Throughout his childhood in Canada, Kez Hall always knew he was different. But it wasn't until he enrolled in college that he hit his stride.
"Where I grew up, it was not understanding at all. I grew up in a very country-suburban area," said Hall, now a 23-year-old senior at Towson University, where he's studying electronic media and film. "I always felt different but didn't necessarily know the language or the steps that I needed to take."
Hall, a transgender man, credits the Towson community, in part, with enabling him to begin his transition last year.
"Coming to Towson helped me become my authentic self," Hall said. "It was the step I needed to take, and the people I met at Towson in various student groups definitely helped me and influenced my transition."
At a time when legislative backlashes against the trans community — over gendered bathrooms, especially — have hit a fever pitch in some states, Towson University stands out for its long commitment to creating a safe and inclusive campus community.
Joel Bolling is the senior director of student retention and development at Towson's Center for Student Diversity. He enumerated the ways that Towson is addressing the needs of transgender students, beginning with gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-inclusive university housing, where students can opt to live with whomever they choose. His office also helps students with logistics, such as changing government-issued identification and other documentation, or connecting them with healthcare providers.
The point, Bolling said, is to allow students an equal opportunity to thrive in their studies, and later, in their careers.
"Our goal is to help minimize the social stressors that will often distract students from focusing on their academics," he said. "If a student is beginning to transition, for example, their parents may in some cases disown them and decide they're no longer going to pay for tuition. We help figure out ways in which we can navigate around that and mitigate some of those additional stresses."
That was essentially the situation Hall found himself in when he began his transition last year. Things weren't going well with his family life back in Canada.
"The [Center for Student Diversity] was literally where I stayed. ... I needed a safe environment from the toxicity of my home life," Hall said. "They connected me with a therapist so I could talk about everything that was going on at home, and connected with me a doctor to make sure I stayed healthy, and made sure I had insurance."
Since then, Hall has become something of a poster child for the trans student community at Towson. It's not a job he asked for, but Hall says that if he can help educate the campus community at large, that's what he wants to do.
Despite the university's efforts to support trans students, no one is immune to the larger backlash that's happening in some parts of the country, Bolling said. "There's damage being done in terms of perceptions. In some cases we're going backwards."
It makes the education component of his office even more urgent, he said: An important part of his job is engaging the cisgender, or non-trans, community on campus.
"I often start out with helping people understand the difference between biological sex and gender. They're often stuck in this binary model," Bolling said. "They shouldn't feel guilty about coming into the conversation with these beliefs."
The goal, he said, is to enable them to be advocates, too.
"This advocacy process is an ongoing process," he said. "There's always more work to be done."
—Leah Soleil for Towson University