Diversity and Democracy

Rethinking Gender Equity in Higher Education

Penny Proud, Lamia Beard, Ty Underwood, Yazmin Vash Payne, Taja DeJesus—all trans women of color, all killed since the beginning of 2015. As I think about these precious lives lost in violent acts of rage and hostility, I wonder how their deaths reverberate through our college and university campuses. For many trans women of color, just existing means that their lives are threatened: indeed, in 2013, more than half of all LGBT homicide victims were transgender women of color (National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs 2013).

On our campuses, the issues facing transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) students often get lost or conflated with issues related to LGBT or LGBTQ communities or students. Yet the experiences of TGNC students differ greatly from those of gay, lesbian, or bisexual students, and building capacity to support TGNC students looks very different from supporting students who are minoritized (i.e., marginalized due to a non-majority identity) based on their sexuality. Further, TGNC students of color are the least supported on our campuses despite being the most at risk. A focus on gender equity or gender justice on campus means creating support structures that intentionally take into account all aspects of these students’ identities.

Talking about Gender in 2015

For many years, the conversation about gender on college and university campuses was a conversation about women—often white and cisgender women. More recently, out trans women of color such as Laverne Cox and Janet Mock have questioned the construction of “woman” and what it means to be a woman. Further, women’s colleges are now struggling with what it means to be a women’s college, with many students, faculty, staff, and alumni advocating for trans-inclusive admissions policies.

Scholars such as Stryker (2008) and Wilchins (2004), along with transgender activists, continue to assert the difference between sex and gender. Gender identity—defined as a person’s internal sense of masculinity, femininity, both, or neither—may or may not correspond to one’s sex assignment at birth and physical sex characteristics (Wilchins 2004). Gender identity influences one’s gender expression: how one chooses to display or convey one’s gender through behavior or appearance. Gender identity and expression are further influenced and affected by one’s race, ethnicity, class, national origin, ability, sexual identity, and religious affiliation. Moreover, the practice of assigning a sex at birth based on perceived but often ambiguous physical markers, with a gender of masculinity or femininity simultaneously attached to the sex assignment, leaves little to no room for intersex people (Fausto-Sterling 2000).

With these definitions in mind, it is important to recognize that gender equity or gender justice in 2015 does not mean ensuring that “women” have equal access to the same opportunities as “men.” Instead, it requires a more dynamic understanding of gender, operating outside of traditional binaries while taking into account the multiple ways minoritized identities intersect and the institutional “isms” (racism, classism, ableism, etc.) that are barriers for many TGNC people, especially TGNC people of color.

Engaging TGNC Students

As we work to create more dynamic understandings of gender on our campuses, it is important to ask what we know about engaging TGNC students in their learning. In their study of student engagement on college campuses, Gonyea and Moore (2007) found that TGNC students who stated that they were “more out” were more likely to be active and collaborative in learning and to engage in enriching educational experiences (as defined by the National Survey of Student Engagement). Thus full engagement of TGNC students requires a campus climate that supports and encourages disclosure of one’s gender as a part of campus diversity.

And yet, in my own research, I found that TGNC students were less likely to be out than sexual minoritized students; that TGNC students who perceived higher levels of harassment on campus were less likely to be out; and that TGNC students who perceived higher levels of overall safety and classroom safety, as well as positive campus responses to harassment and discrimination, had greater odds of being out (di Bartolo 2013). To encourage disclosure, campuses must build capacity to support TGNC students, especially those with multiple minoritized identities.

Although institutional nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and gender expression are imperative, they do not go far enough. Every aspect of academic and campus life should be reviewed for inclusiveness of TGNC students.

Creating a Gender-Just Environment

Student records systems should have an option for students’ preferred names, which may differ from their legal names, and should allow class rosters that include these names as well as the pronouns students use. Although some TGNC students may have the resources and access to change their names legally, many do not, especially students of color, low-income students, and first-generation students. Records systems that have a preferred name option as well as a preferred name policy are especially important for these students.

Student health insurance should include coverage for medical transition, and campus mental health professionals should be trained to provide culturally sensitive counseling to TGNC students. TGNC students may experience depression and anxiety—not necessarily because of their transgender or gender nonconforming identities, but because they lack culturally appropriate support and encounter transphobia on campus and in the community. It is not the responsibility of our TGNC students, many of whom may be accessing mental health and medical resources for the first time, to teach their therapists about transgender issues.

For faculty, creating an inclusive classroom environment should be a proactive practice rather than a reactive one. For example, faculty can e-mail students before class begins, ask for their preferred names and pronouns, and change the roster accordingly. On the first day of class, faculty can ask students to introduce themselves with the names and pronouns they use, and they can repeat this exercise throughout the semester as students’ names and pronouns may have changed. Even if there are no out TGNC students in class, this practice creates an environment of openness that catches students’ attention. Faculty should keep information on hand about resources and support for TGNC students. Finally, if they use the wrong name or pronoun, faculty should remember that everyone makes mistakes. Apologize, move on, and do better next time.

Residence halls, athletic and recreational facilities, career services offices, faith-based organizations, financial aid offices, fraternity and sorority housing, libraries, disability services offices, student unions, study abroad offices, cross-cultural centers, and community engagement centers should all be assessed for their inclusiveness of TGNC students, and should have policies and procedures for creating inclusive spaces. Importantly, we cannot assume that our LGBTQ Centers are inclusive spaces for TGNC students, especially TGNC students of color. Continued assessment of these spaces can move our campuses toward becoming more gender-just environments.


It is the responsibility of faculty, staff, and administrators to lead by example, proactively creating inclusive policies and practices instead of reacting when the first out transgender student arrives on campus. With intentions toward gender justice, our campuses can be places of inclusion where TGNC students can focus on thriving instead of just surviving.



Gender—the culturally specific presentation of masculinity or femininity—involves

  • Gender identity: a person’s internal sense of masculinity, femininity, both, or neither, which may or may not be expressed outwardly and may or may not correspond to one’s physical sex characteristics and/or sex assignment at birth
  • Gender assignment: a person’s gender designation at birth, correlated with sex assignment
  • Gender roles: expectations imposed on someone based on their gender
  • Gender attribution: how others perceive a person’s gender
  • Gender expression: a person’s external presentation of their gender

In relation to gender, individuals may identify as one or none of the following:

  • Transgender: a term used when an individual’s gender identity or expression differs from conventional expectations for their sex assigned at birth
  • Gender Non-Conforming (GNC) or Genderqueer: a term generally referring to gender identities or expressions outside the gender binary
  • Cisgender: a term for individuals whose gender identity aligns with their sex assigned at birth

—Adriana N. di Bartolo


di Bartolo, Adriana. 2013. “Is There a Difference? The Impact of Campus Climate on Sexual Minority and Gender Minority Students’ Levels of Outness.” PhD diss., Claremont Graduate University. ProQuest (LLC ED553093).

Fausto-Sterling, Anne. 2000. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

Gonyea, Robert M., and John V. Moore. 2007. “Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Students and Their Engagement in Educationally Purposeful Activities in College.” Paper presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education conference.

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs. 2013. Hate Violence Report. New York: Arcus Foundation.

Stryker, Susan. 2008. Transgender History. Berkeley, CA: Seal Press.

Wilchins, Riki. 2004. Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Books.

Adriana N. di Bartolo is interim associate dean of students at Pomona College and director of the Queer Resource Center of The Claremont Colleges.

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