Amid confusion about what healthcare procedures are covered by the college, transgender students at Barnard have struggled to find adequate support and resources, an obstacle that has left them feeling out-of-place on campus.
Specifically, students cited a lack of awareness of health services and a shortage of counselors trained in LGBTQ issues. In particular, some transgender students have found these offerings frustrating when compared to resources available at Columbia.
Due to a policy change in 2015, Barnard now admits those students who “consistently live and identify as women, regardless of the gender assigned to them at birth.” But prior to this amendment, the college did not consider those who were assigned male at birth but identified as female to be eligible for application. Of the Seven Sisters colleges that remain women’s colleges, Barnard was the last to update its admissions policy to include transgender women.
The decision to admit transgender women came after a series of campus wide conversations and a vote by the board of trustees. While the college has amended its admissions policy, transgender students at Barnard have highlighted a lack of clarity and a deficient spread of information surrounding medical resources available for students undergoing the transition process.
SGA Representative for Student Health Services Valerie Jaharis, BC ’19, who identifies as queer and transgender, said that administrators should not assume that students know what resources are available and where to find them.
“One of the things that Barnard could work on in general in health [services] is the assumption that students know what they need to ask for, because that’s a pretty privileged assumption” Jaharis said. “Having the policy of ‘we have all these resources, students just need to ask’ doesn’t really work, and it specifically leaves out a whole marginalized group of people on campus.”
Concerns of limited transparency were first raised during a Student Government Association meeting last November, when members of GendeRevolution, an advocacy group for transgender, gender-nonconforming, and gender-questioning students, requested that SGA urge Barnard’s Primary Care Health Service to provide coverage that includes hormone therapy for transgender and gender-questioning students. All at the meeting were unaware that the office already provided these services.
A spokesperson later told Spectator that hormone therapy and gender-affirming surgery are, in fact, both covered under Barnard Aetna Student Health insurance. The Columbia Student Health Insurance Plan also includes these services.
Because transgender healthcare requires recurring treatment from a specialist over a long period of time, Barnard refers transgender students to outside providers such as Callen-Lorde Community Health Center and the endocrinology department at Mount Sinai Hospital for hormonal and surgical care, according to Executive Director of Student Health and Wellness Programs Mary Joan Murphy.
Prior to the clarification, the only mention of this information on Barnard’s Primary Care website was in its student insurance section. The website’s main page provided no indications where transgender students might find this information. A few weeks ago the website was updated to include a specific page under the services section of the website specifically for transgender healthcare.
Rowan Hepps Keeney, BC ’18, who identifies as transgender and gender non-binary, said they have experienced confusion and a lack of clarity when engaging with Barnard’s Primary Care Health Service.
“We need to be having more honest and open conversations about what is available,” Hepps Keeney said. “I feel like the individuals probably really do want to help trans students … but by not clearly establishing that they … have these resources and that they’re readily available and willing to assist us, they send a different message.”
According to its website, Primary Care offers services to all students regardless of gender identity and expressions, including a comprehensive list of referral resources in New York City for transgender health and transitioning procedures. However, the webpage does not include links to these resources, and students instead must meet with a clinician in person to discuss their options.
Comparatively, Columbia has an entire website dedicated to supporting transgender students, including information on waivers and accomodations, gender neutral restrooms, and links to additional on-campus and outside resources. The website, titled “Trans @ Columbia,” is described as “a page dedicated to providing up-to-date policies, services, and resources for Columbia’s transgender community.”
Some transgender students pointed to ambiguity as a factor that may discourage prospective students from applying. A transgender junior at Barnard who requested to remain anonymous for fear of discrimination said that the college’s failure to openly discuss services provided for transgender students leaves them feeling as though they would not be accommodated at the college.
“Having those sorts of resources publicly available could make Barnard a space where incoming students see these sort of things and think ‘I’m going to be okay if I go to school here,’” Jaharis said.
Hepps Keeney and the junior also said that transgender students often feel unwelcome or uncomfortable in Barnard’s health office because of diagrams depicting cisgender female anatomy present throughout the office, a concern that transgender students also expressed in 2015.
“[The] health service is probably trying [to be more accomodating] because of the admissions policy change, but at the same time, you walk in [to the office] and you open the door to all of those rooms and there’s giant pictures of female genitalia everywhere,” the junior said.
However, Murphy said that a majority of students come to the office with gynecological concerns, with the top five health concerns across all classes being of this nature. Thus, the posters—which are present in some of the clinical rooms—are necessary as an educational tool.
“We have to meet our patients where they are,” Murphy said. “That doesn’t mean we want to alienate anyone … [but] if we meet our patients again and again with GYN issues … we need diagrams to show them what’s going on.”
She added that all of the clinical rooms at PCHS now have transgender identity flags in them.In addition, some students also pointed to a shortage of therapists equipped to address the mental health concerns of queer and transgender students at Barnard’s Rosemary Furman Counseling Center, especially when compared to Columbia’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
Murphy said that students are placed with counselors in Furman based on their immediate needs following an evaluation, which may or may not be directly related to transgender concerns.
“Some issues that may be the most concerning may not be exclusive to being trans, but there are lots of therapists that are equipped to handle [those concerns],” she said, adding that all of Furman and PCHS’ staff members are trained to deal with these issues.
However, of the nine psychologists listed on Furman’s website, only one is listed as having a professional interest and specialization in “LGBTQ issues.” CPS has a “sexual and gender identity team” composed of 12 psychologists that have a special interest and expertise in working with LGBTQ students.
“Furman says that Barnard students can’t access CPS because they have equal comparable services [at Barnard], but if you are a transgender person, there is not an equal option on this side of the street,” the junior said. “They don’t have those resources, and I’m sure that that can be said for a lot of other groups at Barnard, because CPS is gigantic [in comparison to] Furman, which is small and mostly tailored to a few groups of people.”
Though it is true that Furman is more limited than CPS, the relative sizes of the undergraduate student bodies differ significantly, with CPS servicing 32,429 students, according to data provided to Spectator, while Furman serves 2,600 students.
However, the small size of Barnard’s community has allowed students to develop close relationships with some administrators who have served as strong mentors and advocates.
Students identified Associate Dean of Student Life Alina Wong and First-Year Class Dean Rebecca Grabiner as supporters of transgender students.
“Dean Wong is very amenable to the needs of queer people at Barnard, and Dean Grabiner has been my biggest cheerleader this whole time,” the junior said.
Ultimately, despite the obstacles transgender students continue to face in accessing adequate health and counseling services, many have found the Barnard community to be largely inclusive.
“The way that Primary Care operates reflects a very different Barnard than the one that I’ve experienced socially,” Hepps Keeney said. “In terms of my interactions with students, I have been blown away by how welcoming and understanding not only Barnard students but also Columbia students are about having non-binary trans students at women’s colleges.”