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As Federal Trans Protections Shift, Higher Education Adapts

As the Trump administration moves to roll back protections for trans students, institutions of higher learning find themselves caught in the middle.
The ProtectTransKids Protest in Washington, D.C., on February 22nd, 2017.

The ProtectTransKids Protest in Washington, D.C., on February 22nd, 2017.

"To be honest, it's what we've had to do before all this."

Chuckling slightly, Julia Golden-Battle reminds me of this fact early in our conversation about her work advocating for transgender and gender-non-conforming students. For those who were largely unaware of support and protections available to these populations on college and university campuses across the country, the February of 2017 executive order rolling back President Barack Obama-era protections seemed drastic and abrupt. And for those affected by the order on campus, it was.

This Department of Justice rollback, despite reported protestations from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, rendered Obama's May of 2016 "Dear Colleague" letter moot. Amid a national outcry over "proper" bathroom usage, the letter provided guidelines for schools, strongly encouraging them to designate bathrooms for students whose gender expression differs from that which they were assigned at birth. Critics of the legislation mounted an injunction that took hold that August, claiming the letter amounted to overreach and such matters should be handled by the states.

Ultimately the protection that was officially in place actually wasn't there for very long, if it was ever there at all.

However, many cities, school districts, and institutions are choosing to interpret standing Title IX legislation—written to provide equal educational opportunity regardless of gender—as a means to ensure the safety and protection of trans and gender-non-conforming students. Golden-Battle, who serves as the assistant dean for diversity and inclusion at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences University, is confident that protection of this type will continue to exist on campuses that were already moving toward greater support of their students.

"The truth is, once you started doing this work, students came out as trans or gender-non-conforming," she says. "For them to now take that resource away, ethically, that isn't right." And, indeed, for schools already doing this work, it is unlikely that protections will be reversed.

However, for schools that were struggling to interpret the Dear Colleague letter, marching orders are unclear. Eric Crumrine, associate director of residence education at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, speaks of the confusion inherent in this reversal that he observed in a recent webinar offered nationwide to campus-based professionals:

"[T]he bathroom situation is what the webinar was talking about. You're not required to provide appropriate bathrooms based on someone's gender identity, you can restrict them based on their assigned sex at birth. But, at the same time, they kept saying, 'You can't discriminate against trans students,' and so it became this [gray area.] Even the woman presenting on the webinar kept saying, 'This is going to vary from state to state, this is going to vary from school to school, some schools are being more progressive.'"

This is a key worry inherent in the decision to delegate what amounts to a civil right to the states; absent a decision in that state, protection and safety will vary widely from institution to institution, at times in awkward ways. Crumrine mentions gender-neutral bathroom signs that a faculty member put up on "the Conservatory side" of his recently merged institution (the Boston Conservatory merged with Berklee College of Music in June of 2016). With no institution-wide order in place, faculty and staff are scrambling to establish support for students across the two institutions.

Golden-Battle reports a similar challenge; MCPHSU is part of a six-school consortium, and she has worked with her counterparts on the other five Colleges of the Fenway (COF) campuses to develop a map of restroom options across the COF campuses. For students cross-registered in coursework or participating in co-curricular opportunities across the consortium, this is essential knowledge. But even beyond merged institutions or consortia, both Golden-Battle and Crumrine mused about what this uncertainty could mean for students who travel to other campuses across athletic conferences or campus affiliations such as the Ivy League or the Seven Sisters. Will students at those institutions be protected equally, regardless of where they are?

"Gender quite literally mediates every single thing on college campuses."

In February, Vanita Gupta, former head of the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, drew connections to other landmark civil rights protections—enforced by federal law—saying, "[t]o cloak this in federalism ignores the vital and historic role that federal law plays in ensuring that all children, (including LGBT students) are able to attend school free from discrimination." And while DeVos did reportedly say schools have a moral obligation to protect all students from discrimination, bullying, and harassment, the effectiveness of such an abstract directive could vary widely.

Z Nicolazzo spent a year and a half immersed in the lives of nine trans students for hir dissertation, recently published as the volume Trans* in College: Transgender Students' Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. Nicolazzo is incredibly quick to point out that while hir work has been praised for its examination of "compulsory heterogenderism," or the assumptions we make around binary gender construction at colleges and universities, we should be appreciative and cognizant of the student voices that can drive these conversations. Golden-Battle shares similar praise for the astute student observations she hears each day: "At the end of the day, your students have the answers."

"Gender quite literally mediates every single thing on college campuses," Nicolazzo says, "[and] recognizing how gender mediates experiences, mediates programming, mediates how we think, can then help to open up and expand possibility for gendered futures that create space for trans people."

This means looking beyond the physiological need for a bathroom to other elements of the campus experience that can be affected by gender. Another common challenge for these students as they struggle to create a sense of place on campus: the residential experience.

Absent federal oversight, institutions are making headway on this issue in manners beyond mere protection. Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, Illinois, fully reformed its housing offerings to allow trans and gender-non-conforming students to live anywhere on campus, with whomever they'd like. Far more expansive than policies on most campuses' "trans friendly" housing options, Senior Associate Director of Residence Life Stacy Oliver shared that her department's philosophy was to remove as many barriers to the process of finding a comfortable home on campus as possible.

A prior version of the policy included invasive and uncomfortable measures—"[i]n our previous policy, students had to apply for gender neutral housing and then after their application was received they were required to meet with a member of our professional residence life staff to discuss their request. They were asked to create a roommate agreement before they were even assigned to room together. No one else on campus was being asked to do any of these things." Oliver went on to critique the policy she inherited:

It was uncomfortable that in so many ways we were policing the process. The students who are using the process are 18 and older. They're adults. We talk a lot in residence life about creating supportive communities and allowing students to create residential communities that align with their personal and academic goals. And this should be part of that same process.

The revised version, drafted in collaboration with the school's student LGBT community, has been incredibly well received, and has sparked conversations about where else on campus barriers can be removed or lowered to facilitate student success. Even absent these policies and support, many of these students will persist in breaking down these barriers. The question is, what sort of environment will they be left to persist in?

Nicolazzo's book introduces the idea of trans student resilience as a verb, acknowledging that the ability to persist in environments that challenge safety and psychological well-being isn't a quality they have, but rather a skill they develop and practice. This is an important distinction to make for trans students who may be on campuses that are slow to, or refuse to, make adaptations to facilitate their success. When allowed to develop, they note that trans students can thrive, therefore cautioning us "not to frame trans people as facing massive deficits or always needing to catch up to their cisgender peers." Employing a lens and language shift toward what D-L Stewart calls "equity and justice," versus one of "protection," can help campuses reframe how we cultivate environments that make that resilience easier to practice.

Developing and employing this resilience is something that trans and gender-non-conforming students have done for as long as they've attended institutions of higher education. And until we have a more comprehensive strategy on how to create space for them on campus, the advice of Micah, one of Z's study participants, explains these students' needs simply: "Listen, learn, and let this new information change you and the world around you."