Trans on Campus: Measuring and Improving
the Climate for Transgender Students
By Brett Genny Beemyn, GLBT Student Services, Multicultural Center
Ohio State University
As an undergraduate student, Lisa
was open about being transgender. She spoke about her gender identity
on panels, sought to make campus groups more trans-inclusive, and
challenged gender expectations by often wearing dresses and make-up,
but otherwise appearing as her male birth gender. In her crossing
of traditional gender boundaries, Lisa encountered both individual
and institutional discrimination. It was not uncommon for her to be
verbally harassed as she walked across campus, and residence life
staff would only house her with male students, leading to uncomfortable
and potentially dangerous situations.
Lisa's experiences are typical. More and more students are
coming out as transgender at colleges and universities across the
U.S, only to be confronted with often hostile classmates, insensitive
and uneducated faculty and staff, and institutional systems that recognize
only male and female gender categories. While some institutions have
begun to change policies and practices to accommodate the needs of
transgender students, most colleges and universities have yet to consider
or take steps to create a more trans-inclusive campus climate.
In some cases, the lack of support services for transgender students
seems to result from a failure to recognize that transgender students
exist on campuses and have specific needs, while in other cases, it
appears that colleges and universities do not know how to respond
to their needs effectively. This article will address both of these
concerns. After reviewing research on the experiences of transgender
college students, the article will consider ways in which campuses
can create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for transgender
students, both in terms of policy and practice.
Research on Transgender Students
Although there have been few studies of transgender college students,
the literature indicates that they often encounter institutional and
personal discrimination on campuses. For example, a study (Rankin
and Beemyn, in progress) involving 50 transgender-identified students
from 14 colleges and universities found that 44 percent of the respondents
had experienced harassment. Derogatory remarks were the most common
form of harassment, reported by 86 percent of the individuals who
experienced harassment. Other types of harassment included pressure
to be silent (52 percent), verbal threats (48 percent), graffiti (43percent),
physical threats (24 percent), denial of services (23 percent), and
physical assaults (19 percent). In contrast, less than one-third of
the lesbian, gay, and bisexual respondents to the study (Rankin 2003)
had been harassed, and less than two percent had experienced physical
The hostile campus climate for transgender students was reflected
in many of the students' attitudes and behaviors. In Rankin
and Beemyn's study (in progress), 40 percent of the transgender
students stated that they feared for their physical safety on campus
because of being transgender, and 30 percent indicated that they concealed
their gender identity to avoid harassment and discrimination. Nearly
three-fourths of both the transgender study respondents (Rankin and
Beemyn in progress) and the LGBT study respondents (Rankin, 2003)
felt that harassment against transgender people was likely or very
likely on their campuses.
Along with fears and concerns about harassment, many transgender
students report experiencing institutional discrimination. In a survey
of 75 self-identified transgender undergraduate and graduate students
from 61 different colleges and universities, McKinney (in press) found
that the respondents did not feel that their institutions adequately
address their needs. For example, few of the students indicated that
their schools provide any transgender-related programming, and none
of the students considered faculty and staff, in general, to be transgender-supportive.
Asked "Are faculty and staff educated about transgender issues?"
the students all had negative responses, including:
There are frequent transphobic and clueless remarks in class by profs.
- Many professors do not have up-to-date information. . . Homosexuality
and transgender are taught in social problems as a strain on society
and deviant acts.
- Even LGB staff/faculty are largely ignorant'not overtly
bigoted, their ignorance takes its toll. Trans issues are still
seen as add-ons/expendable as opposed to being an integral part
of so-called LGBT affairs on campus. The campus LGBT center staff
lack even a basic understanding of the realities facing trans folk
on this campus.
- I have tried to educate some of the staff and faculty. I have
spent a lot of energy wanting to be heard. That energy would have
been better spent on my coursework.
Many of the students were particularly troubled by the lack of transgender
education among campus counseling and health-care center staffs. Only
four of the 75 students surveyed reported that campus counselors were
helpful, knowledgeable, and supportive in regard to transgender issues
(McKinney, in press). Responses to the question, "What type
of counseling, if any, is available on your campus?" included:
- As a trans person, I would NEVER seek counseling here as I don't
want to be diagnosed with some gender identity disorder.
- No good counseling is available. I was referred to a mental institution
for expressing such feelings.
- I went to the university health services. They had no counselors
with experience dealing with trans folk. Nor were they able to refer
me to any experienced counselors anywhere in my state. . . . Having
access to effective counseling resources would have made a substantial
difference in my experience.
- Not at all. I went to two different counselors since I've
been here and it was always ME that had to educate them about who
I was on the gender spectrum.
The transgender students surveyed expressed similar concerns about
campus health center staff. McKinney found that the graduate student
respondents, who demonstrated a greater need for transgender-related
health services than the undergraduate students, were particularly
dissatisfied with the medical care available at their colleges and
universities. Given that the recognized standards for providing care
to individuals who are transitioning from one gender to another require
counseling and medical evaluations, the lack of trained campus health-care
professionals represents a major obstacle for many transgender students.
The Diverse Identities and Needs of Transgender
A number of articles have offered recommendations for how colleges
and universities can become more trans-inclusive, and have often provided
examples of institutions that have implemented these changes. The
areas of campus where attention should focus include housing, counseling
and health care, bathrooms, locker rooms, documents and records, standardized
forms, and training and programming.
College administrators and student affairs staff need to develop
transgender-specific policies and practices in each of these areas.
But they also must be able to work with transgender students on an
individual basis, recognizing that these students have diverse identities,
experiences, and needs. For example, because many transsexual women
who are in the process of transitioning are initially not able to
"pass" as female, they face different issues than transsexual
men, who begin to be seen as male soon after starting hormone therapy.
Similarly, a man who identifies and performs onstage as a drag queen
will likely have different concerns than a heterosexual man who crossdresses
secretly, without even his female partner(s) knowing.
Although MTFs (male-to-female transsexuals) and drag queens have
historically been the most visible transgender people within both
transgender communities and the larger society, these groups are today
only a small segment of individuals whose identities, appearances,
and/or behaviors blur or cross traditional gender lines. Since Christine
Jorgensen made international headlines in the early 1950s for having
a "sex change," the dominant model of transgender identity
development has been personified by individuals who recognize themselves
as a gender different from their birth gender at a young age, struggle
to understand these feelings, and after years of shame and denial,
begin to accept themselves. Typically, in mid-life, they take hormones
and have gender reassignment/confirmation surgeries to align their
outward appearance with their inner sense of self.
However, over the last decade, there has been a fundamental shift
in how many transgender people, especially many younger trans people,
conceive and express their gender identities. Trans youth today, who
have access to information on the Internet, see a growing number of
transgender images in popular culture, and benefit from the political
and social gains made by previous generations of transgender activists,
are much less likely than transgender people who grew up in the 1960s
to mid 1990s to feel that they are the "only one." As
a result, trans youth in the 2000s may acknowledge and embrace their
transgender identities more quickly and not experience a prolonged
sense of confusion or guilt.
With many transgender people coming out at younger and younger ages,
more students are openly identifying as transgender in or even before
college and expecting their campuses to provide transgender-specific
services and activities and to have transgender-supportive faculty
and staff. But as McKinney found, many institutions offer little or
no transgender programming. The lack of campus transgender events
means that faculty and staff, whom the participants in McKinney's
study perceived as being largely ignorant about transgender issues,
have few formal opportunities to become more knowledgeable. College
administrators and student affairs staff can thus make an important
difference by regularly offering educational sessions about transgender
issues and including transgender speakers and performers as part of
general campus programming.
Along with often coming out earlier, transgender people today who
want to transition may seek to do so in their teens or early twenties,
rather than making this decision later in life. Increasingly then,
transgender students will need the assistance of campus counseling
and health-care centers for therapy, hormones, and gender reassignment/confirmation
surgeries. But, as McKinney demonstrates, many counseling and health-service
personnel are no more knowledgeable about transgender concerns than
other staff and faculty. Moreover, most college health insurance plans
do not cover treatments related to transsexuality, based on the misguided
belief that such procedures are elective rather than necessary for
an individual's well-being. Therefore if campus counseling and
health-care centers are to meet the needs of the growing number of
students who openly identify as transgender, they must require their
staffs to attend trainings on the experiences of transgender people
and provide access to and coverage of transitioning services.
Many transgender youth today, however, do not feel that they need
to transition entirely or at all in order to be "real"
men or "real" women. Challenging the assumption that one's
genitalia is the defining aspect of one's gender, they may take
hormones, but not have any surgeries, or they may have a breast augmentation
or reduction procedure, but not genital surgeries. Trans men, especially,
often forgo "bottom" surgeries, because many are able
to be seen as male only from taking hormones, and because of the tremendous
cost of phalloplasty and what they see as less than adequate surgical
results (Cromwell, 1999).
Other trans youth refuse to present or characterize themselves as
either male or female. Often referring to themselves as genderqueer,
they seek to blur gender boundaries by, among other means, presenting
an androgynous appearance or wearing both "male" and "female"
clothing. Whereas the term "transgender" was often shorthand
for "transsexual" for much of the 1990s, the "transgender"
umbrella is recognized today as covering a myriad of gender-crossing
and genderqueer identities (Diamond 2004, Nestle, Howell and Wilchins
2002, O'Keefe and Fox 2003). Some of the more common words that
trans youth use to describe themselves include transboi, boydyke,
third gendered, bi-gendered, multi-gendered, andro, androgyne, and
gender bender. Drag king identities are also more visible and accepted
among trans youth today, so that campus drag shows, once the sole
domain of drag queens, are increasingly presenting a range of gender
The growing diversity of transgender communities means that college
administrators and student affairs staff will increasingly encounter
students who do not fit the traditional model of transsexual identity
development and who have different concerns than earlier generations
of transgender people. Addressing the needs of students who do not
identify as either male or female will require a fundamental re-organization
of colleges and universities, which typically operate on the basis
of binary gender categories in everything from bathrooms and locker
rooms to housing to institutional forms and documents. Though more
and more campuses are offering gender-neutral bathrooms, locker rooms,
and housing options, and are changing forms and documents to enable
transgender students to self-identify, most colleges and universities
continue to acknowledge only two "sexes." Whether intended
or not, this perpetuation of the gender binary signals to genderqueer
and other transgender students that they are not welcomed or included
Because of individual and institutional discrimination, many transgender
students have an overall negative college experience. Administrators
and student affairs staff can make an important difference in the
lives of these students, but to do so, they will need to reconsider
many of their assumptions about gender and the structure of higher
education. Improving the campus climate for transgender students requires
nothing less than changing the campus.
The term "transgender" encompasses a wide range of identities,
appearances, and/or behaviors that blur or cross gender lines. The
transgender umbrella includes, but is not limited to, transsexuals,
who identify as a gender different from their biological gender; crossdressers
(previously known as transvestites), who wear clothes considered appropriate
for another gender but not one's own; drag kings and drag queens,
who crossdress within a performance context; and genderqueers, who
do not identify as either male or female and who often seek to blur
References and Resources
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Students. Journal of
Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, 3 (1).
Beemyn, Brett. 2005. Ways that Colleges and Universities Meet
the Needs of Transgender Students.
Transgender Law and Policy Institute, http://www.transgenderlaw.org/college/index.htm.
Beemyn, Brett. 2003. Serving the Needs of Transgender College Students.
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Beemyn, Brett, Billy Curtis, Masen Davis, and Nancy Jean Tubbs. In
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Harry Benjamin International Gender Dysphoria Association. 2001.
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