Experiencing College as a Trans Student

Massachusetts voters will vote on Question 3 in November. Question 3 is a vote on the resolution passed by the state last year to include gender identity and presentation in nondiscrimination policies that similarly protect people from racism, sexism, and ableism. If Question 3 passes, transgender and gender nonconforming people will be protected by law from transphobia in their workplaces and in the public sector. Remembering the two resolutions finally passed by UGBC last year, I’d like to reflect further on campus culture as it relates to trans and gender nonconforming students.

In sociology, theology, and political science classes, universities seem to indulge students with consideration for and education on the transgender community. They’re thinking critically about trans issues everywhere—except where it matters. While a humanities core may engage students in spirited debate about trans rights and does some back-patting around “progressive” conclusions, the material conditions of trans students on college campuses are consistently lacking because universities do not effectively put their “progressive” ideas into practice.

Trans experiences are almost always considered in the abstract. I have never read the works of trans or gender nonconforming academics and writers, never had a professor cite works written by trans people, and, as a gender nonconforming person myself, rarely have I ever been treated as anything beyond a thought experiment.

Being trans or gender nonconforming on a college campus is a struggle. Campus culture does not promote self-determination for trans students as it does for cisgender* students. Campus life at any university is defined by a small self-containing culture with specific norms curated by the institution, and those norms include strict gender performances.

But the gag is, it is not entirely unlikely that you have already shared a classroom with a trans student. If you’re thinking, “I’ve never met a trans person,” I’d like to challenge you: Do you know that for certain? Many trans people live in the closet or present themselves as cisgender because they are concerned for their safety. My point is, professors and students alike rarely consider the possibility that a trans student might be in their classroom, which is a massive oversight.

I spoke to two of my trans loved ones from two different universities to get their perspectives on the issue, and I learned that my experience at BC is not unique. Leo (University of Massachusetts, Boston) described to me how transgender students are highly politicized on campus in ways that cisgender people are not. They told me about how all of their gender and queer studies classes are taught in a building that was designed in the wake of Vietnam War protests to be like a maze, so that “if protests are happening in one part of the building, it’s possible to shut that part down and continue to teach lectures in the rest of the building. It’s designed like a jail.” Essentially, the school anticipates that students engaging with gender theory will riot and cause problems. Instead of addressing their concerns, the school just isolates them.

My girlfriend Jack just graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara. They told me that during an LGBTQ university organization meeting, the executive board said, “We focused many meetings on trans issues last year, so this year we will focus on something different.” Jack told me they felt really hurt by this, saying “Well, f—k me I guess.” Leo and I immediately related to this sentiment. Too often, trans issues are just a topic of conversation, and then the discussion moves on. Rarely are trans people remembered and valued in all relevant conversations. As for Leo, Jack, and myself, we don’t get participation points or social capital for talking about the trans experience once or twice—we live the trans experience!

Trans-ness** and the experience of being trans is a powerful, beautiful, and multifaceted blessing. The powers that be would have you believe otherwise, if you are familiar with the rates of murder of, brutality against, and suicide among trans people. Not to mention the media portrayal of trans people being monsters, tragedies, or sick punchlines***. Being trans and living as a trans person involve a capacity for critical thinking about fundamental truths and self-value to which many cannot relate. Most of the world takes what gender they are given for granted, never meaningfully evaluating the implications of their gender and subsequent role in society. This, I believe, is an enormous missed opportunity to be authentic with oneself.

Investigating the reasons that your assigned gender makes you happy or unhappy will reveal truths about your fundamental values, which, in turn, will lead to a clearer sense of self. Everyone benefits from the promotion of trans rights. I would encourage all Massachusetts voters to learn about Question 3 and evaluate how gender presentation exists in their places of work, learning, and socialization.

*“Cisgender” refers to a gender identity consistent with the one assigned at birth.

**I want to be clear that the term “transgenderism” is incorrect language.

***Consider the dehumanized “hermaphrodites” and men in dresses who characterize an entire genre of comedy.

Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor