The Collegian
Sunday, December 10, 2023

Transness at UR: Students and staff seek inclusivity on campus, yet challenges remain

<p>Photo of Jasmine Khatcheressian at her high school homecoming in 2021. Photo courtesy of Khatcherssian.&nbsp;</p>

Photo of Jasmine Khatcheressian at her high school homecoming in 2021. Photo courtesy of Khatcherssian. 

As she carried her belongings into Lora Robins Court on move-in day last fall, Jasmine Khatcheressian was plagued by anxiety that would last for months. Not only was she nervous to begin a new phase of her life as a first-year college student, but Khatcheressian, a transgender woman, had been assigned to live with a cisgender male roommate in a male housing block.

Her first days at the University of Richmond were a blur of paperwork and phone calls with the housing department as Khatcheressian scrambled to find a gender-flexible housing assignment and register her preferred name in university records before the semester began. Khatcheressian had applied for gender-flexible housing in June 2022, after a phone call with Residence Life and Housing Director Patrick Benner, but her request was not met. 

Benner said that cases such as Khatcheressian’s are most common among first-year students. Typically, fewer incoming first-years apply for gender-flexible housing than upperclassmen, and there are often few spaces available in first-year residence halls for gender-flexible housing. This sometimes means that the Office of Residence Life and Housing  fails to meet all requests for gender-flexible housing. In the past, this has led to some transgender students being paired with roommates based on their registered birth sex, as was the case for Khatcheressian.

Residence Life and Housing has recently introduced new features in the housing process intended to improve the experience for trans and nonbinary students, especially among incoming first-years. The housing application now allows students to filter potential roommates by only those who are interested in gender-flexible housing. Residence Life and Housing hosts anonymous video calls where students can ask questions about gender-affirming housing and has created a system through which UR representatives can reach out to students struggling to find roommates and offer to connect them with other students seeking gender-flexible housing.

Within a week, Khatcheressian, with the help of her orientation advisor, was reassigned to a single room and spent less than a day in the company of her original roommate, sophomore Noah Nañez, with whom she eventually became close friends. However, she still takes issue with the lack of clarity in UR’s processes for applying for gender-flexible housing and registering a preferred name.

“UR has this vibe where if you advocate for yourself, you will be listened to,” said Khatcheressian, now a sophomore. “But it’s not easy to advocate for yourself. If I hadn’t been helped by my OA, I wouldn’t even have known what to do, to even take any of those steps, right? And there was no information on how to do so.”

Despite her eventual success, Khatcheressian’s struggles at UR did not end with her housing reassignment. Before college, only her close friends and family knew that she had transitioned, and UR was the first place where she introduced herself to new people as a woman. 

“Throughout the first semester, there was so much anxiety of, ‘Are these people still going to see me as a man?’ I think a lot about the way that I present, you know?” Khatcheressian recalled, and gestured toward herself. “I’m six feet tall. I have a deep voice. At the time, I hadn’t started estrogen.”

Her anxieties were not unfounded. Throughout her first semester, some students in her dorm avoided her, not out of malice, she said, but out of nervousness on their own part. 

“What I experienced was a lot of people being unsure of how to treat me. ‘Do I treat this person as I would a man, or like I would a woman?’ And obviously, there were a lot of cases of people accidentally misgendering me.” Nañez, her former roommate, noticed these patterns, saying that students often stumbled over the correct pronouns to use for Khatcheressian when she wasn’t in the room or avoided addressing her altogether.

Khatcheressian holds no resentment toward these students, attributing their discomfort to a lack of experience and education about trans people rather than actual malice. “To a lot of people here, I was their first instance of meeting a trans person,” she said. “So I can only criticize them so harshly for [what happened] before, because mistakes are mistakes. But at the same time, that is a very difficult thing to deal with, especially in the prime of your transition.”

During this period, Khatcheressian leaned on support from students and staff that she connected with through the LGBTQ+ campus life team, headed by Casey Butler, associate director of the Student Center for Equity and Inclusion. 

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SCEI holds several student-led affinity groups for LGBTQ+ students, including Kaleidoscope, its affinity group for trans and nonbinary students. The goal of these groups, Butler said, is to provide a confidential space for students to talk about the experiences and struggles that they face on a campus with a relatively small LGBTQ+ population. 

“There are a lot less trans and genderqueer people, and LGBTQ people [here] in general,” Khatcharessian said. “I can’t say exactly why that is, but UR definitely attracts a certain type of people, and that certain type of people is not LGBTQ people.”

Now, Khatcheressian has found her people: a circle of friends like Nañez, who don’t tiptoe around her, and people that she has met through SCEI.

Still, she has concerns about the lack of education about trans people among students on campus, though the situation is improving. Education about trans identities is now part of the mandatory first-year wellness course, and SCEI has launched a series of trainings called Affirming Space, led by Butler, which provide education to faculty and staff about LGBTQ+ marginalization and creating an affirming environment for LGBTQ+ students.

“But the issue is not a lack of training,” Khatcheressian said. “The problem extends to how we talk about each other behind closed doors, how parents talk to their kids about transgender people.”

When asked whether she thought a true solution existed, Khatcheressian sighed. “I really, truly think that the solution is about reaching people, and I just don't know how to do that.”

Contact Features Editor Kelsey McCabe at kelsey.mccabe@richmond.edu. 

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