Supporting Transgender People in Higher Education

The recent trend of anti-transgender legislation across the U.S. is a stark reminder of the persistence of transphobia in our society. In recognition of Transgender Day of Remembrance occurring in a few days, we discuss where and how transphobia manifests, the experiences of trans people in higher education (especially trans women), and how we can deconstruct transphobia in our lives.

Reflect: Bioessentialism, Colonialism, and the Construction of Gender

Transphobia is a complex system that reinforces a gender binary, perpetuated by bioessentialism built on colonial concepts of gender. Biological essentialism (bioessentialism) refers to the belief that people are born with immutable traits that determine who they are (e.g., sex assigned at birth = gender). These beliefs, which are also frequently used as evidence about “immutable differences” between cisgender men and women,1 are invoked as scientific fact to invalidate the identity of trans people.2 However, most of the scientific world rejects these claims and points to the overwhelming complexity of biology.3 These beliefs stem from how colonialism used binaries to organize and “other” people in a power hierarchy of gender - the same system used to establish and naturalize “race” as a tool for white supremacy.4,5 In fact, numerous indigenous cultures around the world had a more expansive notion of gender that celebrated transgender and non-binary people before the onslaught of colonization.7

Learn: Trans People in Higher Education

For some trans and non-binary students, higher education can be the first time in which they feel safe to express and explore their gender. However, there are many structural problems that make higher education inhospitable. Inclusive housing, bathrooms, and important health resources often do not exist for trans people (or if they do, they frequently do not address structural transphobia fully).6,7 For faculty and staff, employment policies also do not cover their experiences and needs, such as insurance plans which do not cover affirming healthcare.8 As a result of these lacking policies and structures, microaggressions are very common. Trans faculty, students, and staff frequently feel a sense that they must hide their identity to protect themselves from negative climates,9,10 especially in STEM.11 These exclusionary policies and social interactions can be deleterious to the well-being and thriving of trans people in higher education. Denial of important structural resources and microaggressions significantly correlate to depression and other mental health issues.12,13,14 Transphobia also affects professional trajectory, including hiring bias, exclusion from networking, and stunted promotion/degree progress.15,16 Lastly, transphobia can cause trans faculty, students, and staff to leave higher education.17

Additional Resource Recommendations