How can universities support trans students and staff?

Trans people are often used as the media’s political football, as Sofia Ropek outlined in her earlier piece for Wonkhe. Grace Lavery, a transgender associate professor at UC Berkeley notes that:

anti-trans academics who claim that their rights are being infringed are heard far more frequently in the mainstream media than are the students who are apparently doing the infringing”.

Centring the conversation on these students (and staff – where data is even more scarce) is key, and it paints an unhappy picture.

Trans people in the UK report a high incidence of mental health problems, lower life satisfaction and sense of safety, and higher rates of poverty and homelessness. And trans students report hate crimes and being encouraged to hide their identities. Although there are signs of improvement, trans people living in the UK still face substantial discrimination.

Against this background, it is crucial for universities to make a positive effort to better support and include their trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming students and staff. Trans-inclusion involves new policies, practical work and cultural change.

Take the lead from students

Open source project Gender Construction Kit includes a list of trans-inclusive policies in UK universities, which are, on the whole, rigorous and progressive assessments of topics including data management and time off from work. They also make clear the need to respect non-binary identities and provide gender-neutral facilities, and emphasise the seriousness of transphobic and transmisogynistic behaviour and the need to investigate it.

But the list is noticeably short. Only 50% of the students in Stonewall’s 2018 study said that their universities had equality policies protecting trans students. Moreover, pushing for goals outlined in equality policies has mostly been achieved through bottom-up campaigning efforts by student groups. At Birkbeck, Oxford, Warwick, Cambridge and Newcastle universities, among others, students have researched the trans student experience, provided resources for trans students and run awareness campaigns.

In comparison, there are fewer public examples of institutions and senior staff pushing for gender-neutral facilities and administrative processes without student pressure. The University of Strathclyde, awarded for its TransEDU project, is a welcome exception.

Beyond bathrooms

Aside from policies, universities can get involved in direct and practical work to support trans students. De-gendering bathrooms and other spaces has attracted a lot of attention, but while important, administrative changes can be just as impactful as changes to physical spaces.

For example, getting information about name, gender and preferred pronouns changed is often surprisingly difficult. Universities could make sure they have simple and clearly-signposted procedures for their students and staff to change personal information in their systems. Trans people could also be taken into account when universities design or update their systems by recording information about gender as infrequently as possible and always offering a gender-neutral option. Also, for students and staff who have legally changed their name or gender, the law requires that previously recorded data not be made available. Unfortunately, many university data systems currently lack the capacity to be compliant.

Staff training, noted in many of the trans policies linked in the Gender Construction Kit list, is crucial. Any training must be continually reviewed and updated, and should always be led and informed by trans organisations and by trans students and staff.

Reported complaints data also often doesn’t match up with what trans students say about their experiences, clearly pointing to the need for a review of reporting systems and how they could be made more accessible or visible for trans students.

Robust reporting systems and inclusive data management, the provision of gender neutral toilets and other facilities and de-gendered dress codes, among other material changes, go a long way to making universities inclusive and welcoming for trans people.

Culture change

But a great deal of the work of supporting trans students and staff has less to do with practical measures and more to do with fostering an inclusive environment. Universities need to do active work to build positive community relations with their trans and non-binary staff and students.

Crucially, trans students and staff should not be made to feel like their identities are up for debate. This does not entail stifling academic freedom: trans academics and our allies across disciplines are continually engaged in research-led conversation about the nature of gender and sex, identity formation, and gendered oppression. There is much to be discussed, and much to be debated. However, trans people’s humanity and right to dignity in their place of work and study is not on that list – and it is the fundamental duty of our institutions to make that clear.

Building trust

There are lots of ways of doing this. Supporting LGBTQ+ groups (staff networks, SU groups, etc.) with funding and publicity can go a long way, but attention should be paid to whether these groups themselves are trans-inclusive or really just represent LGB people. Convening trans-themed events (such as panel discussions, talks and seminar series on relevant topics) can work both to signal that the institution values its trans and non-binary members, and help to create a community among them.

Very small steps, such as ensuring that the university uses up-to-date language to talk about trans issues, or having instructors introduce themselves with their pronouns at the beginning of the year, can cue that these are issues that the university is paying attention to. Universities could take a leaf from student unions and LGBTQ+ societies and display trans-inclusive posters, or other trans-awareness materials to help foster an environment where trans students and staff feel confident and welcomed.

Any student or staff member’s experience will be hugely shaped by their own particular interactions and relationships, and City, University of London has a policy which demonstrates one good way to capitalise on this. They appoint “named contacts” to trans and non-binary students and staff, who can act as advocates or provide information. These sorts of policies ensure that trans students and staff aren’t facing bureaucratic hurdles alone, but the policies also hopefully build trust between the trans and non-binary community and the university.

Receiving a dismissive, rude or ignorant response on first reaching out for help can largely determine someone’s impression of how supportive the institution is as a whole—and may stop them engaging any more in the future. But equally, a relationship with one institutional ally acting as a supporter and champion can be transformative.

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