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CT has resources for transgender university students, but some are falling through gaps

A Yale undergraduate student who chose the name Anyue Ai, which means Moon Love in Chinese, says she was bullied for being different in school, and was lonely and depressed as a child and teen. The moon was her companion.
Anyuyue Ai
A Yale undergraduate student who chose the name Anyue Ai, which means Moon Love in Chinese, says she was bullied for being different in school, and was lonely and depressed as a child and teen. The moon was her companion.

Yale University will expand its LGBTQ+ mental health team this fall, in response to student needs.

Wait times for therapy at Yale decreased this year “due to an aggressive recruitment campaign,” said Peter Steere, chief operating officer at Yale Health. The average wait time for an initial appointment with a mental health provider is now four days. Students told Connecticut Public Radio that they’ve had to wait for months previously.

Still, activists say transgender students are falling through the gaps across Connecticut not because of a lack of resources, but because university staff often fail to connect students with resources outside their system.

On a page in a coloring book, a yellow moon hangs low over a leafy green stalk, sheltering cozily napping cats. Anyue Ai, a 21-year-old student at Yale University, filled in the colors.

“Anyue in Chinese means [the] moon,” Ai said. “When we think about the night sky, it feels like our companion when we're alone. Growing up, I've been bullied a lot and I didn't really have many friends. So I was, you know, very lonely. The moon was like a thing that kept me going.”

Ai said she was “just not like [the] other guys,” but was unable to tell her classmates what she really wanted them to know: “Hey, I'm actually a girl. It was not a hospitable environment for me; I grew up in a very segregated white town.”

And she did not feel “safe to come out at home” to her traditional immigrant Han Chinese parents.

“I just had to be really repressed,” she said. “And I was just waiting until I could get some freedom. And for me, that meant going to college.”

“So I ended up at Yale,” said Ai, whose chosen last name means “love” in Chinese. The university’s progressive and supportive trans policies was the draw. But things took a dark turn when she sought hormone replacement therapy (HRT) and learned that it was not offered under Yale Health’s Basic Student Health Services.

Instead, HRT is provided through Yale Health’s Hospitalization/Specialty Care, which covers prescription medications as well as gender-affirming care provided by endocrinologists and surgeons at Yale Medicine.

“We connect students seeking gender-affirming care with a care manager at Yale Health who is experienced with gender-affirming clinical services,” Steere said. “The care manager will help students navigate their coverage and connect with specialists at Yale and affiliated providers approved through Yale Health.”

That’s how Laurel Turner, a junior at Yale, underwent facial feminization surgery (FFS) and bottom surgery.

“They completely covered both my FFS and bottom surgery, which was wonderful,” she said.

But Ai said when she was unable to get the care she needed at Yale, she ended up in her room for months missing classes and falling into a deep depression.

“[I] couldn't really tell what made me more suicidal; the process of being denied health care, or the dysphoria itself,” she said.

Ai said prior to her breakdown, she spent hours of her morning calling back and forth between different Yale administrators as well as providers across the state.

“It's tedious work,” she said.

She could have got on Yale’s specialty insurance; her parents were able to afford it, she said, but they chose not to, knowing that she would then gain access to gender-affirming care.

The tragedy is that Ai’s solution was located just 17 minutes away in Hamden at Anchor Health, the state’s leading health care center for queer people by queer people, where she finally ended up in January this year.

Now, six months into HRT, Ai said her body “feels like home for the first time.”

In Hartford, Kamora Herrington is a cultural humility educator, and part of her work is to get trans students the resources they need in the community.

“Day one,” Herrington lamented. “[If] someone had just said Anchor, she could have gotten right over. And this is where everyone from soup to nuts needs to know everything. And the gatekeepers need to pull all of their gatekeeping off. Because that's the only way it works.”

Connecticut has some of the strongest laws in the country protecting trans rights. And the Connecticut Department of Social Services was one of the first Medicaid programs nationally to add a wide set of treatment and services for gender transition.

“We have wonderful rights, we've got wonderful protections, we've got wonderful things covered,” Herrington said.

But the problem?

“We have lots of people in positions of power who don't share that information as freely as they should,” Herrington said.

In the face of parental disapproval and insurance roadblocks, trans students often wait to get into universities to access gender-affirming care.

“I work with high school students who are experiencing problems, all of those access problems, [and I tell them] ‘Look, we're just going to get you accepted to UConn,” Herrington said. “Once you go to UConn, you're going to get on the student plan, life is going to be great. So the UConn student plan is wonderful, if you know about it, and you know how to access it.”

And once students get to universities, access comes down to the individuals who interface with trans students.

“Our state university system offers tremendous and beautiful supportive care to trans and gender variant students,” said Herrington, who also advises Eastern Connecticut State University on trans care.

But it's critically important that universities have staff who know what gender-affirming care looks like, she said, and who connect students with resources in the community if the university doesn’t provide it, or if the student is struggling with financial barriers.

Institutions have been stepping up. In Connecticut, 32 university campuses currently are in the Campus Pride Index, a nationally recognized indicator of institutional commitment to LGBTQ-inclusive policy, program and practice.

If you or someone you know needs help, the Suicide and Crisis hotline is 9-8-8. 

Sujata Srinivasan is Connecticut Public Radio’s senior health reporter. Prior to that, she was a senior producer for Where We Live, a newsroom editor, and from 2010-2014, a business reporter for the station.

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