Ethan Santiago, a physical education major in his first semester at Northern Essex Community College, had been using the men's locker room for weeks when he decided he needed a spot to stash his gym bag. So, he applied for a locker.
He said a school administrator denied his request, citing safety reasons. Santiago, a transgendered student, still has some female anatomy.
The rejection spurred the 20-year-old to file an affirmative action grievance against the school in October, alleging that he was discriminated against because of his gender identity.
Santiago said he just wants to be treated like other male students on campus. Instead, he said, the college offered him the use of a locker room generally reserved for athletes from visiting schools, as well as use of a handicap-accessible bathroom near the NECC men's locker room. He said both options made him feel like a second-class citizen.
"Let's put you where people won't see you, where people won't find out . . . like I'm some kind of dirty little secret," Santiago said, describing administrators' reaction to his gender identity. "I'm not in the closet. I'm not afraid."
NECC's associate dean of college life, Nita Lamborghini, conferred with the school's legal counsel before responding to Santiago's request, college spokeswoman Ernie Greenslade said in a statement e-mailed to the Globe. She said Santiago's request was a first for the school, where transgender issues had not previously been raised.
"The college's primary concern was to ensure that no student was discriminated against and that all students felt safe and respected," Greenslade wrote in the statement. "Many colleges have addressed this issue by providing transgendered students with gender-neutral space on campus. Since it has recently been brought to the forefront at Northern Essex, the college plans to develop a policy that will address this issue."
College officials declined to give specifics on Santiago's complaint.
NECC already is governed by the state Board of Higher Education's affirmative action plan for community colleges, which was implemented in 2004 and "prohibits all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation."
Still, transgender advocates say it seems as if Northern Essex is behind the times.
At least 18 higher educational institutions in Massachusetts have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and expression, including Harvard, MIT, Tufts, and Salem State, according to the Transgender Law & Policy Institute, based in Brooklyn. Emerson College and Tufts University also have gender-neutral bathrooms. And the University of Massachusetts at Amherst has gender-neutral housing where students may have a roommate of either gender.
"So many students by the time they get to college already have come to terms with being transgender and are living their lives as men or women, and I am very glad to say that on a whole colleges and universities across the country have been very responsive and have been the first institutions in the nation to develop nondiscrimination policies and do the right thing by protecting their students," said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, headquartered in San Francisco.
"I doubt they're being malicious. They just appear to not understand what they should do," said Minter. "The appropriate response is to make sure that the locker room is safe for all the men that use it."
Minter suggested the college could put up curtains or install private changing areas within all its locker rooms. Doing so, he said, would protect anyone - regardless of gender identity - who is uncomfortable changing in front of others.
"A transgender man is a man," Minter said. "He may have a different body in some respects, but his gender identity, which is the real aspect of human existence, is male."
Santiago, of Lawrence, took the name Ethan about two years ago. He was born Elizabeth. That identity confused Santiago, who said that as a teen he didn't "feel straight" but knew he wasn't a lesbian. He figured he could be bisexual, but decided to do some research.
"I came across a general education website that had all the definitions of different ways that people are queer, and transgender was there and I was like, 'What! That makes so much sense.' It just clicked," said Santiago, who has since cut his hair and dresses in men's clothes and has had breast reduction surgery.
"It was exciting every step of the way to find out what I really liked," Santiago said. "I grew up female and I know that a lot of trans people try to put their old life behind them, but I fully embrace that I was born female and that I grew up female . . . and I think it's going to make me a much better guy."
Meanwhile, Santiago said, he'll continue his fight at Northern Essex. He's been in contact with the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, a nonprofit that has offered to help guide his next steps.
Otherwise, "what am I going to do when people ask me, 'How come you're not coming to the locker room with us?' " asked Santiago. "I am living as male. I am using the men's locker room."
Erin Ailworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.