Maybe it’s just me, but 2017 is feeling like a pretty confusing time to be transgender in these (arguably less than) United States of America. No matter where you turn, there are conflicting messages about whether or not transgender individuals deserve rights and protections, and who, in fact, is on ‘our’ side.
While questioning who is for us and who is against us is nothing new, even within the LGBTQIA movement, things feel particularly dire as we see the number of murdered transwomen rising weekly and as lawmakers seem to be challenging our most basic rights on the daily. In this moment, I believe higher education has an essential role to play in protecting our trans youth and modeling how we can build and maintain inclusive environments where transgender individuals can feel valued as equal, empowered members of the community.
A Confusing and Contradictory Time for Trans People
The transgender community has achieved an unprecedented level of transgender media representation – trans characters and actors featured in shows on major networks and streaming platforms, ABC showing a weeklong miniseries focused on the history of the LGBTQ movement, Katie Couric hosting a National Geographic special on the ‘Gender Revolution,’ coinciding with a National Geographic magazine that features a trans kid on the cover for the first time ever (I could go on).
But this newfound media presence hides a far more complex and alarming reality for our community.
Despite increasing visibility, transgender Americans are experiencing an effective backlash against progress made towards transgender rights. Even with relatively recent LGBTQIA victories, transgender rights still don’t seem to be a high priority.
As many of you may remember, on June 26th, 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in the United States, the product of years of activism by some of the largest LGBTQIA organizations, during which many other LGBTQIA issues, particularly those affecting the transgender community, were pushed to the backburner to centralize support of this initiative.
Once this major achievement for presumably monogamous same-sex couples was accomplished, however, other issues and causes failed to garner the same attention, energy and, unsurprisingly, financial support, such as employment and housing anti-discrimination laws, access to adequate healthcare, and the simple right to pee (or poop) in peace.
Most recently, federal guidance regarding Title IX protections for transgender individuals (guidance that helped transgender students advocate for equitable treatment and access to gender-affirming facilities) was rescinded by the Trump administration, and the historic Gavin Grimm case that aims to determine whether or not transgender students can use the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity has been bounced back to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Both of these signal an uncertain future for our trans youth, a group we already know experiences high rates of violence, discrimination, and suicidal ideation.
On top of that, bills are consistently being introduced, and occasionally passed, that make discrimination against LGBTQIA people legal, threatening the ability of all members of our community to live safe and happy lives. Even more concerning, depending on where you find yourself, resources may be scarce and increasingly under threat. All of this combined makes an already difficult journey of figuring oneself out and living proudly even more complicated and dangerous as a trans person.
LGBTQIA Centers As Places of Support and Community
One absolutely essential base of support for addressing resource gaps are college and university LGBTQIA centers. These centers offer a space where transgender folks can be safe and supported.
The work of centers is not bound by a particular physical location. This work spreads out across a campus and potentially the broader community, educating people about trans issues and developing policies and practices that can uniquely position these institutions at the forefront of culture-change and equity building. From creating name and pronoun policies to having affirming health services, these supports coupled with curricular and co-curricular initiatives can change the lives of trans students for the better.
This kind of power and possibility is why we need to collectively double-down on building robust LGBTQIA centers across our country.
As a student affairs practitioner, I know the overwhelmingly positive impact that on campus cultural centers can have on students through my own work. When students come to college, they can choose to use this space to ask questions and explore themselves and the world around them in ways they may never had been able to before. For some, it is the first time that they may have access to cultures, communities, and a language that can allow them to better understand themselves and articulate their identity and desires.
While many transgender youth do not pursue higher education, for those that do, LGBTQIA centers offer a precious respite: professional staff and student leaders fighting for inclusive policies, planning programming to build community and coalitions, and space for students to come and share what they’re going through, what they’re questioning, how they’re feeling.
In a world of quickly changing laws and divisive politics, it can be hard for students to feel like they have people on their side. Centers can clearly stand as advocates for students, connecting them with other community members for support and resources.
LGBTQIA Centers as Models of Possibility
Beyond helping students navigate the process of finding resources and support, centers also have the opportunity to open up more nuanced conversations about identity, encouraging liberatory opportunities to explore a more full and whole concept of identity.
All too often, conversations about identity are limited to one aspect of someone’s personhood – race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, etc. Rarely are the complex intersections of multiple identities explored. LGBTQIA centers have the ability to offer programming that explores these intersections and the nuanced, sometimes messy, concept of identity. Our conversations, either as a standalone center effort, or in conjunction with other cultural centers, can explore the intersections of race and sexuality, faith and sexuality, sexuality and ability, and all of the above. We can remind students that no single aspect of their identity has to define them.
In this way, perhaps LGBTQIA centers can serve as positive models of possibility, not just for our students, but also for the broader community, demonstrating how to engage in these complex conversations and how to support trans youth. If we can help students navigate these confusing times, help make sure that they understand they matter and that they deserve more than what the world is currently offering them, maybe we can help students learn to hold those around them accountable - family, friends, local and national government. This is how change is made, and now more than ever, this change is necessary.
Erin Duran is the Director of the LGBTQIA Resource Center at Connecticut College, currently celebrating its 10th Anniversary.