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.

Creating Trans-Inclusive Curricula

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is a tattooed, 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 writer and translator focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. She currently resides in Ohio with her partner and two cats. She maintains a personal website.

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In an earlier post, I discussed ways in which college instructors can use gender-inclusive pedagogical techniques in their classes, offering specific practices that professors might use to create a trans-inclusive environment in their classroom. In this essay, I offer additional advice for professors to develop curricula that are inclusive of transgender and gender nonconforming (GNC) individuals. I draw from personal experiences as a nonbinary trans person, as well others’ writing about curriculum development.

My Experiences

My college course experience consisted mainly of white, cishet (i.e., cisgender, heterosexual) men instructors who assigned readings by white, cishet men authors. Even in classes taught by women instructors who attempted to make their curricula representational — including some transgender authors — the work was often narrow in focus. Most of these essays were coming-out stories, and anecdotal experiences and views were seen to represent the authors’ entire community.

The learning objectives of those readings were not made clear from the start of the course. Discussions of the readings typically devolved into inappropriate probes into the personal lives of trans and GNC authors, usually regarding their personal anatomy and sexual experience. The readings were also usually relegated to their own section in the syllabus, so that two sessions out of the entire semester might touch reflect on trans and GNC voices.

The few times that I did encounter a multiplicity of voices were in classes dedicated entirely to them, such as Gay Fiction of East Asia or Gender in Chinese History. While it may not be immediately obvious as to why these types of courses are problematic, they illuminate the ways in which curricula communicate and reinforce hierarchies of power. Intentionally or not, these curriculum choices exoticize, tokenize and discipline the experiences of transgender and GNC folk in various ways.

Problems

Chandra Talpade Mohanty has written about three models of courses when it comes to feminism — an analysis that is applicable to, and helps me to identify the problems inherent in, the aforementioned approaches to supposedly gender-inclusive curricula.

A course in which trans or GNC voices are presented in single, exclusive unit of the syllabus is what Mohanty calls the tourist model. This approach uses the voices of the Other to try to diversify the otherwise homogenous curricula. It perpetuates normative assumptions about power hierarchies; it assumes that the students reading are cishet. The cishet students are separate from the trans and GNC voices they read. Cishet students simply “visit” the experiences of trans and GNC folks without having to engage with them on their own terms.

When trans and GNC students are present in these classes, it can be marginalizing for them. I had this experience in one of my college courses. As the only out trans student, I was asked to confirm or deny the experiences of someone else, as if I was the single representative for the entire trans community. As a white trans person living in the northern part of the United States, I shared none of the experiences of the Black transfemale author living in the Deep South. Tourist classes maintain the dominant cishet power structure and reiterate normative assumptions about folks on the margins of society. Because students are separated from the material, they are not forced to engage the reality of the social complexities these texts are meant to highlight.

A course in which the voices of the Other are the sole ones highlighted is what Mohanty calls explorer model classes. These are often recognizable by their titles, like the ones I mentioned above. Explorer model classes posit the experiences of Other in contrast with normative ones. Students perceive what they do and the information that they learn in “regular” classes as normal, and the trans and gender-nonconforming folk in these classes as exotic, strange or deviant. Intentionally or not, these classes perpetuate and reinforce “us/them” dichotomies. By being offered separately, the voices presented in these courses are not seen as relevant to mainstream education.

Solutions

So how can professors avoid these curriculum pitfalls? I recommend that instructors provide varied, sometimes conflicting trans and GNC voices so that students can engage and connect with the content more deeply. Cishet student may not normally connect with the story of a trans or GNC person if their experiences or views are too different from their own. Similarly, cishet students may take the narrow views and experiences offered as representative of the whole community, reaffirming their previously held beliefs. By providing a wide variety of trans and GNC voices, cishet students should be better able to find an experience or view with which they connect; they can engage with the complexities of the trans and GNC community by seeing that we are as varied as mainstream society.

In this light, instructors should avoid focusing solely on anecdotal accounts like coming-out stories or representations of trans and GNC people that are exclusively positive or negative. Coming-out stories make the experience of the author personal, which has its place in connecting the cishet world with our experiences. However, focusing solely on this aspect of a person’s life ignores the broader systems of power and oppression — namely cissexism and transphobia. Students can’t properly understand coming out without the social context that is cisnormative (wherein each individual’s gender is assumed to correspond to their sex assigned at birth, either male or female) and cissexist (wherein trans and GNC people face systematic violence, discrimination and exclusion).

For example, my own coming-out story is mostly positive. My family and friends were quick to accept and support me. From this angle, all looks well, but it excludes the unemployment and inaccessibility to proper health care that came with coming out as trans. The complexities of our lived experiences as trans or GNC people are not highlighted, and opportunities for conversations on equity and justice are missed.

Mohanty calls a more nuanced and exhaustive approach to inclusion the solidarity model. A course that uses this approach focuses on the links and intersections between different groups, topics and histories. This approach helps students see the connections between the classroom and the real world by emphasizing what she calls “relations of mutuality, co-responsibility and common interests, anchoring the idea of feminist solidarity.” By focusing on intersections among class, nation and race, (cishet) students are better able to grasp the interconnectedness of marginalized folks’ existence. They walk away with a deeper, more realistic understanding of the diverse experiences within trans and GNC communities.

In sum, curriculum design can unintentionally reinforce gender hierarchies and exclusion. Instructors who wish to resist the status quo in their curricula must take care to provide a variety of trans and gender-nonconforming voices in ways that do not exoticize or tokenize their experiences. By following the tips above and establishing a clear connection between trans and GNC perspectives and the broader learning goals and objectives of a course, students will be able to engage with the material and begin to move beyond the gender binary.

Fostering Trans Inclusion In The Classroom

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.

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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.

Make a sustained conscious effort to use nonbinary language and foster mutual respect.

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.