#TransInCollege

Visibility and resilience of trans students

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Nationwide, transgender people are faced with gender norm policing and oppression by cisgender privilege daily. While visibility around trans oppression has increased socially,  agency and resiliency within the trans community has received less attention — particularly on college campuses.

Dr. Z Nicolazzo made you forget she was guest lecturing at UC Santa Cruz with jokes and wit in between slides. She presented her story and research from her book “Just Go in Looking Good,” on resistance and kinship building of trans college students on Feb. 9, hosted by the Lionel Cantú Queer Center.

“We are dealing with increased visibility that’s happening socially,” Nicolazzo said, “ […] yet in higher education, kind of nothing.”

As a trans womxn who came into her identity in her mid-twenties, Nicolazzo embarked on a 18-month feminist ethnography with trans and non-binary students to learn about the experiences of trans college students. Four of the nine participants she interviewed left college at some point for various reasons, such as professors allowing transphobia in classrooms and exhaustion from cisgender policing.  

“Discourse influences sense of belonging on campus and influences one’s feeling of comfort within a classroom, it might actually influence their ability to continue to succeed academically,” Nicolazzo said to the audience. “And we also know that people who don’t graduate from college have decreased life chances, it’s just a reality based on data.”

There is a strong relationship between education level and health, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. College students are vulnerable to mental health conditions due to the stress of school, bills and adjusting to independent living. On top of these challenges, transgender people are three times more likely to experience depression or anxiety than a cisgender person due to discrimination, according to the National Alliance of Mental Illness.

Nicolazzo flashed a slide with #TransInCollege, hoping audience members would continue to use the hashtag to stay connected, building kinship, resilience and visibility. She said the word “community” has lost its meaning with overuse, and trans people use the word kinship for their queer support network.

UCSC neuroscience major Keira Delaney still likes the word community in the broader sense, but differentiates kinship to apply to those who invest emotional support in her.

Delaney transferred to UCSC because she knew it was known to have a strong LGBTQIA+ community.  UCSC official documents have spaces for preferred names and pronouns, but Delaney said there are still daunting aspects to university registration processes for trans people.

“As with any school, navigating bureaucracy, especially when all of your identity documents don’t necessarily match or you haven’t taken that process yet, for lack of time, money, energy or interest […] can make navigating the system really difficult,” Delaney said.

Most universities in the U.S. do not have a support center for genderqueer people, Delaney said, and she appreciates the support of the trans education specialist at the Lionel Cantú Queer Center, Sy Simms.

Simms meets with transgender, genderqueer, non-binary and gender-questioning students on campus to facilitate support, education and advocacy. Aside from one-on-one meetings, they can connect students to transition-related services, and they have a partnership with Colleges, Housing, and Education Services to connect students to the trans-inclusive housing community.

There is also a push to expand the number of all-gender restrooms and work toward the implementation of all-gender inclusive campus policies, which Simmons is making headway in.  

“The Cantú does a decent amount given our budget and resources to support trans and non-binary students on campus, but we are one office,” Simms said. “The larger question is what is the rest of campus doing to support trans students?”

In addition to the Cantú, Delaney has had positive experiences with health care at the UCSC Student Health Center. But these resources do not diminish the daily microaggressions that affect the academic performance and mental and physical health of trans students on campus.  

“Even the little things add up, being misgendered, being essentialized or having to educate everyone patiently,” said Delaney. “That all takes energy and we only have so much of that to go around.”

It’s the small things, Delaney said, like a trans student moving into their dorm room and seeing their birth name on their door. Then there are the macroaggressions overt transphobic violence at UCSC and targeting of trans people, particularly trans people of color. City on a Hill Press has previously reported on the November 2016 assault on a non-binary person on campus.

In Dr. Z Nicolazzo’s book, “Just Go in Looking Good,” she discusses the resilience built by trans youth against trans oppression on campus. The everyday tasks become exhausting: wearing sunglasses to avoid the stares of cis-policers, taking the long route to class because they feel safer or picking and choosing when they feel like correcting someone who misgenders them.

“I wanted to think about this notion of resiliency. […] What is it that trans people are already doing well, and how can we capitalize on these strengths?” Nicolazzo said. “I know as a trans person we are able to navigate spaces that allow us to be successful, however, we decide to define success.”