Our society is becoming increasingly aware of gender and how we interact with it in our day-to-day lives. Gender norms are always changing, but in past generations that change has looked more like redefining something as masculine that used to be feminine — or vice versa — instead of shifting away from strictly upheld gender roles altogether. Amidst this gradual generational shift, the transgender community has become more visible than ever before.
In 2011, the Williams Institute estimated 0.3% of American adults identify as transgender. Eight years later in 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1.8% of high school students identify as transgender, meaning more people in Generation Z identify as transgender than any other generation before. For colleges, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. While most colleges have some form of diversity and inclusion office, only a portion of them have staff specifically employed to support LGBTQ+ students. Even within the offices that are LGBTQ+ competent, the majority have only undergone LGBTQ+ competency training that put sexuality at the forefront and treated gender identity as a footnote.
Colleges now find themselves unprepared to deal with the sudden increase of trans students needing support. Without proper trans competency training, administrators can end up doing more harm than good to the students they’re trying to help. Nonbinary students often find their requests for their pronouns to be respected brushed off or viewed as optional. This causes nonbinary students to feel unsupported by their colleges and binary trans students to feel they can’t rely on the administration to fully support them either.
Being non-binary is a gender identity that’s always existed and not a trendy affectation invented by young people to feel different compared to their peers.
The refusal to understand or acknowledge nonbinary people’s needs stems from transphobia and harms students, which highlights the need for in-depth trans competency trainings for all campus staff in order to meet the needs of a growing demographic of students.
The denial of support to nonbinary students perpetuates two assumptions that are incredibly harmful to the entire transgender community. The first assumption is that transgender people need to medically transtion in order to qualify as transgender, which is rooted in the idea that all transgender people hate their bodies. In reality, being transgender simply means that someone identifies with a gender other than the one assigned to them at birth. There are plenty of reasons why transgender people can’t access or choose not to undergo medical transitions, and transgender people who don’t medically transition aren’t any less trans than those who do.
The second assumption is that cisgender people — people who identify with the gender they were assigned at birth — can accurately differentiate transgender people from cisgender people. This assumption is rooted in the myth that binary trans people who don’t reveal their gender identity are deceitful and stand apart from “real” men and women. Therefore, nonbinary people who present as their assigned gender are perceived as faking it and nonbinary people who are visbly gender nonconforming are perceived as attention seeking.
At best, being invalidated by their college’s administration puts nonbinary students through unnecessary distress. At worst, dealing with a college that is under-informed about the current needs of the trans community can cause all LGBTQ+ students to feel they can’t trust their college to support them. Lack of support is shown to negatively impact everything from academic performance to mental health.
Without in-depth, standalone trans competency training, colleges are setting a growing demographic of students up to fail. LGBTQ+ affirming spaces cannot afford to keep treating the transgender community as a footnote if they truly want to be LGBTQ+ affirming.
Even if they don’t receive support from their college, transgender and nonbinary people will not cease to be transgender or cease to face hardships due to the stigma surrounding their identities.
Colleges can either choose to be informed enough to support a new generation of students or cause needless suffering by holding onto outdated misconceptions about the transgender community and ignore the growing need for trans competent college staff.
Yoon is the content creator of the Transgender Education Network of Texas.