So You Think Higher Ed Is a Safe Space for Trans Folks?

Read the Inside Higher Ed comments and think again, says Robyn Schlesinger.

October 3, 2019

The recent debates that have permeated academic philosophy pitting self-described “gender-critical feminists” against trans scholars present a microcosm of the larger picture for transgender individuals in higher education today. And that picture is, unfortunately, far from a pretty one.

Don’t get me wrong. Colleges and universities have made great strides toward accepting and integrating gender-nonconforming people into their campus communities in recent years. When I was a college student in the 1980s and admitted my gender identity issues to a psychiatrist referred by the college health service, it nearly landed me in a psychiatric hospital as an unwilling inpatient. Such was the understanding of gender-nonconforming behavior during that time period. I quickly learned that repression was the key if I wanted to succeed in my college, career and life. That lesson, however, nearly cost me my life, as the adaptations made to account for my gender dysphoria over the intervening 30 years were far worse than acceptance would have been. Depression, anxiety, anorexia and substance abuse were among the maladaptive coping mechanisms I embraced until I dealt with the underlying issue by transitioning.

Decades later, are we still forcing some of our college-age students to make the same Hobson’s choice by not creating a welcoming environment on our college campuses? Absolutely. A recent gender minority mental health study pointed to incidence of depression and suicidal ideation being four times more prevalent among trans students than their cisgender peers. The study’s authors cite numerous ways to ameliorate this problem that, as members of the higher education community, we can adopt. They include facilitating ways for students to alter their names on campus records without legal name changes, creating campus support groups for trans students and identifying gender-neutral bathroom facilities.

One might think that the recommendations of the study, while useful for pointing to best practices, are merely preaching to the proverbial choir. Many people see higher education as the enlightened, progressive sector that leads the way for our society in the acceptance of all sorts of nonconformance. After all, why wouldn’t people in higher education be as inclusive as possible so as to attract gender-nonconforming student applicants?

The reason may be found by looking at some of Inside Higher Ed’s own comment-thread discussions following articles about trans issues in higher education over the past months. While those discussions are moderated to prevent personal attacks and some profane content, verbal assaults upon the trans community are commonplace. In fact, such comments are not even a small minority; a significant percentage of the people who comment are expressing views that marginalize the trans community.

There are routine references to trans individuals being mentally ill, even though the World Health Organization and the American Psychiatric Association have now made clear that transgenderism is not a mental illness. There are demeaning comments about trans body images and self-perception, and the use of inappropriate straw man examples to depict the entire trans community. There is support for the trans-exclusionary views of some so-called radical feminists who regularly demean trans women and flout the feminist tenet that anatomy is not destiny.

Might these comments be the product of some tenacious posters who may be more active on Inside Higher Ed comments than they are in their own campus communities? Perhaps. Nevertheless, it is still a sad commentary on higher education to see that our own faculty members, administrators, students and other participants appear to have few concerns about expressing transphobic views in a public forum. Some of the people who post use their real names, not aliases, so one can only assume that such views are not those of alter egos. Rather, these individuals are open in their opposition to creating campus environments that are welcoming and inclusive for trans people -- whether students, faculty members, administrators, alumni or whomever.

Read Inside Higher Eds comments and see for yourself. And while you’re at it, speak up for the trans person at your institution or in your life who you think is able to navigate higher education without encountering discrimination, hatred or worse. It’s still a far cry from reality.


Robyn Schlesinger is a trans woman lawyer and doctoral candidate at Manhattanville College. She holds a B.A. from Harvard College and a J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.


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