Supporting Trans and Gender-nonconforming Members of Our Campus Community

In the last two decades or so, the ways in which we understand, describe, and live out gender roles and identities in higher education have become more sophisticated and multifaceted. This is due to not only the increased visibility and advocacy of students, faculty, and staff who do not identify within the traditional gender binary, but also to the ways in which trans and nonbinary people in general have helped educate their institutional colleagues about the complexities of gender identity and expression.

Yet there is much work to be done, both in our larger society as well as in our campus community, to ensure that students who identify as trans or gender-nonconforming find the same type of welcoming, inclusive, and equitable environment that every one of our students has the right to expect. While it’s true that trans people have become more visible, and that there seems to be more acceptance of trans identities in areas like popular culture and media, significant resistance and obstacles to full rights and inclusion remain. In particular, political developments over the last three years have seen the unraveling of several key protections for trans individuals, and the current climate remains fraught, at best. Increased visibility has, in many cases, brought a fierce backlash which echoes the resistance to the various civil rights and liberation movements of earlier decades.

It’s in this discouraging climate, then, that we should be aware that among transgender and gender-nonconforming youth, 75% report feeling unsafe in their school environment, with many stopping out of their education entirely, according to a recent GLSEN survey. Those who persist tend to show lower GPAs than their peers, and report a higher degree of academic struggles. Transgender and gender-nonconforming young people have higher rates of suicide and suicide attempts, often related to their struggles in educational and other public spaces. And these tragic statistics apply to a rapidly-growing number of young people. The same 2017 survey also reports that a quarter of the LGBT students (between ages 13 and 21) surveyed identified as transgender (up from less than ten percent four years earlier). And a majority of high-schoolers today have at least one friend who uses nonbinary pronouns or language to describe their gender identity. In short, if we aren’t already knowledgeable and skillful about working with trans and nonbinary students, there is an urgent need for us to become so. It’s a matter of not only promoting students success equitably, but of doing our part to create the better society we all know higher education can build.

To be sure, for some of us the language and categories of gender identity and expression might be unfamiliar or confusing. Fortunately, there are a number of excellent introductions in both general and education-specific contexts that can provide some of the tools we need to work most effectively with those in our community who identity as transgender or gender-nonconforming.

This New York Times interactive from last June is an excellent introduction to the spectrum of gender identity, with both individual stories and larger research data to illustrate the ways in which individuals place themselves on it.

On Transgender people in particular, the National Center for Transgender Equality maintains an excellent website, including this page on Understanding Transgender People. See also this explainer by German Lopez in Vox, which addresses ten common and pernicious myths about trans people.

For more information on LGBTQ youth, as well as resources for us to better understand the particular difficulties this community faces, refer to the Human Rights Campaign’s 2018 LGBTQ Youth Report. (The report itself can be downloaded as a PDF, too.)

In our particular context—higher education and the campus community—trans and gender-nonconforming students report a myriad of difficulties and numerous instances of campus climates that are indifferent, if not outright hostile, to them and their needs. At Grand View, our students tell us similar things; it should concern us that in our latest results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), students reported that Grand View was a place supportive of different gender identities and sexual orientations at a rate significantly lower than the national and peer averages for that question. Clearly, we have work to do in creating a campus climate which welcomes and meaningfully includes all of our students and colleagues.

We can learn from the example of other campuses, as well as from trans and nonbinary members of the academic community. A good place to start is this 2015 special report from the Chronicle of Higher Education, which has a number of very useful articles on various aspects of becoming a campous which supports its trans community members (If you need login information to read the subscribers-only features, contact the Library; we have a campus ID and password through our subscription). I also recommend the Comprehensive Model Policy on Transgender Students for Four-Year Colleges, published by Trans Student Educational Resources; it reminds us that both individual classroom measures must be accomoanied by a campuswide commitment to inclusion and equity.

To begin, Dean Spade’s short article on “Some Very Basic Tips for Making Higher Education More Accessible to Trans Students and Rethinking How We Talk about Gendered Bodies” is essential. It was published in the Winter, 2011, issue of Radical Teacher, and you an also access the full-text PDF by clicking here (GV login required).

This post from Lal Zimman on “Ten Steps Faculty Can Take to Support Trans Students” begins with “get trained and get educated,” which is excellent advice, to which I would add from my own experience that this process of education does not happen by default, and it is an ongoing journey.  I was particularly struck by Zimman’s discussion of the assumptions we can all-too-easily make:

Assume that trans students are in your classes, whether you know who they are or not. Teach without othering trans people or assuming that all of your students are cis. As an undergrad, I had a professor ask everyone in a class I was taking to imagine and describe “what they think it would be like to be transgender,” clearly assuming that no one in the room might actually know what it’s like to be trans. The invisibility I felt in that moment was compounded by having to then listen to my cisgender classmates describe what they imagine a life like mine to be like.

Rebecca Lewis, of Maryville College, has an excellent information sheet that gives a quick overview of “trans-inclusive classroom tips,” which I have found quite helpful.

Perhaps the most comprehensive set of teaching-and-learning discussions and resources I’ve come across is this guide on “Teaching Beyond the Gender Binary in the University Classroom,” by Brielle Harbin for Vanderbilt’s Center for Teaching Excellence. In particular, I was struck by how the guide’s discussion of creating a truly gender-inclusive classroom resonate with a lot of the conversations we’re having on our own campus about inclusive pedagogy. Harbin also links to resources about preferred pronouns and names, which are areas where it’s easy to make a difference in recognizing and affirming thur students.

Finally, there are two excellent books on gender inclusivity and supporting trans/nonbinary members of the academic community. Virginia Stead, ed., A Guide to LGBTQ+ Inclusion on Campus: Post-Pulse is a comprehensive look at how we can better support our student’s fundamental rights to access to higher education and to a climate which promotes positive, meaningful learning. (This title is on order for the CETL Library.) Also, Z Nicolazzo’s Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion is en eye-opening and educational discussion. (We have this title available in the CETL Library).

Hopefully, these resources will help in the process of education and reflection that are necessary for us to create the type of campus environment in which every one of our students and colleagues feel that they truly belong. If you’d like additional resources, or if there’s anything not here that you’d like to see CETL be able to offer, please let us know. As always, please contact us in CETL if there’s any way we can be of service, in this or any other area of our work in teaching and learning.

Finally, may we all approach this week with the enthusiasm of this very good doggo and their sliding fun:


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