Equal representation: A right, not a debate
Propelled by an electric wheelchair, Josephine Tittsworth circled the Student Government Association Senate Chambers, introducing herself to anyone who would take her hand. The room was filled to the brim with members of SGA, members of the LGBT community and Cougars alike, all anxiously awaiting the start of the town hall meeting on Wednesday evening.
As Tittsworth placed her hand into mine with a firm handshake and a wide smile, I glanced around the room filled with people of every kind and was reminded that the Josephine Tittsworth Act is bigger than the confines of our University.
Diversity is a commonly heard word at UH. Overall, most of the student body seems to be pretty successful in being forward-thinking and accepting of all viewpoints, religions, ethnicities, genders and sexual orientations.
However, discrimination has always been an issue, no matter how progressive and accepting the world is becoming.
Some members of SGA are fighting to introduce the Josephine Tittsworth Act, through which the University would be required to recognize transgender students as the gender they identify with, rather than their birth gender, on University documents.
This bill sits as an additive to a pre-existing Equal Employment Opportunity and nondiscrimination policy that stated that “the University is committed to creating a work and academic environment free from discrimination for all persons regardless of their race, color, religion, age, national origin, sex, disability, veteran’s status, sexual orientation, genetic information or from retaliation for having participated in an unconstitutionally and/or statutorily protected activity.”
The town hall meeting began with members of the panel stating their connection to this significant bill.
The Josephine Tittsworth Act, co-authored by Senator CLASS James Lee, SGA President Charles Haston and former CLASS Senator Guillermo Lopez, aims to allow students to update their University identification with their preferred name, discerning gender and title.
There is resistance to this bill from members of the UH community. However, most groundbreaking suggestions come with roadblocks, most of which are placed by lack of knowledge.
Director of the LGBT Resource Center Lorraine Schroeder said most issues stem from miscommunication and misunderstanding. This misunderstanding comes from the apparent absence of likeness.
“Me, and many of you in here, are cisgender. … I was born female, and I feel like I’m a woman, so I’m cisgender,” Schroeder said. “It’s difficult for us to wrap our heads around the transgender issue because our experiences are so far from anything that might be similar to that, but just because it is difficult to understand … that doesn’t mean that they’re not real or not real experiences of many people.”
According to a statistic provided by Schroeder, the lives of transgender individuals often reflect the tragic challenges they’re faced with. Seventy-eight percent of transgender people report being harassed in grades K-12; they are twice as likely to be unemployed than members of the general population and are four times more likely to make less than $10,000 a year.
During the course of the meeting, the academic significance of the bill was repeatedly advocated. While some members of the Cougar community feel as if the origin of this bill may have been personal or social issues, the most important issue is that of education.
Every single person on this campus came to UH with educational fulfillment being the driving force. The absence of this bill leaves room for fellow Cougars to miss out on college opportunities.
Living in fear of being unintentionally forced out of the closet by a professor or an adviser is a legitimate concern for the transgender community.
One member of the panel was communication and marketing senior Lou Weaver. Weaver, 43, is no stranger to discrimination. After re-enrolling in school a little later in life, Weaver attended Houston Community College to restart his college career.
“My legal name on documents did not say Lou Weaver, but when I went to school (at HCC), one caring administrator helped me out and made sure my documents read ‘Lou Weaver’ even though my legal documents did not reflect that,” Weaver said. “That was so fortunate for me, because I did not have to out myself to every teacher, to every student.”
Weaver’s tone changed when he spoke of the transition to the University.
“When I was getting ready to come to UH, I still hadn’t had my name on legal documents changed, and I was terrified,” Weaver said. “I didn’t come for an extra semester … but then when I finally came to school here, I had my name and gender marker changed, and I was able to have that reflected.”
The Senate opened the floor to questions from the audience. Among these questions were expected concerns about safety, security and the future of the University.
However, other questions arose that were riddled with a lack of knowledge and closed-mindedness regarding the transgender community.
Monica Roberts, blogger of transgriot.blogspot.com and meeting attendee, showed frustration when a particular question was raised about sexual predators and transgender people, despite there being no correlation between the two.
Audibly scoffing, Roberts appeared displeased with way the meeting was progressing. Following the conclusion of the meeting, Roberts sat down to open up about her struggle attending college in the ‘80s and about her decision to finally have the courage to become who she was meant to be.
Roberts was one of many transgender people who began college at a young age but was uncomfortable letting her true identity show, ultimately leading to her early withdrawal from UH.
“We’re talking about early ‘80s, when there’s no LGBT centers, and we had just erased the anti-cross-dressing ordinance,” Roberts said. “A month before I started my fall semester in 1980, the anti-cross-dressing ordinance that had been in the books since 1904 was taken down. It was a different world on UH campus at that time … not a whole lot of support for someone who was dealing with those issues, with me dealing with the trans issue at the time.”
When coming to UH as a student, Roberts originally identified as male.
“I was already starting to come into that trans awakening at that time, but I was in no way, shape or form ready to transition at that time. It would take me until 1994, when I finally had enough and just had to deal with it.”
Living in a very different time than now, Roberts faced the challenge of making a change when there was no model to follow.
“In 1980, during my transition period, my first thought was, ‘Where are the trans who looked like me?’” she said.
I ventured to ask how her family and friends reacted to her transition.
“My 20-year anniversary was Friday, April 4,” she said.
“I walked in the middle of Terminal C in Continental Airport, and it was like transitioning in the middle of a fishbowl … I was at a point in my life where I didn’t care. I needed to transition for myself to be the person I needed to be.”
Roberts admitted that she had the support of many of her coworkers, but there were some coworkers who tried to ban her from using the restrooms.
The battle of the restrooms is a saddening reality that transgender people have to face. As they try to enter the bathrooms of the gender they identify with, people are sometimes confronted with resistance — further calling for the need for gender-neutral bathrooms at UH.
Happily welcoming herself into the conversation, Tittsworth appeared suddenly with a reality shock.
“In 1980, I was hiding out in hotel rooms,” Tittsworth said.
Leaning toward me and outstretching her hand in candor, Tittsworth explained hiding her identity from the world to avoid punishment from the law.
“I would pack a suitcase and an ice chest full of food and beverages, and I would go to a hotel room,” she said.
“I would spend an entire weekend locked in that hotel room and not leave because it was against the law — I wouldn’t even open the door.”
Concerning how the University can better adjust to understanding the transgender community, Tittsworth had a suggestion.
“It’s important to recognize the specific needs of a minority group,” she said. “The dominant group can overwhelm the minority group unless you address the issues specific to that minority group.”
Tittsworth and Roberts, who are old friends of a decade, referred to the town hall meeting as “educational.” The friendly duo lobbied in Washington, D.C., together, arguing for the advancement of human rights.
“I think we need more time,” Roberts said.
“It’s an ongoing process,” Tittsworth added.
Roberts explained how society was at the time of her transition.
“You went through the transition, got your surgery, disappeared into the community and never let anyone know that you were trans,” Roberts said. “It’s called stealth, but now, because of the Internet age, it’s harder to go stealth.”
“I consider stealth another closet,” Josephine said. I glanced toward Roberts, who gave an agreeing nod.
“That’s another (reason) I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” Roberts said. “A lot of transwomen went stealth, and it’s hard to build community if you don’t know that the nice lady next door is a girl like you.”
Turning my attention to Tittsworth, the name behind the bill, she explained the history behind the Josephine Tittsworth Act.
In 2003, Tittsworth was an undergrad at UH-Clear Lake in her first year of SGA executive council. She was asked by the dean of students to help add gender identity to the University’s nondiscrimination statement.
For three years, she — along with a small, strategic group — choreographed plans to turn the idea to a reality.
This addition to the bill is the next logical step.
The world is constantly evolving. Years ago, terms like non-binary, transgender and bisexual were considered taboo. However, thankfully, the world is adapting to understand the specific needs of individuals so no one ever has to question where they stand.
It’s not about having to understand the exact ins and outs — it’s about being open and receptive to all different ways of life.
When I asked for a closing word to any current UH students who are struggling with feeling comfortable being who they want to be, Tittsworth had some inspiring words.
“In the famous words of Captain Taggart (from ‘Galaxy Quest’),” she said, smiling. ‘Never give up, never surrender.’”
Correction: This article originally gave an incorrect URL for Monica Roberts’ blog. It has been corrected to transgriot.blogspot.com.
Correction: The writer of this article mistakenly said “Jason Lee” instead of “James Lee” as the co-author of the bill.
Senior staff columnist Kelly Schafler is a print journalism junior and may be reached at [email protected]