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‘Trans* in College’

Author discusses new book about a part of the student population pushing for more support -- and facing a backlash in some states.

January 24, 2017
 

ACPA: College Student Educators International is currently raising money to send a copy of Z Nicolazzo’s new book to every member of the Texas Legislature. The book is Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion (Stylus). The book is timely, given that Texas lawmakers are currently pushing a bill that would require public colleges and universities to bar transgender students from using bathrooms that do not reflect their biological gender assigned at birth. Issues of identity are important to transgender people and are expressed in many ways. Some, for example, prefer the term “trans*” (as in the title of the new book) to transgender, as a way to indicate the many identities and views of transgender people, who have a range of experiences and identities.

Nicolazzo, who is assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Northern Illinois University, responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: In your introduction, you describe your own identity. Would you briefly share that with readers, and explain why you started the book that way?

A: I identify as a nonbinary trans*-femme person, meaning I am feminine of center but do not wholly identify as a man or a woman. I started my book with a discussion about my own identity for two reasons. First, researchers are never separated from our work, nor should we be. In fact, who we are may mediate our choices to research the populations and/or issues we research, as well as the ways in which we go about researching these groups/issues. This was certainly the case for me in that my coming into my trans* identity in my late 20s very much influenced my choice to study alongside trans* collegians.

The second reason I started the book discussing a bit of my own identity and experiences as a trans* educator is that we as trans* people don’t always see people like us represented positively through media. Moreover, when we are represented, much of the stories told about us are not controlled or written by trans* people. Therefore, I wanted to signal to trans* people -- especially trans* youth, collegians, educators and aspiring scholars -- that we have the ability to control our own narratives. We can research and write about our people and population in remarkable and beautiful ways. In this sense, I was trying to replicate what Laverne Cox has talked about when she discusses trans* people serving as possibility models for each other.

Q: As you look at trans college students, what share are arriving at college already confident in their identities, and what share are still trying to figure things out? How does this affect their needs?

A: In answer to this question, I would say that most of us are both confident in our identities as trans* at the very same time that we are still trying to figure things out. What I mean by this is that most of us have experiences where we realize our environments are not built with our needs as gender-diverse individuals in mind. However, at the very same time, we are also trying to figure out how best to navigate our worlds in ways that make sense as well as how best we want to identify, express and embody our genders. This doesn’t mean we are confused about our genders or we don’t have things figured out. Rather, it means that we are all, every one of us, trans* and otherwise, evolving and seeking newer, more in-depth understandings of ourselves and how we interact with our worlds.

This all being said, trans* historian Susan Stryker noted in her endorsement of Trans* in College that three to six times more youth under the age of 18 are identifying as trans* than over the age of 18. Although it is very hard to get a firm grasp on how many trans* people there are in the U.S., this estimate clearly indicates institutions of postsecondary education need more support (financial and otherwise) for this growing student population, who will be coming to colleges and universities in greater numbers. It also means postsecondary educators will need to do a better job doing outreach and retention in ways that recognize and understand the distinct barriers trans* youth with various marginalized identities may face when it comes to accessing and persisting through higher education.

Q: What are the major challenges facing trans students? What are some of the ways colleges can tell if they are offering adequate support?

A: Based on the study detailed in Trans* in College, one of the major challenges facing trans* students is that the overarching discourse that pervades institutions of higher education is steeped in the gender binary. In the book, I refer to this as gender-binary discourse, and it is so overwhelming, and so broad based, that trans* students could clearly articulate the tacit and overt signs of how the discourse showed up. For example, Adem [one of the students discussed in the book] talked about being “mean mugged,” or stared at because of his ambiguous gender expression, and Megan talked about feeling like everyone was watching her when she walked around campus. Even though she knew this was not the case, the way both Adem and Megan were/felt focused on was a result of gender-binary discourse, and made the entire campus a deeply unsettling place for them to be.

The reality is that gender-binary discourse goes beyond sex-segregated bathrooms, sex designations on forms or sex-segregated leadership activities. Although it definitely includes these things, it also is about the very way cisgender students, faculty and staff think gender into -- or perhaps more to the point, out of -- existence. The other major challenge trans* students faced was in relation to how various other marginalized identities mediated their experience as trans* collegians. For example, Silvia talked about being unsure how to reconcile her disabilities alongside her trans*ness, and both she and Micah faced difficulty being both black and trans* on a college campus where affinity centers were set up largely as single-identity spaces.

A good way for educators to tell if they are offering adequate support would be to begin thinking about the barriers to their programming, teaching and/or services for those students who are most on the margins, which I would argue includes trans* students, especially trans* women of color. I referred to this as “trickle-up education” in the book, and it builds from Dean Spade’s notion of “trickle-up activism” that he discussed in his book, Normal Life: Critical Trans Politics, Administrative Violence and the Limits of Law. If we as educators can remove barriers for those most on the margins, and if we can do this proactively so that we do not wait until trans* women of color show up or are forced to out themselves due to our lack of attention, we can begin creating environments that work for everyone. The transformation won’t happen overnight, but if educators start by asking who is being left behind and left out, and what needs to happen to change this, we can recognize where our support is inadequate and, as a result, what we need to change and/or keep the same.

Q: The debate over North Carolina’s HB 2 and now legislation introduced in Texas has led many people to say that these disputes are “just about bathrooms,” suggesting that they can’t be that important. How important is the bathroom issue to trans students?

A: Again, I think the answer to this question is another both/and answer. The bathroom issue is certainly important to trans* students … and educators would do well to recognize that just having one or a few gender-inclusive restrooms does not make one’s campus wholly trans* inclusive or affirming. As one of my dear trans* kin told me a few years ago, at the end of the day, we all need to pee. We also know, based on who is hurt, harmed, harassed and in threat when it comes to sex-segregated bathroom spaces, that trans* women and trans* feminine people, especially trans* women and trans* feminine people of color, are at the most risk and have the most at stake in these conversations. Therefore, we cannot disregard the importance of resisting oppressive legislation such as HB 2 and SB 6 [the North Carolina law and the Texas legislation, respectively]. These laws are clearly designed through transphobic and transmisogynist discourse and are hugely detrimental to all trans* people, especially trans* women of color.

That said, when people reduce trans* people to our genitals and/or our bodily functions, people lose sight of the complexity and richness of trans* lives beyond bathroom spaces. We also lose track of the various different spaces that gender-binary discourse influences, and how we must be active in resisting these influences. For example, when people assume that trans* concerns are “just about bathrooms,” they miss how faculty who require students to dress up formally in either a man’s or woman’s suit for final presentations may foreclose potential careers for trans* collegians. Or when all one thinks about is bathrooms, one misses how the reality of having just one of a few bathrooms on a college campus actually allows for gender-binary discourse to persist due to the plethora of other sex-segregated facilities across campus. So many people think that if we can just get one bathroom, or one residence hall, or a couple spaces that are trans* inclusive, our campuses will be radically transformed. The research in Trans* in College indicates that while these changes are necessary, they are insufficient in and of themselves, and more needs to be done.

Q: The Obama administration told colleges that they were obliged legally to provide services to and not to discriminate against transgender students on the basis of their identities. The Trump administration has vowed to roll back the Obama administration policies. How would such a shift affect transgender students?

A: It is hard to answer this question, in part due to the fact that despite the Departments of Justice and Education drafting a joint Dear Colleague letter in May 2016, things have not been necessarily rosy for trans* people -- including trans* students -- under the Obama administration. For example, the number of institutions that offer trans*-inclusive housing is minimal at best, and of those institutions that offer trans*-inclusive housing, we are still not sure how trans* students are making meaning of these offerings (although I am currently working on collecting this data with Susan Marine and Rachel Wagner). Furthermore, it is hard to determine how the recommendations (because they are just recommendations, not binding requirements) set forth in the Dear Colleague letter have (or have not) altered college practices. This is because the letter just came out this past May (almost seven and a half years into the Obama administration’s tenure, which further speaks to the difficulty for trans* people under the Obama administration), and as a result, we haven’t had time to even sort out its effectiveness. Moreover, there is still no federal employment nondiscrimination act (ENDA) that protects trans* people, nor are there easy, cheap/free, clear-cut ways to access health care, name changes or updated identity documents for trans* people, and colleges and universities continue to struggle with implementing trans*-affirming administrative processes, if they are attending to this at all.

That being said, the Trump administration will be disastrous for trans* people, especially those trans* people who are most vulnerable (e.g., trans* women of color, trans* people with disabilities and poor and homeless trans* youth, many of whom are trans* youth of color). I am deeply worried about how the Trump administration will dismantle the already flimsy protections and resources some trans* people have. This is why the work of trans* scholars, poets, artists, activists and our accomplices and advocates is so very important and so very necessary right now. Now is the time to come together and to amplify the work, thinking and livelihoods of trans* people; my hope is Trans* in College adds to this movement toward equity and justice, and that we can come together to resist the dangerous and violent implications of the coming administration for trans* people.

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