(ABC News) Donny Collins never had to endure the hazing or the homophobia sometimes associated with all-male fraternities and Greek life.
The brothers at Phi Alpha Tau at Emerson College in Boston not only embraced the 19-year-old transgender student when he rushed the fraternity last year but have raised the money Collins needed for “top surgery” to remove his breasts.
When they heard that Collins' insurance would not pay for such sexual-reassignment surgery, they launched a campaign to help him out.
The men posted a video on the fundraising site IndieGogo.com and have now raised nearly $17,000. Since the surgery costs only $8,100, Collins has asked that the additional money be donated to the Jim Collins Foundation (no relation), which provides financial assistance for sex-reassignment surgeries.
Collins was in a transgender youth group during high school led by the organization's co-founder Tony Ferraiolo, and he credits it for providing support at a critical time.
Ferraiolo said that he was “incredibly proud of Donnie for overcoming the obstacles in his life, becoming the man he is today, for inspiring people to take on a cause that is larger than him, and giving back to the community in this way.
Donnie Collins is getting help from his fraternity brothers at Emerson College in Boston, who are helping him pay for transgender surgery to start his transition from female to male.
Friends of Collins told ABCNews.com that Collins has been so overwhelmed by the media “fire storm” that he could not talk by phone. But in a statement released by the foundation, he said, “It's been such a long road, and it has been life-altering to find support and brotherhood. … The support I have received has made such a difference in my life.”
Jason Meir, director of student activities at Emerson, said Phi Alpha Tau's founding 110 years ago made it the nation's oldest communicative arts fraternity, one of five other fraternities and sororities on the Emerson campus.
“It wasn't the least bit surprising to me that Donnie was admitted going into the pledge, and that they would take him as a member,” said Meir. “Our fraternities are very open and affirming, and really are just accepting of all people and all types.”
Collins' story was first published by Out magazine, written by his fraternity brother Benjamin Lindsay, a junior at Emerson.
“I was just like, 'Oh that's such a Tau thing to do,' and I didn't even think it was that weird,” Collins told Out. “But then I started sending [the indiegogo link] out to people, and they were like, 'Oh my god, that's amazing! See, Greek Life isn't bad; it's amazing.'”
Fraternity brother Christian Bergren-Aragon made a plea for funds to help Collins in a video posted on IndieGogo, but said it was about more than money.
“We are here … to tell a story,” he said. “The story of transformation, the story of self-discovery, and the story of brotherhood. “Have conversations with your family and friends, sit down and talk with them.”
Collins, a visual and media arts major at the liberal arts college, is from Alexandria, Va. He came out as a high school student living in an all-girl dormitory at a prestigious boarding school in Windsor, Conn., according to the Out magazine article.
“They were really nice,” he said of the dorm. “But it was all horrible.”
The first step in Collins' gender transition was hormone therapy, but his mother's insurance policy did not cover the cost. Since 2011, he has paid out hundreds of dollars on his own.
Collins now has a student insurance policy through Emerson, which is underwritten by Aetna, but it excludes coverage for sexual reassignment, which it defines as “elective treatment.”
School officials declined to comment on the insurance plan for privacy reasons.
Noah E. Lewis, a staff attorney for the New York-based Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund, said people miss the point when they see Collins' story.
“My honest reaction was — they had to do this?” said Lewis. “No one should have to resort to a fund-raiser to pay for surgery. The more important question is why was a fund-raiser needed in the first place? Why is it not covered by their health insurance?”
For the past six years, some of the nation's elite colleges have offered student health insurance plans that cover sexual reassigment surgeries. When Brown University jumped on the bandwagon in August, it was the 36th college to offer coverage for gender-reassignment surgery, according to a recent article in The New York Times
“Harvard, Cornell, Stanford and Yale cover surgery — it's recommended as a medical necessity by the American Medical Association and even the IRS,” said Lewis. “Transgender students pay the same tuitions as other students, and yet are being denied the care they need.”
Some insurance companies have reversed initial denials when pressured.
In October, the Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund helped resolve the claim of Ida Hammer, a 34-year-old transgender woman who had been denied health insurance coverage for sex-reassignment surgery. MVP Health Care initially denied her claim on the grounds that it was “cosmetic.”
Despite his dismay that such fund-raising was necessary, Lewis praised the inspirational efforts of Collins' fraternity brothers.
“I think the younger generation has a completely different outlook today,” he said. “With Chas Bono on 'Dancing With the Stars,' you are seeing a shift in the way trans people are viewed in society.
“But, I'd like to see the fraternity organize to get that exclusion removed from the student insurance policy.”