, work is being done by all parties involved to help make schools like SAIC more inclusive and safe places for trans* students and for all students. The question is whether enough is being done at the moment and what the best ways are for institutions like SAIC to catch up to the needs of trans* students. Even Garofalo, a national expert on gender and sexuality, admits “We’re still figuring out where we need to go.”

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