Confronting Misconceptions About Nonbinary, Trans Faculty, Staff, and Students
Araya Baker outlines five unconscious biases academe should acknowledge and grapple with intentionally.
Inside Higher Ed cross-published this essay.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is considering tracking workforce data on nonbinary employees, and last year, it announced an updated discrimination charge intake form that includes a gender option for nonbinary people. Yet gestures like censusing have not necessarily improved the overall state of nonbinary people within academe.
Despite gay men having the highest educational attainment and gay and lesbian faculty being overrepresented in academe, non-heterosexual college and university students are not faring well collectively — almost a third reported suicidality during the 2021–22 academic year. The odds are even worse for transgender college students, who, unlike cisgender LGBQ students, are often an afterthought among the broader LGBTQ+ community as much as they are within higher education in general.
Compared to their cisgender counterparts, transgender college students are more than four times as likely to experience mental health problems. Yet significant numbers are still applying and attending: about 26,000 prospective college students identified as nonbinary during the 2022–23 academic year, according to an analysis of 1.2 million applications submitted via the Common App.
At the same time, while no data specifically on nonbinary faculty exist, nearly half of nonbinary workers in the U.S. endure employee discrimination at least monthly, more than 30 percent report bias in the hiring process and a mere one-third feel comfortable coming out at work. This type of institutional and systematic neglect, at best, and bias at worst correlates with disproportionate rates of homelessness, incarceration, overdoses, suicides and sexual exploitation among all transgender people throughout the United States, including nonbinary transgender people.
Moreover, few higher education institutions are equipped to serve the needs of trans college students, especially those of color. And nonbinary faculty of color — from graduate teaching assistants to tenure-track professors — are usually unheard-of. These realities render people like me, a nonbinary college instructor, vulnerable to being branded contrarians, “snitches” or victim-players as we advocate for ourselves out of dire necessity.
For newcomers to this conversation, the “transgender umbrella” encompasses binary and nonbinary trans folx. Many binary trans folx — not all — seek to transition into the traditional cultural norms and social expectations associated with the biological sex deemed “opposite” of their assigned sex (a reductive concept that still overlooks intersex people). Nonbinary trans folx, in contrast, may not identify with femininity/femaleness or masculinity/maleness — or they may embrace both, equally or to varying degrees. Even as gender expansiveness becomes more destigmatized, many nonbinary folx still declare themselves distinct from cisgender people. It is also worth noting that some binary trans folx who “pass” as cisgender can still feel nonbinary inwardly, and they may feel that the transgender experience itself is inherently nonbinary.
A Culture of Silence
Institutionalizing the full inclusion of transgender faculty, staff and students is new territory for many colleges and universities. Some higher education institutions have led the way by incorporating into their employee and student codes of conduct antidiscrimination protections for gender identity. Yet whether they follow through on upholding these policies is another story entirely.
Culture tends to lag behind public policy, and this certainly rings true regarding the hesitation of some colleges and universities to actually enforce policies that guarantee community members the right to be openly trans and that vow to protect that right by redressing backlash. Just this year, for example, a professor sued Manhattanville College after being banned from campus activities following their public transition.
Meanwhile, our country’s present political climate confronts us with national momentum for anti-DEI legislation aimed at higher education institutions, on top of more than 500 antitrans bills that state legislatures have proposed in 2023 alone. In this era of culture wars, the ivory tower’s depoliticized, superficial efforts to address implicit stigma against trans folx enables a culture of silence that rationalizes not only cissexism, but also various tentacles of white supremacy culture — from fear of open conflict and defensiveness to the belief in “objectivity” and “only one right way.”
People in higher education can pivot to a healthier and more humanizing direction by examining their explicit biases, including the following.
- Not all nonbinary individuals are teenagers or 20-somethings. Ageism is arguably the most common way cisgender people invalidate nonbinary folx of all ages. That often looks like dismissing nonbinary identity, history and culture as “new age” — instead of honoring that nonbinary folx have always existed but only recently attained the media visibility and political solidarity to make an undeniable mark on mainstream society. Within higher education, antitrans ageism can take on several forms, like relegating nonbinary inclusion to student affairs offices or warning nonbinary professors that colleagues and students may take them less seriously if they disclose their identity.
- Not all nonbinary people are underground academics or activists. Initial bewilderment about trans folx is to be expected — we do not know what we do not know. Ignorance should have an expiration date, though. It is not OK for cis academics’ default reaction to continue being judgmental rather than curious. This often looks like defensiveness that pathologizes and others nonbinary people as a monolithic group of raging activists or ungrounded academics who are out of touch with everyday people — as if nonbinary people are not everyday people, too. It also plays right into fearmongering “world domination” conspiracies about trans people allegedly seeking to indoctrinate the masses.
- Not all nonbinary people prioritize gender-neutral pronouns and greetings. Most nonbinary people I know are not offended by forgetful and innocent misgendering. Yet there still exists a powerful trope that all nonbinary folx will give a “fierce” or “sassy” response when others misgender them with pronouns or greetings. In academe, this stereotype is often fueled by cis folks’ paranoia about callouts. What cis academics must remember is that navigating the world as trans can confer a double consciousness, to invoke W. E. B. Du Bois. The ability to read cis people means the difference between deliberate antagonism and innocent slipups is crystal clear. In a world of ubiquitous invalidation, even fumbled effort is noted.
- Not all nonbinary people look androgynous or genderless. Looking legibly androgynous for the cisgender gaze is not a prerequisite for being nonbinary — this type of gender policing precludes nonbinary folx from self-definition and allows cis people to continue defining reality to a hegemonic degree that reifies cisnormativity. Self-definition is important because potential violence is the reason why many nonbinary people are reluctant to appear visibly trans. And although concealment can feel self-protective, it can also result in cognitive dissonance (like code-switching) in the form of gender dysphoria. Cisgender privilege can cause academics to oversimplify these nuances and rely upon their own limited perception as a barometer of identity politics and ideological purity.
- Not all nonbinary people feel at home in feminist or queer spaces. The weaponization of tears and essentialist ideas about female fragility are not uncommon among cisgender feminists who dodge accountability for cissexism and trans-exclusionary radical feminist, or TERF, ideology. These feminists often fight patriarchy by romanticizing womanhood in ways that biologize and essentialize social constructions of gender, rather than focusing on ways to exist beyond colonial cis-heteropatriarchy. Authors J. K. Rowling, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Alice Walker are a few examples of pioneering feminists whose TERF ideology has left some in the trans community feeling betrayed. Relatedly, is it not unheard-of for some cisgender queer activists to play into cis-normative respectability politics — “gay men are strong just like straight men,” “lesbians want families just like straight couples” and so forth. They attempt to reap incremental gains that fall short of affirming trans people, then blame trans people for not being grateful and patient.
Such intra-community tensions offer valuable lessons on trans inclusion for campus LGBTQ centers and women’s centers — do not assume liberation framed by identity politics will feel inviting to folx on the trans spectrum of experience. Trans inclusion requires us to address cissexism intentionally and directly.
The “unlearning curve” can feel steepest when people have to face their privileges. Realizing that our mere existence always has been — and always will be, even if only passively — implicated in systems that disadvantage others can disturb us so much that we immediately close the lid on any attempt at openness and understanding.
Because we’re only human, it’s easy for us to take personally any critique of ourselves, including our privileges. We might feel guilt, self-consciousness or even shame that leads us to misperceive others’ observations or inquiries as personal attacks. Instead of social commentary, we hear, “You’re a bad person,” “You have it so easy” or “You’re a fraud of an ally.”
Yet what if we remembered that the cultural socialization that all of us inherited, nonconsensually, is not necessarily hardwired genetically?
That our essence is neither immutable nor reducible to biologized myths that strip away our agency?
That none of us were born just to serve supremacist ideologies?
That evolving is our birthright?
Does that resonate?
See, you’re thinking beyond the binary already.