The University of Vermont has long been a national leader in the area of inclusiveness for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. And the Advocate magazine counted UVM among the top schools for transgender students in 2012.
But some students say the university still has a long way to go.
Lindsay Whittaker’s story is a little complicated to tell. Whittaker began questioning gender assigned at birth, and eventually stopped using traditionally female pronouns like “she and her.”
Whittaker now uses the pronouns “they and them” so that’s how we’ll refer to them here.
This shift came at a formative time. Whittaker was a resident advisor in the UVM dorms—and took it seriously.
“The main sense of an RA is really to be a resource for students,” said Whittaker. “To help them feel support, to help them feel like they can do their academics, their extracurriculars, and make them feel like they have a safe environment to live in.”
While working as an RA, Whittaker began asking others in the dorm to use gender neutral pronouns when referring to them.
“I’ve just never felt really comfortable being boxed in to either category since for me, I didn’t feel that I fit. I didn’t fit how I was labeled pretty much the rest of my life up until last year,” said Whittaker. “But really don’t feel that I’ve done enough self-work to really say where on the spectrum I would fall.”
But the idea of a gender spectrum is still uncomfortable for some people who believe gender is binary. When Whittaker had the discussion with some dorm residents, there was nervous laughter and lots of questions.
Still, Whittaker says things for the most part went smoothly and people were supportive. After all, this is the school with a bounty of gender neutral housing, a robust LGBTQA center, and an annual conference on gender identity.
But issues kept coming up. Things like supervisors continuing to use the wrong pronouns after being reminded. A training where the terms “sex” and “gender” were used interchangeably.
And Whittaker says the insensitivity also extended to the RA interview process.
“During the RA interviews we did have somebody who is a trans man who was interviewing to become an RA,” said Whittaker. “They put this person’s birth name on their name tag. A female birth name. You can’t do that. You’ve just outed that person to people who maybe wouldn’t have known otherwise.”
Situations like that are exactly why the university offers what it calls a “preferred name” service for internal databases.
That means any student can make sure their preferred name is displayed on university records like class lists and housing assignments.
When UVM implemented the system in 2009, it was an early adopter. Since then, schools around the country from the University of Wisconsin-Madison to Princeton to Carnegie Mellon have implemented similar services.
Just one problem: the system hasn’t always worked properly. A glitch prevented preferred names from displaying within the housing system last year.
Caroline Kobetitsch will be a junior at UVM in the fall.
She saw the name glitch firsthand when she signed up to live on-campus with a close friend who happens to be a trans man. She was shocked when her roommate assignment showed a female name.
“It says confirmed, and then it had his birth name there,” said Kobetitsch
She says she thought the mistake was unacceptable.
“ResLife just seems kind of clueless,” said Kobetitsch.
Stacey Miller is the Director of Residential Life at UVM. She admits the glitch happened.
“Our preferred name information wasn’t transferring from the central administrative location to our housing database,” said Miller. “We didn’t know that was happening. We had no idea.”
It wasn’t until the on-campus LGBTQA center brought it to her office’s attention that she was able to get it fixed.
Dot Brauer is the director of that center. She adds that the term “preferred name” is itself problematic:
“It can feel invalidating. It can feel like it’s being thought of as a whim,” said Brauer.
Brauer says conversations with students led her to question the database’s name.
“The student who brought it to my attention said ‘it’s not my preferred gender, it’s my gender,’” said Brauer. “’This isn’t about what color socks I like.’”
But back to Lindsay Whittaker. Eventually conflicts with supervisors came to a point where Whittaker almost quit.
“Maybe if Lindsay is gone, things will be easier,” said Whittaker. “That’s how I felt.”
Whittaker felt pushed out. They stuck with it, but it wasn’t easy.
“I had had it. I was angry. I didn’t care about residential life,” said Whittaker. “I kept telling them this and being a little thorn in the side. So for me, especially when they knew I had identity conflicts, so to speak, at some point I really felt they were using that as a reason to get me to leave.”
But Stacey Miller says she didn’t know about that conflict.
“It’s not something I was aware of. And I don’t know that I can even comment on it,” said Miller. “It doesn’t feel like something that we would say.”
Now Whittaker has graduated, but there will likely be other RAs in the same boat. Miller says she hopes they continue to speak up.
“You think about all the cool efforts that have happened at UVM. Preferred name. Gender neutral bathrooms, gender neutral residential spaces,” said Miller. “All of that is through student initiative. The bravery of one student walking up and saying ‘we need this’ and someone really listening and caring.”
Miller admits that while UVM does better than most universities, it’s not perfect. And she adds that her office can only deal with the issues they know about.
Still, that puts the burden on the most marginalized students to keep reminding the university of those issues.