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How to Improve Campus Life for Transgender Students
The term “transgender” typically refers to individuals whose gender identity and/or gender expression is not alignment with the sex that they were assigned at birth. For some individuals, this might mean that they want to transition from one gender to another, while for others it may mean that there is a dissatisfaction with the gender binary of “male” or “female” in relation to their own gender identity. These individuals could identify themselves as transgender, gender-queer, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, or many other terms that they can claim.
In universities and college campuses, the transgender student population is oftentimes overlooked. Transgender students regularly describe feeling “invisible” in institutional settings. Most research done on the experiences of LGBTQIA+ individuals in higher education settings has predominantly focused on lesbian and gay students. There has been very little research conducted to identify the needs of transgender students on college campuses. What little information has been gathered, however, has shown that discrimination, harassment, invisibility, and marginalization are very common occurrences for transgender students. The typical setting of college campuses can make life much more difficult. Although, the way that campuses are constructed might not be done with the intention of hurt transgender students, these norms, practices, heteronormativity, and cisgender centered practices can greatly affect transgender student’s mental health. These experiences also contribute to transgender dropout rates, and level of academic performance. TGNC (transgender and non-conforming) individuals are nine times more likely to attempt suicide than the rest of the U.S population. TGNC students are also exposed to much higher risks for self-harm, depression, and substance abuse.
How can college campuses be improved to be more inclusive and more welcoming to TGNC students? There are several focus points that can be addressed, and re-imagined in every academic institution. Transgender students voice very unique concerns. They have spoken about specific needs for different programming, record and document procedures, bathrooms and locker rooms, housing, counseling and health-care services, trans-inclusive curricula and policies, scholarships, and accountability for transphobic behaviors on campus. Most institutions offer little to no support to the transgender population of their campus community.
Campus events and activities contribute a large role in a student’s sense of belonging and connection with their college community. Student involvement also has a positive impact on their academic performance. Institutions should develop and maintain programs that are welcoming to transgender students, and organize programs and events that focus specifically on transgender issues. Having these types of events can also provide cisgender students with a more valuable college experience, and expose them to diversity that they may have overlooked and ignored, otherwise.
Record and Document Procedures
If colleges and universities want to be inclusive of TGNC students, they must get rid of forms that marginalize transgender students by forcing them to either identify male or female. Transgender individuals who decide that they would like to transition from one gender to another, or who do not identify with one specific gender (gender fluid, or gender-queer), usually want to change their gender and name on official records and documents. At most universities, the process is very difficult or there is simply no way for them to make these changes. Being able to change their records and documents is crucial. Having the appropriate name and gender does in fact validate their identities, but more importantly, it also prevents TGNC students from being forced into uncomfortable and dangerous situations where they are required to explain why they use a different name than their birth name, or why their appearance does not match a photo or gender marker on an ID card. Having systems in place that allow TGNC to make these changes will also help to prevent discrimination when they apply for jobs, seek admission to graduate schools, or any other time they may have to show a college document. These procedures are already in place for cisgender, heterosexual women when they get married and need to change their legal names, so establishing the procedure for transgender students to change the name or gender designation on all of their campus records, including ID cards, listings in electronic and printed directories, and files in admissions, financial aid, registrar’s office, and health centers, should be fairly simple. Another important practice to implement is the use of proper pronouns. It is important for TGNC students to be referred to using their proper pronouns, and not to misgender them. Especially in classrooms, while other peers are present.
Bathrooms and locker rooms
Transgender individuals “violate” society’s expectation that someone is only either male or female. This makes them extremely vulnerable to harassment and violence. Some of the most dangerous places on many campuses and in academic institutions for transgender students are the gender designated restrooms and locker rooms. Transgender students can be victims to verbal and physical assault and face the risk of being asked why they are in that specific bathroom or even arrested by the police when they use gender specific facilities. Knowing these dangers, it is not surprising at all that using bathrooms and locker rooms causes major anxiety for transgender students. Some of these students travel out of their way to use restrooms that are safer and more private, or they will just completely avoid using campus bathrooms altogether. Many transgender students report avoiding drinking liquids or eating food while on campus, so that they will not have to use the bathroom. Although it may be easier for transgender students to avoid using locker rooms, where having to get undressed or shower in front of others may reveal them as transgender, this does stop them from being able to participate in athletic programs, physical education courses and from obtaining access to their campus recreational facilities. Campuses should have gender neutral bathrooms. Having at least one gender neutral bathroom in each building would help immensely. It is fairly easy to create these by simply just replacing the signs outside of the bathroom to show that they are gender neutral. To make the locker rooms and athletic facilities safer, campuses can also implement individual showers and changing rooms that have locks rather than just curtains. Efforts can be made to educate and inform the campus population that it is not acceptable to deny access to bathrooms based on a person’s gendered appearance. Rather, it is appropriate to deny access to bathrooms due to someone’s behavior (e.g., assault, harassment.)
Counseling and health-care services
It is the standard that universities lack supportive health care services for transgender students, and this is not acceptable. TGNC students may share many of the same concerns as their cisgender peers, transgender students also face culturally specific issues related to their gender-identity development. In addition, the social and economic stresses that many transgender students experience as a result of family rejection, homelessness, harassment, violence, and isolation. All these unique issues can lead to adjustment disorders, depression, PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, suicide ideation, and self-harm. It can be argued that access to supportive and trans-specific counseling is even more important for these students. All students need and deserve health care to maintain healthy and productive lives. Medical professionals often lack accurate or any information about transgender people. This obviously severely affects their ability to provide effective and helpful care. When it comes to colleges and universities, campus health center members should educate themselves on transgender health issues and the specific needs of transgender students. These students may need access to affordable hormones, and/or gender related surgeries. If the university is unable to meet the health care needs of trans students, they should develop a resource guide and referral system for off-campus, transgender friendly counselors and health-care providers.
Campus housing policies that assume students fall on the binary of male or female, fail to serve transgender students, especially those who are in the process of transitioning from one gender to another, or those who do not identify as either dominant gender. Campus administrators must develop procedures that recognize diverse gender identities and expressions, in order for housing to be inclusive and diverse. Campus housing staff that show sensitivity to transgender experiences create a welcoming environment for students to identify their housing needs. By changing housing forms to acknowledge the complexity of gender identity, and not simply sorting students into housing based on “male” and “female” students, campus housing will create a much less hostile and invalidating experience for TGNC students. The housing needs of transgender students should be address on a case-by-case basis, because no student’s gender identity, gender expression, or experience is the same. Each TGNC will have different needs and it is important to acknowledge and respect that.
Trans-inclusive curricula and policies
Most campus nondiscrimination policies do include the categories of “sex” and sometimes “sexual orientation.” But neither of these categories covers the identities of transgender students, who face discrimination based on their gender identity and expression rather than based on their biological gender. If college and university administrators want to support TGNC students, there must be an inclusion of “gender identity” and “gender expression” in their nondiscrimination policy. However, there also must be procedures in place for reporting and reacting to cases of violence, transphobia, discrimination, harassment, and marginalization on their campus. This additional aspect is crucial because these negative experiences are going to occur despite the institutional policies in place. There needs to be promise of action, accountability, and promise that appropriate measures will be taken with disrespectful individuals. The next trans-inclusive piece of academia is being aware of the lack of curricula about transgender individuals, educational content, and library resources. It would be helpful and empowering for transgender issues and topics to be present in classrooms.
Scholarships, outreach, and retaining
It is important for TGNC students to see their own universities, as well as other universities, show obvious efforts to recruit and retain transgender students. This could be done by offering scholarships for TGNC individuals. Another effort of retaining TGNC students can include having a mission statement that emphasizes support for transgender people. This can also include the development of programs and events that I discussed earlier on.
The many steps that I’ve discussed towards solutions, would help bring awareness to two particular heteronormativity in college environments: the privilege of cisgender identities, and the invisibility of TGNC students. Campus trainings, workshops, orientation sessions, curricula, and other resources, failed to provide content about TGNC individuals, the meaning of cisgender privilege, and how it is manifested in academia.
Regular trainings, workshops, and panels for professionals and students are important resources for meeting the needs of transgender students.All of these challenges reflect how the behaviors, goals, norms, and values of college and universities reflect a belief that people who are not TGNC, are more “normal”, “healthy”, and “real” and therefore are treated as “superior” to TGNC students. Transgender students require very specific needs in higher education environments, and it is important that their needs are acknowledged as valid, and that actions are taken in order to implement the necessary changes to make college and university campuses a safe and welcoming place for TGNC students.
- Beemyn, B., Curits, B., Davis, M., & Tubbs, N. J. (2005). Transgender Issues on College Campuses. New Directions for Student Services,2005(111), 49-60. doi:10.1002/ss.173
- Oswalt, S. B., & Lederer, A. M. (2016). Beyond Depression and Suicide: The Mental Health of Transgender College Students. Social Sciences,6(1), 20th ser. doi:10.3390/socsci6010020
- Seelman, K. L. (2014). Recommendations of transgender students, staff, and faculty in the USA for improving college campuses. Gender and Education,26(6), 618-635. doi:10.1080/09540253.2014.935300
- Seelman, K. L. (2016). Transgender Adults’ Access to College Bathrooms and Housing and the Relationship to Suicidality. Journal of Homosexuality,63(10), 1378-1399. doi:10.1080/00918369.2016.1157998
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