When Sebastian Beckham Nix graduates in December, he hopes that the diploma for his B.S. in Public Policy-Nonprofit Studies will have the correct name on it. Nix, a transgender man known as Becks, entered Georgia State University in 2010.
While Becks is comfortable talking candidly about his past, he’s the exception rather than the rule. And there are concrete reasons why, according to research recently published by Kristie Seelman, an assistant professor in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies’ School of Social Work.
Transgender students experience marginalization and interpersonal victimization on college campuses in a number of ways, she writes in “Recommendations of Transgender Students, Staff, and Faculty in the USA for Improving College Campuses” (Gender & Education, 2014).
According to Seelman’s study, negative experiences for transgender persons typically include being denied access to, or questioned within, campus housing and bathrooms; harassment, bullying and sexual assault related to gender identity and gender expression; a lack of acknowledgement of their presence on campus; forms, applications and record change procedures that do not recognize fluid gender identities; and a lack of curricula, competency and knowledge among staff and faculty about transgender individuals and how to support them.
Nix has had some of these experiences. In one example, even though his name is legally changed via a court order, archaic policies make it difficult for the change to be processed in everything from social security cards to email addresses.
Nix and Seelman share the same passion: to work towards changing discriminatory gender diversity laws on campuses nationwide and in Georgia.
“I got into this area of research because I want to be a change agent,” says Seelman.
Nix, as a teenager, came out as a lesbian in what he thought was the solution to his inner turmoil. “I realized I wasn’t being honest with myself. I had to get over some intense transphobia and internalized oppression. I also had to stop worrying about being afraid and uncomfortable. I mean, life is just too short to lie to yourself.
“Overall, it hasn’t always been an easy process. And coming out doesn’t just magically rid you from these feelings, but it helps immensely.”
A few years later, in 2011, Nix told his family and a larger group of friends and co-workers that he was transgender. He then began the process of hormone replacement therapy.
How has life been on campus since then for Nix?
“It’s been a mixed bag in terms of how people respond to me now that I am open with people about being transgender,” he says. “Faculty have been fairly fantastic.”
Nix reports he’s had a few negative encounters with students about his gender identity, but he uses these times as “teachable moments” with candid conversation and by guiding them towards educational and awareness resources.
An intern with Georgia Equality, Nix also provides cultural and diversity training for large groups. And important part of this training is the terminology guidelines he offers from the National Center for Transgender Equality and GLADD. He has also developed a one-pager, The Top Ten Questions That Are Inappropriate to Ask Transgender People, he felt compelled to write after reading a BuzzFeed interview with an openly transgender musician.
“There’s been more visibility about trans issues in the past 10-15 years because there are more ‘out’ faculty and students,” says Seelman. “Large public universities seem to be more accepting, but there is still room for policy changes.”
In her article, Seelman offers solutions based on her primary research in Colorado. The study revealed five resonating themes: offer education, campus programming and support of trans individuals; improve university systems and procedures for recording one’s name and gender; encourage greater inclusivity and recruitment of diverse groups; make physical changes to facilities; and hold people accountable.
“More research needs to be done on how policies and the characteristics of school environments impact people,” says Seelman. “In order to prompt change, it is important for researchers to document the connection between particular campus policies, such as a lack of gender-neutral facilities or difficulties in updating campus records, and the health and well-being of transgender people.”
“On-campus housing still remains an issue,” says Nix. “Georgia State is lacking when it comes to gender-neutral bathrooms, which are also great for accommodating families, gay men and lesbians.”
Nix also hopes to see quicker improvements in the systems that record one’s name and gender. A model policy, according to Nix, would be one Emory University uses which allows transgender students who have not had a court-ordered name change go by their first initial and last name.
“July 1, 2014, was a defining moment for me because that was the day my name was legally changed through the court system,” he says. He considers that moment as just the beginning of a long process of self-care and health maintenance.
Nix, who also volunteers with the Atlanta Pride Committee, feels that Georgia State is moving in the right direction in addressing gender diversity issues by providing Safe Zone training sessions designed to educate the campus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexed, questioning and asexual (LGBTQIQA) community. Safe Zone strives to create safe spaces on campus where members of the LGBTQIQA community can be their authentic selves while also feeling welcome and comfortable with being out on campus.
On December 17, 2014, at Georgia State University’s Fall Commencement, will Nix be presented a diploma bearing his legal name? Nix and Seelman hope the moment proves victorious for Nix. If it does, it will signal another positive change in gender diversity policies for Georgia State University.
EDITOR’s NOTE: Upon reading this story, Doug Jones, Co-founder and CEO of Affordable Colleges Online, requested that we add this link to his site’s new LGBTQ college student resource guide: http://www.affordablecollegesonline.org/lgbtq-college-student-guide/.