On her first day of classes at Georgetown in 2012, one of Celeste Chisholm’s (COL ’15) professors called her “Jonathan.”
Chisholm corrected the professor, explaining that she prefers to be called Celeste. She assumed that after the exchange, her situation was obvious and her classmates understood that she is a transgender woman.
She was surprised when she spoke with a friend who had overheard a conversation later that day between two students who were laughing about a woman being named Jonathan.
“These kids at Georgetown were so oblivious that I could tell them to their faces that my name was Jonathan, and they still wouldn’t get the idea that I was transgender,” Chisholm said. “That’s how the culture was when I came to Georgetown.”
Chisholm went on to become the first trans* representative, now called the secretary for transgender and gender-nonconforming advocacy, on GU Pride’s board in September 2013 and established herself as an advocate for transgender students’ rights and protections at the university. In this role, she worked to increase awareness among students and administrators of the issues that transgender students face.
Chisholm, who will graduate tomorrow, said that she has seen the lack of awareness among students that she observed three years ago begin to recede throughout her undergraduate career.
“I’ve noticed that there’s a common understanding. There’s a common knowledge of [transgender issues] that is obviously still burgeoning and not mature, but that’s progress,” Chisholm said.
Lexi Dever (COL ’16), a transgender woman who has previously served as GU Pride’s trans* representative and the Georgetown University Student Association undersecretary of LGBTQ affairs, agreed that there has been increased awareness of transgender issues among students.
“This year, pretty much all of the GUSA [executive candidates] came up to me to make sure they had trans protections written into their platforms, which is something that I don’t think has been done in the past because it wasn’t on anyone’s radar,” Dever said.
Policy changes have also come about at an administrative level, with transgender students now being able to change their names on their GOCards and live with students of their same gender.
However, both Chisholm and Dever said that while many students have been receptive to transgender advocacy, change has been slower on the administration’s end.
In a September 2013 interview with the Georgetown Voice, Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson asserted that the university would not support gender-neutral living arrangements, citing the Catholic Church’s teachings about gender and sexuality.
“There is an emerging view that gender identity is sort of something you play with. I think that is quite a different view than the Catholic view of identity and of human sexuality,” Olson told the Voice.
Olson wrote in an email to The Hoya this week that administrators have become more aware of transgender issues on campus because of the advocacy of students and LGBTQ Resource Center Director Shiva Subbaraman.
“I believe we are more aware of and responsive to the needs of our trans students now than we were five years ago,” Olson wrote.
Chisholm, who was among first openly transgender students at Georgetown, attributes some of the administration’s hesitancy to change its policies to the fact that there is only a small number of vocal, openly transgender students on campus.
When she experienced problems with her GOCard after changing her name on the university’s records this year, she realized that the university may not have been willing to update its electronic system to benefit one student.
“It costs a good amount of money to revamp the logistical, technical systems, and they don’t want to do that for a single person,” Chisholm said. “I’m not the only transgender person on campus; I am the representative. By definition, transgender people are one of the most hidden groups of people.”
Many transgender people are hesitant to come out because of the risks associated with it. Transgender women are among the most at-risk people in the LGBTQ community to be the target of hate crimes.
According to GLAAD, formerly known as the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 53 percent of victims in the 25 documented cases of anti-LGBTQ homicide in the U.S. in 2012 were transgender women.
“Speaking up at all is an invitation for major problems. It’s really been difficult to say that I want to take that risk and let people know who I am,” Dever said.
During the 2014-2015 academic year, the university made two landmark policy changes for transgender students.
Chisholm learned last summer that she would be able to live in university housing with other women. After transferring to Georgetown her sophomore year, she lived in a single in the corner of the basement of Copley Hall. During her junior year, she lived in a single on the men’s side of a coed floor.
Chisholm decided not tell her three female roommates in Alumni Square that she was transgender for the first five months that they lived together.
“That was such a fear that the Georgetown administration had, that they would let a transgender person live with cisgender people, and the cisgender people not only would know immediately, but they would … be so disturbed by the fact that they were living with a transgender person, that they would complain,” Chisholm said.
“So to subvert that logic completely, I figured that what would be best would be to see how long it took.”
Dever, who has lived in singles throughout her Georgetown career, was also given the opportunity to live with women in the coming academic year, but chose to live off campus.
Additionally, transgender students are now able to have their chosen names, rather than their legal names, reflected in university records, including GOCards, class rosters and Blackboard.
“This move was based on a desire to meet students’ need to be known and addressed by the name they prefer,” Olson wrote.
Both policies have been points of student advocacy for the past few years.
Chisholm said that she would like to see gender-neutral housing at Georgetown in order to better accommodate transgender students – especially those who do not fit into the gender binary.
“You still have to present as a man or present as a woman, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Chisholm said. “Some people at Georgetown are gender neutral. Some people at Georgetown can’t find the confidence or the resources or the conveniences to present as their desired gender every day.”
Dever said that she hopes to change club sports teams’ policies so that transgender students have an easier time joining the appropriate teams.
Subbaraman added that the university is working for a more uniform signage for gender-neutral, single-stall bathrooms.
“You will see the signs the new buildings. We will work to retroactively do them across campus,” Subbaraman wrote in an email to The Hoya.
While the university may be less inclined to take action on transgender issues in the absence of a larger community of openly transgender students, Chisholm stressed that it is difficult for transgender students to feel comfortable coming out without policies that will accommodate them already n place.
“[The Georgetown community] doesn’t realize that the administrative changes have to come before people are going to start coming out of the woodwork,” Chisholm said. “People will be more inclined to feel comfortable and confident coming out as transgender if they’re not having to out themselves all the time.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Chisholm was the first openly transgender student at Georgetown. This article has also been updated to reflect that GU Pride board position formerly called the trans* representative is now the secretary for transgender and gender-nonconforming advocacy.