How College Administrators Can End Transphobia On Their Campuses

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Stacy Jane Grover is a writer and translator. She writes from the perspective of a queer transfeminist and a pansexual, nonbinary trans* individual without disabilities. She is currently pursuing a M.A. in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, and lives in Ohio with her partner.

Eradicating Transphobia On Campuses

In a previous essay, I discussed ways in which college instructors can use gender-inclusive pedagogical techniques to create a trans* inclusive environment in their classrooms. In a second one, I offered additional advice for instructors to develop curricula that are inclusive of trans* individuals.

In this third piece, I offer advice to campus administrators on changing campus culture and institutional policies to better include and support transgender and non-binary students. I draw from personal experiences as a non-binary trans* person, as well the writing of others who challenge transphobia on college campuses.

Personal Experience

My college environment felt toxic, claustrophobic and, at times utterly suffocating. Every day, I felt pressured to hide my identity, and when I did dress affirmatively, other students harassed me, and faculty members did not acknowledge me. Most days I would contemplate skipping class to avoid the stress. Oftentimes, I would have to leave classes when they felt unendurable, when conversations led to probing questions about my body, gender or sexuality.

I attended the college that I did partly out of circumstance — location, price, transferability — and partly because it was home to a renowned program in my field. And my major professors were hearteningly supportive. I came out to them in my final year. We developed close ties, and they still inspire and propel me today.

However, the safety and comfort of one academic department only goes so far. A college’s culture permeates every facet of campus life. Every square inch of campus was a reminder that I, through my tuition dollars, inadvertently supported a negative, sport-centered, party-centered, oppressively traditional macho culture. I am not alone in this feeling.

The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People report found that 31 percent of the respondents suffered from harassment on their campus, with over half of the respondents stating they did not disclose their LGBT identity at the institution. Other surveys found that trans* students reported more instances of harassment and discrimination and a lower sense of belonging on campus. In addition, the National Transgender Discrimination Survey (2011) revealed that 90 percent of two- and four-year institutions have implemented no programs towards trans* inclusion and remain inaccessible and inhospitable to trans* students. These studies show that transphobic campus culture is a real and widespread issue that effects trans* students’ ability to succeed in college. This has to change.

Statistics on the number of trans* students at university are low because reporting remains tricky. Higher education administrators may not want to use funds to support for what seems like a very small student population. But they are in the best position to change campus culture and institutional barriers to trans* student inclusion. They can tie this to their missions and values and make achieving diversity centered on promoting the self-efficacy and inclusion of their most marginalized students.

Social and Institutional Barriers to Higher Education

The first step in the process of making change at the administration level is to recognize the social obstacles trans* individuals face even in accessing higher education. Trans* people experience disproportionately high rates of homelessness, unemployment, lack of access to healthcare and transportation, and families that are often unsupportive and harassing. College often doesn’t seem like a possibility.

Because of this instability, trans* individuals are also more likely to engage in sex work and survival crimes to support themselves. This can lead to trans* individuals to become enmeshed in the prison industrial complex and with criminal charges that bar them from eligibility for federal financial aid. Furthermore, federal financial aid for dependents is reliant upon parental support that is often unavailable to trans* youth. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, for trans* students wanting to go to college to get in. These same disadvantages carry into the university setting, making it harder for trans* students enrolled in classes to thrive.

Trans* Oppression on Campuses

In hir book, Trans* in College, Z Nicolazzo has identified two main forms of trans* oppression on college campuses — what ze calls gender binary discourse and compulsory heterogenderism. The gender binary discourse refers to the ways in which what are considered appropriate gender identities and embodiments are regulated. Certain forms of gender expression are privileged above others. Heteronormative masculinity is prized highest, thus becoming the taken-for-granted norm or default while femininity is the most scrutinized. Thus, students who deviate from the gender binary (male or female, masculine or feminine) are punished. Compulsory heterogenderism is how non-trans* (i.e., cisgender) students misperceive trans* gender identities, recognizing them only through negative sexuality stereotypes that conflate gender identity and sexuality.

These two forces cause trans* students to feel invisible, invalidated and unwelcome on their campus. Students feel forced to cover and to hide their sexuality. Students have their gender identities erased and are often forced into sexuality categories to which they do not ascribe. The emotional toll this takes is high.

In light of these negative forces, however, trans* students practice resilience or pursue strategies to move toward a self-defined success. Campus administration needs to support these efforts, to recognize trans* students’ agency, and to draw from the myriad lived experiences and expertise on campus to uplift trans* lives.

Advice to Administrators

I want to give basic guidelines to begin this work. I do not intend this list to be a best-practices framework or a one-time application. I offer it, and these three essays, not as an end goal but as a starting point — a place to inspire deeper conversations in hopes that others will expand and strengthen it. In that spirit, I recommend that administrators:

  • establish and enforce specific policies that protect trans* students from harassment and discrimination;
  • provide specific financial aid, food and housing assistance for trans* students;
  • allow students to change name and gender markers on all college forms without legal documentation. The legal name can be retained for records;
  • change gender-segregated co-curricular activities, intramural athletics and multi-gendered fraternities and sororities to include trans* students. Abolish all forms of student segregation;
  • offer specific spaces for trans* students to engage with one another;
  • create spaces on campus for trans* students. Students will be able to maximize their time in a safe environment to de-stress, meet other trans* students, and recover from both macro and micro-aggressions;
  • offer non-gendered health services and have insurance cover the cost of hormones and surgeries needed to medically transition;
  • center trans* students in sex education outreach and sexual violence prevention programs;
  • implement mandatory sex and gender education for incoming students, staff and faculty members;
  • make all campus housing and restrooms non-gendered;
  • partner with community organizations to keep trans* youth in high school and offer support to get them through the college admissions process; and
  • offer post-graduation support for trans* alumni to help them through discriminatory hiring practices.


This type of approach is not an arrival, but a journey — a constant practice. Hard work has to be done to get more trans* individuals into college and to support the efforts for which trans* college students have already been fighting. We deserve more than to be seen as problems to be solved or ignored until it goes away. Some work to challenge transphobia and cissexism on campuses is already under way. It is due time for university administrators use their positions of power to support us in creating wide-reaching changes in campus culture and climate.

Advice For Dept. Chairs: “Beware of the Curse Of Small Things”

PlainspokenNote: the following blog post was originally posted on our Inside Higher Ed column. Professor Plainspoken (a pseudonym) has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She is committed to helping young professors succeed in academe. Plainspoken belongs to House Tyrell and is looking forward to the defeat of Queen Cersei, the Evil One.

Beware of the Curse Of Small Things

In a previous article, I wrote about the challenges and rewards of chairing an academic department and offered my post-chair analysis of my performance. In this essay, I talk about the skill set needed for drama-free delivery of your curriculum and reasonably happy colleagues.

We all know the saying “the devil is in the details.” It means that sometimes the success or failure of projects, careers, parties or performances hinges on some detail that was either poorly planned or neglected. Once I took an exam to be hired by a large corporation that used bubble sheets. I brought with me, as instructed, two pencils for the task. I carefully selected them, and they were freshly sharpened and gleaming. If only I had thought to check whether they were No. 2 pencils. The proctors for the exam, who were also human resources executives, gave me that tsk-tsk look as they handed me the stubby in-house pencils. Ultimately, the wrong leads dashed my dreams of carrying a platinum card by American Express and cruising in a European luxury automobile.

What a blessing. Instead, I found my way to the professoriate, where I could abandon concerns about the little things. I think, and write, about big things. Little things be damned. I love being a professor. I can read as many books as I can fit into the day. Tender humans come into my life every year, and over the next four years, I watch them try on their adult selves. Then I get to celebrate the unveiling of the first model of the grown-up they will become. As I greet the parents and tell them what I know about their offspring, I am grateful for my small role in the production of said young adult. Grand stuff.

What I do not have to do as a regular faculty member is order office equipment, review budgets, schedule courses, sign student forms or shoulder any of the other duties that make academic life work. The chair and departmental administrators take care of all of that for me. Yay!

But when you become department chair, you have to shoulder those kinds of duties and more. You have to sign numerous documents — graduation audits, major declaration forms, purchase invoices. Working out class schedules is not difficult, but it is tedious. Minutes, hours and days go by as you run as fast as you can on the paperwork treadmill. Make no mistake — taking care of those duties matters.

Here is the fundamental challenge for a department chair: you cannot trust any process to go smoothly for you. Yes, you sent in the course schedule with all of the preferred times for your faculty members. It comes back to you with many errors. You return a corrected schedule, and when it comes back again, you don’t check it because you are confident that everything is golden. After all, you cannot insult the scheduling czar by sending back the same corrections as before.

But as registration begins, your faculty members soon learn that their course schedules are not as ordered. Yikes! Caterwauling ensues. You wonder whether irate colleagues are going to jump you in the parking lot. You stammer through excuses and keep saying, “I’ll fix it,” as your colleagues complain, “Why is scheduling so hard for you?” and “I told you about my weekly Pilates class weeks ago.” Ouch! I suggest that you examine iterations of the teaching schedule carefully. And ask a colleague and the administrative staff to proofread for you. Share the blame!

And now we come to Professor Plainspoken’s second maxim for chairing an academic department: teaching schedules you must handle with extreme care. Check, double-check and triple-check. And always beware. Mistakes in scheduling are Satan’s tools — for ensuring that you always look like a fool.

Also, when managing teaching schedules and room assignments, never trust that a single communiqué will do. Communicate with the registrar’s office verbally after you send each draft of the course plan. Using two forms of communication should help to guarantee that the correct information is received and understood. The curse of small things is that tiny things, when they go wrong, are one big thing. Unfortunately, the big thing then becomes a key indicator of your competence to your department colleagues. It is understandable, since it is usually the small things that make a difference in the way you spend your days. One or two small stumbles are forgotten — more than a few, especially when you are a nontraditional chair (e.g., a woman of color), seems especially egregious. In time, the curse of small things lifts as you determine the most efficient and foolproof way of getting things done.

We may blame the curse for most of our stresses. Someone once said, “The best way to reduce stress is to stop screwing up.” I think I repeated that one to myself every day. Screw-ups are inevitable. The key is finding ways to avoid beating yourself up about them.

Would-be department chairs need what I often lacked in my position as chair: perspective. Did anyone ever end up teaching a horrible schedule because of a mistake I made? No. But they almost endured an awful schedule. The almost was enough for me to keep a running tally on my bureaucratic near misses. I was treating myself like an air-traffic controller. A near miss was cause for concern about my fitness for the job. I wanted to execute every duty with precision and perfection. Ha! My dentist, who would spend hours reshaping a tooth after a filling, told me a patient said to him after being in his chair for hours, “Perfectionism is the enemy of good enough” (his modification of the saying “The perfect is the enemy of the good”).

Perfectionism. It’s the hobgoblin of marginalized people. It is also the result of parents, who — in their effort to inspire you to do your best — dwelled on your mistakes far more than your successes. I am impatient with myself when learning anything new. I want to get it right right now!

When you add to the mix of perfectionism and impatience the competitiveness of academe, it is a nasty brew. Somewhere along the way, I got the idea that being kind and patient with myself was self-indulgent. I am unlearning this now. Should you become chair, you cannot afford not to be kind and patient with yourself.

And now, the last of the maxims for today from Professor Plainspoken: to yourself you must be kind and nurture a healthy state of mind. The curse of small things you can prevent, and your days as chair you will never lament.

How Administrators Can Support Trans Students And Faculty

rachel-mckinnon-profileNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Rachel McKinnon is an assistant professor of philosophy at the College of Charleston. Her research primarily focuses on epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, and feminism and gender issues, particularly transgender issues. She has a 2015 book, The Norms of Assertion: Truth, Lies, and Warrant, and is currently working on her second book, Things We Do With Assertions.

Gender Transitions in Academe, Part I

In this and future essays, I will offer advice on how faculty and staff members, departmental leaders, and senior administrators can handle the gender transition of an undergraduate or graduate student, staff member, or faculty member so that it can be as smooth as possible for everyone involved.

You may have noticed that trans* issues are becoming increasingly common in the media. (As is largely common convention, I use the asterisk to indicate broad inclusion in whom we describe under the trans* umbrella.) In fact, it’s at a point where it’s hard to miss. This increased visibility is good news, on the whole, as it’s leading to an increased understanding of the difficulties of trans* persons, and to an increased awareness of the presence of trans* people. The fact is that we’re not that rare. One of the benefits of this visibility and understanding is that more trans* people are realizing that transitioning is more possible now than ever before. But it’s far from easy, and I will discuss some ways to continue these positive trends.

In my work, I specialize in the relationship between knowledge and what we say to one another. However, I also do a significant amount of work on gender and gender identity, focusing particularly on trans* issues. Some of that work includes posts such as this where I write about trans* lives in academia. Being a trans* person in higher education, who works on trans* issues, gives me a good perspective from which to offer advice. For example, I have written about what it’s like to transition while teaching and my decision to come out to my classes, and about some special problems that trans* people face on the academic job market.

I am a lesbian trans woman, and I transitioned right at the end of my Ph.D. training. Some people in my department knew before my dissertation defense, but I chose to come out to everyone a few days after my defense. Looking back, it’s a little humorous that I sent out one of the batch emails (with an attached letter explaining my transition plans) on April 1: a few people wondered whether it was an elaborate April Fool’s joke. My transition was mostly, though certainly not entirely, smooth. I happily received a tenure-track job offer and a prestigious postdoc shortly thereafter. I decided to take a postdoc year partly for some transition-related issues, such as finalizing documents with the correct sex/gender information, which I will discuss in a future essay.

In this piece, I want to address what college administrators in particular can do to help students and faculty navigate their gender transition. Administration-level changes are especially important. They set the tone for students and employees. They also carry a lot of force, impacting the whole institution rather than just a department.

First and foremost, it is paramount that university administrators put into place robust institutional human-rights policies that explicitly protect people from discrimination and harassment based on gender identity and gender expression. The latter protects more than just transgender persons.

Gender identity refers to the gender that a person is, regardless of what they were assigned at birth. (I am increasingly moving away from “identifies as” language. Trans women are women — they do not merely “identify as” women.) Gender expression refers to the various ways that we show or signal our gender to others: our clothes, mannerisms, makeup, hair and so on. While a butch dyke woman’s gender identity may be that of a woman, she may express her gender in nonheteronormative ways such as wearing a button-down shirt and tie.

Thus, we want robust policy protections so that she can do this while free from harassment or discrimination. That the College of Charleston has explicit antidiscrimination and antiharassment policies including gender identity and expression was a significant part of my accepting the position. So I especially applaud them on this, and I recommend their policy as one to emulate. This is particularly important in cities, states and a country without robust antidiscrimination policies for trans* persons. Remember, in most jurisdictions in the America, it’s entirely legal to fire a trans* person for being trans*.

Second, administrations need to have a posted policy on gender identity and expression and bathroom use. In many jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, people are legally — and certainly morally — permitted to use whatever bathroom best matches their gender identity. This choice is up to the people themselves, and no individual or organization should police gender. Trans* people are best situated to determine which bathroom they feel safest using and that is most appropriate for their identity and personal needs. And this decision may change over time during their transition: early on, they may not feel comfortable changing the bathrooms they use, but later on, they might. Increasingly in the United States, the departments of Justice, Education and Labor (and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) have all adopted trans-inclusive policies and directives.

Perhaps the common reason cited to oppose trans-inclusive bathroom policies is that this will give license to (cisgender) men to start entering women’s bathroom spaces for purposes other than using the bathroom for its intended purposes. Let me say that this fear is unfounded and deeply stigmatizing. We refer to this as the “predator myth.” An alternate policy is to begin designating gender-neutral bathrooms that anyone can use. However, creating a single (or a small number) of such bathrooms and then requiring trans* people to use them (and not to use gender-restricted multistall bathrooms) isn’t acceptable, since that is instating a “separate but equal” policy, which is both unethical and illegal.

Third, colleges and universities should, as much as legally possible, make it easy for students or employees to change their official name. Sometimes we refer to this as someone’s “preferred” name. Unfortunately, in many jurisdictions, an official, legal name change can be prohibitively expensive, burdensome or simply impossible. Many times, it depends on the goodwill of a local judge, who may not be trans* friendly in their decisions to grant name changes. In such a case, people often require legal representation, which isn’t cheap.

So, one way around this is for a college to have a relatively easy name-change policy that doesn’t require official documentation such as a court order or legal name change. For example, at the institution where I received my Ph.D., the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, one need only fill out a form and have it signed by a commissioner of oaths (like a notary public), who is available to students and employees on campus for free. Colleges and universities can retain the student/employee’s “legal” name on record but use their preferred name for all communications and documents, such as degrees.

In my next essay, I will offer advice for improving department-level policies to best support transgender colleagues, particularly those who decide to transition.

Should You Become Chair(?)

spotlightNote: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed. Professor Plainspoken is the pen name of the writer, who has been a faculty member for more than 20 years. She has published and held leadership positions here and there. Ever loyal to her institution and colleagues, she is unwilling to provide more information on her background and work. However, she is perpetually dieting and is a fan of comedian Paul Mooney.


Once I was a faculty member who nurtured warm and fuzzy feelings for my colleagues. I spoke with them daily about things professional and personal. I knew their partners and children and socialized with them outside of faculty events. So, when asked to serve as chair of my department, I said, “Yes! Of course, I will be chair!”

Thus began my descent into the ninth circle of hell. My trust and relationships with my colleagues and my health headed for ruin, despite my pure intentions. I tragically underestimated the effect of my race, gender and age on my ability to facilitate faculty governance. Writing this bit of advice to other academics is one of the ways I found to reconcile my heart and mind with my experiences.

How did a well-seasoned, bald and jolly fat black woman academic ever happily take on the task of heading a department? I accepted the position out of a sense of duty and the prime directive to demonstrate my race’s competency and willingness to work hard. But alas, the intersectional space I occupy would make chairing a department harder than I imagined.

I had ideas to improve the departmental climate and to shepherd the junior faculty through the tenure process. More than a few made that journey during my first several years as department chair. I believed that the tenure process did not have to be a hazing ritual. If we supported candidates emotionally and professionally, it would make their lives easier. Ultimately, we all might have a healthier work environment because newly tenured faculty members could avoid that awkward period right after receiving tenure — that period, you know, when you sort of hate everybody, but you don’t know why. Everyone who came up for tenure received it, and I felt good about it.

As it turned out, warming the tenure pool up enough to stop freezing the candidates was not difficult, but other tasks proved to be my undoing. During the first year that I was chair, new orders came from on high regarding merit reviews, which prompted revisions to the tenure process. I was responsible for bringing the updates to faculty regarding the proposed changes. They were angered and upset by those changes, and they transferred that exasperation to me — plus a little extra!

In addition, I undertook a tiny revision in our curriculum, one that my colleagues said that they wanted. I reasoned that if I were to facilitate this change, they would be pleased. It was a terrible idea. Each meeting designed to work out the changes ended in raised voices and comments aimed straight at my self-esteem. There were too many changes going on at too many levels. I thought I was helping make the department better. I was too deep into the process before I realized that they did not need or want my help. Oops.

What went wrong here? Some parts of managing an academic department are like managing any workplace group, and other parts are distinct to academe. Some of my colleagues outranked me, which is awkward. Unlike corporate managers, who never have to manage the CEO, you have to figure out how to lead, or cooperate with, people who do not have to do anything you suggest. In fact, only junior colleagues are so compelled — even your equals have no incentive to cooperate. You cannot sack, suspend, sanction or slap anyone. You need their good will, respect and loyalty if you can get it. Subconsciously, it may be hard for your white faculty members to respect you or be loyal to you. They may believe that they have good will toward you, but they are probably delusional.

One way to handle a position without power is to use your analytical tools to figure out which faculty member is the most influential. You can solicit help for your tasks and projects from this faculty member, who in turn helps to sell it to colleagues.

While developing a relationship with the faction leaders in your department, stay authentic. Don’t pretend to be fond of them if you are not. You can take them to lunch or dinner as you build what is a necessary professional relationship for the good of your department, and ultimately for the good of students. As chair, I did not create any of the proposed changes on my own. They became mine when I introduced them without privately soliciting support. And so we come to the lesson for today:

Understand the nature of your position. Be careful about implementing changes of any kind during your first year. If you do, do your homework and be a smart and politically savvy chair by courting the power brokers in your department.

Every black woman occupies the intersectional space of race and gender. Think of that as the base model. For me, include the following characteristics: a strong black identity, a forthright style of communicating, extra weight, very short hair and grandmother eligibility. I could not be more of an affront to the standard for academic leadership and womankind. In all fairness, I was aware of this going in, but I believed that my colleagues respected me, were fond of me and had faith that I would do right by them. They probably felt that way before I became chair. Taking on the position meant restructuring, redirecting and reassuring colleagues that I would not become giddy with power.

There ends a key lesson in chairing from Professor Plainspoken: proficiency in politics encourages peace and prosperity for you and your colleagues.