Before we dig in on what's going down at UVM, a little pop culture preamble: if you’re still holding on with Glee, perhaps you saw or heard about last Friday night’s episode and its moving musical number (of course) encouraging a trans character in his transition to becoming a man. It featured a 200-strong chorus of trans singers, led by Wade “Unique” Adams, belting out “I Know Where I’ve Been.”
It’s the latest in trans characters’ emergence in popular culture, from Laverne Cox’s turn in Orange is the New Black to the widely acclaimed Transparent on Amazon Prime. And it also corresponds with multiple national efforts to bring trans issues to light, including on school campuses.
Earlier this month, the University of Vermont offered “neutral” as a gender option in collecting student information. It’s the result of almost a decade of lobbying and a highly involved campus-wide campaign, reports The New York Times. The University now allows students to use whatever first name they want, even if they haven’t legally changed it. That information, as well as the student’s preferred pronoun, appears in school information management systems available to professors. “Since 2009, 1,891 University of Vermont students have specified a preferred pronoun, with 14 opting for “ze,” 10 for “they” and another 228 for name only,” reports the Times. The University has also adopted “they” and “them” as a general use pronoun rather than “he” or “she.”
But this societal shift isn’t confined to UVM’s campus. In December of last year, the U.S. Department of Education issued public school guidelines (under the auspices of Title IX) regarding transgender students in single-sex classrooms, saying schools should treat trans students in accordance with their gender identity. So any student identifying as female can attend all-female classes and vice versa. Many colleges and universities are already widely accepting of the spectrum of student sexuality and gender identity, and groups are sprouting up every year designed to support and educate campus communities on genderqueer issues, like language. Even Facebook made headlines recently with its unveiling 50 or so unique gender options for users to choose from while also allowing them to choose their preferred pronoun between female, male, or neutral.
But for trans students, it’s about more than pronouns.
It’s about recognizing the self worth of LGBTQ students and combating many societal norms that negate their very existence—with disastrous results. The CDC reports that LGBTQ youth experience an increased risk of violence, from bullying to sexual assault, and they’re also more than twice as likely to experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors. But it’s even worse for trans individuals in particular. In a 2011 study by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, a whopping 78% of trans students in grades K-12 and 35% of college students “reported experiencing physical, verbal, and sexual violence by students, teachers, or staff due to their gender identity/expression, with students of color experiencing higher rates of violence in school,” summarizes RealityCheck.org.
But with these changes happening across schools and campuses, just like they’re happening across TV shows, a brighter, more inclusive world for LGBTQ students is ahead.
FYI: “Transgender” doesn’t necessarily mean a person born with female sex organs but who identifies as male and vice versa. There’s a whole spectrum of gender identities. Questions? Check out The New York Times’ Gender-Neutral Glossary.