Transgender Students Find Home, Security and Support at Kent State
For Emily Grubb, all it took was looking through a magazine to decide where to go to college.
A high school friend shared a copy of Fusion magazine, Kent State University’s first lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) magazine, which led Grubb to the university. Now a sophomore majoring in social geography with a minor in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Studies, the 20-year-old transgender student from Medina, Ohio, says Kent State is home.
“There were great articles in there,” said Grubb, who identifies as nonbinary, meaning Grubb’s gender identity is not exclusively masculine or feminine. “I felt such a connection to Kent State right away. I just felt like this was the place for me as a gay student and as an LGBTQ student because they have so much to offer that they can stand on a national level among these amazing colleges that are leading the charge for transgender rights. I found Kent State to be great because they are still fighting for them, but they are doing it so quickly that is unheard of from any college before.”
The impression the magazine left was so great that Grubb was ready to commit without even visiting the Kent State campus.
“I decided instantly I wanted to come here,” Grubb said. “It’s the only school I applied to. This is where I wanted to be because of the LGBTQ resources here.”
Offering a Community for Transgender Students
Resources for transgender students at Kent State include Trans*Fusion, a student group for transgender students and their allies, and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) Student Center, the social hub for the university’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning and ally students. The LGBTQ Student Center opened in 2010 and is located on the lower level of the Kent Student Center. For some transgender students including Grubb, the LGBTQ Student Center is a place to visit every day because they feel a sense of community there, explained Ken Ditlevson, who joined Kent State in November 2014 as the center’s first director.
“They feel a connection,” Ditlevson said. “This is a place where they can meet other people and feel part of a group. Everyone wants to feel like they are a part of something.”
Ditlevson explained that his role at the university is to support the gender and sexual minority communities, which includes the transgender community.
“It’s part of the title of our center – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Student Center – so we are charged to support transgender students in feeling included, supported and safe at Kent State and to ensure that Kent State is as inclusive as possible for all people, regardless of identity or orientation,” Ditlevson said. “There is a lot of education that the center does to help students, faculty, staff and the community understand what transgender means and that it’s different from sexual orientation.”
The LGBTQ Student Center offers Safe Space Ally Training, which covers some trans issues. Ditlevson, Grubb and others are in in the process of developing a Trans 101 Safe Space Ally Training that will be part of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training lab. They hope to launch the Trans 101 training this fall.
The LGBTQ Student Center also holds programs that are specific to the transgender community and hosts roundtable discussions. The center has a mentor program called Queers United to Encourage and Support (QUEST) that includes transgender members. Student mentees are paired up with adult mentors. The mentors, who are college graduates, connect monthly with their student mentees to provide support and share information. The LGBTQ Student Center also provides resource referrals, connecting students to information, services and organizations.
For 21-year-old Alice Freitas, a junior forensic psychology major from Stow, Ohio, who serves as president of Trans*Fusion, the dedicated space for the LGBTQ community at Kent State makes a big difference.
“The school has made great strides in accommodating the LGBTQ community,” Freitas said. “It excels with the LGBTQ Student Center and the support it gives to its trans students. The center has a full-time director. We know we can come to this space.”
Freitas, a transwoman, decided to attend Kent State based on prior experiences on campus.
“My mother was coming here for her degree in nursing,” Freitas said. “I found that I really liked the feel of the university. It felt more open and social compared to the other universities I had been to.”
Freitas leads Trans*Fusion, the transgender advocacy group at Kent State. It is an outlet for students on campus to voice their concerns in a judgement-free zone. While its members are represented by the larger LGBTQ community, Freitas said it is important to have a separate group to support and advocate for the university’s transgender students. In addition to their student organization, transgender students get support and feel connected to each other and the university through the LGBTQ Student Center.
Receiving Support From Staff, Faculty and Administrators
One of the reasons transgender students keep coming back to the LGBTQ Student Center is because of the support and opportunities they receive from Ditlevson.
“Ken has done a lot for me,” said Grubb, who also works as an intern at the LGBTQ Student Center. “I’m glad to be here doing great work – from the Trans 101 Safe Space Ally Training to creating trans brochure to doing a lot of the marketing materials to managing the social media. This is what I want to do when I grow up: to run an LGBTQ center or do something with LGBTQ rights at a university or a government level or even the U.N. Ken knows that, and he’s specifically putting me on a path so I can succeed at doing those things.
“I would like to thank Ken Ditlevson for doing everything he can and more,” Grubb continued. “He has sacrificed so much of his time and patience just to be with us. I honestly couldn’t imagine the school without him, and I couldn’t imagine my life without him, so I just want to thank him so much. He strives so hard to make sure everything is happening at Kent State.”
In addition to feeling at home at the LGBTQ Student Center, transgender students have found support in the classroom.
“With all of my professors, once I tell them I’m trans and that I prefer to go by Emily, they’ve been nothing but supportive,” Grubb said. “I’ve never had a professor who has denied me anything because I’m transgender. They have treated me with the utmost respect to almost protect me because I’m transgender and to make sure I’m in a safe environment. With everything that is going on, it’s great to be in an environment where, honestly, there are not many trans problems I see because if they are, they are being taken care of.”
This past fall, Kent State launched two new efforts to help LGBTQ students feel more included. The university established a process for students to request a preferred name to be used wherever possible in the course of university business, such as class rosters, advising and the student directory. Also, the university established a new living-learning community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and asexual (LGBTQA) students and their allies in the newly renovated Korb Hall.
Grubb said at Kent State, university officials are open to everyone, listening to everyone’s needs and making sure everyone is heard and feels included, including transgender students.
“I can’t imagine them doing any better because they are doing such a wonderful job already,” Grubb said. “I’m proud to say that Kent State is on top of everything. We even have the president’s ear on transgender issues that she wants to make sure we are taken care of, and for me, that’s just heartwarming to hear and great for me and so many other students. We are getting things done here, and we’re making sure Kent State is the school to go to. We are doing whatever we can to make sure everyone is fair and equal to each other.”
Dianne Kerr, Ph.D., professor health education and promotion at Kent State who currently serves as Provost’s Faculty Associate for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said Kent State President Beverly Warren is striving to make the university inclusive of all students and make Kent State a welcoming, friendly campus to everyone. Kerr pointed to the LGBTQ Student Center, the new living/learning community in Korb Hall, safe space trainings, preferred name use and other examples of how the university is offering an inclusive environment. For prospective students including those who are transgender, Kerr encourages them to come to campus.
“Overall, they will find a welcoming environment,” Kerr said. “We recently started the University Stewards Program where students can talk informally to a faculty or staff member, usually about an issue with the university. We want to help get those addressed. We want this to be an environment where LGBTQ students feel more comfortable. That is another resource we offer.”
Ditlevson said it is important for the university to support all of its students, including its transgender students.
“We should advocate and stand behind all of our students,” Ditlevson said. “We really have a diverse community here, and the trans community is part of that. I think Kent State stands for social justice. It just makes sense. People may not understand the trans community, and that’s ok initially. But we need to respect everyone, and we really should be inclusive of everyone. We need to have an open door that is more than just tolerant but is really embracing.”
Providing Support Through Facilities
Kent State also supports its transgender students through its facilities.
“We’ve done a lot of research on the issue of restrooms for our transgender students and students with disabilities,” said Michael Bruder, executive director of facilities, planning and design at Kent State. “A number of years ago, we started to design what is called a universal restroom. They are designed to be a single room that an individual can go in and use. They serve our transgender students. They also can be used by people with disabilities, individuals with a care attendant of the opposite sex, a mother or father with a kid or kids as a family restroom, an elderly couple or other situations.”
To date, there are 48 universal restrooms on the Kent Campus. Bruder also said whenever the university is building a new building or doing a major restroom renovation, Kent State now includes at least one universal restroom in the building. Recent building projects in White Hall, University Library, the Center for Undergraduate Excellence and the Center for Architecture and Environmental Design included universal restrooms as part of the renovation or new construction.
“We adopted, as a standard design approach, including a universal restroom to serve our student population,” Bruder said.
Welcoming Students and Reassuring Parents
Ditlevson shared a story about how current Kent State students have helped the parents of prospective transgender students feel at ease with their child’s college decision.
“We’ve had some juniors and seniors from high school who identify as trans come to the center to meet with some of our trans students,” Ditlevson said. “The parents wanted to know is this a safe place for my child to go, and we can say it absolutely is. We can show we have a Trans*Fusion group, we have a living/learning community, we have an LGBT minor and we have an LGBTQ center.
“There are so many strong, positive things for the community here that it’s an easier sell to parents for them to feel that they’re sending their child to a safe place,” Ditlevson continued. “For a student to say ‘yeah, I’ve never had a problem’ or ‘the issues that we have are so small,’ it really reassures the parents and make the students feel they are making the right decision. That has been really rewarding to see."
For a transgender student coming to Kent State, Grubb has one recommendation.
“Come to the LGBTQ Student Center,” Grubb said. “That’s all I can say. Just come and visit us. We’re all welcoming. We’re all friendly. We have fun. We get into weird conversations about politics or video games or anime, but we’re always having a fun time here. It’s such a home here that, honestly, I haven’t met a student who has come to the LGBTQ Student Center and not like it. Everyone I know comes back for more. Come and visit us. We’re here for you. All are welcome.”
Looking back, Grubb’s decision to attend Kent State, sparked by a student magazine, still feels very right.
“I’m finding my home here, and I couldn’t imagine going to any other school,” Grubb said.