Director of the LGBT Center Bob Schoenberg has seen history change in front of his eyes, and the after-effects have left him impressed by what has become.
In light of Penn’s decision to extend insurance coverage to employees seeking gender reassignment surgery — which was announced before spring break — members of the LGBT community believe that the University has achieved a milestone with regard to its changing attitudes about transgender issues on campus.
According to Associate Director of the LGBT Center Erin Cross, “the new policy symbolizes that Penn is open and working toward acceptance rather than just toleration of its gender minority members.”
For Schoenberg, who came to Penn in 1982, this insurance extension is just one among many recent developments that reflect unprecedented shifts in attitudes toward transgender issues.
“It’s a different world,” Schoenberg said. “Some of the things that are happening at Penn now would have been unimaginable when I started.”
History in the making
Cross, who came to Penn in 1998, still remembers when the LGBT Center had yet to add “transgender” to its name.
“When I first started, there was a lot of talk of trans,” she said. “We were still having discussions as to whether we were educated and comfortable enough to add the T.”
When the center finally added the T to its name after an extensive self-education process, the number of transgender-identified people who began to use its services slowly but surely began to grow.
These services have continued to evolve.
About 10 years ago, Schoenberg said, the University added gender identity to its non-discrimination policy. Along the way, the LGBT community began working with the administration on obtaining transgender health benefits for students, as well as installing gender-neutral housing and restrooms on campus.
“In my time here, we’ve progressed from hardly talking about or noticing the transgender community to making transgender rights an important focus of our work,” Schoenberg said.
Embodiment of change
Joshua Tweedy, a 2011 Liberal and Professional Studies graduate who currently works at the LGBT Center as a part-time building coordinator, has been on the receiving end of this progress.
While most would not question Tweedy’s gender upon first meeting him, he was originally born in a female body.
“I was never good at being feminine,” he said. “It didn’t come naturally to me, and I wasn’t comfortable trying to force it either. I lived my life as a very masculine woman.”
For Tweedy, however, this personal choice came at a cost. He described his experiences during middle and high school as “hell,” as he was subject to ridicule and hate on a daily basis.
“I had no friends. I was tortured,” he recalled. “Those were the years where it’s so important for most people [to achieve] social ranking, and I had none. And you know that dorky sort of nerd class? I was their dog to kick.”
Before coming to Penn, Tweedy underwent hormone therapy as well as chest reconstruction and counseling.
But it was at the University where Tweedy, to the best of the LGBT Center’s knowledge, was the first student to use the trans-specific benefits offered in the Penn Student Insurance Plan. Transgender benefits were added to the PSIP in August 2010.
Tweedy hopes that despite the controversy surrounding trans surgery, community members recognize that the benefits offered by Penn can potentially save lives and are not merely designed to feminize or masculinize a person’s appearance.
Because of hormone therapies, he explained, trans people run higher risks for certain kinds of reproductive cancers that may be overly expensive to remove via surgery.
“AETNA was billed a little over $43,000 for my surgery, and that’s not something I could have ever paid out of my own pocket,” Tweedy said. “But because I had the benefits to cover that, not to sound dramatic, it could have potentially saved my life.”
One step at a time
In February, the LGBT Center announced the launch of TransPenn, a new multi-constituency group for trans people and allies.
Founded by Dawn Munro, who is transgender and works as a scientist at Penn, the group offers support for anybody who is currently undergoing or has already finished the gender transition process.
TransPenn is the first trans-support organization on Penn’s campus.
But, as Munro revealed, the group was originally founded on tragedy.
“In May of last year, a very good friend of mine who had also transitioned died,” Munro said. “She had unfortunately taken her own life and the night that she did that, she sent me a couple of messages.”
Munro, however, did not receive the messages for help until the next day, and since then, her friend’s death has haunted her.
“It’s easy to say that you can’t be responsible for everybody, but at the back of my mind, there’s a thought that if I had been there that she may have lived,” Munro said.
With this thought lingering, Munro then began speaking with Cross about establishing a support group for trans people at Penn. Eventually, she was able to start TransPenn.
“What if I had been there to support?” Munro said. “That’s pretty much what is and was in my mind.”
Room to grow
Despite the number of victories and policy reforms the transgender community at Penn has achieved, the push for positive change has yet to end, Cross said.
“It is hard for a lot of people to understand what it means to be transsexual and what transsexuals must go through to simply fit into society and live our lives,” explained Dana Taylor, a transsexual employee who works in the Office of Information Security.
“I don’t think everybody gets it. It’s so multifaceted — I still don’t get it,” added Cross. “But awareness has definitely raised. I think most folks on campus — at least student-wise — know what transgender is now or at least have some idea of what it is.”
With Penn now among a select number of institutions nationwide that have approved coverage for employee gender reassignment surgery, Taylor hopes this will cause a “ripple effect” for other universities to follow suit.
Cross added that continued education will always remain of the utmost importance throughout the advocacy process.
“We had to start with education — why it was so important to have this, why surgery is medically necessary,” she said. “We’re working to educate folks that gender identity is a many-faceted thing and can’t always be contained in one word.”
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