Though trans* and gender non-conforming (TGNC)1 teens and adults have gained more visibility in the U.S., the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey shows that TGNC adults experience disturbing patterns of mistreatment and discrimination across categories including education, employment, family life, health, and housing. National and state anti-discrimination laws still do not protect TGNC individuals, making them vulnerable to oppression and aggression in their daily lives.
As a college professor, parent of a gender non-conforming kid, and ally, these findings, though sobering, are not surprising. In recent years, increasing numbers of TGNC individuals have been “coming out” and transitioning in colleges and universities across the United States. Emerging data on TGNC students’ experiences indicate that they are the target of harassment, victimization, and exclusion; that they often feel silenced, invisible, and misunderstood (Wolf, Kay, Himes, & Alquijay, 2017); and that they endure interpersonal discrimination and institutional cisgenderism (Lennon & Mistler, 2014; Seelman, 2016), defined by Seelman (2016) as a practice which labels: behaviors, goals, norms, and values of higher education institutions that reflect an underlying assumption or belief that cisgender identities are more ‘normal,’ ‘healthy,’ and ‘real’ and therefore are treated as ‘superior’ to transgender and gender non-conforming identities. Such institutional patterns result in systematic privileging of cisgender individuals and identities and marginalization of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and identities (pp. 619-620).
Less than half (45%) of transgender people aged 18 to 24 were in school, according to Nicolazzo (2017). In hir words, this “highlights just how overwhelming, pervasive, and nefarious gender binary discourse and compulsory heterogenderism are on college campuses as well as how these twin cultural realities may foreclose opportunities for trans* collegians” (p. 177). Yet, as Nicolazzo’s research points out, TGNC collegians also experience resilience, success, visibility, and determination. Within higher education, there are many opportunities for cisgender faculty, staff, administrators, and peers to examine their own biases and privileges, and to offer ways to collectively work towards advancing access, equity, and opportunity for all TGNC individuals.
I hope the questions posed in this blog can serve as a starting point to foster more transgender inclusive, affirming, and welcoming spaces in higher education and beyond. Thinking about gender as a continuum, offering non-binary options and opportunities, and being mindful of the challenges transgender people experience in a cisgender normative society will support transgender people and promote a healthy and productive climate of respect for diversity and individuality that will benefit all.
Who are TGNC individuals? They are people of any age, ethnicity, race, religion, class, ability, or sexual orientation. Some start the educational system and continue through higher education, graduate school, or the workplace open about being transgender; others come out or transition genders during PK-12 schools, higher education, or work; while others may keep their transgender identities private. Some individuals may never use the term transgender, but will strongly identify themselves as male, female, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary, gender queer, or another (or no) gender (Beemyn et al, 2005). In addition, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, 33% of the respondents identify as gender non-binary, a stark increase from the 5% of respondents in the previous U.S. National Transgender Study by the National Center for Transgender Equality (Grant et al, 2011).
How can institutions of higher education create inclusive, affirming, and welcoming spaces and experiences for TGNC individuals?
The following are examples of how organizations can assess policies, practices, and procedures that foster trans* inclusion.
Pronouns: Have you noticed that many individuals state their pronouns either orally or in writing? For example, I introduce myself as: “I am Graciela Slesaransky-Poe and I use she, her, and hers as my pronouns.” Do you state your pronouns when you introduce yourself or ask for other people’s pronouns? If you are a professor, do you ask students the first day of class to state their name and the pronouns they use?
Preferred Name: How do you offer opportunities for individuals, including students, to state the names (and pronouns) they go by?
Technology and Record Keeping: Do you have a simple process by which people can change their names even if their chosen names differ from their legal names? Do you have flexibility in your IT systems to offer optional fields to list gender markers? Have you discussed with your registrar and IT personnel how to capture name changes? Is there a process by which changes on email addresses, directories, etc. can reflect and respect people’s chosen names?
Gender Neutral Restrooms: Do you have a policy allowing transgender individuals to use the restroom that aligns with their gender identity? Do you offer gender-neutral restrooms for individuals who prefer privacy or for gender non-binary collegians?
Housing: Are your housing assignments gender inclusive? Do you offer housing options for transgender and non-binary students to live where they feel most safe and comfortable?
Course Content and Dynamics: Do you integrate transgender issues and concerns into your course materials and experiences? How do you respond to and intervene when cisgenderistic incidents or biases occur in the classroom? For example, do you correct students or guest speakers when they address the class in gendered terms like “ladies and gentlemen”? Do you set classroom ground rules of respecting others, including transgender students?
Athletics: What opportunities do you offer transgender students to participate in athletic teams? For example, can a transgender woman practice and play volleyball with her female teammates?
Resources and Supports: Does your organization have a clearly and visibly designated person or persons with allocated resources and clear reporting lines who can offer support, understanding, and resources?
Most transgender and gender non-binary individuals encounter hostility in a variety of spaces. For some, that hostility and oppression gets multiplied by their other minoritized identities, which may render them invisible or at a higher risk of discrimination and harassment. For example, a gender non-binary disabled person may have a more complex experience than their able-bodied gender non-binary peers. A transgender woman of color may experience a heightened level of harassment and hostility compared to a transgender man of color or to a transgender white woman. Your awareness about the ways the multiple systems of oppression shape individuals’ experiences will help you become a more supportive educator and colleague. (Crenshaw, 1989)
Beemyn, B., Curtis, B., Davis, M., & Tubbs, N. J. (2005). Transgender issues on college campuses. In R. L. Sanlo (Ed.), New directions for student services: Vol. 111. Gender identity and sexual orientation (pp. 49-60). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: a Black feminist critique of anti-discrimination doctrine, feminist theory and anti-racist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), pp.139-167.
Grant, J. M., Mottet, L. A., Tannis, J., Harris, J., Herman, J. L., & Keisling, M. (2011). Injustice at every turn. A report of the national transgender discrimination survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality and National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.
James, S. E., Herman, J. L., Rankin, S., Keisling, M., Mottet, L., & Anafi, M. (2016). The Report of the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Washington, DC: National Center for Transgender Equality. Retrieved from http://www.ustranssurvey.org/reports
Lennon, E. & Mistler, B. J. (2014). Cisgenderism. Transgender Studies Quarterly, 1(1), 63-64, DOI: 10.1215/23289252-2399623
Nicolazzo, Z. (2017). Trans* in college: Transgender students’ strategies for navigating campus life and the institutional policies of inclusion. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Seelman, K. L. (2014). Recommendations of transgender students, staff, and faculty in the USA for improving college campuses. Gender & Education, 26(6), 618–635. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2014.935300
Wolff, J. R., Kay, T. S., Himes, H. L. & Alquijay, J. (2017). Transgender and gender-nonconforming student experiences in Christian higher education: A qualitative exploration. Christian Higher Education, 16(5), 319-338, DOI: 10.1080/15363759.2017.1310065
- For the purposes of this blog, the term transgender and gender non-conforming or trans* will be used broadly as umbrella terms. For a more complete glossary of terms, click here.