Satin trans* flag with light blue, light purple, and white stripes
Equity and Inclusion,  Professional Development,  Student Academic Success

Reflection about Trans* in College by Z Nicolazzo

As a professional development reading this summer, many of my colleagues and I selected Trans* in College (2016) by Z Nicolazzo. As I think about the key take-aways for my position, I am focused on the challenges that trans* students face when joining the college community. Transitioning to an institution of higher education is a huge adjustment, and many students struggle with feeling included. For trans* students, systems make this step even more challenging. This book helped me better understand the structural barriers for inclusion that are “standard” at many college and universities.

In Trans* In College, Nicolazzo calls attention to the systems that are not designed for trans* people and illustrates the challenging situations that trans* students face. As a cisgender, white female going to college decades ago, I did not consider the many structures that were designed for me, only those that challenged my way of being. I had not requested any “special” living arrangements, but I presumed I’d be sharing a floor with other women. I remember how strange it was to find that my dorm floor was co-educational. Living away from home for the first time brought lots of uncomfortable changes, but one of the most notable at the beginning was walking down that long hallway to the women’s showers and bathroom. After the first few weeks, I got used to it, but initially, I felt so vulnerable walking past people I barely knew while wearing only a robe, having messy hair, and not wearing make-up. At the time, I would never have presented myself that way to my peers. I cannot imagine the challenge of being placed in a living situation that did not match my gender identity, as was the case with Kade, or with people who made presumptions and teased me about behaviors or choices that questioned my gender identity, as with Megan. Back then, I thought only of gender in terms of biological sex. By graduation, I had not fully realized my own biases about many groups although I had at least begun to realize that my understanding of gender identity was incomplete. A lot has changed for the better when it comes to college campuses being inclusive, but this book highlights the spaces where trans* students do not feel welcome and the structures that keep people enforcing expectations of the gender binary discourse.

“Gender is many things but one thing it is surely not is a hobby.”

-Jennifer Boylan, as quoted by Z Nicolazzo (20)

I found Nicolazzo’s work to read like an extended journal article. I had imagined that I would be read narratives of trans* students and get some helpful action steps to implement. Once I got used to the book’s structure, I appreciated the care with which Nicolazzo situated the research by defining terms and acknowledging their lens. In addition to helping me better understand terms, the idea of students “coming into” a community as well as “coming out” to a community was helpful. The book also underlined the fluidity of gender identity as the profiled students worked to understand their college community and to determine where they felt comfortable displaying gender identity, as happens with many students do when immersed in a new community – redefining previous identities.

Most important was the centering theme of recognizing that trans* gender identity has been framed in research as a deficit rather than an asset. Similar to the Normal is Not Real documentary from Landmark, Nicolazzo’s findings are not a set of recommendations for “fixing” colleges and college systems but an invitation to explore our own biases as we work to build a more informed mental framework and, in turn, a more robust community that provides all students opportunities to build kinship networks.

Some of the examples of the hetero genderism seem relatively easy to correct through conscious behavior modification, such as not making assumptions of gender identity based on an individual’s dress or name. In 2023, it does not seem uncommon for preferred pronouns to be shared, such as in an email signature or with a name in a Zoom meeting, providing a simple “default” structure that gives people the opportunity to share gender identity if they are comfortable. Other changes require a more systematic approach, such as providing dedicated housing for trans* students or creating sports team culture not based on biological sex but gender identity.

Satin trans* flag with light blue, light purple, and white stripes

This trans* pride flag reminded me of Silvia’s fabric analogy. (Photo by Lena Balk on Unsplash)

In my reading, I tried to think about ways that I do (or do not) reinforce hetero genderism and gender binary and about my own bias and preconceived notions of trans* people. Considering resiliency as a verb helped me to recognize that kinship networks and inclusive language in classrooms (and all around campus) are so vital to students. I think of Silvia’s imagery of resilience as a stretchy fabric that thins on campus, while times at home and off campus help the material to regain its original shape (95). Since many of the students featured in the research also had learning disabilities, I thought about how important the learning center should be as a welcoming space, a place where the material does not feel so thin. I also thought more about online communities as safe and rejuvenating spaces for some of the students from the study, such as Jackson’s observation that “the internet is my hometown” (128) and Megan’s use of gaming as a way to be herself. Students perceived some academic campus spaces as being more welcoming than others, which made me think more about my experience with a few college professors in my undergrad experience. As an English major and Education minor, I mostly took literature, writing, and education courses. Not until college did I understand that professors were not only comfortable sharing their gender identities but that I should be questioning my assumptions about gender identity. Was I too immature or biased to recognize that my earlier teachers were not cisgendered, or had they chosen not to express their gender identities? I grew up in a time and place where heterosexualism was “natural” and gender expression was expected to “match” one’s biological sex. I did not personally know anyone who transgressed, but at that time, glam rockers were the rage, and gender expression markers felt fluid. This leads me to wonder if certain fields allow for more openness of expression, but Nicolazzo cautions that readers should not assume this. This brings me back to the language and structures.

In the final chapter of the book, Nicolazzo challenges readers to design systems around the most vulnerable populations and move beyond best practices. Language can be a powerful indicator but only if the language translates to the actions of the college community. An example of this is the idea of the “best display” of policy language as opposed to cultivating campus-wide inclusion, even when a campus gets a good Pride Index score. To create an inclusive environment is to discuss and challenge assumptions, but this must happen in all campus spaces, not just those spaces where vulnerable populations frequent. Nicolazzo notes that establishing virtual communities may be a good path for colleges and students, allowing a safe space to be oneself with less worry about microaggressions or interactions that drain trans*’ students energy. The idea of using virtual communities feels most engaging to me as I hope that the skills I help students develop will provide them with more tools and comfort contributing to those communities.

Comments Off on Reflection about Trans* in College by Z Nicolazzo