Don't Call It a Comeback
by Shay McHale | published Sep. 30th, 2018
Here we are again, dealing with RIT's mess that is hormone therapy. Over a year after the cutoff of hormone therapy for transgender students and third year major Ryan Roy's PawPrints petition to bring it back, the SHC issued a statement in early September 2018. It stated that the SHC would be working with the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Gender Health Services to bring transgender healthcare to the students that need it. This decision obviously brings about a few questions, namely why it was taken way in the first place, why it's back and what the return of this availability actually means for transgender students.
Off The Meds
After the firing of Dr. Kontor in May 2017, RIT stopped all support for hormone therapy for students abruptly, with the support for some healthcare not coming until months later. Henry Trettenbach, third year Fine Arts major and one of the most vocal students protesting this issue, said at a forum held last February that
Following the attention from articles published by Reporter as well as those from the Democrat & Chronicle, New York State Division of Human Rights found that RIT discriminated against Dr. Kontor in her firing. RIT has a set of plans for what to do in case a faculty member is not acting appropriately, involving verbal coaching, written plans for improvement, and a warning system. The report could not find evidence that any of these had been used. No apology to Dr. Kontor has been issued, even following these findings.
The biggest issue with Dr. Kontor's removal was accessibility. Students who can make the commute to clinics in the city, like Strong or Trillium, have that option. For those who don't have the time or transportation required, the SHC was their only option. The next best place would likely be the Planned Parenthood in Ithaca, but even fewer could make that trip. In short, any students who did not have access to easy transportation were stranded, in a very literal sense — and with the sudden removal of Dr. Kontor without a replacement, it meant that students were off of their hormones. Hormone therapy is no exception to the rule that you shouldn't suddenly stop taking meds, with some pharmacies even recommending three-month-long prescriptions to ensure the stability of treatment.
The SHC does try to manage bridge prescriptions in order to make sure students don't just stop taking their meds. That being said, Dr. Kontor had been managing another important part of the process: the blood tests needed to determine prescription levels. With her gone, these bridge prescriptions would be based on what the students were on before, which in some cases could be a dose that was due for a change. Not only was Dr. Kontor involved in giving out diagnoses, but also the continuity of care, something which was part of the SHC's stated policies until her firing last year.
With no option to visit and get further refills or appointments to assist with HRT, students were stuck trying for other options. Unfortunately, the wait times at both Trillium and Strong can be notoriously long — up to at least six months of wait time for a consultation. Even after a petition signed by staff and faculty condemned RIT's handling of the situation, it was reportedly shut down by Munson, whose handling of the situation was sub-par. When he was asked about this issue in a WITR 89.7 interview, he said both that RIT is trying to determine if it can offer "the best care," and that "the number of students we are talking about is exceedingly small, so one shouldn't be thinking that we are talking about any sort of population here."
While it may be true that there is a small number of transgender students at this school, to refer to them in this way and to use their size to dismiss their issues is demeaning. Using the excuse that the majority of students would be fine is like if all or a sudden, the Golisano Institute for Sustainability just burnt down. Suddenly, you have a whole major of people who cannot participate in their studies, cannot effectively continue their education and students who wanted to explore classes in sustainability are no longer able to. However, it hardly would matter, since the number of people coming into the sustainability majors each year makes up less than one percent of the population here.
Dramatic metaphor aside, the loss of healthcare for transgender students was devastating. RIT effectively sabotaged the wellbeing of its students. Sure, they maintained some level of support, in some cases offering resources for help getting transportation and paying for the hormones, but this is obviously still a big change. This is not to say that it was a direct attack on these students, just as I am not trying to directly attack RIT. They were concerned about the way that healthcare was being handled by Dr. Kontor and took action, but proceeded to mess up every step of the way.
The loss of transgender healthcare did not go unopposed. Students continued to email in protest. The SHC responded with a letter stating it has never covered hormone therapy, but it would always remain sensitive to LGBTQIA+ issues. Posters were posted to try and draw attention to the issue, but still, nothing was done.
"I recognize this may be an inconvenience to you, and we will do everything we can to make this as simple as possible for you," said Dr. Gelbard in her reply. This recognition is as close to an apology as RIT has issued.
In February of this year, OUTspoken and the International Socialist Organization held an open forum, which touched on important points about how RIT was dealing, or not dealing with these issues. Included in the discussion were points about how RIT is hurting the "queer-friendly" image that many campuses, including U of R, are striving for. Additionally, Trettenbach, who was in attendance, expressed the desire for an apology from RIT for the grievances against transgender students. The forum was a good refresher on the issue. Although it did not bring much good news, it did bring up the news that RIT had hired Lindsay Phillips as the new medical director of the SHC. Phillips has been talking with OUTspoken and transgender students in the Q-Center and expressed a desire to move forward from what happened.
After almost a year, OUTspoken and many students banded together to protest the actions taken by the SHC, and to advocate for the return of hormone therapy. Not only did this show that there is indeed "a population of students," but also that the support for their healthcare was shared by many members of the RIT community. In response, RIT released a statement that followed the same lines as all the others it had released thus far, stating that the SHC would always be sensitive to LGBTQIA+ issues and that students could find help there, and they are open to hearing their opinions.
This was very similar in wording to the letter to the editor that Dr. Gelbard sent in after the first article Reporter ran, essentially making sure to use the right wording to ensure that people knew they cared, while simultaneously managing to turn the attention away from the fact that little was being done. The letter was nearly identical to the email that was sent to anyone who emailed the SHC about this issue, and the more that this response came up, the more that it felt like a copy-and-pasted excuse.
Even though RIT said it was working on solutions, nobody ever heard anything about what these solutions might be. In the meantime, students continued to try to fight this decision, through emails to the SHC and through drawing attention to the issue. Some more outspoken members like Roy and Trettenbach continued to do interviews on the topic to get the news out to multiple local agencies. While the students had some support from faculty and outside sources, every step of the way was led by the students.
Above all the issues that had come about, one of the biggest requests that still has not been met today is that neither RIT, the SHC, nor Dr. Gelbard have issued any sort of apology, either to students or Dr. Kontor, who now is working with Trillium. She works to ensure students can have access to HRT after accepting her position this year. What happened was wrong, mainly because of how the abrupt shutdown hurt students. Overall this action has been acknowledged as a bad move, but there has been no response to it in any sort of meaningful way. Every response they churn out seems to have the same theme — they are providing the best support they can, and they want to help LGBTQIA+ students. Perhaps this slip-up isn't quite viral enough to get a response, unlike a more notable counterpart from last year.
RIT needs to accept and admit that they screwed up.
Now that I have thoroughly scolded RIT enough, this brings up the final question: what does the return of of HRT mean for students? Is it going to be something that students can access easily? For starters, RIT is taking a good step by bringing in outside help. In addition, they will also be having the visiting physician train their staff on the topic of hormone therapy. The biggest issue here comes at the end of that sentence in their report: "2 half-days per month." They will be getting help, but it will be coming bimonthly and for half days. A little easy math and this means that there will be 12 days of training a year or about nine and a half days per school year. This is certainly a good move, but since they also recommend that students come in on these days to get help with HRT, the focus will be split between helping students and training the other physicians already employed there.
With this limited time period, it is hard to believe that these physicians will have enough time to be trained and help students with transgender healthcare concerns at the same time. Additionally, and this might be a bit nitpicky, but the very last part of the section on transgender care in their announcement is that they are expanding care in "a thoughtful, proper, and measured way by bringing in expertise." This is certainly step in the right direction, but the way that this is worded just seems like another attack on Dr. Kontor, and another way to further solidify their position that what she had been doing was wrong.
As far as an apology for all of this, I think that RIT really does not need to do much, but they should at least recognize the hurt that they caused students. Every time they have brought up this issue, it has been their goal to simply blame Dr. Kontor for essentially leading these students on. RIT needs to accept and admit that they screwed up, and not use it as a way to advertise what the SHC does offer, or as a way to bring more publicity to the return of the services. Instead, they should simply admit that they hurt students by going about this problem the way that they did. Certainly, it would also be nice if Dr. Kontor received an apology of her own for the way she was dealt with, regarding the violation of her rights and RIT's own policies. The biggest point of this apology should be to just recognize the issues of transgender students on campus and rather than just saying they are "sensitive" to LGBTQIA+ issues, to prove it.
My biggest fear is that this could be another letdown. I think that RIT has set itself up for a great idea, to bring healthcare back to students that need it, but I worry because so far they haven't done a great job. I think it is perfectly valid for me to not have my hopes set too high. That being said, if this is a success, it could really turn around this narrative. If this training works out and students are able to get the healthcare they need for hormone therapy, it would be a big step towards helping transgender students on campus and cleaning up this mess.