Creating Inclusive Communities for Transgender Students (at home and abroad)

May 23, 2017

I’m always telling educators that if we want to effectively facilitate students’ intercultural learning, we need to focus on our own intercultural development. In that vein, I try to seek out opportunities to expand my own perspectives. So when I recently met grey doolin, a transqueer consultant (pronouns: they/them/theirs), I invited them to “guest blog” in order to both expand my own understanding and share that learning with other educators interested in creating more inclusive environments for transgender students (as well as staff).

grey doolin identifies as a transqueer consultant, activist-educator, artist, healer, and true-heart with a background in community mental health. Founder of greyspace consulting and Radical Wayfaring, grey is passionate about teaching others how to provide inclusive and dignifying spaces and services to queer-  and trans-identified individuals. 

Here’s my interview with grey…
Tara:  What are some of the most common misperceptions about transgender people, in your experience?
grey:  I’d say the prominent misperception is that folks who identify as transgender are pathological in some way: confused, mentally ill, unwell, etc. This misperception then informs other misperceptions, such as the belief that allowing transgender people to use the bathroom or locker room of their choosing is dangerous. Or that if a trans person chooses to not disclose their trans identity, they are somehow tricking or deceiving others. This belief stems from the notion that others have an inherent right or access to a trans person’s experience and privacy.
Another major misperception is around the idea of transitioning: that it’s the same process for all trans-identified folks, and that it always includes medical intervention(s) of some sort.
Tara:  In your opinion, what are marks of a trans-inclusive educational environment/community?
grey:  The foundational marker of a trans-inclusive environment is an underlying value and recognition that the expression of a transgender identity, or any other form of gender-expansive behavior, is a healthy, appropriate and typical aspect of human development. That value then manifests as things like inclusive paperwork and language (e.g., asking about pronouns or preferred name), gender-neutral bathrooms, and course content that includes a diversity of identities and ways of being in the world.
Tara: What are 3-5 concrete things educators can start doing now to help make their campuses more inclusive environments for transgender people?
grey:  Having inclusive language on paperwork is a really easy place to start. It can be as simple as adding a line for a student’s pronoun or preferred/chosen name, or adding gender options other than “male” or “female.” I know that when dealing with benefits or financial aid or other state and federal systems that legal names and one’s sex assigned at birth are required, and that’s fine. But something as small as asking a student about their preferred name is a huge sign of support. It says: we know that not all people go by the names they were given by their parents. It lets the student know that they are welcome there.
Depending on class size, a really inclusive and easy practice is having students share their pronouns when introducing themselves in class. This is an important practice to start whether there is a trans or gender nonconforming student in the class. The instructor is setting the tone of the class by letting students know that they recognize that everyone might not use she or he pronouns. Then the semester that there happens to be a trans student in the class, a tone of inclusivity has already been set and the trans student doesn’t have to feel tokenized or called attention to by the instructor suddenly deciding that including pronouns as part of student introductions is relevant.
Educate yourself! Attend trainings on this topic, read books, push yourself outside of your comfort zone. Challenge your beliefs and assumptions regarding transgender folks. We all have biases and assumptions—all of us. I really try to emphasize in my work that I am not asking people not to have biases; I’m just asking that they be open to challenging and, if appropriate, shifting them.
Be a visible ally. Many campuses and institutions have Safe Zone or Ally training of some sort for faculty and staff. This is typically offered through the LGBTQ center on campus if there is one. The training varies across institutions, but it provides education for faculty and staff around LGBTQ issues and best practices. There is usually a sticker or other identifier faculty can put on their office door or in their offices once they are trained that lets students know that they are a safe person to receive support from.

Tara:  For many students, college is a time for self-discovery and identity development. This is often heightened by the fact it’s the first time many of them are away from their families and those that know them best. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about what educators can do to help support students in their identity development journeys, particularly as it relates to students who are transgender? (Or is this a moot point because most transgender people start this journey way before college?) 
grey:  First of all, it’s important to recognize that there is no typical age when one comes out as transgender or acknowledges their trans identity. Many folks do know at a very young age and have the support of their parents/caregivers and school and are able to be out and live congruently. Other folks might know at a young age but perhaps, for a variety of reasons, aren’t able to come out until much later. And others might not “know” they’re trans until much later in life. In contrast to what the media portrays, there is not one “typical” trans narrative. There are commonalities, yes, and also many nuances and variations.
However, given that college is a prime time for self-discovery and identity, educators can support students on their gender identity development journeys by being knowledgeable about campus resources (e.g., LGBTQ student centers, counseling services), creating inclusive and open environments, and allowing students to be the experts on their own gender and identity. Again, small things like inclusive language and diverse content allow trans students to feel seen and know that there is space for them there.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Judith Butler and speaks to this: “The thought of a possible life is only an indulgence for those who already know themselves to be possible. For those who are still looking to become possible, possibility is a necessity.” Things like inclusive language and making space for pronouns and having an instructor that sees them as valid are all ways that trans students can feel possible—like they have a right to exist in this world.

Tara:  How do you suggest educators interested in creating inclusive environments for trans students develop our understanding beyond just learning the “do’s and don’ts”?
grey:  This goes back to the education piece for me. Strive to see trans folks as human beings and then move from that place. Read Janet Mock’s autobiography, watch Transparent, educate yourself on the issues that are most relevant and pressing for trans communities. Check your biases and assumptions.
As I have said multiple times, if a student can feel the value and intention of inclusiveness from an instructor or administrator, that is more important than the institutional paperwork having inclusive language. We’re talking about a population of folks who rarely see themselves reflected in the world and, for some, where the threat of violence is a very real part of their lives, simply because of who they are. The life expectancy for trans women of color is 35. That’s not okay on any level, and that’s the reality for trans women of color right now. Adhering to do’s and don’ts are a great place to start, and: be kind, be open, be empathic.
Tara:  A lot of the people I work with are involved with international educational exchange. Different countries are more or less understanding and accepting of transgender people. How do you suggest educators advise transgender students (1) with regards to choosing study abroad destinations where they will be most comfortable and (2) about how to best navigate this aspect of their identity while abroad?
grey:  My first recommendation would be for the student and/or educator to do a lot of research about what it’s like to be LGBT in a particular country. Check out the information the US Department of State and the National Center for Transgender Equality have put together regarding international travel for LGBT folks. Talk to other trans people who have traveled internationally. Get an honest and real sense of what the experience might be like.
Based on that information, I think it would be wise to temper one’s expectations. “Traveling while trans” is a real phenomenon (and hashtag). There are a whole host of things to consider: are their legal documents updated with their chosen name and gender marker (if relevant)? If not, what complications might arise from that inconsistency?

If the student is genderqueer, gender fluid, or doesn’t “pass,” how might that inform their experience, both traveling in another country and/or even getting through security at the airport in the United States? Safety is always a big issue. How will they keep themselves safe? What are the laws regarding LGBT folks in the country to which they’re traveling? These are all questions that I’d want the student to seriously consider before traveling abroad.

Tara:  Is there anything I haven’t thought to ask that I should have?  Anything else you think educators ought to understand about transgender people?
grey:  Remember that you’re going to make mistakes. You’ll slip up on a pronoun or someone’s name. And that’s okay. Apologize for the mistake, move on, and do better next time.
Remember that small things and acts of kindness and inclusion go a long way. They have big meaning for the folks they’re directed at. You don’t need to be pounding on some Dean or Provost’s door demanding change. There are people who are doing that as their work, and I am grateful for that. And change also happens on smaller scales every day and is no less important. 

To learn more about grey, please visit Below are some additional resources.

I’d love to hear what you and/or your school are doing to create trans-inclusive environments.  Please share in the comments below so we can continue to learn from and with one another.


Relevant Resources
Related to Study Abroad / International Travel and Transgender People:

Join the Conversation!

Enjoying the blog? You’re invited to join me and an amazing group of higher education professionals committed to fostering intercultural learning at the next Intercultural Leadership Forum! You'll have a chance to connect with others doing this work and gain new insights as you move toward your intercultural goals.