October is LGBT History Month, a time to observe lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history and celebrate the accomplishments by the gay rights movement.
But despite the progress that’s been made, navigating higher ed can still be challenging for transgender and gender-nonconforming students. In fact, 24% of students whose school communities knew they were transgender reported being verbally, physically, or sexually harassed, according to a 2015 survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality. And when transgender students experience harassment, they often leave college.
That’s one reason why the University of Vermont (UVM) allows students to choose their pronouns, writes Jessica Yarmosky for NPR.
A decade ago, UVM became the first U.S. institution to allow students to enter their pronouns into campus data systems, writes Yarmosky. And nearly 40 other colleges have followed suit, according to the Campus Pride Trans Policy Clearinghouse.
“Just having the option to [choose my pronouns] makes me feel like I can exist here,” says Jeane Robles, a UVM graduate student who uses the pronouns they/them. “I [wouldn’t] be able to fully be present” in class with the fear that a professor might use the wrong pronouns, adds Robles.
Students on these campuses can now indicate whether they use the pronouns “he,” “she,” or gender non-specific pronouns, such as “they” or “ze.” The goal is to reduce the frequency of incidents where transgender and gender-nonconforming students are misgendered, which means being referred to by pronouns that don’t match their gender identity, according to advocates.
“It’s very invalidating, and it makes me feel invisible,” says Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Beemyn, whose pronouns are they/them, says they get misgendered “all the time.”
In addition to allowing students to identify their pronouns, more than 50 colleges also allow students to change their gender on campus records without evidence of medical intervention, writes Yarmosky. And more than 180 colleges allow students to change their first name on campus records.
Allowing students to indicate their name and pronouns is part of a larger movement to create a more welcoming campus environment, writes Yarmosky.
“A growing body of research, including EAB’s own this past year, tells us that students’ sense of belonging on campus is crucial not only for student success and persistence, but for student equity,” writes Michelle DiMenna, a research analyst at EAB. “Feeling respected, welcomed, and valued is correlated with outcomes like higher grades, retention, and engagement. Yet demographic disparities in these outcomes remain, caused in part by lower reported senses of safety and belonging.”
According to research at Clark University and UMass Amherst, students feel a greater sense of belonging on campus when they feel comfortable expressing their gender identity and feel supported by campus policies. That same research found that students feel uncomfortable when faculty use their legal name instead of their preferred name.
But implementing these changes on campus can be difficult, notes Yarmosky. Institutions report that altering their student data systems can be slow and expensive. And adopting new campus policies often take time, as faculty and staff must be educated on the changes. For instance, when UMass Amherst first allowed students to choose their pronouns, Beemyn says they “spent more than a year going around to every faculty department” to prepare faculty and staff for the change.
Still, colleges are moving in the right direction, suggests Z Nicolazzo, a professor of transgender studies in education at the University of Arizona. “There’s certainly more of a movement around the visibility of pronouns [on campus],” says Nicolazzo. But, she adds, “I really worry that it becomes almost like a checkbox kind of way of thinking about diversity and equity work.” Communities need to learn why pronouns are important in the first place: “[M]uch more needs to be done.”
Campuses often overlook the ways that academic structures can improve students’ sense of belonging on campus, in their majors, and in their classrooms.
Learn more about how to support LGBTQ+ students
At LGBTQ-friendly colleges, students report that all people are treated equally, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
For higher education leaders who want to support transgender students on campus, here are several recommendations from an assistant professor of trans* studies in education.