How College Administrators Can End Transphobia On Their Campuses

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is a writer and translator. She writes from the perspective of a queer transfeminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans* individual without disabilities. She is currently pursuing a M.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and lives in Ohio with her partner.

Eradicating Transphobia On Campuses

In a previous essay, I discussed ways in which college instructors can use gender-inclusive pedagogical techniques to create a trans* inclusive environment in their classrooms. In a second one, I offered additional advice for instructors to develop curricula that are inclusive of trans* individuals.

In this third piece, I offer advice to campus administrators on changing campus culture and institutional policies to better include and support transgender and non-binary students. I draw from personal experiences as a non-binary trans* person, as well the writing of others who challenge transphobia on college campuses.

Personal Experience

My college environment felt toxic, claustrophobic and, at times utterly suffocating. Every day, I felt pressured to hide my identity, and when I did dress affirmatively, other students harassed me, and faculty members did not acknowledge me. Most days I would contemplate skipping class to avoid the stress. Oftentimes, I would have to leave classes when they felt unendurable, when conversations led to probing questions about my body, gender or sexuality.

I attended the college that I did partly out of circumstance — location, price, transferability — and partly because it was home to a renowned program in my field. And my major professors were hearteningly supportive. I came out to them in my final year. We developed close ties, and they still inspire and propel me today.

However, the safety and comfort of one academic department only goes so far. A college’s culture permeates every facet of campus life. Every square inch of campus was a reminder that I, through my tuition dollars, inadvertently supported a negative, sport-centered, party-centered, oppressively traditional macho culture. I am not alone in this feeling.

The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People report found that 31 percent of the respondents suffered from harassment on their campus, with over half of the respondents stating they did not disclose their LGBT identity at the institution. Other surveys found that trans* students reported more instances of harassment and discrimination and a lower sense of belonging on campus. In addition, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011) revealed that 90 percent of two- and four-year institutions have implemented no programs towards trans* inclusion and remain inaccessible and inhospitable to trans* students. These studies show that transphobic campus culture is a real and widespread issue that effects trans* students’ ability to succeed in college. This has to change.

Statistics on the number of trans* students at university are low because reporting remains tricky. Higher education administrators may not want to use funds to support for what seems like a very small student population. But they are in the best position to change campus culture and institutional barriers to trans* student inclusion. They can tie this to their missions and values and make achieving diversity centered on promoting the self-efficacy and inclusion of their most marginalized students.

Social and Institutional Barriers to Higher Education

The first step in the process of making change at the administration level is to recognize the social obstacles trans* individuals face even in accessing higher education. Trans* people experience disproportionately high rates of homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare and transportation, and families that are often unsupportive and harassing. College often doesn’t seem like a possibility.

Because of this instability, trans* individuals are also more likely to engage in sex work and survival crimes to support themselves. This can lead to trans* individuals to become enmeshed in the prison industrial complex and with criminal charges that bar them from eligibility for federal financial aid. Furthermore, federal financial aid for dependents is reliant upon parental support that is often unavailable to trans* youth. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for trans* students wanting to go to college to get in. These same disadvantages carry into the university setting, making it harder for trans* students enrolled in classes to thrive.

Trans* Oppression on Campuses

In hir book, Trans* in College, Z Nicolazzo has identified two main forms of trans* oppression on college campuses — what ze calls gender binary discourse and compulsory heterogenderism. The gender binary discourse refers to the ways in which what are considered appropriate gender identities and embodiments are regulated. Certain forms of gender expression are privileged above others. Heteronormative masculinity is prized highest, thus becoming the taken-for-granted norm or default while femininity is the most scrutinized. Thus, students who deviate from the gender binary (male or female, masculine or feminine) are punished. Compulsory heterogenderism is how non-trans* (i.e., cisgender) students misperceive trans* gender identities, recognizing them only through negative sexuality stereotypes that conflate gender identity and sexuality.

These two forces cause trans* students to feel invisible, invalidated and unwelcome on their campus. Students feel forced to cover and to hide their sexuality. Students have their gender identities erased and are often forced into sexuality categories to which they do not ascribe. The emotional toll this takes is high.

In light of these negative forces, however, trans* students practice resilience or pursue strategies to move toward a self-defined success. Campus administration needs to support these efforts, to recognize trans* students’ agency, and to draw from the myriad lived experiences and expertise on campus to uplift trans* lives.

Advice to Administrators

I want to give basic guidelines to begin this work. I do not intend this list to be a best-practices framework or a one-time application. I offer it, and these three essays, not as an end goal but as a starting point — a place to inspire deeper conversations in hopes that others will expand and strengthen it. In that spirit, I recommend that administrators:

  • establish and enforce specific policies that protect trans* students from harassment and discrimination;
  • provide specific financial aid, food and housing assistance for trans* students;
  • allow students to change name and gender markers on all college forms without legal documentation. The legal name can be retained for records;
  • change gender-segregated co-curricular activities, intramural athletics and multi-gendered fraternities and sororities to include trans* students. Abolish all forms of student segregation;
  • offer specific spaces for trans* students to engage with one another;
  • create spaces on campus for trans* students. Students will be able to maximize their time in a safe environment to de-stress, meet other trans* students, and recover from both macro and micro-aggressions;
  • offer non-gendered health services and have insurance cover the cost of hormones and surgeries needed to medically transition;
  • center trans* students in sex education outreach and sexual violence prevention programs;
  • implement mandatory sex and gender education for incoming students, staff and faculty members;
  • make all campus housing and restrooms non-gendered;
  • partner with community organizations to keep trans* youth in high school and offer support to get them through the college admissions process; and
  • offer post-graduation support for trans* alumni to help them through discriminatory hiring practices.

Conclusion

This type of approach is not an arrival, but a journey — a constant practice. Hard work has to be done to get more trans* individuals into college and to support the efforts for which trans* college students have already been fighting. We deserve more than to be seen as problems to be solved or ignored until it goes away. Some work to challenge transphobia and cissexism on campuses is already under way. It is due time for university administrators use their positions of power to support us in creating wide-reaching changes in campus culture and climate.