Most transgender college students are still fighting their administrations for basic rights like gender-neutral facilities, but a fair amount of the nation's most prestigious universities are way beyond that: 36 colleges currently or are soon slated to cover sex-change surgery as part of their student health plan, 25 others cover related hormone therapy, and 20 have plans that cover some or all sex-change treatments for their employees. Is there such a thing as trickle-down transgender rights?
These plans only directly affect a small amount of the student body, but the New York Times spoke with university administrators who said they recognized that "their insurance plan sends a signal to the much larger number of students for whom the rights of transgender people have taken a place alongside gay rights as a cause that matters."
"Students notice whether the issues that they care about, that make them feel like it's a more comfortable and welcoming place, are being discussed and addressed," said Ira Friedman, associate vice provost for student affairs and director of the student health center at Stanford, which began covering sex-change surgery in 2010.
Of course, the students who have the time and agency to champion for their rights — and actually get heard — usually attend elite colleges and come from privileged backgrounds, meaning they might "take for granted that they can and should voice their views." Often, students are the ones who campaign for coverage for gender reassignment surgery and related issues, not the administration.
Calling it a lobbying campaign "would be an overstatement," said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services at Brown, which said last week that its student health plan would start covering sex-change surgery beginning in August, "But students had been asking about it, so we'd been looking at it for a couple of years, whether our health plan was in line with our nondiscrimination policy."
Other students on less progressive campuses aren't so lucky. "Trans issues are new to many campus communities," said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of advocacy group Campus Pride. "You ask a lot of administrators about it, even at places that are familiar with lesbian and gay and bisexual issues, and they look at you kind of blankly."
"It is often more a knowledge and will gap than a mechanics and cost issue," said Deena Fidas, deputy director of the Human Rights Campaign's workplace project. "You have to start with Transgender 101, if you will, and demystify."