Being Trans at the 5Cs, Where Policy Lags Behind Lived Experience

When Claremont McKenna College chemistry professor Nancy Williams HM '95 decided to come out as a trans woman to her colleagues and students in CMC's Keck Science Department, she worried about how her announcement would be received, but she knew it was time. 

“At that point I was living a bigendered life, meaning that I was living part of my life as a man and part of my life as a woman,” Williams said. “I wanted to increasingly live more and more of my life as a woman.”

Williams started her process of coming out by telling Andrea Gale, the director of human resources at CMC, and Keck Science Department Dean David Hansen in November 2013. She then told the deans of faculty and presidents of CMC, Pitzer College, and Scripps College, which jointly run the Keck Science Department.

An email signed by the presidents of the colleges in December announced that Williams would return to work this semester as a woman. 

To Williams' knowledge, she is the only faculty member employed by CMC to have come out as trans, so she worked with administrators to tailor a process that worked for her.

“It doesn’t make sense to have a policy when no one has done it,” she said. “If you were to have a policy, it would be founded on ignorance, and it probably would not be a good policy.”

Students often come out as trans or genderqueer at the Claremont Colleges, but, like Williams, they find themselves trying to transition without any policies to inform the process. 

“There is no [transition] policy,” Queer Resource Center (QRC) Director Adriana di Bartolo said. “What we have is a non-discrimination policy at all five of the undergraduate colleges that protects faculty, staff, and students based on gender identity and gender expression.”

Evan Friedenberg SC ’12, who came out as a trans man during his junior year at Scripps, also noted the lack of written policy during his own transition process.

“We pretty much had to write our own rules as trans people at Scripps,” Friedenberg said. “It was kind of touch-and-go the entire time I was there, and for the trans people before me it was also kind of touch-and-go.”

According to di Bartolo, conversations about implementing a policy regarding student transitions are underway, although no language has been finalized yet.

The QRC’s website offers resources for students who are transitioning, including instructions on how to access gender-neutral housing and how to change emails and class rosters to reflect students’ preferred names. 

Friedenberg found the process of changing his name in Scripps records to be much more difficult in practice, however.

“It’s really silly, because I had multiple friends who wanted their emails to say a nickname or a name that was different from what it legally is, and they had no problem,” Friedenberg said. “But for every trans person I’ve talked to at Scripps, including me, it took us over a year of emailing back and forth, people forgetting about us at the registrar, people not paying attention, not really caring enough to change the email.”

While Friedenberg felt safe and comfortable being a trans man at Scripps among his peers and professors, he mentioned experiences such as being called the wrong name by his softball coach and being asked not to use the Scripps gym during women-only hours as examples of discrimination he felt at the Claremont Colleges.

Di Bartolo named transphobia as a common concern among the trans students with whom she works. 

“Usually folks who are questioning their gender identity are not necessarily uncomfortable with their gender identity, but with society’s response to it—parents, campus, friends,” she said. “That’s the unifying factor. And of course that’s going to be impacted by race and class and all these other identities that are othered in our society.”

Di Bartolo works with Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services, Student Health Services, and area specialists to provide necessary services to transgender students, although some students need to travel as far as Los Angeles to get the hormones they need.

“We do have more [resources] than other campuses,” di Bartolo said. “The problem is it can’t just be out of the QRC. It needs to be everybody, and it’s just going to take time.”

Williams said that, as a permanent faculty member, she has more time than an undergraduate student to see progress on trans issues at the Claremont Colleges. She noted that her experience transitioning as a professor differs from what a student might undergo.

“I’m very aware of the huge difference in privilege I have between being a tenured faculty member and being 18 and trying to interact with your professors upon whom you depend for a grade,” Williams said.

Friedenberg said that it has become more difficult for him to talk to staff members in Claremont about policies concerning trans people now that he has graduated.

Although no policy exists regarding how students transition, options such as gender-neutral housing can benefit trans students. Pitzer, Harvey Mudd College, and Pomona College offer gender-neutral housing options. CMC will begin to offer gender-neutral housing to its students beginning in the 2014-2015 school year, while Scripps handles trans students’ housing on a case-by-case basis, according to the QRC’s transition guide.

Claremont University Consortium (CUC) health insurance plans include treatment for transgender students, faculty, and staff, according to di Bartolo. The consortium-wide Student Health Insurance Plan covers up to $100,000 of gender reassignment care, as does the plan for faculty and staff. Benefits for transgender students were effective beginning in the 2013-2014 school year, while those for faculty and staff began on Jan. 1 this year.

According to Denise Hayes, vice president for student affairs at CUC, the decision to include transgender benefits in student health coverage was due to advocacy from the deans of students at the Claremont Colleges. After the change, student premiums remained the same as the previous year.

However, Bob Bloomer, director of benefits administration at CUC, wrote in an email to TSL that the price for faculty and staff health insurance had increased in part due to coverage for benefits for transgender individuals, among several other factors. The coverage expanded due to new regulations from the California Department of Insurance and Department of Managed Health Care that require insurance providers to treat individuals diagnosed with gender dysphoria and gender identity disorder.

For Williams, who can now benefit from the changes in the faculty health insurance plan, the key to fighting prejudice against trans people at the 5Cs is visibility.

“I want students to know that I’m trans and I’m well treated by my colleagues, and for them to realize that if they’re questioning or if they’re worried about the reception they’ll get, that it will probably be pretty positive,” Williams said. “That’s not to say that there won’t be any jerks—there will—but it’s OK.”