As transgender and gender-nonconforming representation grows to historic levels at the University of Minnesota, campus officials are beginning to grasp the extent of the group’s health risks.
Research has already identified that LGBTQ communities face a number of health disparities, including a higher prevalence of homelessness, mental illness, suicide and tobacco, alcohol and other drug use. For the first time, Boynton Health Service began specifically breaking down data by gender identity in its 2015 College Student Health Survey.
Transgender and gender-nonconforming students reported higher rates of negative childhood experience — a category that includes household mental illness and drug use as well as childhood sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
Whereas 40 percent of males and 49 percent of females reported having two or more adverse childhood experiences, that figure rose to about 68 percent for transgender and gender-nonconforming students.
Experts say adverse childhood experiences such as the incarceration of family members, witnessing domestic abuse or divorce can lead to health risks in adulthood. Studies show that childhood abuse and household dysfunction puts individuals at higher risk of mental health problems, tobacco and marijuana use, alcoholism, physical inactivity, other drug abuse, and obesity.
Student Counseling Services Senior Psychologist Sarra Beckham-Chasnoff said, until recently, many parents and others didn’t know what it meant to have gender-nonconforming children.
“I certainly don’t think the psychological community or the medical community was particularly adept at how to manage or counsel people who had gender-nonconforming kids,” Beckham-Chasnoff said.
University ecology, evolution and behavior sciences junior Cole Folstad identifies as transgender but said Boynton’s survey doesn’t reflect her experience growing up. Even on campus, she said, she has had few uncomfortable moments based on her gender identity.
“The only negative thing relating to my self-expression was more related to shaming or, ‘You can do this inside the home, but once we leave the home you can’t do this anymore,’” Folstad said. “And, obviously, that did make me feel bad, and I don’t necessarily blame my parents for the way they handled it. I don’t know what else they could have done at the time.”
Being told not to play with certain toys or to dress a certain way when she was in public made Folstad realize parts of her expression were taboo, she said, adding that she was made to feel embarrassed about them. She called herself lucky to have had few negative experiences growing up and said she now struggles more than anything to get classmates to respect her and use her preferred pronouns.
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Ally Programs Office Director Stef Wilenchek said the Transgender Commission — a campus coalition to advocate for inclusion of all gender identities — is trying to adapt certain systems at the University to fit needs of transgender and gender-nonconforming students. The Commission has homed in on barriers ranging from nongendered bathrooms, health insurance issues and preferred names on class rosters, Wilenchek said.
“Being out as transgender [or] gender-nonconforming is hard in any aspect of society — even when there are practices and policies in place — just based on climate,” Wilenchek said. “And that can take form in lots of different ways. I think there’s a lot of ways that folks might experience a lot of microagressions and be cumulatively impacted by that.”
Beckham-Chasnoff said while colleges tend to be progressive, there are still instances of transphobia. She said most transgender and gender-nonconforming students who come to her face similar issues but, in particular, internalized transphobia.
“I [am a] TA for a class. … One of the students just like came up to me, and he asked, ‘Are you trans?’” she said. “And I answered honestly because I’m not hiding anything, but I just thought that was kind of weird and rude.”
A Journal of Homosexuality study published earlier this year found transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals are at risk for interpersonal victimization in college, ranging from hostility and discrimination to harassment and violence. The study said transgender participants were significantly more likely than other students to leave school and feel unsafe on campus — even in LGBTQ spaces.
“There’s hundreds of years of invisibility around transgender, nonconforming identities and the impact around transphobia,” Wilenchek said. “So any time we are able to capture information with the intention of being supportive, I think can be helpful.”