What is the "gender binary" and how does it affect students on college campuses? Last week in a class for my student affairs graduate program, myself and about a dozen higher education administrators and faculty were asked just that. For many participants, this was the first time it occurred to them that they might have had a transgender student in one of their classes or utilizing their campus office. But for me, the activity was a flashback to my undergraduate years at the University of Colorado Boulder, where I entered as a female freshman, and over my four years transitioned socially, medically, and legally to male.
On April 3, I saw that Steven Hayward, a visiting scholar at CU-Boulder, questioned some of the structures put in place to support students like me that transition in college, asking if "there have been many students — or any students, ever — who have demanded to be addressed in class by a different gender pronoun or called by a different gender name". He guesses the number is "zero," but I can attest personally that "zero" is an inaccurate number.
At the beginning of every semester, my to-do list had one extra item underneath buying my books and finding my classes: to inform my instructors that my name and gender would not match their assumptions based on the roster.
Many faculty respected my request with the nonchalance of any other student's name preference. There was never a "classroom disruption" as Hayward supposes would happen. Other professors were not so kind — their insistence on calling a visibly male student "she" often created that very disruption when my peers didn't understand the dissonance. Resulting directly from my professors' mistakes, a few students even took out their confusion on me, calling me names and sometimes even an "it."
I'm lucky that name-calling was the worst that came my way after instructors unintentionally revealed my transgender status to my classmates. For many transgender students, being known as transgender can make them a target for violence. According to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), 61 percent of transgender people nationwide have experienced harassment in school, ranging from verbal harassment, to sexual assault, to expulsion due to gender expression. For 15 percent of transgender people, that harassment was so severe that they felt no other option than to leave school.
To suggest that our preferred names and pronouns do not matter is to ignore the real experiences of transgender students and contribute to an environment where that severe harassment occurs and pushes transgender people out of higher education. According to the NTDS, 40 percent of transgender people have attained some level of college, compared to 28 percent of the general population. It's important that so many transgender people are in college considering the unemployment rate for transgender people is 14 percent, twice that of the general population. We need safe access to higher education, to ensure retention in school and ensure better chances for employment after graduation.
I love CU-Boulder and am proud to be a Forever Buff. In the decade since the documentary series TransGeneration followed transgender student Gabbie Gibson in her sophomore year at CU-Boulder, I'm proud to have witnessed the addition of nondiscrimination protection for transgender students, the construction of two multi-stall all-gender restrooms on campus, and the addition of transgender care to select student insurance plans.
I also did my part to contribute by writing a guide to help students transition safely and comfortably at CU-Boulder. All these and more are steps that have put CU-Boulder competitively on the forefront of transgender inclusion and made the institution a leading example nation-wide.
Respecting gender diversity at CU-Boulder is important for facilitating an environment of open, informed dialogue that can respect all diversity, including that of political opinion. What Hayward's comments show is that even with the progress that has been made, there is still work to be done. As a response, I look to the example of my current classmates and colleagues in student affairs, educating themselves on diversity after sometimes decades in the field.
I encourage and ask all faculty and professionals working with students to learn more about the transgender students they likely encounter every day, and how to be welcoming and supportive of them as they set out to achieve their goals through the pursuit of higher education.
Faculty and staff at CU-Boulder hoping to learn more are encouraged to contact the GLTBQ Resource Center, which offers Safe Zone training and other educational opportunities.