By Katherine King
“I’ve personally been assaulted in a bathroom here,” a trans* student who wished to remain anonymous said. As a campus, the Kenyon community generally thinks of itself as liberal and open-minded about social issues. However, trans* issues are rarely addressed. “In general, transgender things aren’t talked about at Kenyon, so it’s hard to get a good grasp of how open and accepting [students] are,” the student said.
Gender identity, a person’s experience of their own gender, is sometimes distinct from the sex assigned to that person at birth. Trans* is an umbrella term for a variety of different gender identities including transgender, transsexual, gender-fluid and non-binary. An asterisk after the word “trans” is often used to acknowledge this variety of identities described as trans. People often use sex to refer to biological characteristics and gender to refer to societal roles and behaviors, but gender identity is distinct from sexual orientation. A trans man, for instance, might be attracted to men, women, both men and women, or all genders.
John Foley ’15, who identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronouns they/them/theirs, said, “There is a subset of the community here that is very … excited about supporting people who are gender-fluid. If you don’t find that community or if you don’t click with that community, … it could be really isolating.” Foley believes other schools, including Sarah Lawrence College, Bard College and Brown University, have cultures that are more open than Kenyon’s — although they said Kenyon’s situation is improving. “For me, because my gender identity is read outwardly as male, I realize that I benefit from traditional male privilege in a way that students who actually transition absolutely do not,” Foley said. “I don’t want to claim to be a voice for people with that experience.”
Deb Ball, an annual drag party thrown by the Peeps O’ Kenyon (PEEPS), brings attention to the trans* population. “I think that it is really complicated,” Foley said. “I think that the PEEPS throw a really great party, … I think for a lot of people who go, it can be a place where they actually feel more comfortable exploring their gender in like, a fluid way.” However, Foley acknowledges there are sometimes issues with the party.
The anonymous trans* student did not feel comfortable with Deb Ball. “It gives this idea that it’s fun to dress up as the other gender, that it’s an amusing sideshow,” he said. He reported hearing students use derogatory terms like “tranny” in connection with the event. The student didn’t feel entirely comfortable at Queer Men’s Society (QMS) or the Queer Women’s Collective either. Foley, one of the leaders of QMS, hopes to make the group a safe space for trans* students. “I think it’s important to include people who identify along the gender spectrum within those affinity groups,” they said.
Another difficulty trans* students face is a lack of gender-neutral bathrooms across campus. Kenyon changed its policy regarding gender-neutral bathrooms in residence halls this school year, so students cannot vote at the beginning of the year on whether or not their bathroom will be gender-neutral. The only dorms with gender-neutral bathrooms are Caples, Hanna, Leonard, Mather and Old Kenyon Residence Halls — making Mather the only first-year hall with a gender-neutral bathroom. If incoming first years do not go out of their way to inform the College that they identify as trans*, they are likely to be placed in a dorm without a gender-neutral bathroom.
In an email to the Collegian, Director of Housing and Residential Life (ResLife) Jill Engel-Hellman wrote that she was unsure of why the decision to eliminate gender-neutral bathrooms in every dorm was made. “Our Office allows any student who is concerned about their current living space to move to a different space,” she said. Current Open Housing policy initiated in 2011 allows sophomores, juniors and seniors to live with any other sophomore, junior or senior regardless of their gender.
“Gender-neutral bathrooms really limit where you can live,” the anonymous student said. There are no easily available gender-neutral bathrooms in academic buildings, including Ascension Hall and Samuel Mather Hall. Peirce Hall has a family restroom in the basement, second floor and third floor.
“It’s very hard at Kenyon … because you need to have someone with you that you trust as almost a protection, because a lot of the transphobic comments … come through there,” the anonymous student, a trans man, said of using the men’s room. “And there’s violence there.”
The anonymous student was placed on an all-female floor his first year. “Same-sex halls can be very oppressive spaces if you don’t identify as the gender there,” he said. He was unable to address the situation through ResLife. “I, personally, at that time, … was rebuffed. [ResLife said,] ‘You’re a full female — you can’t be changing rooms,’” he said. However, he thinks there is a chance that the issue was with a specific staff member and not with the entire office.
“The person who heads up ResLife now is … extensively trained in Title IX issues,” Linda Smolak, Kenyon’s interim Title IX coordinator, said. In response to the particular student asking to switch rooms, Engel-Hellman said she did not have sufficient time to respond.
Smolak emphasized that Title IX covers transgender students, not just sexual misconduct between cisgendered male and female individuals. The term cisgender refers to people whose gender expression conforms to societal expectations. “Title IX applies [to all,] and we want to hear … if you’re having a problem,” Smolak said.
The anonymous student appreciated that he could go to a Title IX coordinator about some of the issues he faced. However, he felt the lack of a specific transgender policy left him vulnerable. “That leaves transgender students … in a very liminal space,” he said.