10 steps faculty can take to support trans students

Ideas for teaching, mentoring & service

Lal Zimman
Dec 7, 2017 · 10 min read

In an effort to revive Trans Talk before the end of the year, I’ve decided to do a couple of posts reporting on my recent trips to conferences. This week, I returned from the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C. and one of the highlights for me was a panel discussion on mentoring, teaching, and social justice in linguistic anthropology.

Trans people go to the bathroom, but we also come to class. (Source: PBS)

I was pleased that one of the speakers, Paja Faudree, brought trans issues into the discussion by referencing her advocacy for gender-neutral restrooms at Brown. Faudree mentioned being surprised at how many conversations she’s had to have with colleagues who present and understand themselves as culturally-attuned and politically progressive, just to convince them that gender-neutral bathrooms are a viable option. Sadly, I can’t say I share that sense of surprise. When I attended last year’s meeting of the International Gender and Language Association, for instance, a prominent senior scholar responded to a plenary on trans people, which was mostly not about bathrooms, by expressing concern for cisgender women’s safety because of the “vulnerability” women experience in bathrooms. (I got to respond, though my best point came to me in l’esprit d’escalier: yes, women/people are vulnerable in bathrooms, which is why it’s so unconscionable to force a certain class of women who are already extremely vulnerable to use men’s bathrooms). My response was met favorably, but it is clear that even cis people who consider themselves intellectually open or politically liberal are not exempt from the cissexist and transphobic reactions that our culture cultivates.

On the other hand, it was clear that the group of linguistic anthropologists at this workshop was interested in what they could do to support and mentor trans students and colleagues. And it is crucial for cisgender faculty to take part in the work trans students, staff, and faculty are doing on our campuses, since there are simply not enough trans faculty and staff at most universities to take on the work that needs to be done (which cannot rest on unpaid student labor). Neither should trans faculty be expected to do this work alone, given that it takes away from their opportunities to succeed by pursuing work that that university values (i.e. research, publication, and/or teaching). Because the discussion of trans issues in the workshop session was so focused on bathrooms,* I wanted to give some additional practical advice for faculty who want to know what they can do to better teach, mentor, and serve trans students and other trans people in their campus communities. Here are some of the suggestions I made during the Q&A for the session, along with some elaboration and additions. Feel free to send further points for inclusion!

  1. First, get trained and get educated. One presenter in this roundtable I attended — Netta Avineri — mentioned Lobb’s concept of critical empathy. In short, there are serious problems with the idea that privileged people simply need to learn to “empathize” with a “disadvantaged” group in order to undo that oppression. In fact, attempts at this form of empathy can result in a distortion of what that group actually experiences while upholding the structures that seem to necessitate empathy. Critical empathy, by contrast, is grounded in a critical interrogation and attempts to dissolve the power structures that allow people to “empathize downwards” (i.e. with those less privileged or powerful) and in the recognition that some forms of suffering cannot be easily verbalized. No mater how positively you feel toward trans people, or whether you have trans friends or loved ones, it is important for people outside of the community to receive some form of training from a trans expert in order to engage in ally work. It should go without saying, but the trans people who do this training need to be paid, and we cannot expect our trans students to educate us.

2. Assume that trans students are in your classes, whether you know who they are or not. Teach without othering trans people or assuming that all of your students are cis. As an undergrad, I had a professor ask everyone in a class I was taking to imagine and describe “what they think it would be like to be transgender,” clearly assuming that no one in the room might actually know what it’s like to be trans. The invisibility I felt in that moment was compounded by having to then listen to my cisgender classmates describe what they imagine a life like mine to be like. This doesn’t mean that viewpoint taking activities can’t be used; the training materials I recently developed with a colleague in education, Emmie Matsuno, uses a clip from the TV show Transparent in which the main character, a trans woman, is harassed in a bathroom. Participants in this training are asked to take the point of view of the character and write down how they feel, in the first person, about the experience they have just had. This exercise helps cis people take on a trans perspective but also allows trans people to take on another trans person’s perspective that, because it is so specific, will almost certainly be different from their own.

3. Similarly, don’t make assumptions about students’ gender identities (e.g. for sorting them into two groups or trying to determine whether teams of students are “gender balanced”) and don’t ask students to disclose their identities for educational purposes. In a graduate seminar in gender studies I took at the University of Colorado, students who were leading discussion designed an activity in which everyone was made to write down all the ways they were marginalized or privileged on a piece of paper, and to then pass that paper to the person sitting next to them for them to add to. The idea was that some of us will not think about certain aspects of our identities, because they are normative or unmarked, without being reminded of that identity by someone for whom it is more salient. After being passed a few times, we would read the list of the paper in front of us. In that moment, I had to choose between disclosing my trans status to the class or presenting myself as a cis person who wasn’t aware of my cis privilege (a particularly loaded stance given that the class knew I work with trans communities). When someone in class expressed discomfort with the exercise, the facilitator suggested shuffling papers together and passing them back out to random participants instead of a neighbor, but students with any kind of solo status — e.g. the only visibly Black, Native, or disabled body in the room — cannot count on anonymity of this sort.

Despite barriers to their education, trans people are more likely than the general population to have attended college, graduated with a BA, and/or received a graduate degree. (Source: Injustice at Every Turn, Grant et al. 2011)

4. Understand the ways that trans people’s identities impact their educational experiences. In a major survey of thousands of trans people in the United States, 61% percent of those who express(ed) a trans identity while in school, at any level, report experiencing significant harassment, assault, or expulsion for their gender identity or expression. Trans people who are harassed at school are more likely to drop out and more likely to experience homelessness. Yet trans people are more likely than the general population to have a college or graduate degree, suggesting that this is a group of people who value and excel in higher education when they have access to it. This context illuminates how widespread and ordinary transphobia is in educational settings, meaning that chances are high that your trans students have experienced mistreatment for their gender at school, and that they may be on guard even when they are not actively being harassed. Just showing up can be a victory, and the emotional exhaustion is real. Pay attention to the kind of experiences your trans students are having — on campus, in the community, and in your classroom — and believe them when they tell you about the transphobia they encounter.

5. Learn about the role of trans people in your own discipline and how their experiences might shed light on the topics you teach. In some fields — such as anthropology sociology, psychology, gender studies, or history — the connections might be obvious. In others, it may be more challenging to make that connection, but a good starting point is to see what trans colleagues in your discipline are saying and doing. Depending on how accessible your field is to trans people, that may mean looking to students or non-academic professionals for insight.

Even math class can be made trans-affirming. (Source: GLSEN)

6. Informed by that context, bring trans issues into your classroom. Be intentional and do your homework beforehand so that you’ll be prepared for the problematic statements that will likely arise and have a plan for minimizing their negative impact on trans students. Even if you don’t see much interaction between your field and trans issues, get creative. For example, courses that address quantitative skills often use gender as an easy binary variable when students are used as examples of data-points, when it could just as easily be used to illustrate how the same phenomenon can be modeled in a variety of ways (a binary variable, categorical variable with multiple levels, linear scale(s), etc.).

The most basic thing you can do, regardless of the subjects you teach, is to make it clear that your classroom policies support trans people, particularly from a linguistic perspective. Demonstrate that you are committed to gendering people correctly by providing your own pronouns when you introduce yourself and asking students for the same. Adding a statement to your syllabus about names and pronouns can also emphasize that you expect students to use one another’s preferred forms of reference.

7. When possible, have your department invite (trans) scholars to speak about trans issues from an academic perspective. There are a few benefits to this. First, you may attract faculty colleagues who are more likely to attend an academic talk than a diversity training event, which can potentially improve the general departmental environment. Your department also lends further legitimacy to these issues by showing that they are the subject of significant academic inquiry. Finally, you will attract trans students to your discipline, since trans people tend to be very interested in their academic representation.

8. Once you’ve done the work to educate yourself, educate your cisgender colleagues. People who occupy unmarked, normative, privileged social groups sometimes react more favorably to interventions from people they perceive as the same as them, as opposed to hearing it directly from the people who are negatively impacted by their behavior or actions. Talk to the people who are unlikely to seek out education about these matters and tell them what you’ve learned. Correct your colleagues when they mess up, especially if they misgender someone.** Make it clear that you don’t allow transphobic statements to pass without comment, even when intentions are good and no trans people are (seemingly) around.

Use your cred as an expert (Source: Shutterstock)

9. Advocate on issues you’re a specialist in. If you are a linguist or a scholar of English, communication, or writing, learn about and advocate for trans-inclusive language. If you teach a foreign language, learn about the ways gender diversity is expressed in that language and talk to your students about it. If you teach biology or physical anthropology, introduce the messy complexities of biological sex and encourage students to be skeptical of simplistic biological determinism. If you are a psychologist, don’t just teach about theories of transgender identity development, talk about the effect that transphobia has on trans people’s mental health and the history of problematic treatment of trans people by psychologists. If you are a historian, talk about the role of non-normatively gendered people in shaping historical movements.

10. Donate your time and/or money to local organizations that serve trans populations and are run by trans people. Students are also members of the broader community and supporting groups outside of the university helps trans students get access to other services that we are not able to provide on campus.

* On one hand, bathrooms are important. People need access to public accommodations, and bathrooms are a significant site of harassment and violence for trans people. On the other hand, focusing on bathrooms can detract from other issues, such as employment discrimination, harassment in schools and workplaces, and violence and sexual assault, among others. Addressing systemic, culturally entrenched transphobia is what must be done in order to change people’s feelings about the reality that trans people need to use bathrooms.

** However, you should find out what the person in question is comfortable with first. When you talk to somebody about their pronouns, it can be useful to ask what they would like you to do if you hear someone use the wrong pronoun to refer to them, and if it depends on who the person is.

Trans Talk

Language is a crucial element of trans people’s experience and a central component of trans liberation. This publication features academic analysis, activist interventions, and personal narratives that center the language of transgender communities.

Lal Zimman

Written by

Sociocultural linguist, scholar of language and trans experience, faculty at UC Santa Barbara, and lover of political analysis in its many forms. (he/him/his)

Trans Talk

Language is a crucial element of trans people’s experience and a central component of trans liberation. This publication features academic analysis, activist interventions, and personal narratives that center the language of transgender communities.

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