Accommodating transgender students on college campuses

How universities can provide a safe and welcoming environment
By: | Issue: October, 2018
September 17, 2018

Colleges and universities are witnessing a growing number of  transgender students—and faculty—struggling to find their way. The term describes any gender identity that does not fit the male and female binary.

While some institutions promote trans-inclusive policies and practices, others have not kept pace.

For example, students who transition while in college may face a myriad of problems with housing, financial aid, transcripts and even their ability to graduate.

Abbie Goldberg, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts, studied 507 trans and gender-nonconforming students across the U.S. to see how they are treated and perceived on campus.

“Even when university-sanctioned LGBTQ resource centers or support groups are present, this doesn’t mean that university students, faculty and staff are uniformly affirming and inclusive of trans students,” Goldberg says.

There are about 17 million students in college now. Do you have any sense of what percentage identify as nonbinary?

We don’t have a lot of national data, but we do have the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey (ustranssurvey.org), which was disseminated to more than 27,000 adults in the U.S. It showed that among young people, ages 18-25, most of them identified as nonbinary, so it is more common among young people as opposed to older generations of trans folks.

So we don’t know numbers in terms of the college students, but within the larger category of trans, if they are college age, more often than not they’re identifying as nonbinary. I think that has a lot to do with a generational shift in our understanding of gender.

This is probably new to many people.

I know. It definitely seems that way. The internet has helped in terms of visibility and the proliferation of terms and categories and words used to describe yourself.

Look at how the internet changed people’s understanding of asexuality. Prior to seven years ago, few had heard of asexuality, but the fact that there were groups and organizations in which these people could congregate made others aware.

I think in 10 years, the word “nonbinary” won’t meet as many quizzical looks, and the internet has a lot to do with it in terms of helping people find each other and find themselves.

Is “trans” the umbrella term for this population?

Trans is one large umbrella term, and then within trans, there are people who identify as nonbinary, genderqueer, agender—something other than male or female. That could also be no gender or both genders, or it could be more fluid identities of gender. Then there are more binary notions of gender, such as male-to-female, female-to-male.

It’s blurry. These are not categories. Some people I’ve talked to will identify with many different terms. Our notions of gender are more fluid and complicated than we would like to believe.

Have these students generally transitioned or come out in high school, or is college a place where they feel free to express who they are?

It’s both. I’ve seen students who come out during high school and then continue that in college, but there’s definitely a large number of students who knew in high school that something was different, but really never felt the freedom to explore their gender.

In college, they’re often in an environment where there’s more freedom to do so. College is also a time when people explore their identities in general—religious, racial, ethnic and sexual.

What is the completion rate for this population?

We’ve only just begun to track these data in large numbers, so it’s hard to say. One problem is that, until recently, all the major systems for tracking students only had a male or female option. The Higher Education Research Institute has started adding a way to track trans students.

Some national research shows a greater likelihood of these students stopping out or dropping out. When they do, it’s often because of issues related to their gender—either transitioning itself or not getting the support that they need at college.

I’ve heard of some students who did not identify as trans before college, so they hadn’t chosen their college based on whether it would be a friendly place to transition. Then once they started transitioning, they found they were in a college environment that was very hostile to that.

Many of these students come from families with lower economic status, so their aid needs are greater.

They also have fewer resources for all the expensive procedures that are sometimes involved in a transition. If your health insurance package at college doesn’t cover hormone treatment, you pay for that out of pocket, which can be very expensive. It’s no small thing to come up with an extra $100 per month to get your hormone treatment if you’re already struggling to pay for books.

Among their many challenges, one I hadn’t considered is simply having faculty and administrators use their desired name or pronoun. You say that’s a big deal.

Absolutely. It is a huge deal, and you’d be surprised by how many faculty push back on this. I think faculty often see it as being something like a favor or a request, and not integral to a person’s sense of identity and well-being.

Does it really matter? Well, yes it does matter. People constantly write my name as A-B-B-Y, and I find that annoying, especially when I consistently sign emails with an I-E. That is my name, so when I get things with the wrong last name, with my husband’s last name or with the wrong spelling, it means someone is not taking me seriously, and they’re not paying attention.

Now, multiply that by a thousand for trans students, in which it’s part of their identity. They say, “This is who I am and this is the name that I use, so can you please use this name?” Many faculty will say, “I’ll do my best,” or “I will make an effort.”

That’s not really good enough, because there are just as many who say, “It’s too hard. I tried, and I’m just not going to,” or “I wasn’t brought up this way. It’s not grammatically correct.”

What can administrators do to better accommodate this population?

They must take a very careful look at all nondiscrimination policies and procedures. Looking at paperwork, there are easy things that you can do to include options other than male and female on applications, for example.

Think critically and inclusively about housing. One study found that it’s the No. 1 concern for trans students. The ideal situation is basically single rooms with a lock, whether that’s in a larger suite or something else. But there need to be options for people who maybe don’t feel comfortable sharing a room for whatever reason.

When a trans student walks on campus, is it going to be easy for them to find a restroom that they can use? The overarching thing would be to revisit the gender bias that is inherent in most higher education institutions and figure out how to undo that in ways that are productive and inclusive for all people.

Where can administrators get advice on accommodating this population?

Campus Pride (campuspride.org) has great resources, and they do rank universities based on their trans inclusiveness. They ask many questions such as, “Do you have trans-inclusive restrooms,” “Do you have trans-inclusive housing,” “Do you include options other than male and female on admissions paperwork,” “Do you have courses that cover gender identity?”

There’s also a website for trans student education resources (transstudent.org). That’s a youth-led organization designed to transform education.

There is a push in government to roll back some hard-won trans protections. Does that worry you?

Yes. It worries me, and it worries these students. I did many of my student interviews shortly after Trump was elected, and they had lots of concerns that were accentuated by that. They were pretty terrified.

I had students who were moving up their timelines for certain things because they were afraid that certain protections were going to be taken away. These are real consequences for people’s lives.


Tim Goral is senior editor of UB.