Season 1 – Episode 50 – Trans and Nonbinary Students Experiences in College
Transgender and nonbinary students remain largely unseen on many U.S. college campuses, despite increased representation in media. These students frequently face adversity and receive minimal campus support.
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Darren Gaddis: From CITI Program, I’m Darren Gaddis, and this is On Campus. Today, Trans and Non-Binary Students in Higher Education. I spoke with Justin Gutzwa at Michigan State University. As a reminder, this podcast is for educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide legal advice or guidance. You should consult with your organization’s attorneys if you have questions or concerns about relevant laws and regulations discussed in this podcast. Additionally, the views expressed in this podcast are surely those of the guest who do not represent the views of their employer. Hi, Justin. Thank you for joining me today.
Justin Gutzwa: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to meet you and great to be here.
Darren Gaddis: To get us started today, what is your educational and professional background?
Justin Gutzwa: Yeah. So I started as an admissions officer at Whitman College in Washington. I then got my master’s and my PhD in higher education and organizational change at UCLA, during which I also spent a bit of time working in their international student center. Then I served as a postdoc at the University of Utah. Now I am an assistant professor of Higher Adult and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University.
Darren Gaddis: So today’s conversation is all about non-binary and trans students in undergrad. How might these identities be similar yet still different from the broader terminology of LGBTQIA plus in that community?
Justin Gutzwa: I think there’s obviously some overlap. I think a lot of people will utilize the T in LGBTQIA plus to encapsulate trans as an umbrella term. So I think non-binary is oftentimes lumped under by some people that T so to speak. But I think using more expansive terminology, so including and specifically naming non-binary people expands our understanding of what constitutes as gender kind of beyond the cisgender man, woman binary.
I think that’s one way that linguistically, I think it provides us with a little bit more specificity and nuance and understanding that gender can exist in the binary, but also very much exists outside of it and beyond one as well. Acknowledging and adding more nuanced language into that picture helps differentiate things.
Darren Gaddis: And for folks who might not be familiar with the term non-binary or trans, what are those terms and how are they utilized?
Justin Gutzwa: Yeah. So trans, non-binary are all used to describe identity, but non-binary and trans both represent gender identities. So oftentimes we have been trained to think that gender correlates with biological sex assigned at birth, right? So if you have male genitalia, then you would be raised as a man. If you have female genitalia, you would be raised as…
Trans is an abbreviation of transgender, non-binary is what it says. Wherein there is a binary of man and woman, non-binary identities kind of challenge that kind of understanding that everybody has to be either a man or a woman. Trans, transgender, non-binary are all different words that are used to describe gender identities that people might have if they feel their gender does not correlate with their sex that they were assigned birth.
So what I’ll start by saying is that I think higher education is built on a lot of exclusionary boundaries, particularly gendered and racialized ones. Education was segregated against women for quite some time, was segregated against or discriminated and barred black and brown students and indigenous students from entering. Higher education was not built with queer and trans people in mind.
Because along with kind of the general political undertones and the religious undertones that accompanied the colonization of the United States, those same kind of tones also served as a foundation for how education was built. So today where we have a little bit more of an acceptance and an understanding of what transness is, what non-binary people might experience and how they navigate higher education, institutions have largely been slow in adapting or changing policies, changing their approach to teaching and learning, changing their approach to medical care or housing with regards to understanding that there are more than just two genders in the world.
So I would say that largely in a lot of places in the United States, even some of the most liberal colleges in the country still have a lot of instances where faculty, staff, administration, even peers of non-binary and trans students perpetuate kind of decades and centuries long rhetorics of exclusion against them.
And it means that trans and non-binary students are oftentimes forgotten about on an administrative level and kind of are forced to navigate systems of domination while being the only people that are advocating for themselves or one of few people that are advocating for themselves. So it’s difficult being a student that enters into a system that is not designed to have you in.
And that’s the experience that I would say at least of the students that I’ve worked with, one common thread that ties a lot of those students’ experiences together is entering into post-secondary educational environments that devalue them, devalue their ways of knowing, devalue their experiences, block access to certain resources or to certain facilities or amenities on campus.
And I’m not trying to say that every single college and university is innately 100% [inaudible] transphobic. Right? But what I will say is that trans leadership, rates of success for trans faculty in the academy, all of those rates being pretty low point to the systemic issue where trans people are not at the table making large decisions in a lot of different strata of higher education, which ultimately sadly ends up meaning that trans students will almost always be left by the wayside.
Darren Gaddis: With this information, how important is it to make sure non-binary and trans students feel included during their undergraduate student experience on a college or university campus?
Justin Gutzwa: I think it’s extremely important. For me as somebody who identifies as non-binary and trans, I went through a lot of my educational environment closeted, I would say for all of undergrad and for a portion of grad school. But not having resources to go to, not knowing where to find those resources, being in classes where for the most part gender and sexuality are being taught on binary kind of understandings of what gender and sexuality both mean, and it feels very isolating.
In my own experiences and in the experiences of many students that I’ve worked with, it feels alienating, othering, and ultimately destructive to a student’s sense of self, sense of academic ability, sense of belongingness in terms of careers and in schooling. The importance of reforming and transforming higher education into a space that is liberatory and celebratory. Liberatory for and celebratory of trans identities is something that’s really important, especially keeping in mind that when we’re working to liberate and celebrate trans students’ identities, we’re not just focusing on gender.
People who are trans have intersecting identities as well. These missions of trans inclusivity also fit in with disability rights movements and higher education. They work alongside racial rights movements and racial inclusivity movements in higher education, class-based movements, ageism. All of those different ways that we’re taught to think this is what a traditional higher education student is, are contradictory to all of those different experiences. Working towards inclusivity for trans students also supports disabled students, also support students of color, also supports communities that have intersections with transness. So there’s a lot of different reasons why it’s important.
But at the end of the day, I live my life philosophy on the understanding that based on how intersections of domination and minoritization work, my liberties as a trans person or my liberties as a white person are not fully obtained until liberation and celebration of black, indigenous and brown trans women who are some of the most minoritized at the intersections of domination kind of communities in our country are met and are liberated and are actualized. So working towards trans liberation in higher education is also part of a broader mission of making equitable justice informed outcomes for American higher education moving forward.
Darren Gaddis: Thinking kind of of best practices, what are steps administrators, faculty, staff, and even fellow students can do to make non-binary and trans students feel more included in the campus community and how does this contribute to their overall wellbeing?
Justin Gutzwa: So I think there’s obviously some amount of basic human dignity and human respect that is important to account for when we’re working with any person. Right? No matter what position we hold, whether it’s in higher education or outside of higher education, it’s really important for us to remember that trans people are people first and foremost, just like we all are. To that extent, all of us are different.
All people, while you’re true of the different identities they hold and experiences they have are really different. And specifically within that, non-binary students and their needs are different from one another just as binary trans students, a trans woman or a trans man might have different needs from a non-binary student or somebody who identifies as gender queer, right? Two different trans men or two different trans women will also have different needs based off of the other identities they hold.
So what I’m trying to say is that it is a little bit difficult to say, “Here’s a list of best practices that I can give that will ensure that you will not be a transphobic person.” I think one thing is a lot of self-reflection, right? Thinking of not just about your own values and your own opinions of transness and gender and where those were informed, but sitting with yourself and thinking, “How did I know what my gender was?
How was that reinforced for me?” And trying to walk in a way that makes sense of your understanding of the world around you. And once you understand a little bit more the ways that your identities have impacted your experiences, it becomes a little bit easier to imagine a world in which other people’s identities are impacting their experiences differently. And from there, we can get to kind of policy-based or medical-based or curricular and pedagogically based reforms for education.
So I think introspection is a big one. I think then in terms of more specific actions, allowing students to change their name, change their preferred name, change their pronouns with as little administrative resistance as possible, is a great way to have in, reflected in classroom, management websites to your ID card, to all those different things. Your actual identity, the name that you use, not just the what is legally on your birth certificate.
Allowing you to list your pronouns on a Zoom call, but then also have those pronouns be respected is a huge part of what is important to a lot of what trans students need to feel a baseline level of inclusion. Regardless of what discipline you’re in, this goes especially to people that are teaching or working in research with students, it’s really important to remember that no field is objective.
So finding ways, regardless of what subject you teach, to educate more about trans identities, to not expect your trans students in the room to be the only people that have knowledge about transness, to do a bit of self-education yourself to understand, are there trans scholars in my field? Why aren’t there trans scholars in my field? What has my field had to say about if she’s of gender and sexuality over the course of its history?
And finding ways to incorporate that into your pedagogue. Another pedagogical piece is allowing students to bring their identities and their experiences into the classroom. So there’s a lot of different ways that we can change structurally in a classroom all the way to the kind of macrocosm of a university things in a way that acknowledges and supports and uplifts trans people. So it’s always difficult for me to give a list of recommendations without also acknowledging that everybody’s needs are going to be different.
And I think that these are some concrete steps that people can take in moving forward when trying to think about how they can be more trans-inclusive in the way that they work with students. We can’t just think about all trans people as having the same need. Similarly, we can’t think of any student group as having a hundred percent unilaterally the same needs. And when we create spaces for trans inclusion, we’re also theoretically, and hopefully if we’re doing so intentionally, able to provide support for students of color, for first gen working class students and low income students who might also identify as trans.
Darren Gaddis: And what else should we know about undergraduate non-binary and trans student experiences on college and university campuses?
Justin Gutzwa: I think one thing to keep in mind is that trans students are, I don’t know what word I’m looking for to describe this, but I guess remembering that trans students are awesome. Right? Trans students are people who have amazing, wonderful, beautiful experiences and life histories that can bring and do bring with them to higher education. And the ways that we can all transform our own worldviews by becoming more accepting of the ones that we are tolerant of in a classroom means that we can create greater learning outcomes and environments for everybody who steps in.
And I think one other thing is just that every time I speak with trans students, I feel like I get such low clearing bars of asks from them. Right? If I ask a question like, “What is something that you would need in a classroom?” The amount of times that people are like, “If people would respect my pronouns. If people would think about maybe adding some more readings on a syllabus. If people wouldn’t turn and look at me anytime the word trans was said.”
Right? These are all easy things that we can be in control of. Right? These are not as heavy of a lift of transformation of pedagogy or transformation of thought as people have tried to make us believe that it is. Right? So the fact that we can be in control on an individual level of transforming how we work in our classrooms or how we work in our research groups, or how we work with the students that we serve in student affairs professions, it can make a world of difference in individuals’ lives, but it can also make a world of difference in communities’ lives.
I think the final thing that I’ll add about just what else to know is that transness is not always going to be visible. It’s not always going to be apparent, right? You’re not necessarily going to know whether or not you have trans and non-binary students in your classroom. Part of that might be because they are trying to determine if they’re comfortable sharing that information. Part of that might just be they are not out.
They aren’t out to themselves, or maybe they are and are out to a friend or two, or maybe they’re totally out at home but don’t want to go in public transportation presenting gender in a way that they feel might elicit hate from somebody. These are all experiences that students I’ve worked with have had. These are experiences that I’ve had when I was taking the bus to commute to work. I changed how I dressed and how I looked and presented my identity as somebody when I was going to work as a postdoc.
And I think that within that, it’s important for us to remember that just because we don’t see transness every day doesn’t mean it’s not worth changing the way that we operate in order to be inclusive of people. So I think those are just some final things that I would like to remind is that we all need to be more self-aware of ourselves, but we also need to be aware of the fact that trans students and non-binary students don’t owe us what our phenotype of their presentation is.
Not every trans student needs to come in presenting for their trans identity to be valid and therefore for you to need to respect it. So just really sitting with ourselves and rethinking what our relationship with gender is and what our relationship with our students is, can help us transform the care and the work that we provide in ways that prioritizes students first and foremost.
Darren Gaddis: Justin, thank you for joining me today.
Justin Gutzwa: Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great talking with you.
Darren Gaddis: Thank you for listening to today’s episode, and be sure to follow, like and subscribe to on campus with the CITI Program to stay in the know. If you enjoyed this podcast, you may also be interested in other podcasts from CITI Program, including On Research and On Tech Ethics. Please visit CITI Program’s website to learn more about all of our offerings at www.citprogram.org.
I invite you to review our content offerings regularly as we are continually adding new courses, subscriptions, and webinars that may be of interest to you, like CITI Program’s ADA Accessibility and Accommodations in Higher Education course. All of our content is available to you anytime through organizational and individual subscriptions.
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- Episode 49: LGBTQIA+ Students and STEM Majors
- Episode 48: Conflict in the Classroom
- Episode 47: Critical Infrastructure and College Campuses
- Episode 46: Biden-Harris Title IX Proposed Rule Change
Meet the Guest
Justin A. Gutzwa, PhD – Michigan State University
Justin A. Gutzwa, Ph.D. (they/them) is an Assistant Professor of Higher, Adult, and Lifelong Education at Michigan State University. Shaped by their experiences as a nonbinary, trans scholar, they employ critical theories and qualitative methods to dismantle deficit-based understandings of trans communities in postsecondary education, particularly trans communities of color.
Meet the Host
Darren Gaddis, Host, On Campus Podcast – CITI Program
He is the host of the CITI Program’s higher education podcast. Mr. Gaddis received his BA from University of North Florida, MA from The George Washington University, and is currently a doctoral student at Florida State University.