Moving to university and starting a new phase of life can offer particular challenges and opportunities for students who identify as transgender, or trans. Despite the recent increase of trans visibility in public life, coming out as trans can often be difficult and trans identities are still not widely understood.
What does trans / transgender mean?
Trans, or transgender, encompasses the varieties of experiences and ways of being people feel when their gender identity differs to the one they were assigned at birth:
- Trans is an ‘umbrella term’ that includes the many ways gender identities differ from a person’s sex.
- There is no one universal ‘trans experience’, just as there is no one universal ‘human experience’.
- Some trans people may or may not be undertaking/have undertaken physical changes to their bodies to align with their gender identity.
Trans identities can include, among others, MTF (male to female), FTM (female to male), non-binary or genderqueer (not identifying as male or female, but rather outside binary gender or elsewhere on the gender spectrum) and gender fluid (a gender identity that is unfixed and varies over time).
Further information on what it means to be trans is available here.
What can we do at universities to help with trans inclusion?
Quite often trans people have chosen a name which they want to be called, but this is not reflected on their legal documents. Many official organisations and agencies have different policies about when they will use a trans person’s chosen name (some will some will insist on a legal name change document such as a deed poll, for instance). For students at university, they may have had to apply and enrol using documentation that does not reflect their identity and therefore their names in student record systems are not as they would want. This incorrect information is then used to create class lists when students join modules and is often used as a basis for class registers.
The main problem here is that whilst a trans student identifies, socialises and makes friends under one name, their chosen name, every time their name is read out, or they have to sign a register, their identity is erased. This can be incredibly invalidating, not to mention embarrassing, and in some cases just plain dangerous.
What we as educators can do about this:
Collect attendance by passing round a blank sheet and asking students to sign, rather than call out names. This may be moot with the Swipe Engage Achieve (SEA) attendance monitoring system Westminster University is launching, but using corrent names is important if you intend to learn the names of your students.
Ask in the early stages of modules or classes if students have a name they would rather use, and to either amend the register or to come and see you after the class. That way you can make a permanent change to your own register, thus avoiding some of the problems above – students learn best when they are accepted as their authentic selves, and by making adjustments like this, you can start to create an environment where all students feel able to be themselves and achieve to their fullest potential.
Remember, if a trans student comes to you and asks you to use a different name, they are putting a great deal of trust in you, and are often taking a great personal risk (will I be accepted, will I be treated less favourably than others etc…). Bear this in mind. It might also be the case that students come to/email staff to ask for a preferred pronoun, in which case staff need to make sure they respect that. For instance, they may ask you and others to refer to them, as ‘she’, as ‘he’ or as the more gender-neutral ‘they’ and ‘their’. Remember at the same time to respect the student’s privacy, and don’t assume you know what kind of personal pronoun the student prefers based on the first name the student asks you to use or on their appearance.
Tutors should also avoid using highly binary gendered forms of address, for example entering a classroom and saying ‘good morning ladies and gentlemen’, or referring to smaller groups of students you perceive to be all of the same gender as ‘girls/guys/boys’ etc. The same goes for learning and teaching resources – avoid use of gendered language and use gender neutral terms. Using gender neutral language in general will help make the classroom a more inclusive space.
Bathrooms and changing spaces:
Bathroom use can be fraught with anxiety and risk for trans people, as bathrooms and changing spaces are loaded with tacit rules that often boil down to the question and judgement ‘do you look like you should be in this bathroom?’. This isn’t a question trans people ask themselves – it’s most often a question asked and a judgement made by other users of the bathroom or changing space, or even those near it. Many university campuses have gender neutral cubicles that can be used by anyone, but many don’t. Even across a single university, like Westminster, provision of gender neutral toilets and changing spaces varies, so the best advice cisgendered people (or cis people – those whose gender identity is in agreement with their societally recognised sex) can follow is this:
If you are in a bathroom or changing space with someone and you can’t work out if they’re in the right one, don’t worry about it. They probably know more about it than you do.
Bullying, harassment and hate crime:
Bullying, harassment and hate crime is something people across the LGBT spectrum experience, and it is something that can acutely affect trans people. It can be misleading to say that if a person is quieter than usual, or seems withdrawn, is not contributing or is not their usual self then perhaps they are being bullied, as these behaviours can come about for a variety of reasons. However, they can be indicators. Severe bullying and harrasment towards LGBT people is classed as a hate crime and is prosecutable by law.
It is not possible to be everywhere and address bullying and harassment everywhere it occurs, but we can make our classrooms more inclusive places by setting the expectation that bullying and harassment (whatever form that might take – it could be students deliberately using the wrong pronouns/name for someone, or could be much more insidious) will not be tolerated, and that everyone has just as much to offer as the next person.
Stonewall has published a number of case studies around tackling homophobic language and bullying. Whilst this is mainly schools focussed, and around LGB bullying, there are transferrable elements. More advice on handling trans-specific bullying is coming.
The University Staff LGBTQ+ Network can also offer support and advice for anyone concerned about trans- homo- and biphobic bullying and harrasment (and other issues).
If you feel like you need more support:
These are just two areas trans people can face difficulties, and being aware of them as a staff member means you’re a step ahead in ensuring you provide a more inclusive environment for trans students. There are, of course, many others. If you feel like you need more advice, or support in trans, or general LGBTQ+ inclusion, try approaching your university’s staff LGBT Network. Westminster’s can be reached at the following email address: email@example.com.
This is a good general resource on trans allyship: http://www.glaad.org/transgender/allies.
Also, Oxford University has produced a fairly comprehensive document on guidance for supporting trans students and staff (Mar 2014). Whilst it mainly aims at fulfilling the requirements of their trans students and staff policy, it has a particular focus on people transitioning from one gender to another and is a good place to start reading.
If you are a student or member of staff (of any sexuality or gender identity) who has come across this resource and would like anything added or amended, please do get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.