Rarely a day goes by without a ‘culture wars’ press story about trans, non-binary and gender diverse people. The voices of those with lived experience barely feature, however, and the ‘debates’ take place with little thought to the impact such relentless attention and, often, misinformation is having on trans people and their loved ones.
According to the UK Parliament’s 2016 Trans Equality Report, trans students faced unacceptable levels of bullying and harassment in further and higher education. Little has improved in the six years since. If anything, the generally hostile environment created by elements of the press and vocal commentators could well be making things worse, with the BBC noting in 2020 that transphobic hate crimes had quadrupled over the past five years.
Experiences in education for LGBT+ people in general, and trans learners in particular, can be poor. LGBT Youth Scotland’s (2017) Life in Scotland survey found that 92% of LGBT+ young people and 96% of trans young people experienced homophobic, biphobic or transphobic bullying during their time in education. Almost all said this negatively affected their education, with 20% of LGBT+ young people and 29% of trans young people who had directly experienced such bullying having left education as a result.
My own research, conducted with my colleague, Dr Matson Lawrence, uncovered similarly poor experiences for gender diverse staff and students in further and higher education in Scotland. The TransEDU project employed surveys, in-depth interviews and documentary analysis to explore the support needs and views of gender diverse people as well as the policy and practice landscape, with participants from every university in Scotland and two thirds of colleges. 86% of our respondents experienced barriers to their learning or work; barriers they attributed directly to being trans or non-binary. 35% had withdrawn from their course before completion, nearly a quarter of participants said they felt entirely unable to speak to their institution about matters relating to their gender identity and around 50% did not know if their institution had a policy to support trans and gender diverse people.
The biggest barriers both trans students and staff faced were around peer relationships, with many experiencing ignorance or hostility. Participants often had very low expectations, with many feeling unsafe, uncomfortable or unwelcome within learning and wider campus environments. Respondents noted frustration that institutions would often expect them to educate peers and colleagues – to teach their place of learning or work about gender diversity and advocate for support and processes to which they are legally and ethically entitled. While some trans and gender diverse people felt willing and able to champion trans inclusion, to provide expertise, knowledge and awareness raising, many more did not. It is thus essential that colleges and universities embed support and that allies proactively develop trans equality. As such, we developed a range of open-access resources, videos, recommendations and case studies to help people improve trans inclusivity within their own context, all available on the TransEDU webpages.
There is much work to be done to improve access and success for trans and gender diverse people in education. But there are practical steps we can take, as individuals and within our institutions:
- Raise awareness of pronouns (she/her, he/him, they/them) by adding them to your email signature, online meeting profile or as part of introductions. It’s a small act that costs you nothing but sends a powerful signal that you are aware of gender diversity and won’t assume others’ pronouns. Any inclusion of pronouns must be voluntary, however, as some people may be outed by being compelled to add them.
- Consider the introduction of a named contact for gender diverse students and staff. Rather than being passed around different departments, potentially having to divulge private information each time, a named contact can provide a friendly person to help navigate name change processes, discuss placement support requirements or facilitate time-off for gender affirming healthcare, for example.
- Fly the trans flag, mark events such as Trans Day of Visibility (31st March), call-out transphobia when you encounter it and try to use inclusive language (‘welcome colleagues’ rather than ‘welcome ladies and gentlemen’).
- Find and join a network. It can be challenging to champion trans equality alone, to encourage others to develop and deliver training, or to ensure report and support systems are known, trusted and trans inclusive, for example. It’s easier to accomplish within a network or group of allies. In Scotland, the TransEDU Community of Practice is open to anyone working in further or higher education with an interest in supporting trans and gender diverse people. Many institutions or students’ associations have networks for those with lived experience who welcome allies to join in some capacity.
Blog by Dr Stephanie Mckendry, Head of Access, Equality and Inclusion, University of Strathclyde