Time to Center Trans Experiences in Higher Education

Time to Center Trans Experiences in Higher Education

Xajés Martinez

Coordinator for Fraternity & Sorority Life, Colorado State University

The transgender community is a notable part of U.S. culture, and as a follow-up to Transgender Day of Remembrance, Learn Forward wanted to explore more deeply the trans experience in higher education. More U.S. Americans are exploring gender identity and expression, both in public displays that challenge gender expectations and in private reflections on experiences where gender identity and sex assigned at birth don’t match. Too often, however, the conversation of inclusion of the trans community in everyday interactions is still an afterthought. Transgender Day of Remembrance is a heavy reminder that I and my community are continuously at risk. My hope in this opportunity to connect with the readers of Learn Forward is to recognize the importance of centering trans experiences in everyday spaces, highlight the trans experiences on college campuses today, and share stories of folx that identify as trans in the media and why that matters.

By the way, my name is Xajés (think ‘ah yes’ vowel sounds for ‘za-hess’), and I embrace they/z/xa as my gender pronouns. It is my choice to share my pronouns and name pronunciation publicly in this way. Asking me or others to do this in every space, every place, and every minute of the spaces we are part of is not what I mean when I talk about centering trans experiences. I’m talking about getting input from trans community members before making major decisions and actions, educating authorities and gatekeepers about the marginalization of trans folx, and providing resources to promote the success of trans members of the community. There’s also a need to assess engagement with trans individuals, particularly if any of these 20 examples of cissexism (or others that the community names) occur frequently. This will look different at every college campus across the nation, so the more input from the community the better. Some helpful questions include: What does my institution currently offer for transgender and gender non-conforming students? In what ways are transgender and gender-nonconforming students visible and invisible at my institution? How are conversations about transgender inclusion and empowerment happening in my office, my department, my division, and my institution? What self-work do I need to engage in on trans inclusion in my role on campus?

Centering trans experiences is both a process and goal, and to do so effectively requires an understanding of the experiences trans students are having on college campuses today.

Colleges and universities are producing challenges at every intersection of the college experience for trans students (Beemyn and Brauer, 2015), and while some have addressed exclusive or discriminatory practices others continue unchallenged. College students that identify as trans are looking for engagement and education that meets their needs, and while there are growing opportunities to identify trans inclusive colleges and universities not all colleges and universities offer inclusive nondiscrimination policies, transition-related health insurance benefits, gender-inclusive housing, inclusive campus records and practices, inclusive intramural athletic policies, and inclusive application and admission policies (Campus Pride, 2015). Some trans students experience negative interactions with campus constituents including harassment, bullying, isolation, rejection, physical violence, and sexual violence (Seelman, 2014). This is not to say that all trans students across the nation are facing negative interactions and institutional barriers, however there are few and far between members of the community on campuses today that smoothly enter, engage, and exit the collegiate experience in relation to how their trans identities are perceived and responded to. I must also offer that not all trans students feel comfortable coming out in their college career (I came out during my graduate work), and it may be that this is also a contributing factor to how and when students are being engaged about their experiences. Groups like Trans Student Educational Resources, Lambda Legal, and Campus Pride are a few of the many organizations committing to making trans experiences better on college campuses and lifting the voices of trans students to spaces beyond the classrooms and courtyards.

Trans students are attending college, and at times struggling due to the lack of visible support and connection to others that identify as trans in their spaces. Online platforms are providing more access to the stories and experiences of trans folx around the world, and have become a vital tool for validation and empowerment of the trans community. Watching trans teens speak to themselves 10 years from now reminds me that there are so many youth that are looking for an outlet to share their stories and be supported by their communities. Reading Jacob Tobia’s words about being genderqueer helps to challenge the myth that trans experiences are from one binary to another. Listening to Laverne Cox’s keynote for the 2014 Creating Change Conference is moving in ways that I still have difficulty articulating meaning of. The reason I provide these examples of articles and videos of trans lives is simple: trans lives matter. One of many ways to exemplify the ways in which trans lives matter is to have multiple names and experiences shown in the media and given opportunities to reach the masses. Sylvia Rivera, Nancy Burkholder, Marsha P. Johnson, Stu Rasmussen, Lee Brewster, Miss Major, Alok Vaid-Menon, Janani Balasubramanian, Dana Zzyym. To know the names and works of trans and non-binary lives that have impacted U.S. culture and to lift their voices in their words is powerful. While I can list and offer so many of the names of those present and past, it does not come close to the number of cisgender folks that are represented in the media. In fact, The New York Times brought to the attention of many how movies and shows are still casting cisgender actors for transgender roles. There’s a responsibility to celebrate and center trans experiences in the media that is produced, even to consider the ways trans students are depicted in campus materials for incoming, current, and alumni community members.

Let me be clear: my voice is one of the thousands of trans people living in the U.S. I have been able to connect with dozens of folx in my community locally, regionally, and nationally on what it means to me to be a part of this identity and find support. More support is being considered and coordinated across college campuses, and some folx like me are privileged to have their voices lifted in ways that celebrate community and challenge complacency. I have recognized that in my practice, centering trans experiences in the work that I do has been difficult and rewarding. Connecting with trans students on campus has been part of the process of understanding trans inclusion at my institution. Sharing and revisiting the works of trans folx in the media with my students and colleagues help us build better practices for current and future students. I want to see more trans students fulfill their dreams and challenge the ways things have been done for the better. Regardless of if this audience identifies as trans or not, my hope is that each one can connect with the community and celebrate trans lives everywhere.

References:

Beemyn, G., and Bauer, D., (2015). Trans-inclusive college records: Meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse US student population. Transgender Studies Quarterly, 2(3), 478-487.

Campus Pride (2015). Campus Pride trans policy clearinghouse. Retrieved from https://www.campuspride.org/tpc/

Seelman, K. L. (2014). Recommendations of transgender students, staff, and faculty in the USA for improving college campuses. Gender and Education, 26(6), 618-635.

About the author:
Xajés has a passion to create, often seen scribbling down ideas or capturing the colors of life. Xajés is a trans professional in higher education and works with fraternities and sororities at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. Prior to working at Colorado State, Xajés received their BA in Communication Studies from Texas Christian University and their MA in Educational Administration and Leadership from the University of the Pacific. Xajés often finds themselves dreaming about a better future, a good slice of pizza, and everything in between. Online communities have been a strong support for Xajés, and they would love to continue building connections with more folx! Feel free to message them using @iamxajes on platforms like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn, and find out more about them on their website: http://tinyurl.com/huixajes.

Xajés Martinez

Coordinator for Fraternity & Sorority Life, Colorado State University