When Elon University sophomore Jay Tiemann was 15 years old, he recalled his mother telling him that she would support him having a partner of any gender. She jokingly asked him to promise, though, that he would "never be transgender."
“On the inside I was like 'oof,'" Tiemann said. “I know she's not saying that because she hates trans people, but because she knows that it’s an objectively harder life and she doesn't want me to have to go through discrimination.”
It was around this age that Tiemann was realizing that he was not cisgender —his gender identity did not match the sex of female that he was assigned at birth. After choosing to ignore this and living in denial, Tiemann went from being what he calls a “stereotypical girly girl” growing up to coming out as “Jay” and transitioned to male at age 17. He said the unconditional support and love he receive from his parents helped him a lot with this decision.
“I just kind of had this mindset of well this right now being a girl is not working,” Tiemann said. “Let's try coming out and if that goes badly then we can have a plan B, but like I was just I was really miserable just like keeping that all inside so I figured well I can't get any more miserable from here.”
A few months later, Tiemann began his first year at Elon, a school that has been named as a top 30 LGBTQ-friendly campus for four consecutive years nationwide according to Campus Pride Index. This is one of the country’s largest educational organizations for LGBTQ college students that assists universities nationwide in learning how to improve their LGBTQ campus life with the overall mission of being more inclusive, welcoming and respectful.
Despite the school's rating, its programming and resources, students such as Tiemann have had to deal with misgendering, harassment and not having access to resources such as universal restrooms.
Becoming a Phoenix
When Tiemann first toured Elon, he fell in love with the campus. While he skimmed the school website, he came across a page called Trans at Elon, which he first thought was about student transportation. He eventually found out it was a page about transgender students and the resources offered to them. This was something unique that he had not seen at other schools.
When he moved in at Elon in the fall of 2017, Tiemann said that he felt every freshman could use college as a way to change their image or change who they are. For him, it was a nice way to start over and meet people who did not know his birth name.
“I made a habit of introducing myself and my pronouns to every class I went because I still did not appear very male,” Tiemann said.
The ability to have a campus name, or a name that appears in place of a student's legal name in many university records, as well as preferred pronouns have been steps toward making the campus and its community more inclusive of other’s identities. This initiative started by the registrar's office allows students to have their campus name and pronoun to be used in the campus directory, class rosters, Moodle, OnTrack and Degree Audit.
These changes started to become an option for students around 2014. Rod Parks, university registrar, considers the first transgender students who began changing their campus names and pronouns as "real troopers." He acknowledges that for many students who identify as transgender and among other groups, identity is something that is very private to them.
"We wanted to give students an option," Parks said. "We were going to portray them as they wanted to be portrayed."
Matthew Antonio Bosch, director of the Gender and LGBTQ (GLC) center at Elon, said the use of pronouns and campus names has allowed people to feel more validated.
“It is helping people realize that just because we look at someone doesn’t mean we know their race, their ethnicity, their gender background or their country of origin,” Bosch said.
Though feeling welcomed through the use of pronouns and being able to live with a male roommate, Tiemann said that there have been multiple occurrences when he has been misgendered.
“Misgendering can really impact someone deeply when they're consistently referred to an incorrect name,” Bosch said. “I think sometimes people they take it for granted how deeply it impacts someone who's transgender to be constantly misgendered or called the wrong name.”
Tiemann said he does not let it bother him too much when people who do not know him misgender him. For him, it hurts more if the person who misgenders him is someone that he knows.
The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law’s report on “Transgender students in Higher Education” said that research indicated higher rates of distress among trans college students. It states that “trans students were more likely to report frequently feeling depressed, compared to the national sample (47.2 percent vs. 9.5 percent)—as well as to report feeling 'overwhelmed' in the year prior to college (54.9 percent vs. 34.1 percent) including experiences of and fears of victimization, invalidation and nonsupport from family, lack of community, loneliness/alienation, and stress related to gender dysphoria—trans students may be especially likely to seek out and benefit from mental health care treatment.”
During his first year, Tiemann said he had a lot of anxiety because he did not know how people were going to treat him or if people would harass him inside or outside the classroom.
“When you are going to a college setting and you're with a lot of cis guys who started puberty at age 13,” Tiemann said. “Versus at age 18 like I did or second puberty I guess. ... It is kind of hard to compare yourself to people of your own age a lot because it does feel it is kind of dysphoria inducing because I don't look like a lot of cis guys do.”
One of the first faculty mentors Tiemann came across during his first year at Elon was L.D. Russell, senior lecturer in religious studies, who was his global experience professor. Russell said Tiemann was the first person he has ever met that has transitioned and now calls him one of his "personal heroes."
"I see those who are willing to lead like Jay," Russell said. "As pioneers who are opening doors for people down the road."
Russell said that Tiemann has been a great teacher for him and has educated him to be more supportive of the trans community.
"He is showing me ways that I can do better," Russell said. "It is important that I have the courage that he has not just to think different, but be different."
Dealing with the social climate
Tiemann currently works as the collaborations coordinator at the GLC. Through this position, he develops relationships with other campus diversity offices as well as helps with programs between these offices.
Being on testosterone longer and being more masculine with his appearance has allowed his experiences to get easier despite the challenges he has faced.
Last year, somebody from a passing car yelled “gay” to him and Spencer, his boyfriend. This year, somebody behind him said a slur. Tiemann filed bias reports for both incidents, but chose the option to not have a follow-up on either. He wanted to record them so there is proof that these things do occur on Elon's campus.
The U.S. Transgender Survey (USTS), a survey of over 27,000 trans adults, found that 24 percent of respondents who were out as or perceived as trans in college reported being verbally, physically or sexually harassed at that time with 16 percent of those who experienced harassment having left college because of the harassment.
“It’s kind of a reminder that it’s a reality,” Tiemann said. “LGBT stuff has been really mainstream in the past few years in America, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is safe.”
Besides filing bias reports, Bosch says that the area of campus he constantly hears where students encounter a lot of misgendering and microaggressions is in the classroom.
“I find that surprising,” Bosch said. “Historically we are taught that in a class you’re just learning about the classroom content."
When the implementation of pronouns and campus names was introduced to faculty and staff, Parks recalls receiving pushback on how this terminology would work in the classroom setting. Through efforts made by the Presidential Task Force Strategic Plan for LGBTQIA Inclusion which Parks and Bosch were a part of, resources were provided to help educate and inform.
Brooke Barnett, associate provost, also assisted in this task force group whose main goals were divided in the areas of support, welcome, educate and communicate topics focused on the LGBTQ community. Barnett acknolwedges that all changes such as the ones occurring in the classroom take practice and time to get used to.
"I think that it [misgendering] is part of a broader societal issue," Barnett said. "The use of a plural pronoun for an individual person is something that is a relatively new thing. It is hard for people to break habits about subject verb agreement."
Expanding curent programs
Tiemann said that one of the reasons he chose Elon was because of the promise of universal bathrooms. When he moved into campus, he only felt safe in universal restrooms. He recognizes the university is better than many other schools, but work can still be done.
“I still push for that [more universal bathrooms] because I remember how it feels to feel like,” Tiemann said. “I didn't have any other options and for non-binary students and staff, they don't have any other options where they feel safe either.”
Before the GLC was created in April 2013, only 15 restrooms existed on campus that were open to use by individuals of all genders and sexes. By 2015, the number rose to 90 and today the website states that the school has more than 120. This was one of the task force inclusion goals which was met in the past two years. The universal bathrooms serve any student, faculty, staff and community member, as well as those who identify as trans, gender-fluid or any other gender continuum. They are also accessible to people with disabilities, cross-gender caregivers and parents and children.
Bosch said that the addition and rise of the number of universal bathrooms can be attributed to the national attention transgender people were having.
“On Elon’s campus, for any restrooms, the practice is that any university member can utilize the restroom that aligns with their gender identity and that is not under any question," Bosch said.
Tiemann has been outspoken about the need for more universal bathrooms on campus. He says that an issue is not only how few there are, but also how spread out they actually are. During his first year, he investigated how many universal bathrooms there were. He mentioned how academic buildings like McMichael and Koury Business Center do not have any. The Koury Fitness Center has four, but they are all located in the lower level of the gym.
“Before Sankey was built,” Tiemann said. “If you were in KOBC, the closest one was actually in the admissions building. That is something a lot of Elon students aren’t aware of because they don’t need those spaces.”
Though all new residential neighborhoods, such as those in East Neighborhood, have these restrooms, older buildings such as those in Historic Neighborhood, do not have any. If a student were to live in Smith or Virginia, the closest ones would be in nearby academic buildings such as Carlton, Mooney and Powell.
"You can't fix racism with money,” Tiemann said. “You can't fix sexual assault on campus with money, but building more universal restrooms is one of the few things you could you could fix with money so I don't see why we wouldn't address those problems immediately."