(CNN) – The University of Vermont is getting national attention for its moves to make transgender students feel more welcome.
When Rocko Giselman was just 15, Rocko knew something just wasn’t right. “The idea of being a girl started to feel more and more wrong. I was kind of grappling with, if I’m not a girl, what am I?”
The spunky 21-year-old with an infectious laugh, now a senior at the University of Vermont, then began identifying as transgender. That means the gender identity Rocko was assigned at birth isn’t how Rocko identifies now. As Rocko will tell you, it’s incorrect to refer to Rocko as “she” or “her” or “him.”
Gieselman said, “I use they/then pronouns. I also am cool with is ze here or any other gender neutral set. I find them to be a little easier for folks. Some do the whole it’s not grammatically correct…And, grammar, whatever. My identity is more important than that little hang up.”
Rocko is one of many transgender students on UVM’s campus the school works to embrace, most notably with the move six years ago, to allow students to select their own identity regardless of whether it’s been legally changed. Even a third – neutral – gender the way Rocko did. A move that’s now getting national and global attention including a lengthy write up in the New York Times.
UVM Registrar Keith Williams said, “On average, I get a phone call a week from schools all over the country, asking me about how we did the project.”
Williams says the campus wide preferred name system change was the most important project he’s worked on in his entire career. “It’s actually a public safety issue. Transgender students, trans folks in general have the highest level of violence within the LGBTQ community, so a situation which might just seem awkward to somebody who isn’t trans, where the faculty member just gets the name wrong or even worse knows the legal name but uses the name that the student is going by, if that implies the student is trans, it could actually endanger the student.”
According to school officials, UVM was the first school in the country where students could select their own pronouns. It was a complicated and thoughtful process. It didn’t just happen over night.
LGBTQA Director Dorothea Brauer said, “These databases that handle student information on college campuses are really pretty massive and pretty complex. These registrars are dealing with all kinds of legal issues around the release of student information and they have to be managing all of that and when we are changing something as fundamental as a name, that of course comes into play.”
Brauer worked to make that name and pronoun change for nearly a decade. “We are among a small group of schools that are really leading the way on these issues and one of the things we’ve experienced in that leadership position is being able to change the conversation nationally.”
Though Rocko is excited about the newfound celebrity status as a result of that Times piece, Rocko says highlighting one voice alone in the transgender movement is not enough. “As a white person, I have a lot of race privilege that plays in to how people perceive me and perhaps how they also see my gender and I think it’s really important to kind of check our own privilege in that. I think it’s incredibly important that trans people are given the space to tell their own stories.”