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
- Respect names and pronouns: A critical part of creating an inclusive environment for trans people is respecting their name and pronouns, just as with cisgender people. Deadnaming refers to calling a trans person not by their name, but by a name they were given at birth. People who do not take the time to ask others their names and pronouns may unintentionally misgender or deadname them, especially when relying on university systems which may not be updated to reflect their name/pronouns. However, forcing people to share their name and pronouns can be distressing if they are not ready to be out. A good alternative is to model sharing your name/pronouns, whether greeting one person or a room, without forcing others to do so.
- Challenge microaggressions: Bioessentialism appears all over our language, including by fixating on sex (itself a complicated, non-binary construct) when having conversations about gender and transgender identity. Other microaggressions include things like “I could tell” when someone reveals a trans identity, “you’ll never be a real woman,” and phrases like “women and those who identify as women.”18 These statements show a rejection of a trans person’s identity, particularly when they do not strictly adhere to gender roles/expression. For a better understanding of trans-specific microaggressions, look at this University of Edinburgh guide.
- Reconsider the policies around you: The policies we uphold at work, in public, and at home set the expectations of how we live and move through the world. Review the policies that shape your office, classroom, and other spaces we all frequent. How do they uphold a restrictive gender binary? In what ways can we change our policy to include a more expansive gender understanding? For examples of transgender-inclusive policies, check out this Campus Pride guide for students and this Human Rights Campaign guide for employee-focused suggestions.
Additional Resource Recommendations
- Book:Trans People in Higher Education - This volume shares the perspectives of trans students, professionals, and faculty on what must be done to undo transphobia in higher education.
- Video:Trans Inclusion in Higher Education – Dr. T.J. Jourian discusses important steps to create a more inclusive environment for trans people in higher education.
- Article:Diversity in Academe: Transgender on Campus – This series of articles highlight the variety of efforts across the U.S. to create an inclusive college campus for trans people.
- Podcast:Trans*forming Higher Education Collaborative Think Tank (Resilient Campus) - this three-part series features higher education scholars who promote trans-inclusive campuses.
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