The Chronicle Interview

Why Trans* Students Matter

February 23, 2017

Alyssa Schukar for The Chronicle
Z Nicolazzo, an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Northern Illinois U.

The question of transgender students’ rights has provoked a national debate, but little has been heard from the people at the center of the controversy. Z Nicolazzo, an assistant professor of higher education and student affairs at Northern Illinois University, offers a deep dive into the challenges and complexities facing individual trans students in a new book, Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion (Stylus Publishing).

Mx. Nicolazzo, who identifies as trans* and uses ze/hir pronouns, spent 18 months on an ethnographic study of nine trans students who attended a large, urban university that goes unnamed in the book. Through the participants’ individual stories, and through Mx. Nicolazzo’s observations, a picture emerges of trans communities on campus that are complex in their individual identities, and whose members must navigate the binary assumptions about gender that define almost every aspect of campus life.

Mx. Nicolazzo, who earned hir Ph.D. from Miami University, in Ohio, talked to The Chronicle about "Dear Colleague" letters, taking headcounts of trans students, and being a trans killjoy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On Wednesday the Trump administration rolled back guidance issued under the Obama administration that mandated equal accomodations for transgender students under Title IX. How concerned are you about this?

I’m gutted, to be honest with you, and very worried.

I have to add the caveat that it wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies with Obama. It took the Obama administration seven and a half years to draft a "Dear Colleague" letter from the Department of Education and Department of Justice about trans students and their housing needs on college campuses. Jennicet Gutiérrez, who’s an undocumented trans Latina, was booed out of the White House for wanting Obama to address the needs of undocumented trans people being deported. There was a push throughout the Obama administration to focus on same-sex marriage rights, which were important but also don’t necessarily do a whole lot for the various trans communities that are trying to focus on health care and housing and some other basic needs.

That said, I am devastated, mad, and completely fearful about the rollback, not only because it places transgender students in further precarity, but because this is just the start of what will surely be an ongoing assault on transgender people’s dignity, worth, and protections. This is not the end, and despite Betsy DeVos and her friends trying to spin it a different way, she — as well as Attorney General Sessions and all members of the Trump administration — are not friends to queer and trans people.  

So I’m scared, and that fear makes me want to do more work and see how we can be alongside each other and protect each other.

Could we talk about the asterisk that accompanies the term "trans" throughout the book?

The asterisk was initially used to expand notions of who we think of as the transgender population. There’s an unfortunate conflation of "transgender" being synonymous with people who are transsexual or biomedically transitioning. So the asterisk was used to expand that, and to make people think about the ongoing evolution of who we come to understand as trans.

Not everyone in the trans community likes the use of the asterisk. Some people have used it in very exclusionary and damaging ways. My reason for using the asterisk is because it provides a very important visual disruption. It causes people to stop and think about who we are talking about.

During the months you studied trans students, what surprised you most?

How participants were using virtual landscapes not only to learn about themselves as trans, but to build community with other trans people. One participant, Jackson, kind of summed it up when they said, "The internet is basically my hometown."

Raegan, another participant, talked about, beyond being with trans people in person, the most comfortable space for them was being online and watching YouTube videos of other trans people and their trans stories. People are building community online with folks they may never meet in real life.

There’s curiosity among college administrators about how many trans students there actually are, but in the book you argue that a number doesn’t really matter.

The reason that I get a little concerned about quantifying the trans population is because, often, when we think about who is trans, we create boundaries and standards around who is trans enough to be counted as trans.

This also plays into some dangerous conversations around the population only being meaningful if there are a certain number of folks on campus. So if we want to know how many trans students there are, what is the number that we’re looking for to focus resources toward this population? Is it enough, quote-unquote, to have 2 percent of the population, or do we need to have 5 percent? It’s a really slippery slope, especially for a population that is ethereal by nature.

But wouldn’t many administrators say they can’t serve a population they can’t detect or quantify?

The thing, then, is to shift our frame of thinking and ask, Why is it that marginalized populations are important, and how is it that we think about who our work is for, and how can we go about it in some different ways?

If we were to focus our educational efforts on the most vulnerable populations that are on our campuses, or may be on our campuses, then what we do is create environments that work for those populations, knowing that, invariably, these environments will work for people with more privileges as well.

You worked in student-affairs positions at Dartmouth College and the University of Arizona before getting your Ph.D. What things did you pick up from student-affairs work that helped your research?

Dartmouth being an Ivy League institution, and me being an outsider to Ivy League education, meant that I needed to think really deeply about the political environment and how I was advocating for marginalized student populations. That was my first introduction to thinking environmentally and thinking more carefully about politics and how those play out.

At the University of Arizona, I got a crash course in how to deal with highly conservative external constituencies. I was in Tucson during the time of Senate Bill 1070 and House Bill 2281, legislation that perpetuated injustice and harm toward undocumented people and populations of color, and it was really important for me and my colleagues to think about, What does this mean for the work we do? How do we talk to students about this?

I did sexual-violence prevention work at the University of Arizona, and got a crash course in thinking about gender, and seeing examples of the gender-binary discourse popping up all over the place. Particularly when I was coming into my own trans* identity, I got a palpable sense of what it feels like when you’re trapped. I didn’t feel like I could be out on the job. I didn’t have anyone I could talk to about it. So I started to get a sense of, Gosh, I wonder what it’s like for undergraduate students who feel this as well? That experience led me to want to do the study that’s now the book.

Does it bother you when you meet someone and they don’t share their preferred pronouns?

I wouldn’t say that it bothers me. It’s just another example of how many of us — and I have to unlearn this as well — take gender to be a given.

The thing that is probably most important to me is that we stop making assumptions and stop putting gendered pronouns onto people. I tell students and peers all the time, there are lots of different ways to talk about people without using their pronouns, because we all have names, right? Or we can ask the question, What are your proper pronouns? And some folks will say, Oh, that’s kind of awkward, and I’ve got to tell you, it’s far more awkward when you misgender someone, especially in public places.

You detail some incidents in the book where college administrators make offensive blunders, even when they’re trying hard to be inclusive. What advice do you have for those who don’t want to say or do the wrong thing regarding trans people?

My advice is to slow down and be really thoughtful and intentional in the choices we’re making. I talk in the book about Silvia, a participant who mentioned that she stopped engaging in a really important student-leadership opportunity because administrators had set it up through a binary notion of, We’ll match up cisgender men with other cisgender men as mentors, and do the same with cisgender women, and there are clearly no trans students here, so we don’t need to think about that, right? And when Silvia was talking to me about this, I was like, What would happen if we slow down as administrators? What assumptions are we making when we think about programs, or write policies with gendered language, or who might be in an audience when we’re talking to them?

You express reservations in your book about some of the pillars of trans-inclusiveness efforts at many colleges, such as nondiscrimination policies and gender-neutral housing. Why is that?

The phrase that I’ve circled around is that I find them necessary, but insufficient, in and of themselves. It’s important that we have nondiscrimination policies that include gender identity and gender expression, but that’s insufficient to create environments where trans students can have more livable lives.

Adem, one of the participants, shared with me at one point that nondiscrimination policies just acted as caution tape. Caution tape delineates where someone shouldn’t go, but it doesn’t stop someone from going there. I can’t carry around a nondiscrimination policy and say, You shouldn’t look at me weird because look here, gender identity and expression are listed under the nondiscrimination policy. While that policy is necessary, it’s insufficient at actually changing the way we think about gender, and how gender structures college environments.

So what I’m inviting people to do in the book is to think beyond best practices — thinking beyond just having a nondiscrimination policy, or thinking beyond scoring well on the Campus Pride Index. If we think beyond, We have a gender-inclusive floor, or we have a nondiscrimination policy that includes gender identity and expression, so we’re good, then we might be getting closer to creating gender-expansive and fully inclusive campuses. I don’t think we’ll ever fully get there, but we can really push forward on that process.

Your Twitter handle is @trans_killjoy. Where did that come from?

Sara Ahmed, who’s a UK-based scholar, introduced the notion of the "feminist killjoy" in one of her books. My Twitter handle is an homage to the notion of being the trans killjoy, being the person who brings up gender and focuses on trans issues constantly and unapologetically.

Lee Gardner writes about the management of colleges and universities, higher-education marketing, and other topics. Follow him on Twitter @_lee_g, or email him at lee.gardner@chronicle.com.

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