12/18/2012 10:57 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Trans on Campus: Study Identifies Barriers to and Supports for Inclusion

Back in 2009, we became part of an informal coalition of transgender and cisgender (i.e., non-transgender) students, faculty and staff from a number of institutions of higher education in Colorado called the Colorado Trans on Campus (CTOC) coalition. The group was originally convened by the Colorado Anti-Violence Program to bring together groups from different campuses to share resources, experience, and knowledge on issues that were impacting transgender and gender non-conforming individuals on campuses in our state. A number of the coalition members were student activists, staff from LGBTQ resource centers and staff from multicultural centers, and it was clear from discussions with the group that trans folks on campuses were experiencing a considerable amount of harassment, daily microaggressions, and barriers on their school campuses. Some of these experiences were with other students, some were in the classrooms, and some were with personnel -- faculty and staff -- employed by the universities. Further, transgender staff and faculty experienced many of the same negative experiences as transgender students.

Little research exists on trans folks' experiences on college campuses, and what does exist has focused primarily on the experiences of students. Additionally, we could find no study that focused on college campuses within the state of Colorado. Under the guidance of the CTOC membership and with funding provided by the University of Denver's Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, we conducted a qualitative study that included intensive semi-structured interviews with 30 transgender or gender non-conforming individuals who were students, staff or faculty on Colorado campuses.

These 30 individuals were involved in 10 different college and university campuses which ranged in size from having fewer than 2,000 students to having over 20,000 students. There were both two-year and four-year institutions represented in the sample; 70 percent were public institutions, while the remaining 30 percent were private schools. The individuals ranged in age from 18 to 45 years old with an average age of 29.8 years. While 63 percent were students, 17 percent were in multiple roles on campus (e.g., student and working on campus), 10 percent were staff, and 10 percent were faculty.

There were some very clear examples of intentional harassment among the experiences reported -- particularly for those who were most gender non-conforming. In one situation, a faculty member required a female student to produce identification in order to take a test because the faculty member thought the student didn't "look female," while no other students were required to show identification. In numerous situations, students experienced problematic interactions with physicians and healthcare staff on campus -- sometimes even after the medical staff had attended trainings about working with transgender students. A number of students reported that people on campus refused to use their preferred pronouns or name, basically outing them as transgender and putting them at risk for harassment and violence from transphobic colleagues.

While these examples of intentional -- and potentially illegal -- behavior were painful experiences of invalidation and marginalization, the majority of transphobic experiences discussed by those interviewed were often unintentional, inflicted upon the trans person through ignorance, neglect and standard policy and procedures that were not designed to accommodate the full range of human gender identity and expression. Regardless of the unintentional nature of these transgressions, their impact -- often because of the sheer frequency of them -- created significant difficulties for success among the students, staff and faculty in the sample.

These unintentional and systemic barriers occurred in many contexts on campuses. For example, having instructors in classrooms teach about gender as if it were fixed and consists only of male and female was a common experience. Colleagues and staff inappropriately sharing about a person's trans status occurred with regularity. In one instance a human resource staff member was approached by a faculty members' colleagues about whether their coworker was a "he or she," and after sharing that the faculty member used male pronoun, the HR staff member went on to explain that the faculty member was transgender. The HR staff person was actually trying to be an ally, but failed to realize how they were violating the faculty members' privacy.

Campus information systems are another example of a structural barrier that makes it difficult for trans folks to navigate university systems. Most are decentralized and there is no one single point of entry whereby a person can change their name or gender across all of their school records. This results in people having the wrong name on class rosters, receiving mail and email addressed by the wrong name, among other things, receiving incorrect diplomas, at times putting them at risk by outing them. Additionally the rules for name changes and gender changes were not consistent nor was it easy to even identify what the rules were. One other common struggle was the prevalence of gendered spaces on campuses -- single gender dorms, bathrooms locker rooms. These fostered significant anxiety and fear as people found themselves questioned and harassed in single gendered spaces. Even when they didn't experience negative interactions in gendered spaces, there was often a hyper-vigilance waiting for it to happen. Expectations about being treated respectfully and with kindness was so low for one participant that he explained that he found himself feeling grateful simply because people weren't "throwing rocks at them" on any given day.

It was also difficult at times to predict how one would be treated in a specific context. In some cases, individuals found support in places that they assumed would be the most transphobic, while in other cases they encountered hostility and marginalization in places on campuses where they had expected to be welcomed, such as women's and gender studies departments or lesbian and gay spaces and organizations.

In our full report, and in the executive summary, we present a series of policy, procedural and structural recommendations that colleges and universities can implement to move toward becoming more inclusive and supportive of all individuals, regardless of their gender identity or gender expression. These recommendations flow out of the experiences -- both negative and positive -- that were shared with us by the students, staff and faculty who took part in the study. Both the full report and the executive summary can be downloaded here. We encourage university-affiliated folks -- regardless of their role on campus -- to learn more about creating a more just campus for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals and to step up as allies, even before you know that someone on your campus needs one.