Research suggests that while transgender people experience significant violence on college campuses, they also report an increasing amount of support. That includes both institutional transformation -- such as making it easier to change your name or gender marker -- and interpersonal support from friends, faculty members and LGBTQ resource centers. But despite the availability of some best practices, much disagreement persists. For example, scholars debate whether and how to share gender pronouns in the classroom and even the correct terminology to refer to trans communities.
As I argue in a recently published review article, "Transgender Experiences and Transphobia in Higher Education," there is no universal trans experience. Drawing on qualitative and quantitative work from multiple disciplines -- sociology, higher education, psychology, queer and trans studies -- I discuss similarities and differences between binary and nonbinary trans collegians, as well as between transmen and transwomen.
Given this variation, one-size-fits-all solutions fail to support all trans students and faculty members. One problem involves the language we have for talking about and addressing violence: the term “campus climate” is a bit misleading. A campus might be said to have a welcoming climate if it has nondiscrimination policies or the option of gender-inclusive housing, but in reality, climates vary. For example, someone might receive support from particular individuals, such as an adviser, or spaces, like a gender studies classroom, but not others on the same campus.
That has been my experience as an agender scholar whose gender consciousness has shifted -- multiple times -- during my doctoral program. My comfort level and how I want to show up in a space depends on the situation and the roles I currently occupy as a student, instructor and researcher. Some of the many questions I might ask myself include: Do I want to out myself in front of this group? Will it change the way people perceive me and my work? Will I feel safe wearing a dress and jewelry?
For example, I remember attending an awards ceremony that required formal attire -- which, incidentally, is much more gendered than what I’d typically wear in a grad seminar or while teaching. I had a few options. I could wear a suit and tie, which would likely trigger dysphoria (some days I worry about being perceived as a cisgender man, burdened by the expectations that come with that). Or I could show up in a cocktail dress, risking antagonism from strangers and without my usual support system. I chose to go in “boy drag” (opting for the suit and tie) and got through the night -- after all, I love hors d’oeuvres and free wine! That being said, when it came time for my department holiday party and then my thesis defense the following semester, I went with the fancy dress.
Although those events all occurred on campus, each set of circumstances structures my decision-making process in its own way. In 2009, Martha Acklesberg and other scholars developed the term microclimates to capture this intra-institutional variation. They define microclimates as “small, relatively self-contained environments,” such as departments, that develop their own localized norms and practices. Trans people’s experiences are nested within classrooms, departments and finally institutions, where, on the one hand, administrative efforts can transform someone’s experience, and on the other hand, “department [culture] can undercut virtually any collegewide initiative.”
What works in one space with a particular group of students might not apply in another context. For example, pronoun sharing can be empowering or terrifying depending on whether someone is out. (See the work of Jen Manion and Dean Spade.) Class size also shapes how trans students disclose their identities. In large lecture classes, anonymity makes it easier not to disclose, whereas in smaller classes, students might feel more comfortable coming out. Similarly, scholars feel more or less comfortable disclosing in a department based on its perceived climate. LGBTQ students typically rate STEM disciplines as less open to their identities, which presents its own problems and barriers to inclusion -- especially for grad students, whose funding is tied to a particular professor or lab.
Individual departments, offices and clubs should craft their own policies and reflect on their group norms. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel -- just try researching what other groups like yours have done before. (Consider reviewing some resources from Lambda Legal and the Human Rights Campaign.)
Think about how characteristics of your institution, student body or classroom might produce distinct challenges for trans collegians. And think broadly about inequality, as supporting trans people necessarily entails addressing other forms of discrimination and exclusion that trans people experience. One study on queer and trans students of color finds that when black students at predominantly white institutions face racial antagonism, their gender and sexual identities are less salient.
How we talk about transgender identities and anti-trans discrimination also matters. For example, narrow representations of trans people as “born in the wrong body” shape our understanding of what it means to be trans. Hence someone might be subject to anti-trans harassment in one space but not feel “trans enough” to access community support. Likewise, if we only conceptualize anti-trans violence as physical harm, we minimize the effect of misgendering and the cumulative effect of other microaggressions. In every instance of interpersonal and institutional transphobia, trans people must decide whether and how to respond. We expend energy wondering whether an uncomfortable encounter was motivated by prejudice or if we were “imagining things.” Even well-intentioned individuals produce extra labor when they ask trans collegians frequent and personal questions or offer unsolicited advice about “proper” gender behaviors.
Yet we rarely acknowledge the emotional impact of navigating transphobic environments and how it can divert attention away from work and other responsibilities. Nor do colleges and universities provide trans students and faculty members with the resources to cope with such distress. While trans students and faculty members use a number of methods to cope with anti-trans harassment, at a certain point, someone may be left with no other option than exiting the toxic environment -- thus altering their career trajectory.
If I have one takeaway message, it would be this: challenging interpersonal and systemic transphobia requires context-specific interventions. It also requires the active participation of all college personnel, students and community members. By shifting from the framework of campus climate to microclimates, we can better capture the spectrum of trans people’s needs and experiences within and across institutions.