The University of Mary Washington stood in virtual silence when Charles Girard ’12 first arrived for a campus tour in April 2008.
The University was on the high school senior’s short list of prospective colleges, and that visit was all he needed to make a decision. He showed up on the day of UMW’s annual National Day of Silence, an observance by schools and campuses around the country to draw attention to the harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students.
“I was walking with my dad around campus,” Girard recalled. “I thought, ‘I should go here.’ ”
Girard, who was born female but identifies as a male, grew up outside Charlottesville with a twin brother. He did not always identify as a male, but as a teenager he began to question his identity.
“On my first day of college, I introduced myself to my college roommate as Charlie,” Girard said. At age 20, he began taking hormones that deepened his voice.
As far as Girard knows, he is the first “out” transgender student at Mary Washington. He was still a freshman when he became involved with PRISM – People for the Rights of Individuals of Sexual Minorities – and he quickly made his mark.
At the freshman’s first PRISM meeting, he asked why UMW lacked a gender-neutral housing policy. The group asked Girard to draft one, and that fall the University approved the document. The Gender-Neutral Housing Project, of which Girard was co-founder and president, was under way by the start of the 2009-2010 school year.
The project gives students who may feel uneasy in a traditional residence hall a comfortable place to go. GNH rooms are gender neutral but not sex neutral, which means people can live with those of different gender identities but not of different birth-assigned sexes. This is the first step in a multi-step process that ultimately may allow students to live together in dorm rooms regardless of birth-assigned sex.
“They are working on making them sex neutral,” Girard said. “We don’t have exactly what we need, but we’re far above other Virginia colleges and universities.”
As an undergraduate, Girard spent his free time promoting diversity on campus, which earned him a Human Rights Campaign Scholarship in fall 2010.
He worked diligently for UMW PRISM. Equality Virginia, an organization that promotes equality for LGBT people, had him speak about campus activism at its statewide conference.
“I had a lot of help along the way from faculty, staff, professors, and other PRISM members. The club is what it is because of such strong leadership from past executive boards. They paved the way,” Girard said.
The work paid off. In 2011, Mary Washington earned four out of five stars on the Campus Climate Index, meaning the University offers sexual and gender minorities a high quality-of-life experience. Campus Pride, a nonprofit group that promotes safe college environments for LGBT students, publishes the ratings.
“Mary Washington has been wonderful,” Girard said, with “a huge ally population.”
After graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree in American studies and a concentration in gender and sexuality, Girard headed to Northern Virginia, where he is spending the summer as an intern with the Human Rights Campaign. And City Year, an education-focused branch of AmeriCorps, has selected him to spend a year working with high-risk students.
When Girard first came to UMW, he dreamed of someday working with transgender youth and college campus outreach. And today, he’s doing just that.