Trans Students Welcome: Is Your University Truly Inclusive?

By  - 

“We want you, you belong here, we’re ready for you.” 

This was not the message Brian Buford received when he came out as a graduate student in 1988, but it is the message he’s determined to send to transgender students at the University of Louisville today in his role as director of the university’s LGBT Center.

Brian Buford
Brian Buford

[Above: University of Louisville (UofL) students display the LGBTQ Pride flag on campus]

He’s not alone. Increasingly, colleges and universities are implementing policies and programs to better support trans students. According to Campus Pride’s Trans Policy Clearinghouse, at least 1,000 colleges now have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and gender expression, 207 have gender-inclusive housing, and 156 allow students to use a chosen first name on campus records and documents. The question is, what’s driving these positive changes?

Buford says it’s a “chicken or egg” dilemma. Are universities creating safer spaces, causing more trans students to feel comfortable disclosing their identity? Or are trans students demanding more support, forcing universities to modify their policies? In Buford’s opinion, it’s a little bit of both.

He says that in the early days of the University of Louisville’s LGBT Center, there were a few active trans students who served as trailblazers. As these students pushed for policy changes, Buford says, it sent a message to students that the University of Louisville was a welcoming space for trans students — so more came.

Discovering how many more exactly, or how many trans students attend institutions that don’t make an active effort to support them, is a bit difficult, though. Genny Beemyn, coordinator of the Trans Policy Clearinghouse and director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Stonewall Center, says that because institutions haven’t been asking about gender identity, it’s difficult to know exactly how many transgender students are currently enrolled in universities across the United States.

Genny Beemyn
Genny Beemyn

“I think the assumption is that it’s a very small population,” says Beemyn. “I’m sure it is relatively small, but I think it’s a lot larger than people recognize because we’re not giving people the ability to self-identify, nor are we creating an environment where people feel like they can disclose.”

What we do know, according to a 2016 report by The Williams Institute, is that about 0.66 percent of people 18 to 24 years old self-identify as transgender nationwide. That’s more than 200,000 people. And, in 2014, the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights released guidelines clarifying that Title IX prohibitions against sex discrimination also protect against discrimination based on gender identity. As Beemyn puts it, respecting the needs of trans students is becoming “not simply the ethical and moral thing to [do], but also the legal thing to [do].”

But even for institutions with good intentions, learning how to change campus culture to be more trans-inclusive can be difficult. “We are so used to making gender assumptions, and not only making those assumptions, but calling out those assumptions by assigning gender pronouns to people.— by saying ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am,’ ‘mister’ and ‘miss,’ and sometimes by just saying ‘man’ and ‘woman’ in a way that we don’t call out other aspects of someone’s identity, like their race,” says Beemyn. “Trying to get away from that gender binary is really difficult, [as is] trying to change campus culture so we recognize that there are more than two genders.”

Students on the UofL campus
Students on the UofL campus

According to Buford, the change starts with training faculty, staff, and administrators. When he gives workshops, he focuses on simple things faculty can do to send a message of support or inclusion, such as using appropriate names and pronouns, including a diversity statement in the syllabus and explaining it the first day of class, or making sure LGBTQ perspectives are included in course content.

On a larger level, colleges and universities need to look at policies. Rebecca Grant, a student at Sullivan University in Louisville, says that policies relating to dress codes, restrooms, ID cards, email accounts, housing, and healthcare are the ones that can potentially be the most treacherous for trans students.

When it comes to housing, Beemyn says it’s simple: Old-school men’s and women’s dorms have to go. Even if a university allows students to live in the dorms that align with their gender identity, students who don’t identify as male or female are excluded. Beemyn believes the answer is to provide housing where students can choose roommates of any gender and live in most housing facilities on campus. Similarly, Beemyn advises that universities provide gender-inclusive bathrooms — either private, single-user facilities or multi-user facilities with individualized showers and toilets and a public sink area.

Policies and procedures regarding ID cards and email accounts are slightly more complicated. Providing a space on applications for students to self-identify as transgender is a good start. But, since some students don’t feel safe disclosing their identity to their family, universities need to make sure that even if a student doesn’t provide this information on an application, systems are in place to affirm their identity once they arrive on campus. That’s why the University of Louisville allows students to choose the name used on their ID cards and class rosters after they arrive on campus, says Buford.

Faculty and staff at UofL participate in LGBTQ training
Faculty and staff at UofL participate in LGBTQ training

Grant knows how important this choice can be for trans students because she wasn’t given the same opportunity. Even when she began going by the name Rebecca and using female pronouns, she says her school refused to recognize her gender identity until she legally changed her name.

Students at the University of Louisville are also given an opportunity to choose separately which name they would like to appear on their diploma and to be called at graduation. “Some students, when they come here, are not ready to [disclose their identity],” Buford says, “and some students, when they leave here, are not ready. We try to make sure they have the option to … take steps as they are ready to take them.”

Training faculty and staff and evaluating and improving campus policies are key toward creating a trans-inclusive campus environment. But these steps don’t happen on their own, and Buford says the responsibility for making changes of this scope shouldn’t rest on the shoulders of students. “You have to hire somebody to do the long-term work,” he says.

Fortunately, this is happening at a number of universities across the country, and Buford says he is seeing more schools opening LGBT centers. “It’s finding its way into institutions as part of the life of a campus,” he says, “and that’s a really good thing.”●

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.