Transgender People and Higher Education
by Carla R. Monroe - January 19, 2012
This commentary discusses the issue of transgender people in higher education
During week six Chaz Bono was voted off of the celebrity competition Dancing With the Stars. Bono, of course, was the programs first transgender contestant. The selection was a progressive choice and one that interrupted token gestures to reach out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Like many others, Bonos story intrigued me long before his casting on a prime-time television show. As a social scientist who investigates gendered experiences and outcomes, I have listened to his speeches, read his writings, and tried to watch his media appearances to learn more about a segment of the LGBT community that is rarely discussed or highlightedeven within broad-minded liberal circles. In fact, the stark contrast between the level of attention that bisexual and transgender concerns receive in comparison to lesbian and gay issues is tragic.
And anyone who pays attention to LGBT issues knows there is reason for concern. Critical minds especially recognize the crucial value of amplifying higher educations distant transgender voices. Although research on transgender people who attend and are employed by our nations colleges and universities is scant, the available evidence is compelling.
For example, the 2010 State of Higher Education for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender People publication, a national college climate study, presents disturbing findings from a survey of 5,149 students, faculty members, staff personnel, and administrators. The report found, in part, that transmasculine, transfeminine, and gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals experienced much higher rates of harassment than their counterparts. For instance, employees who challenged dualistic gender norms believed they encountered discriminatory employment practices. Other respondents believed they were deliberately stared at because of their gender representation. Not surprisingly, these types of incidents nurtured negative perceptions of their respective campus climates at large.
Although the LGBT community has relentlessly pushed the educational enterprise to adopt forward-thinking policies and practices in gender, gender-related, and sexual orientation domains, what do we really know about how activist movements have affected bisexual or transgender people specifically? Both groups still struggle to disrupt implicitly-accepted binary perspectives about gender, self-expression, and sexuality. Moving past this fallacy requires colleges and universities that are serious about institutionalizing gender equity to take deliberate steps to nurture a campus-wide recognition that sexual orientation is grounded by fluid and flexible, rather than static and unchanging, components. Doing so will infuse more even-handed stances into the spirit and actionable consequences of LGBT activism and, more importantly, stimulate transformative effects.
To spark reform, diversity within the LGBT community should be foregrounded in scholarly venues, as they offer standing opportunities to extend shortsighted visions of transgender people. Taskforces, brown bag presentations, courses of study, and invited speaker forums are meaningful ways to deepen shallow understandings; namely by troubling the idea that transgender people are confined to individuals who are undergoing male-to-female or female-to-male transformations. Yet, as scholarship by Brent Bilodeau, the director of the LBGT Resource Center at Michigan State University, and Kristen Renn, an associate professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at the same institution notes, transgender often functions as an umbrella term to encompass transsexuals, transvestites, male and female impersonators, cross-dressers, gender non-conforming, and ambiguously-gendered people among other groups. Learning how social and academic stories play out among these pillars can be a vital means of redefining gender categories and developing inclusive, humanistic campuses.
Second, administrators should investigate how well facilities meet transgender needs. Residence halls that are designated as exclusively female or male living spaces may present uncomfortable dilemmas, and even unsafe situations, for students who do not identify with traditional gender assignments and norms. A clear example, of course, is when students are forced to come out to an assigned roommate. Providing gender neutral housing and coordinating assignments with students who voluntarily choose to live with a transgender student is a positive step toward eliminating the harassment that such individuals commonly face. By the same token, same sex bathrooms, gender neutral locker rooms, and co-ed social opportunities are good starting points for sensitizing campuses through physical spaces. Presently, the University of California at Riverside and the University of Michigan have such structures in place. Other institutions would be wise to follow their example.
Next, leaders should query how well healthcare and counseling offices meet transgender needs. Professionals in these areas, unfortunately, complete little, if any, initial training or continuing education that is specifically geared toward transgender people such as hormone treatment. Likewise mental health providers should educate themselves about how to treat the anxiety, depression, and/or stress that stems from harassment and ostracism that non-gender conforming students encounter. Growing insights into transgender students and employees unique psychological and medical needs is vital if institutions are to provide sound care.
Finally, institutions should undertake a basic review of operating procedures to identify exclusionary conditions. Does collected demographic data include an option for transgender people or are respondents forced to check a box that may not match their biological or social identity? When setting up email and other campus accounts, can individuals create identifications that reflect their preferred name or must they negotiate a technological bureaucracy to establish publicly-available profiles that are gender-neutral and/or conceal their gender such as by only sharing first and middle name initials? By the same token, what type of campus climate exists with regard to self-disclosure? Are students comfortable contacting their professors in advance to share that the gender representation instructors will meet in class may not match the name that is listed on the class roster? Tackling these questions will open a much-needed dialogue that is likely to enhance overarching efforts to eradicate LGBT harassment.
Calls for gender equity and nondiscrimination invoke the LGBT label but in real time initiatives tend to anchor themselves to a straight/gay binary. Redressing the marginalized role that transgender and bisexual individuals hold in the LGBT movement will help reshape equity drives and create more authentic initiatives.