Efforts to create a safe and inclusive environment for transgender students have focused on gender-inclusive restrooms, writes Jeremy Bauer-Wolf for Inside Higher Ed.
But transgender and gender-nonconforming students want administrators to think beyond the bathroom for creating a truly inclusive and welcoming campus, according to a paper published in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation.
Researchers at Clark University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst surveyed more than 500 transgender and gender-nonconforming undergraduates and graduate students, as well as a handful of recent grads. The researchers compiled a list of 17 services and asked respondents whether their campus offered them and how important they were.
This resource is part of the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice Initiatives in Higher Education Resource Center.
Respondents did rank gender-neutral bathrooms as the most important resource on campus. And only 45% of respondents said that their institution had the correct bathrooms on campus, suggesting that there is still room for improvement in this area.
For transgender and non-conforming students, gender-inclusive bathrooms represent safety, says Abbie Goldberg, lead author of the paper. The LGBTQ community has raised concerns about transgender student rights, pointing to the harassment or emotional distress transgender students experience when using gendered restrooms, writes practice manager Ann Forman Lippens for EAB‘s Facilities Forum. “Being gender-inclusive communicates something very clear to a student: that we recognize this is an issue,” says Goldberg, a professor of psychology at Clark.
But respondents also pointed to other opportunities to create a welcoming environment. Coming in at No. 2 on the respondents’ list of important services: a nondiscrimination policy that protects gender identity and expression. About 65% of respondents reported that their institution already had one in place.
And No. 3 was a university-affiliated student organization for LGBTQ students—and nearly all of the respondents (92%) indicated that their institution already sponsored such a group.
Researchers also asked respondents how colleges and universities could better support their transgender populations. In addition to inclusive restrooms, students want inclusion training for faculty and staff. While some institutions already offer courses on transgender issues, respondents say these courses are either sparsely attended or don’t reach a broad enough audience. One respondent suggested that administrators make these trainings mandatory. Others recommended that the trainings include terminology for transgender people and proper pronouns.
Respondents also identified names as an issue. Students reported discomfort when faculty used their legal name instead of their preferred name, writes Bauer-Wolf. Participants wished for easier ways to change their name within the institution, so faculty and staff would address them by their preferred name.
But changing names in a university system can be a challenge. In 2017, one transgender student told Public Source in an interview that her school’s administration is making it extremely difficult for her to change her name from her legal birth name to her corrected female name. The student explained that on paper, her school made it look as though they would readily make accommodations. But once she started the process, administrators were reluctant to go through with her name change—and took months to do so.
If a university advertises itself as LGBTQ inclusive, it needs to make sure that faculty and staff address students by their preferred names, advises Goldberg. Administrators shouldn’t put the onus on students to tell faculty how they want to be addressed, she adds. Goldberg and her team found that students felt a greater sense of belonging on campus when they felt comfortable expressing their gender identity and supported by campus policies. To create an inclusive campus environment, colleges don’t need to follow one specific path, says Goldberg. “Being gender inclusive means different things to different people,” she says (Bauer-Wolf, Inside Higher Ed, 7/25/18).
Student demand for a more inclusive and open climate has brought the discussion of gender-inclusive restrooms to the forefront. Over 150 colleges and universities have already created these facilities, but before you follow suit, review five lessons early movers learned from their own campus conversions.
Learn more about how to support LGBTQ+ students
"Just having the option… makes me feel like I can exist here," says one student.
Students argue that as colleges successfully diversify their campuses, efforts have stopped short of making minority and LGBTQ+ students feel welcome and included.