NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Earlier this year, the Douglass Residential College officially admitted Vanessa González, an influential LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, and asexual) rights activist in the Rutgers University community.
González, a Rutgers junior, officially joined the women’s residential college this year after receiving an acceptance letter in late April.
Born in New York City, González spent most of her life in Hudson County, before attending high school in Dover and applying to Rutgers University.
In her official biography for the Rutgers University Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, González identifies "as a Mixed, Cuban, Iranian, Jewish, Queer, and Transgender Woman of Color," as well as an open and visible transgender student within the Douglass Residential College.
Shortly after transitioning, González approached the Residential College administration about applying as a transgender woman.
“My motivation to join Douglass Residential College came from wondering if they would accept a transgender woman,” González said.
“I know many Douglass women, and before I applied, I would ask them if they knew of any transgender women before me, and they all said no.”
Founded in 1918, Douglass College is an undergraduate women's college which focuses on fostering academic growth and community leadership through various institutional programs.
In 2007, the college officially became more integrated with Rutgers Unviersity under President Richard McCormick.
Now referred to as "Douglass Residential College" (DRC), the school continues to exist today as a residential college program, primarily focusing on housing and community programs for women.
Prior to González’s admittance, the school's official policy on transgender acceptance was not clear, lost among the DRC’s bureaucracy.
“After I was accepted into Douglass,” González said, “I would email deans and administrators asking if there were other transgender women in the college, but I was never given a straight yes or no answer.”
For González , the Douglass Residential College’s ambiguous relationship with the transgender community has remained a constant issue.
“I had and still have many concerns about being in Douglass,” she told New Brunswick Today.
Even after being accepted into the DRC, González expressed concern about the school’s climate for transgender identities.
“Historically, the feminist movement has not accepted transgender women or seen transgender women as women,” González said. “So coming in, I am nervous to see how the spaces I enter will react to me and how I will be received as a transgender person.”
Although González’s acceptance represents a historic moment for the Residential College, she still faces obstacles ahead towards making the college inclusive for transgender identities.
A HISTORY WITH ACTIVISM
González, who is currently majoring in Women & Gender Studies, and minoring in Social Justice, has played an influential role in LGBTQIA activism throughout her undergraduate career.
After living in the University's Social Justice Learning Community during her freshman year, González began taking an active interest in social activism for LGBTQIA rights at Rutgers.
During her first year, González says she “started taking more social justice centered classes,” and developed a passion for gender studies.
“I just realized that I felt more comfortable in Women & Gender Studies classes, and loved discussing gender and privilege on a daily basis,” González explained.
Currently, González serves as a Senior Office Manager for the Rutgers University Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, managing the Center’s undergraduate staff members.
She also works as a Coordinator in the OutSpoken Peer Education Team, described as “a student group dedicated to campus peer education, outreach, and advocacy regarding issues of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and social justice.”
Additionally, González also serves as a co-facilitator for the LGBTQA "Breathing Room" support group for Rutgers students struggling with their sexual and gender identities.
As the organization’s program coordinator, González also works with “Trans*missions,” the University's first official student organization for transgender and gender nonconforming students.
González notes that she is “one of the first open, visible, and involved transgender women at the college,” as she continues to fight for social justice within the Residential College.
ACCEPTANCE VIA SELF-IDENTIFICATION
Prior to González’s acceptance, Douglass Residential College students were unsure as to the official acceptance policy of transgender women within the college.
This was further compounded by the fact that no official public confirmation exists from the Residential College.
After New Brunswick Today reached out to the DRC’s administration for clarification, Dean Jacquelyn Litt confirmed the college’s admittance of transgender women via e-mail.
“Douglass Residential College accepts any student who self-identifies as a woman and wants to join our community,” Dean Litt told New Brunswick Today.
Dean Litt also noted that transgender women are given full support and accommodations for student housing within the college, should a transgender woman decide to reside within official Douglass housing.
“Transgender women are welcome to reside in the Douglass Residential College residence halls,” Dean Litt explained, “as students have the option to be housed based on their gender identity and/or legal sex, and any self-identified women may join the Douglass Residential College regardless of the status of their legal sex.”
Dean Litt also revealed that Douglass has previously accepted transgender women within the Residential College’s history.
“Douglass Residential College has admitted more than one openly transgender student,” Dean Litt told New Brunswick Today. “We may not know whether a student is transgender at the time of enrollment, but the student can contact our recruitment office and we will answer any questions.”
When González reached out to the Douglass administration about acceptance for transgender students, she said that she was told otherwise, and left confused as to the DRC’s official policy.
“When I had asked if I was the first, or one of the first, transgender women in the college, multiple [administrators] answered by saying that, if there was a transgender woman, that they never disclosed their identity to the college,” González told New Brunswick Today.
STUDENT GOVERNMENT SUPPORTS INCLUSION POLICY
New Brunswick Today reached out to the Douglass Governing Council about their perspective on transgender inclusion within the DRC.
The Douglass Governing Council represents the Douglass student body.
In response to questions from New Brunswick Today, the Council concluded that transgender acceptance was imperative to the future of the Douglass Residential College.
"Accepting [transgender] students is necessary to keep Douglass an inclusive, diverse institution," the Governing Council Executive Board said.
"We believe that excluding any group of students from the opportunities and benefits of Douglass Residential College is not in accordance with Douglass Residential College's missions and values."
The Executive Board also concluded that institutional accommodations for transgender women must be a fundamental right provided by the college.
"We believe transgender students should also be able to participate in this community and be entitled to any necessary accommodations for them to have a safe and comfortable college experience,” the Executive Board stated.
However, despite the official support of the Residential College administration and Governing Council, very few Rutgers students are aware of Douglass’s official stance on self-identification for transgender applicants.
New Brunswick Today reached out to several Douglass undergraduate students about González’s admittance, and found virtually none were even aware of the school’s open admittance of transgender women.
Likewise, very few Douglass women were even aware that González was accepted into the DRC, despite her influential history with LGBTQIA activism.
Sara Duffy, a Class of 2016 Douglass student and former Barbara Voorhees Mentor, notes there is very little visible activism for transgender identities within the DRC.
“It wasn't even till this past year, when I lived in the [Newell Apartments], not Douglass Residential College housing, that I became really aware of transgender issues,” Duffy told New Brunswick Today.
When asked about Douglass’ relationship with transgender women, Duffy also feared that the college was not entirely inclusive.
“I want to say yes,” Duffy said, “but I can't really be certain… I met a lot of people who were in Douglass Residential College who were very closed-minded.”
“I think there are definitely problems with the Douglass Residential College,” Duffy told New Brunswick Today.
“I love it with all my heart and it's so special to me, but it's just like anything else. They need to make an effort to be at the forefront of feminist issues and transphobia, misogyny, general lack of knowledge of what transgender is.”
Duffy’s fears were further echoed by González herself.
"In regards to visibility of the experiences of transgender women, I think there is zero visibility in terms of [the] Douglass Residential College, but there is some at Rutgers as a whole…” she told New Brunswick Today.
In particular, González feels concerned about her “Issues in Women’s Leadership: Knowledge and Power” class, a mandatory first-year course for all incoming Douglass students.
“I am very nervous taking that class, because it will mostly comprise of first-year Douglass women. So I do not know how aware they are of transgender issues, if they have ever interacted with a transgender person, or are they a transgender-exclusionary radical feminist that does not see me as I am, a woman,” she explained to New Brunswick Today.
Visibility for transgender women remains core to González’s activism, as she hopes to hit the ground running and make an impact in her first semester as an official Douglass student.