The Invisible Labor of Liberating Non-Binary Identities in Higher Education

By Bri Carmen Sérráno

Bri Sérráno
Sep 10 · 6 min read

“Yes, Monica*?” I hear from my professor a few weeks into my Ph.D. program.

I respond with a cynical “You mean the other one?”, knowing the professor has me confused with “Monica”, the other student in class who is queer, Latina, brown, thick and has short hair like mine. It’s not the first time this has happened. My reaction mentally, every single time, is “I am not Monica. We do not look the same. And I am not a cisgender woman.” This situation is not only irritating but incredibly telling of the higher ed climate for queer brown students like myself, and the mix-up seems to happen no matter the degree obtained by a faculty member or their level of “awareness.”

My mother’s words — now tattooed on my body — ring true every time I am erased: “You are everything your ancestors ever wanted you to be and more.” My mother was born on a Native reservation in Colorado, and my grandparents migrated to the U.S. from México. The stories of my ancestors empower me in my queer and gender identity. I once believed and hoped that, like the experiences of my ancestors, my academic experience would also be empowering.

But I was wrong, and I now see my hope to have been largely founded on fallacies we are taught by renowned scholars in the academy, fallacies such as resiliency, grit, and other subversive theoretical perpetuations of white supremacy and individualism.

To all academics: I challenge you to ensure that non-binary identities are automatically included in research of gender. Ensure that my siblings and I continue to exist just as my ancestors have.

Nicolazzo & Duran describe compulsory heterogenderism and the transgender gaze as a cornerstone of a transgender and non-binary students’ experiences. Compulsory heterogenderism is a term that explains how students’ gender and sexual identities are perceived to be one and the same. For example, because I have short hair and am perceived as female-assigned-at birth, I am assumed to be a lesbian, which implies a specific gender. The transgender gaze is when transgender people are seen as objects of their bodies and not as people with lived experiences. In turn, this can influence their experiences in higher education when, for example, decisions concerning facilities and accommodations on campus are made without transgender students at the table.

Transgender students in the academy must also cope with being misgendered. I have been subjected to misgendering in the classroom multiple times, by a range of professors. After multiple times of being misgendered in the classroom (this time a digital classroom), I chose to turn off my webcam in order to wipe the tears that are streaming down my face. I have been dehumanized once again. I took a moment to calm myself and remind myself that I am valid, real, and deserve to be in this classroom. Being rendered invisible is a common experience for me, so common, perhaps, that I should practically be numb to it. But it’s an experience that I know I will continue throughout my Ph.D. program. As Duran & Z Nicolazzo, referenced above, state with the transgender gaze: I am rendered invisible. I am regarded as an object and inhumane.

Non-Binary Existence

Non-binary people are defined as people that may not fit into a gender category, those who do not identify with gender constructs, or those who may identify as a third gender. As described by Cherokee scholars, non-binary and third gender people have existed for hundreds years in North America, if not more. As Driskill, a Native scholar describes, there are at least eleven genders within their Cherokee community.

The William’s Institute indicates that there are over 1.4 million people in the United States who are transgender. It is estimated that 25%-35% of transgender people identify as non-binary. Research shows that transgender people are discriminated against through many facets of daily life, including when seeking housing, employment, and medical and mental health care, and accessing public facilities. They are also more likely to experience psychological, sexual, and physical violence.

This picture of a white-passing non-binary person standing in a restroom next to a sign that reads “Gender Neutral Restroom.
This picture of a white-passing non-binary person standing in a restroom next to a sign that reads “Gender Neutral Restroom.
Photo from The Gender Spectrum Collective on Broadly

I am a non-binary, Latinx, and neurodiverse Ph.D. student at Colorado State University (CSU) in the Higher Education Leadership (HEL) program. Of the multiple inconveniences that erasure brought with it was an inability to access restrooms during my first course at CSU during summer 2017 in our college of education building. There were no accessible gender inclusive restrooms at the time without a gendered designation of binary man or woman. I had come out to my cohort as non-binary and had requested some cisgender men cohort members to accompany me to the restroom as needed, but this became old quickly and I did not want to inconvenience them. However, erasure goes beyond access to restrooms, and many transgender people and non-binary people experience discrimination nationally (Please note that I have privilege as a masculine-of-center and female-assigned-at-birth person, and that trans women and femmes undergo more labor and violence that I ever will).

I have been repeatedly asked by professors to explain what my pronouns — they, them, theirs — mean and to have grace with those who are “still learning.” This only makes me wonder how and when these professors use these pronouns or if they even reach out to on-campus resources in order to alleviate the labor off of myself as a token non-binary person in the program. This should also be the responsibility of the university and department at new faculty orientation and other human resources trainings, not LGBTQ or multicultural centers.

Faculty Advisors

I have engaged with my advisors, who are widely known faculty that both truly embody the essence of justice and equity. My advisors, both of whom are people of color, and one of whom is queer and trans, consistently have my back. They both welcome critique of their own academic writings and practices, and regularly interrogate notions of white supremacy in higher education. One study highlights that exemplary academic advisors in doctoral programs describe themselves as being supportive of their advisees, caring for their advisees, and ensuring their success. In order for this support to extend to non-binary students, I would encourage advisors to ask themselves the following questions:

  • How are your advisees being held accountable to non-binary erasure in their research?
  • How are you alleviating the labor of your non-binary students so that they are not solely responsible for educating you, your colleagues and students in your classroom?
  • How are you engaging in self-education to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for non-binary students, faculty, staff, and future students in your program?

I have also had to address erasure in the academy by questioning how my peers are recruiting participants. I encourage those conducting research, including early academics, to ask themselves the following questions:

  • How are you including non-binary people, including non-binary femme people, non-binary masculine people, and transgender people, in your research when discussing gender?
  • Are you inadvertently erasing the experiences of transgender people when studying “males”, “men”, “women”, and “females”?
  • Are you perpetuating the gender binary in your academic language, writing, and research?
  • Are you prioritizing the comfort of cisgender people by excluding transgender and non-binary people in their research?
  • What is the cost of perpetuation of colonized standards of gender in research?

I often question why research that includes non-binary and transgender participants is commonly suggested to be under the category of “trans” or “queer” studies. Why is it that non-binary identities are not automatically be included in research of gender?

To all academics: ensure that my siblings and I continue to exist just as my ancestors have.

*A pseudonym

Bri Sérráno is a first-generation, non-binary Latinx queer neurodiverse scholar that focuses their research on transgender students of color in higher education. They are a Ph.D. student in Colorado State University’s Higher Educational Leadership program and an adjunct faculty member. Bri’s practical experience includes trans inclusion policy, gender inclusive facilities on college campuses, inclusive language, and a liberation, feminist, and decolonial framework.

Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues

The Online Magazine of the National Center for Institutional Diversity

Bri Sérráno

Written by

They/Them pronouns. Ph.D. student, professor, and social justice educator.First gen, neudivergent, non-binary queer scholar in higher education.

Spark: Elevating Scholarship on Social Issues

The Online Magazine of the National Center for Institutional Diversity

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