Gender Identity and Campus Culture

August, 1995.  I approached the start of the school year with more than my usual degree of excitement and anxiety.  I stood in my mother’s sewing room on the second floor of my childhood home in Paris, Maine, gripping the phone as I dialed the number for Phillips Exeter Academy.  In two short weeks, I was due to return for my senior year.  I was a student in good standing, a varsity athlete in ice hockey and lacrosse, president of the Jewish Student Organization, first tuba in the concert band.  I also was – or had been – a girl.

When the Dean of Students answered, I said, “This is Alex Myers. I’m a senior…” I paused, waiting to see if the dean would give an indication of recognition. “I live in Hoyt Hall…”

“Oh! Alice! Of course.  I thought you said Alex.”

“I did,” I replied. “That’s why I’m calling.  I changed my name, and I wanted to let you know that.  And I also… I’m coming back to school as a boy this year.”

A long pause ensued.

Then the dean spoke, “What do you mean by that?”

“I’m transgender.”  In 1995, that word was pretty much brand new, so I gave the dean what would become my standard pitch: “All my life, I’ve felt like a boy, even though I was a girl. This summer, I came out as transgender, and now I want to live as a boy.”   

An even longer pause.

“Well,” the dean said at last, “That will present a few challenges. What are we going to do about bathrooms? Or dorms? Or sports?”

Twenty years after that phone call, I returned to Phillips Exeter as an English Instructor, and pretty soon after that, I found myself having almost the exact same conversation with the Dean of Students.  There was a student who had just transitioned and the dean was wondering what to do about bathrooms, and dorms, and sports…

How could it be, I wondered, that in twenty years, almost nothing had changed? I knew from frequent visits back to the Academy to teach health education classes on gender identity that there had been a number of transgender students at Exeter in the intervening years.  Surely in handling those dozens of students, the school had formulated some sort of consistent policy? 

But no. The Academy had handled each student on a case-by-case basis, asking what the student wanted, considering what sort of adaptations could be made, talking to the parents, and then proceeding with an individually tailored response. 

Such a response is inadequate.  I explained to the deans that the individual approach makes the transgender student feel like they are an exception to the rule – an anomaly that must be specially considered rather than a student who has a place in the school.  I also explained that by handling things on a case-by-case basis, the Academy was marginalizing the topic of gender identity when in fact gender identity – everybody’s gender identity – is one of the most crucial elements of a school’s culture. 

And so, two years ago, Exeter began working on a more consistent and wide-ranging plan around gender identity.  We began by looking at the places where we sorted students based on gender: at our dorms and locker rooms, yes, but also at our classrooms and dining halls.  We asked students where they, as girls or boys, felt most comfortable and least comfortable. We considered whether spaces that are male-exclusive or female-exclusive breed a separate (and oftentimes unhealthy) “boy culture” or “girl culture.” 

From these observations, we then proceeded to approach a redesign of facilities, guidelines, and practices that improves the campus culture around gender for all students. There have been many shifts, some of them minor, and some of them major: we will be opening two all-gender dorms this fall, for instance.  This approach, which is on-going, better accommodates transgender and gender non-conforming students as well.  And there are still ways in which we handle these students’ needs on an individual level, of course.  But we don’t stop there, and no school should. 

Gender identity isn’t something that belongs only to the transgender population: it is one of the most significant shaping forces in school culture.  In tackling the needs of the transgender population, a school shouldn’t lose the opportunity to improve the culture and climate for all students.

About The Author

Alex Myers

Alex Myers is a writer, teacher, and speaker.  Born and raised in Paris, Maine, Alex was raised as a girl (Alice) and left Maine to attend boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy.  At Exeter, Alex came out as transgender, returning his senior year as a man after attending for three years as a woman, and was the first transgender student in that Academy’s history.  After Exeter, Alex earned his bachelor’s at Harvard University, studying Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, and living in the Dudley Co-op.  Alex was also the first openly transgender student at Harvard and worked to change the University’s nondiscrimination clause to include gender identity. Subsequent to earning a master’s degree in religion at Brown, Alex has pursued a career in teaching English at secondary schools.  He completed his Master’s of Fine Arts in fiction writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he began his work on Revolutionary.  He currently lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two cats.