A Civic Project story
By Kelly Jacobson
INDIANA – Elaine R. Mendus, 23, a fifth-year geography major with a minor in Latin American studies and history at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is a member of an undocumented minority at the school:
She is transgender.
Formerly known as Dustin, Mendus got rid of most of her male clothes in May 2013 and opted for polka-dot blouses and colorful headbands. The change was a culmination of a seven-year process that is complete physically but not psychologically, she said.
“I’ve heard enough stories about transgender people getting killed by male partners,” Mendus, a Long Island, N.Y., native, said in a March 6 interview at Stapleton Library. “I don’t want to get hurt.”
Mendus said she is fearful in Western Pennsylvania, where she hears whispers and feels long stares. At night, she becomes hyperalert at bars and shuns drunks, especially men in groups.
There are “eyes on me that I never wanted before,” Mendus said.
Her fears are well founded. The Pew Research Center in June 2013 published results of a national online survey of 1,200 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender adults. Researchers reported that 30 percent of LGBT respondents had been “physically attacked or threatened” and 58 percent had “been the target of slurs and jokes.”
GEOGRAPHY matters. LGBT students in rural areas such as Western Pennsylvania are more likely to hear negative comments, feel unsafe at their schools and experience verbal and physical harassment because of their gender identity and sexual orientation, according to a 2011 report from the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a tax-exempt research organization.
In Indiana, numbers of gender-based threats, harassments, intimidations and assaults are not documented in crime data.
“It’s all anecdotal,” Rita Gail Drapkin, Ph.D., a professor, psychologist and member of the faculty at the university’s Counseling Center, said in a June 5 telephone interview. “Most commonly, it’s people being screaming at from passing cars. They shout, ‘Dyke!’ ‘Fag!’ They’re seeing someone who does not conform to gender stereotypes. That’s generally the kind of harassment that happens.”
At IUP, administrators offer verbal support but insufficient resources to address LGBT concerns, said Drapkin.
“The university is very positive about the work we do without giving us the resources to do it,” said Drapkin during an April 1 interview in the Safe Zone, a Counseling Center program of volunteers in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students.
The IUP website lists one center dedicated to helping constituencies in its 16 percent minority enrollment — the African-American Cultural Center. The university lists no center that specializes in helping gay/transgender individuals.
IUP’s website posts no numbers of how many LGBT students are enrolled. Nor does the university gather the information. No forms ask students to disclose their orientation, a staffer at the Office of the Bursar said in a telephone interview.
Nationwide, 700,000 people in the United States are transgender, like Mendus, according to 2011 gender research at the Williams Institute, a think tank at the University of California Los Angeles. That’s about 0.3 percent of the over-age-18 adult U.S. population.
If 0.3 percent of IUP’s 12,471 undergraduate enrollment were transgender, that would amount to about three-dozen students.
IUP HAS TAKEN taken some internal steps in response to LGBT concerns. During the 2011-2012 academic year, the university began accommodating LGBT students seeking gender-neutral housing. Before then, transgender students were placed in a single-room dorm in University Towers, Sondra Dennison, director of residential living, said in an April email interview.
Recent initiatives by the Safe Zone include the addition of more gender-neutral bathrooms and an unstaffed LGBT resource room near the Counseling Center where students can read books and hang out, Drapkin said.
But on name changes – to Elaine from Dustin Mendus, for example – the university is frustratingly slow to adjust its record-keeping procedures, Mendus said.
The IUP Office of the Registrar must print birth names of transgender individuals on class rosters even if the individuals have chosen new identities, said Katelynn N. Rowe, a staffer in the IUP Office of the Registrar who handles registration changes. If a student’s name or gender legally changes and an IUP request form is completed, then the university can alter rosters and records accordingly. If not, students must privately speak with professors if they want to be addressed differently, Rowe said.
“There are no exceptions,” said Rowe in an April email interview.” As long as a student has legally changed name or gender, we are happy to make the change for them.”
At other Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools, full-fledged centers for LGBT students have been established. The PASSHE campuses include East Stroudsburg, Kutztown and Slippery Rock universities.
LGBT people at IUP say the university could do more.
Alex G. Baker, 20, a gay IUP student from Altoona, said the university should begin actively advocating communitywide LGBT acceptance. If so, then rural residents would follow the school’s lead.
“IUP is a huge part of Indiana,” Baker said in a May 7 interview. “If the university began advocating for our rights and safety, then maybe the town would understand, too.”
IUP’s EFFORTS to accommodate LGBT students are part of a nationwide movement of acceptance, especially in higher education. However, rural America is less targeted by LGBT activists, who focus big cities with more-accepting populations, Mendus said.
“I think it’s a matter of people needing more exposure in the rural environments,” Mendus said. “People need to be taught that these things exist and to be taught to be accepting of them.”
Kelly Jacobson, a sophomore majoring in journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is from Frederick, Md.
Sidebar: An IUP athlete. And out.
Clayton A. Cummings, 20, is a junior swimmer at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The Altoona native prides himself upon being one of a few openly gay athletes in collegiate competition.
“I’m comfortable in my skin,” said Cummings in an April 23 interview in Stapleton Library. “If someone looks at me differently, I really don’t care.”
The scholarship athlete said his teammates first inferred his sexuality from his personality before he told them. All were immediately accepting, Cummings said, which made him feel comfortable when he joined the team in 2011.
“I just told them, and they were, like, ‘We’re fine with it,’” Cummings said.
He chose IUP over Bloomsburg University, a Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education school that hosts an Office for LGBT Interests and more outreach programs than IUP, according to PaSSHE Pride, a consortium that addresses the concerns of LGBT constituencies and their allies.
“Small towns have a lot of people who are close-minded and less accepting,” Cummings said. “But most teams around the PSAC have been accepting of LGBT athletes, in my opinion.”
Cummings credits big-time NCAA Division I athletes for coming out as gay, especially those who play contact sports like football. A recent example is Michael Sam, a Division 1 defensive lineman at University of Missouri who came out Feb. 9. In May, the St. Louis Rams drafted him into the National Football League, making him the first openly gay draft pick in history.
“There are some guys who are open-minded toward us and don’t judge,” Cummings said. “Then there are some guys who will judge.”
After college, he said he plans to move to a big city for more job opportunities and LGBT acceptance outside of athletics.
“In a big city, people realize that there are bigger things to worry about,” Cummings said.
— Kelly Jacobson
Sidebar: Transgender defined
The Associated Press uses the word transgender to define individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond to their sex at birth.
The University of California at Berkeley Gender Equity Resource Center elaborates:
“Transgender (sometimes shortened to trans or TG) people are those whose psychological self (“gender identity”) differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with. To understand this, one must understand the difference between biological sex, which is one’s body (genitals, chromosomes, ect.), and social gender, which refers to levels of masculinity and femininity. Often, society conflates sex and gender, viewing them as the same thing. But, gender and sex are not the same thing. Transgender people are those whose psychological self (“gender identity”) differs from the social expectations for the physical sex they were born with. For example, a female with a masculine gender identity or who identifies as a man.
“An umbrella term for transsexuals, cross-dressers (transvestites), transgenderists, gender queers, and people who identify as neither female nor male and/or as neither a man or as a woman. Transgender is not a sexual orientation;transgender people may have any sexual orientation. It is important to acknowledge that while some people may fit under this definition of transgender, they may not identify as such.”
Sidebar: Trends, types of LGBT discrimination
Following is a chart listing trends in types of discrimination reported against LGBT adults in the United States.
Type Before 2012 2012-13 Been subject to slurs or jokes 43% 16%
Been rejected by a friend or family member 33% 6%
Been threatened or physically attacked 26% 4%
Been made to feel unwelcome at a place of worship 3% 6%
Received poor service in a restaurant, hotel, place of business 18% 5%
Been treated unfairly by an employer 16% 5%
Source: Pew Research Center, June 2013 survey of 1,197 LGBT U.S. adults
Sidebar: For more information
For more information about this story, or to get involved, contact the following sources:
IUP Safe Zone
Rita G. Drapkin, Ph.D.
Suites on Maple East, G31
901 Maple Street
Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Indiana, Pa. 15705
Phone: (724) 357-2621
Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education
Frank T. Brogan,
2986 N. Second St.
Harrisburg, Pa. 17110-1201 Phone: (717) 720-4000
GLBT National Help Center
2261 Market Street, PMB #296
San Francisco, Cal. 94114
National hotline: 1-888-843-4564
Youth hotline: 1-800-246-7743