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The academic year may be underway, but it is not too late to make our classrooms and our campuses truly inclusive and safe places for transgender and gender nonconforming students. Making meaningful change (not just talking about it) sounds like a daunting task, but at the core, it’s just sound and equitable practice. The simplest actions in the classroom can transform a student’s entire day—and even save students’ lives.
The timing has never been more critical. According to the Human Rights Campaign, the number of transgender and gender nonconforming murders has been on a steady increase since 2019: at least 25 in 2019, at least 37 in 2020, at least 57 in 2021; and at least 30 so far in 2022 (HRC Foundation, 2019, n.d.a, n.d.b, n.d.c). Our transgender and gender nonconforming students face the threat of violence and harassment everywhere they go. Just the fear of “what could happen” can be crippling and prevent them from coming to class. The pandemic made the problem even worse, for large numbers of transgender and gender nonconforming students found themselves trapped in unsupportive—sometimes violent—households with no outlets.
In our classrooms and on our campuses, our mission must include supporting and empowering these students. The following seven practices will help us make our classrooms safer, more welcoming, and more thriving environments for transgender and gender nonconforming students.
1. Connect with students prior to the first day of class or during a midterm check-in. For many transgender and gender nonconforming students, the first day of class incites tremendous, often unbearable stress and anxiety. The possibility of being deadnamed and having to come out publicly in a room full of strangers—one that may not be a safe space—causes students to lose sleep, become ill, and not even come to the first day of classes.
The good news is that technology is on our side here. Being proactive and reaching out to students prior to the first day can be a game changer. So often in a seated course, we walk into class and expect students to comfortably share this information publicly without knowing a thing about us or their classmates. Instead, if we modify the first day and arrive knowing something about our audience, we can completely transform the first day of class. In fact, this practice could help trans-spectrum students settle into class as well. For example, using tools like Google Forms and Microsoft Forms, we can gather invaluable information with prompts such as the following:
My passion for this strategy is based on experience. At a rural community college where I taught, a preliminary course survey prevented me from deadnaming and outing a transgender student on the first day of class. This student informed me that they had previously dropped out of college due to instructors’ traditional, insensitive first-day-of-class practices. And they ended up earning the highest A in the class.
If your classes have already started but you’d like to give students the opportunity to share, consider including them on a midterm check-in or an early course check-in. In addition to asking about students’ experiences in your courses so far, you can modify the questions above in the following ways:
Most importantly, when students share critical data such as this, act on it and make small changes whenever possible.
2. Consider sharing your pronouns. It’s a shame that pronouns are becoming more politicized every day. Sharing your pronouns is not virtue signaling; it’s a sign of being informed. That’s all. We must get the politics out of pronouns and replace it with education. The fact is that if an instructor shares their pronouns, they make their classroom a safer space for transgender and gender nonconforming students. It is a signal to students that you are not only an ally but an educated ally. This will send a clear message that your presence will mean a safer space for them.
I am not an advocate of mandating that students share their pronouns, virtually or in person. But giving them the option can be another transformative practice.
3. Practice more inclusive everyday language in class. Gendered language such as “you guys” must go. My friends from certain regions in the country will tell me, “But that’s how we’ve grown up speaking.” I get it, but this is a small adjustment that can go a long way. More inclusive language in mixed company is simply more sound practice; it can also be lots of fun at the same time!
4. Where possible, include more transgender and gender nonconforming voices in your curriculum. For some courses, this strategy may work more successfully than for others. But representation can be everything for our students. Including the accomplishments and voices of accomplished scholars and professionals—who happen to be transgender or gender nonconforming—can be yet another game changer. Depending on your course and context, you can draw attention to the authors’ identities as necessary. Researching the latest innovations and contributions in your field could help reinvigorate your courses and make them even more inclusive.
5. Complete updated Safe Zone training. As someone who has led professional development, I know that one-and-done training sessions rarely make a meaningful impact. This is especially true with Safe Zone training. So often I hear things like, “Oh, I took Safe Zone training back in 2014.” Safe Zone training, like all matters with gender and sexual orientation, is constantly evolving to meet students’ ever-changing needs. Consider completing Safe Zone training again. Encourage your colleagues—even your entire department—to retrain as well.
6. If you mess up, just apologize. Is the goal here to achieve perfection every time we interact with and engage our transgender and gender nonconforming students? That would be nice, but it’s not practical. If you accidentally misgender or deadname a student, or use the wrong pronouns, just apologize—in a timely manner. Students will understand and appreciate your thoughtfulness. Apologize, move on, and do better next time. It’s really that easy.
7. Encourage your campus to participate in the Campus Pride Index. The Campus Pride Index is the only national assessment tool for colleges and universities to assess how successfully they are serving LGBTQIA+ students and staff. Presently, however, only 407 universities and a mere 48 community colleges are participating. This is staggering. If colleges and universities are not using this tool, then how do they know that their policies, procedures, facilities, and resources promote safety and true inclusion?
If your institution does not participate in the Campus Pride Index, consider reaching out to whoever oversees diversity, equity, and inclusion at your institution to bring it to your college. There is an annual fee of $225 to participate. Once your college has signed up, the designated Campus Pride Index representative for the college will complete an assessment of your institution’s services and policies in the following areas: LGBTQ+ policy inclusion; LGBTQ+ support and institutional commitment; LGBTQ+ academic life; LGBTQ+ student life; LGBTQ+ housing; LGBTQ+ campus safety; LGBTQ+ counseling and health; and LGBTQ+ recruitment and retention efforts. After completing the assessments, a college receives an initial score on a five-star scale. Campus Pride will then work with the institution to help it improve its score.
The words diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are empty if they are all talk. It’s time for action. Our trans-spectrum students are in danger, and many are dying. We don’t have a minute to spare.
HRC Foundation. (November 2019). A national epidemic: fatal anti-transgender violence in the United States in 2019. https://www.hrc.org/resources/a-national-epidemic-fatal-anti-trans-violence-in-the-united-states-in-2019
HRC Foundation. (n.d.a). An epidemic of violence: fatal violence against the transgender and gender non-conforming community in the United States in 2020. https://hrc-prod-requests.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/FatalViolence-2020Report-Final.pdf
HRC Foundation. (n.d.b). Fatal violence against the transgender and gender non-conforming community in 2021. https://www.hrc.org/resources/fatal-violence-against-the-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-community-in-2021
HRC Foundation. (n.d.c). Fatal violence against the transgender and gender non-conforming community in 2022. https://www.hrc.org/resources/fatal-violence-against-the-transgender-and-gender-non-conforming-community-in-2022
Jonathan Howle, EdD, is the lead instructor for academic success at Nash Community College (Rocky Mount, NC) and an adjunct instructor in the Department of Leadership Studies and Adult Education at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.