Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is an able-bodied, sex-positive, queer intersectional feminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans* person. She holds a B.A. in Chinese language and literature with a focus in folklore. She is a freelance writer and translator focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. She lives in Ohio with her partner and two cats.
As a college student, I never directly met another transgender or nonbinary student at my university — a major research institution with a student population of more than 40,000. I am sure that I may have seen some around the campus and in my classes. But none of my close trans and nonbinary friends and acquaintances are from my alma mater. I did not have the time to seek out extracurricular activities while juggling 15 to 18 credit hours each semester — at least not while also working a full-time job and engaging in independent research to prepare for graduate school.
I was a nontraditional student in many ways. I was a community college transfer student, lived off campus and commuted half of my time there. And there was the more visible fact that I was a nonbinary transgender student with no intention on hiding it. I also come from a working-class background. I grew up in the country, where the idea of college did not exist and gender variant visibility was unheard of. So it was disappointing that the experience that I thought would connect me with other trans and nonbinary folk turned out to do the opposite. Being so invested in course work and research meant that I was home by myself most of the time outside of class. I lost out on the opportunity to connect with the greater transgender and nonbinary community outside of campus. I was isolated.
Life on the campus as a nonbinary trans student was difficult, too. I felt frustrated with the general environment of exclusiveness on the campus, as well as the administration’s lack of services and engagement with the gender and sexually nonconforming population. I was even more frustrated when this exclusion, lack of support and silence permeated the classroom. I saw little material on gender nonconformity on my syllabi and had only a few instructors who maintained trans-inclusive classrooms. I felt invisible and was often chastised in classes for having “too narrow” a focus by including queerness and transness into all my class assignments.
Even if I had the time to be involved in LGBTQ life on campus, the university was not supportive and, at times, was hostile to queer and trans issues. I was forced to develop many strategies to cope with my instructors’ ignorance. It was distracting; I spent a great deal of time educating the people who were trained and paid to teach me about the basic issue of who I am as a person in this world.
This must change. No other trans and nonbinary college student should feel invisible, unsafe, silenced or ignored at their university.
Campus culture and student engagement are the largest issues and require the most attention. Thus, an important first step is for faculty members to strive to create inclusive classroom environments through specific pedagogical techniques. Working from the individual classroom to the curriculum and then to the larger culture will delineate a manageable path to inclusiveness — and ultimately address university-wide transphobia and cissexism. From my own experiences and a lot of trial and error, as well as through conversations with professors, I have formulated ideas for change that I will share with you in this essay.
Creating Inclusive Classrooms
To create inclusive classrooms, faculty members should first identify gaps in their knowledge about gender and become equipped with the necessary vocabulary and concepts. Knowing the difference between sex assigned at birth and gender identity, between gender identity and gender expression, and between sexual identity and gender identity (as well as the intersections between the two) is a good place to start. You can find a lot of great lists of vocabulary online.
Second, professors should take some time to learn about the plight of transgender and nonbinary folks. Being familiar with our historical and contemporary oppression allows you to better recognize the micro- and macroaggressions that we face, and therefore be better equipped to help protect us in the classroom.
After becoming familiar with the terminology and social aspects of transgender and nonbinary life, faculty members should then implement inclusive pedagogical practices. For the faculty members who are reading this, here are some suggestions:
- Correct yourself when you have improperly gendered (or misgendered) someone, even if the misgendered person is not present.
- Do not talk about a student’s gender identity unless they have given you their permission.
- Do not ask inappropriate questions! I’ve been asked all sorts. “What is your ‘real’ name?” “So what do you have ‘down there’?” and “So are you gay?” are some of the questions I get asked most often. I’ve never heard such questions posed to cisgender folks. Asking questions like those trivializes trans issues, conflates gender identity with sexuality and ultimately further dehumanizes trans folk.
- Offer your name and pronouns and include them in your email signature. Even as a cisgender person, offering your pronouns helps to create a welcoming, shame-free environment that normalizes gender inclusivity.
Above all, a faculty member should set the tone of respect that a classroom must abide by and act as moderator of discussion and defender of civility and inclusion. It is imperative that professors defend marginalized students by recognizing microaggression, eradicating shame and creating spaces where their voices can be elevated.
In a future essay, I plan to provide tips for creating a trans/nonbinary-inclusive curriculum, paying particular attention to incorporating gender nonconforming voices without exoticizing or tokenizing individuals’ experiences.