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Alumna encouraged by increased transgender awareness

Willow Primack, LGO ’15, lauds recent landmarks, but says there is more work to be done to increase acceptance

July 23, 2015

alumna encouraged by increased transgender awareness

Willow Primack, LGO ’15

Transgender awareness has escalated in recent months, with celebrities like Caitlyn Jenner and actress Laverne Cox making headlines. At the same time, MIT has moved forward with a new policy on gender-inclusive student housing and gender reassignment surgery insurance benefits for staff and students.

Willow Primack, who just completed the two-year Leaders for Global Operations program, said she is heartened by these efforts, but added that there is more to be done to increase acceptance of transgender people. It’s one of the reasons that Primack still openly identifies as a transgender woman after more than two years of living as a woman.

“I consider myself fully female, but I think it’s important for me to continue to identify as transgender in order to promote visibility for the community and for young people to know that it’s OK,” Primack said.

With Jenner—previously known as Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner—in the news, Primack said she is excited to see greater societal acceptance, but cautioned that one’s socioeconomic status makes progress easier for some transgender people.

“It is very easy for me to say—from an upper, middle-class background and with the opportunities that that entails—that my transition has been fairly easy. But things are not easy for a great many transgender people, even now with this increased visibility. The most marginalized and vulnerable members of the community should be the focus of support,” Primack said.

Benefits at MIT

MIT announced coverage for gender affirmation surgery, also known as gender reassignment surgery, in July 2013 for staff members and extended the benefit to students in February 2014. Abigail Francis, director of LGBT services at MIT, said implementing the benefit at first was logistically challenging. Some administrators didn’t fully understand the benefit and a lack of providers meant some students had to seek services out of state.

“That benefit is a really good example of the difference between policy and practice,” Francis said. “We have a non-discrimination policy that is inclusive of gender identity, sexual orientation, and lots of other aspects of identity, but when it comes to implementation of the non-discrimination policy, things get a little sticky.”

This year, MIT is introducing an opt-in, gender-inclusive housing policy that will formally take effect in the fall, said Henry Humphreys, senior associate dean for Student Life at MIT.

It’s taken about two years to formalize the housing policy after a group of students approached Humphreys with the idea four years ago. Gender-inclusive housing is already offered at peer schools such as Harvard, Columbia, and Stanford.

In the past, any student who was in transition was asked to submit a supplemental request for housing and was placed individually by the housing assignments office.

“People were accommodated on an individual basis,” Humphreys said. “If we are truly going to say we are an open and welcoming Institute, we should have a policy that doesn’t just allow for someone to be quietly assisted, but a very clear statement that we support people regardless of who they are or how they identify themselves.”

Several dorms have already successfully piloted the program, in which students can check off a box on the housing form indicating they are open to a gender-inclusive room.

This summer, Francis’s office, along with the MIT Department of Facilities, is also updating the list of gender-neutral restrooms on campus.

The increased visibility around transgender issues at MIT and beyond has made Francis cautiously optimistic, but she echoed Primack’s assertion that more awareness is needed.

“There’s always more work to be done. We can’t remove MIT from the larger society. A student can have a great experience here, but step outside and have a really challenging time,” Francis said.

Primack, who is starting a new job at Amazon.com, said transgender visibility is often improved through people’s awareness of individual stories, such as her own.

“When the majority of the community knows someone who is transgender, it improves attitudes about transgender people as a whole. Seeing a marginalized community as individuals, rather than as a collection of impressions and stereotypes is a powerful tool for change. We need to keep telling our stories,” Primack said.