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Australian Universities Aren't Recognizing Transgender and Intersex Students

For many students, university offers the opportunity to cast off the restrictions of school and family. But for transgender and intersex students, it's just another stressful battlefield.

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Elliot Downes is a transgender history student at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Growing up in a small rural New South Wales town, Elliot had looked forward to university for the same reasons everyone does. You expect it to be an exciting community, a place where you're free to express who you are—away from the prejudices of your town, your school, and your family.

"I went to a Catholic high school. The students and teachers—that entire environment—never made me totally comfortable," Elliot told VICE. "I couldn't openly identify as transgender there." So instead, Elliot waited.

When high school was finished, Elliot applied for a legal name change in recognition of a more honest identity—one untied to either gender. But when Elliot eventually arrived at La Trobe, it became apparent the institution didn't know how to recognize it.

"La Trobe doesn't have the option to use gender-neutral titles here," Elliot told VICE, referring to the title Mx, a genderless substitute for Mr, Mrs, or Ms. "It makes me really uncomfortable reading letters from the university that don't recognize my proper gender." Elliot said La Trobe also have no gender-neutral bathrooms, a constant problem for transgender students.

Intersex and transgender students like Elliot are still largely unaccounted for at many Australian universities. Recently, Australia's Human Rights Commission released its first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, and Intersex (LGBTI) University Guide. It was established to help students assess Australia's universities in what LGBTI facilities they provide. It found while some universities are truly excelling, they are unfortunately too few and far between.

While many are making great strides in providing facilities for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, those identifying as transgender and intersex are being left behind. Tim Wilson, Australia's Human Rights Commissioner, told VICE this neglect was his biggest concern. "Universities need to pick up their game," he said. "Transgender and intersex people are the new frontier, but they aren't covered by many policies and practices."

These include a university anti-discrimination policy, which found a staggering 80 per cent are not representing current law. Specifically, they fail to recognize recent federal changes to the Sexual Discrimination Act, which gives protection over sexual orientation, gender identity, and—for the first time internationally—intersex people.

"These changes happened, but universities haven't caught up," said Justin Koonin, a researcher in the study and convener of the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby in NSW. "Some universities even have no mention of LGBTI people at all in their anti-discrimination policies," he said. "It's a bit alarming."

Mr. Koonin told VICE that while universities are making progress, this absence of recognition for transgender and intersex students could be alienating. "It's simply invisibility," he said. "If you don't see information that's relevant to you, then you don't know who to talk to. It can have adverse mental affects."

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One student who can vouch for that experience is Andy Zephyr, a transgender student who attended both the University of Technology (UTS) in Sydney and the University of Sydney (USYD). Andy spoke to VICE about how when a university fails to recognize you, it affects your mental health.

"It makes you feel like your brain isn't right. I suffer mental health issues and it all compounds," Andy said. "It makes me feel like I'm having a psychotic episode after long periods of arguing and denying my gender." Andy told VICE how universities don't "actually talk" with their transgender and intersex students, to hear what they really require during their education.

However some universities are learning to adapt to the needs of all their students. Lee Taube, a transgender student at Swinburne University, explained how there are facilities at Swinburne that cater to their transgender and intersex students. "We're allowed to have an Mx title here—instead of Mr or Ms," Lee said. "We can use our preferred names too, and we also have gender-neutral bathrooms."

You can learn more about the LGBTI services available at your university, or any other, by using the (LGBTI) University Guide. The guide is a collaboration between the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby, Star Observer, Transgender Victoria, Out for Australia, and Organization Intersex International Australia.

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