Gender Transitions in Academe, Part I

Rachel McKinnon offers advice to administrators on how to handle the gender transitions of others on the campus.

July 8, 2016

In this and future essays, I will offer advice on how faculty and staff members, departmental leaders, and senior administrators can handle the gender transition of an undergraduate or graduate student, staff member, or faculty member so that it can be as smooth as possible for everyone involved.

You may have noticed that trans* issues are becoming increasingly common in the media. (As is largely common convention, I use the asterisk to indicate broad inclusion in whom we describe under the trans* umbrella.) In fact, it’s at a point where it’s hard to miss. This increased visibility is good news, on the whole, as it’s leading to an increased understanding of the difficulties of trans* persons, and to an increased awareness of the presence of trans* people. The fact is that we’re not that rare. One of the benefits of this visibility and understanding is that more trans* people are realizing that transitioning is more possible now than ever before. But it’s far from easy, and I will discuss some ways to continue these positive trends.

In my work, I specialize in the relationship between knowledge and what we say to one another. However, I also do a significant amount of work on gender and gender identity, focusing particularly on trans* issues. Some of that work includes posts such as this where I write about trans* lives in academia. Being a trans* person in higher education, who works on trans* issues, gives me a good perspective from which to offer advice. For example, I have written about what it’s like to transition while teaching and my decision to come out to my classes, and about some special problems that trans* people face on the academic job market.

I am a lesbian trans woman, and I transitioned right at the end of my Ph.D. training. Some people in my department knew before my dissertation defense, but I chose to come out to everyone a few days after my defense. Looking back, it’s a little humorous that I sent out one of the batch emails (with an attached letter explaining my transition plans) on April 1: a few people wondered whether it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. My transition was mostly, though certainly not entirely, smooth. I happily received a tenure-track job offer and a prestigious postdoc shortly thereafter. I decided to take a postdoc year partly for some transition-related issues, such as finalizing documents with the correct sex/gender information, which I will discuss in a future essay.

In this piece, I want to address what college administrators in particular can do to help students and faculty navigate their gender transition. Administration-level changes are especially important. They set the tone for students and employees. They also carry a lot of force, impacting the whole institution rather than just a department.

First and foremost, it is paramount that university administrators put into place robust institutional human-rights policies that explicitly protect people from discrimination and harassment based on gender identity and gender expression. The latter protects more than just transgender persons.

Gender identity refers to the gender that a person is, regardless of what they were assigned at birth. (I am increasingly moving away from “identifies as” language. Trans women are women -- they do not merely “identify as” women.) Gender expression refers to the various ways that we show or signal our gender to others: our clothes, mannerisms, makeup, hair and so on. While a butch dyke woman’s gender identity may be that of a woman, she may express her gender in nonheteronormative ways such as wearing a button-down shirt and tie.

Thus, we want robust policy protections so that she can do this while free from harassment or discrimination. That the College of Charleston has explicit antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies including gender identity and expression was a significant part of my accepting the position. So I especially applaud them on this, and I recommend their policy as one to emulate. This is particularly important in cities, states and a country without robust antidiscrimination policies for trans* persons. Remember, in most jurisdictions in the America, it’s entirely legal to fire a trans* person for being trans*.

Second, administrations need to have a posted policy on gender identity and expression and bathroom use. In many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, people are legally -- and certainly morally -- permitted to use whatever bathroom best matches their gender identity. This choice is up to the people themselves, and no individual or organization should police gender. Trans* people are best situated to determine which bathroom they feel safest using and that is most appropriate for their identity and personal needs. And this decision may change over time during their transition: early on, they may not feel comfortable changing the bathrooms they use, but later on, they might. Increasingly in the United States, the departments of Justice, Education and Labor (and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have all adopted trans-inclusive policies and directives.

Perhaps the common reason cited to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom policies is that this will give license to (cisgender) men to start entering women’s bathroom spaces for purposes other than using the bathroom for its intended purposes. Let me say that this fear is unfounded and deeply stigmatizing. We refer to this as the “predator myth.” An alternate policy is to begin designating gender-neutral bathrooms that anyone can use. However, creating a single (or a small number) of such bathrooms and then requiring trans* people to use them (and not to use gender-restricted multistall bathrooms) isn’t acceptable, since that is instating a “separate but equal” policy, which is both unethical and illegal.

Third, colleges and universities should, as much as legally possible, make it easy for students or employees to change their official name. Sometimes we refer to this as someone’s “preferred” name. Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, an official, legal name change can be prohibitively expensive, burdensome or simply impossible. Many times, it depends on the goodwill of a local judge, who may not be trans* friendly in their decisions to grant name changes. In such a case, people often require legal representation, which isn’t cheap.

So, one way around this is for a college to have a relatively easy name-change policy that doesn’t require official documentation such as a court order or legal name change. For example, at the institution where I received my Ph.D., the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, one need only fill out a form and have it signed by a commissioner of oaths (like a notary public), who is available to students and employees on campus for free. Colleges and universities can retain the student/employee’s “legal” name on record but use their preferred name for all communications and documents, such as degrees.

In my next essay, I will offer advice for improving department-level policies to best support transgender colleagues, particularly those who decide to transition.


Rachel McKinnon is an assistant professor in the department of philosophy at the College of Charleston. Her research primarily focuses on epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and feminism and gender issues, particularly transgender issues. She has a 2015 book, The Norms of Assertion: Truth, Lies, and Warrant, and is currently working on her second book, Things We Do With Assertions, both with Palgrave Macmillan.


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