Supporting Inclusive Campuses: The Role of the Student Conduct Professional - Part One

As a society, we are becoming more aware of the idea of gender as it relates to identity and self esteem. Terms like asexual, cisgender, transgender and queer are becoming more prevalent in our shared dialogue, acknowledging that gender, sexuality and self-expression can be fluid concepts, as opposed to fixed ideals. For individuals who feel like they may have a different sense of gender than what they were born with, this increased acceptance is a relief. In general, higher education has taken strides to better understand and serve transgender and non-binary students, including steps like increasing the choices for “gender identity” on applications, and creating resources for administration and faculty to create inclusive campuses

Having resources available for transgender and non-binary students is a key element of acceptance and inclusion on campuses, but it's also important for student conduct professionals to be able to acknowledge the unique experience of trans and non-binary people, and to respectfully address negative behavior that can stem from students experiencing alternative gender identity for the first time in college. This two-part blog series will first share information to help student conduct professionals better understand gender identity and the current landscape, followed by detailed resources to help trans and non-binary students through difficult personal experiences, as well tips for creating campus and community-wide support.

Understanding the Terms

College can be a difficult time for many, as it's often the first time students are living away from home. For some, this is an opportunity to explore an individual or personal sense of self identity, which can range from a new hairstyle or social scene, to a much deeper discovery of gender identity. The University of San Francisco defines gender identity as “the internal sense that you have of your own gender.” It's important to understand that this is an incredibly personal journey that not everyone can empathize with. For “cisgender” individuals, their gender identity and expression mostly match the biological sex they were assigned at birth. A “gender variant”, which could include “transgender”, “non-binary”, “agender” and “other gender”, is someone who differs from the expected traits of their assigned gender. The University of California, Davis has an excellent glossary, which goes into more detail. The most important part is understanding the differences between gender identity, gender expression, biological sex and sexual orientation. To break it down, each of these elements of self might be easier to grasp when considered on a continuum (as opposed to one option or another). “The Gender Unicorn” an online educational resource, helps explain the differences in detail.

If you're unsure of how to discuss gender identity with a student, or you don't know which pronoun to use (s/he, they/ze), the best thing you can do is ask! In fact, many people, both inside higher education and in other professions, are making the effort to share their preferred pronouns and ask others to do the same. Making it a practice to ask everyone to self-identify how they would like to be referred to will avoid any one person feeling singled out. For many cis people, taking the time to acknowledge that you're an ally, but you may not have all of the right vocabulary, is the first step to building a culture of inclusion and acceptance.

There are a number of high quality resources available online to help you understand more about the gender spectrum, the changing landscape, and the issues facing many transgender people today. For the sake of clarity in this blog post, we use the terms “transgender,” “trans” and “non-binary” to include anyone who feels they were born into the wrong body, or identify strongly with another gender (or no gender at all).

Acknowledging the Difficulty

While transgender acceptance is becoming more prevalent, for many non-binary students, college is the first time they are able to express to express a non-cisgender identity. College is certainly an opportunity for many students to express themselves in a variety of ways, but coming out as transgender or non-binary is still a murky area, on an interpersonal level. Students may not want to be open with their new friends, or may be embarrassed about “passing” or fitting in as another gender without being noticed. Even if a student was openly trans in high school, they are likely to have faced some level of emotional abuse from their cisgender peers. According to Teaching Tolerance, 78% of K-12 students who express a sense of transgender identity or gender nonconformity are harassed, 35% are physically assaulted, 12% are sexually assaulted, and 6% are expelled. Furthermore, a 2015 survey from the Association of American Universities found that nearly one in four female transgender students experience sexual violence while in college. As difficult as college may be on many students, in terms of academics and social life, the experience of a trans student can often be much worse, simply due to their gender identity and expression.

Recognizing the Signals

Spending a lifetime feeling like you're in the wrong body can result in deep depression, social anxiety and other mental health concerns, which can sometimes lead to a student engaging in risky behavior. For student conduct professionals, this means you may find yourself working with a trans or non-binary student who has broken student conduct regulations, but is also dealing with a host of personal challenges. To be clear, many cisgender college students engage in excessive drinking or drug use, self harm, and sexual promiscuity, and many experience mental and physical abuse, and mental health concerns like depression and anxiety, but it's important to recognize that a transgender student is likely having a very unique collegiate experience. When you talk to the student, make sure they know you are an ally, that you understand their life may be somewhat otherwise complicated by their gender identity.

Acceptance and understanding are the biggest first steps to supporting trans or non-binary students and helping to build an inclusive campus. In the second part of this blog series, we'll discuss tools and best practices for connecting these students with the resources and supports they need to feel.

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