In the news, trans and non-binary students are portrayed as either threatening or trendy, or a combination of the two; they’re either endangering freedoms and bathrooms, or so woke that they’re ripe for dismissal. If you visit a university cafeteria in 2019, not only will you be deprived of beef, but you’ll hear every other student requesting a non-binary dessert option.
Confusing and often alarmist media representations of trans people make it difficult to get a clear sense of what it means to be trans or non-binary. Stonewall has developed a helpful page, “The truth about trans”, which explores some common myths and misconceptions and aims to encourage respectful discussions about trans equality. The US Guardian has also published an editorial which signposts readers to research which makes clear that trans people are likely to be the victims of violence and discrimination. Crucial reading for the sector, Stonewall recently surveyed over 1400 trans and non-binary people at university:
- 60 per cent of trans students surveyed have experienced negative comments from other students based on their identity
- 41 per cent of trans people surveyed have experienced a hate crime in the last year
- 39 per cent of trans students surveyed wouldn’t feel comfortable reporting transphobic bullying to university staff
- 36 per cent of trans students surveyed faced negative comments or conduct from university staff in the last year
- 20 per cent of trans students surveyed reported that they were encouraged by university staff to hide or disguise the fact that they were trans
- 7 per cent of trans students surveyed were physically attacked by another student or member of university staff in the last year because of being trans
In a higher education landscape where trans students are often encouraged to hide their identities, we can’t underestimate the impact of news stories. Over the last few years, most coverage of trans students has rehearsed the same few tropes, including pitching trans students against academic freedom. It would be unwise to assume that the media is unbiased: missing from accounts of trans students clashing with academic freedom is information about how trans people experience university, or an acknowledgment of the power imbalance between students and academics.
Change the conversation
Recently, a number of academics have scrutinised emerging transgender policies and legislation, with the stated aim of protecting cisgendered women from discrimination or harm. But in doing so they establish a false conflict between cis and trans women – on the basis that cis women’s rights are being overlooked in favour of trans rights. Setting up this binary division between cis and trans women delegitimises a trans person’s gender identity and centres the conversation around their assigned identity at birth, and often their body. Emphasising the need to protect cis women also implies that trans women are suspect, placing in question their identities and rights.
When the rights and experiences of trans people are represented as an issue of academic freedom, those rights and experiences are minimised and equality work is mischaracterised. Although higher education equality policies call for respect, they don’t restrict academic freedom; essentially, policy-theorising is welcome, but questioning a trans person’s identity is not. If a student believes that an academic has crossed a line, whether inadvertently or as a result of prejudice, their primary recourse under university policy is to lodge a complaint, which should be investigated under normal university procedures.
Investigation and resolution of complaints can be difficult – even traumatic – for both the subject and object of the complaint. But crucially, there is often a power differential at play, meaning there is work to be done in exploring how these complaints can be handled fairly. The common framing of these complaints as a generational conflict between feminist foremothers and snowflake students makes it much more difficult for universities to consider thoughtfully the experiences of trans and non-binary staff and students, and diverts attention from the fight for trans equality.
This focus on academic freedom is dog-whistle politics rather than a meaningful attempt to engage with trans people or policies. We don’t have to choose between free speech and trans people, or cis women and trans women, and we should be proud of cis and trans students looking after each other and reporting discrimination. Universities understand, or should understand, the need to focus on building trans-inclusive policies in partnership with trans people, rather than dividing and conquering.