Published in the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators GLBT Knowledge Community White Paper (Fall 2014):
LGBT living-learning communities (LLC) are paradoxical and unequal spaces for transgender and gender-queer students. These LLCs produce a categorization of difference much in the way the LGBT acronym purports, and fails, to espouse trans visibility. A recent interview with trans activist Carol Steele in Polari Magazine (2014) reiterated that “the T in LGBT is not always visible, and more often than not tacked on to the end rather than being understood, or even accepted. On a rudimentary level, sexual orientation [LGB] defines preference, whereas the T defines gender.” To the extent that LGBT communities provide accessible resources for non-normative, queer people, they rarely focalize the trans experience as other than sexual preference. “Trans,” as a constituent of the LGBT acronym, assumes a sexual connotation because LGB identities denote sexual preference. Its continued conflation with gay, lesbian, and bisexual sexualities deemphasizes its gender politics, veiling trans experience as sexual. I argue that transgender policy, and particularly forthcoming gender-inclusive housing (GIH), must focus attention away from sexual politics and move toward gender politics in order to “lift the veil” from transgender bodies. I utilize Fiona Buckland’s (2002) “queer world-making” to substantiate trans visibility though community dialogue and affirm the importance of trans lives by implementing trans-specific community education. Gender-inclusive housing that deconstructs gender essentialism, I contend, prioritizes gender politics and provides trans and gender-queer students a space to develop more fluid, and less check-box specific, identities.
As of March 2014, an estimated 149 accredited four-year universities in the United States had written policies enacting gender-inclusive living spaces (Beemyn, 2013; U.S. Dept. of Education, 2013). Universities such as Boston University (2013), the University of Michigan (2013), the University of Minnesota Twin Cities (2015), and The Ohio State University (2014) have recently developed exceptional LGBT-oriented, gender-inclusive living communities. Gender-inclusive housing (GIH) serves as an alternative space for transgender, transitioning, and gender-queer students. Its primary goal is to de-normalize the gender dichotomy by maintaining gender as a socially constructed reality (West & Zimmerman, 1987). By contrast, traditional housing units arrange students in same-sex suites, relying heavily on biological sex, or “gender,” for placement. This arrangement assures the conservation of cisnormativity. Cisnormativity belongs to transphobia, sustaining the “expectation that all people are and should be [their assigned, biological sex],” and that transgender identity is a deviant and “transitional” form (Marcellin, Scheim, Bauer & Redman, 2013). Gender-inclusive housing erupts from traditional same-sex housing pairs by disregarding the formalities of biological gender and favoring the safety of friendship and family (Beemyn, Curtis, Davis & Tubbs, 2005; Yagoda & Santos-Gonzalez, 2012).
The problem with existing gender-inclusive housing, however, is in its representation: Administrators are compelled to emphasize GIH’s queer potentiality, subsuming gender identity with broadened sexual politics. Because there is little effort to detach the T from LGB (a contested discourse, nonetheless), administrators must consolidate their resources to assume support for categories of minority students. Master’s candidate Maria Anderson found that LGBT-homogenized communities coupled with vague transgender policies tended to mask trans voices. Current university policies for trans students, according to Anderson, do nothing to dispel “campus-wide transphobia and perpetuate an essentialist understanding of gender identity as a dichotomy” (Anderson, 2012, p.ii). As Anderson’s title suggests, administrators implicating inclusion is not enough to equivocate support for transgender students. Gender essentialism remains as policy because queer gender experience is not an explicit concern among the student population (p. 99-100). Trans activist Carol Steele furnishes an excellent definition for why gender politics remains absent in collegiate spaces: “Because sexual orientation is social, and our ideas about gender are learned and applied socially…any [sexual behavior] that deviates from the norm throws the issue of gender into confusion” (“Lives no longer hidden,” 2014). Thus, while transgender students are welcomed into these quasi-sexual spaces, their identities are misconstrued by sexual desire and not legitimated as a gendered experience. For many transgender students, sexuality is not their “variance.” LGBT-oriented, and not transgender-specific, housing supports sexual identities in tandem with cisnormative and gendered formalities. Housing truly inclusive of trans students, however, must construct non-binary policies as the fulcrum of social and identity development.
Existing gender-inclusive policy and LGBT categorization align, because both assume paradigmatic membership for sexually stigmatized bodies. Queer and trans bodies—especially those visibly Other, intrinsic or contemptuous—face undue pressure from this sexually specific system. “[Some who identify as transgender] refuse to ‘complete’ the process of surgical sex reassignment, and thus in some sense remain alienated from any identity or readily labeled group” (Califia, 1994, p.212). Students who might not have queer sexual desires and identify as transgender (or gender-queer) sometimes find their connection to the queer community lessened or even severed. In a 2013 article, Huffington Post’s Todd Clayton wrote: “[Trans] voices are conspicuously absent, and too many uninformed and insensitive lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer persons are doing harm to the [trans] community while simultaneously purporting to speak for them.” Clayton’s article enumerates (and by no means freshly exhumes) the tension transgender and gender-queer persons pose as members of the LGBT minority. Lesbians and gays may welcome transgender people into their community, but continued slighting reveals that they too manifest and perpetuate transphobic behaviors.
So, what should trans politics look like in gender-inclusive space? Ideologically, gender-inclusive space builds upon public and private experiences to delegitimize the gender binary. An effective gender-inclusive community disrupts learned interpretations of binary genders and occupations with genitalia (from which transphobia arises). Living units, conversely, must be open to assignment regardless of biological sex, even to the extent that they disregard biological sex in their administrative formalities. An effective community also negotiates cisgender privilege through frequent educational sessions on trans allyship. Gender-inclusive space that actively engages students in volunteering, trans activism, and trans scholarship stresses the importance of cisgender allies as supporters of trans politics and lives. In other words, working alongside transgender friends and colleagues, cisgender students (regardless of sexuality) defend the right to non-normative gender and sexual identities. Programs should include, what Fiona Buckland calls, a dialogue process of “queer world-making” to inspire unique queer identities. By conflating public and private identities, “[queer world-making] opens the way to understanding the agency of individuals and groups to produce sites of interaction and intersection with other groups and concerns…” (Buckland, 2002, p.5). Queer world-making brings together unique individual experiences, causing the threads to overlap and concretize; affirms trans experiences as legitimate; assures the agency of individual lives; and creates a community identity through lived experience. While this list does not enumerate the many ways in which a trans-specific community might emerge, these suggestions capitalize on the importance of dialogue between trans and cisgender informants.
The battle for gender-inclusive housing yanks at the LGB-T tension. Some existing GIH, and many policies in development, fail to acknowledge gender politics and fall back on sexual politics, but exemplify the need for trans-specific learning spaces. Maria Anderson remarks: “Institutions must make the decision as to whether or not their policy will explicitly include transgender students… To only implicitly include transgender students places the burden of interpreting the policy on the student” (Anderson, p. 111). Administrators must create collegiate living spaces that emphasize trans experience through gender politics. Gender-inclusive housing, after all, is not a sex zone,  nor should it model sexual identity. After all, gender inclusion requires an intense investigation of gender norms. We must encourage housing administrators to re-focalize the importance of gender variation—suggesting, even, the redevelopment of existing LGBT-oriented communities. As S/M activist Pat Califia writes: “Before we can even think about…creating better, safer, bigger social space for ourselves, we have to find one another [under manageable terms]… [Creating] satisfying, healthy [relationships] is as politically radical as AIDS activists’ chaining themselves to the axles of a pharmaceutical company’s delivery trucks” (Califia, 1994, p.230).
Pat Califia, in “The City of Desire” (1994), values the queer potential of space by dividing the city into sectors that are relegated and stigmatized based on their sexual affect. In this case, gender-inclusive housing that upholds trans experience cannot prioritize the sexual form; in conjunction with sexual politics, GIH must dismantle gender essentialism in order to include transgender and gender-queer students.)
Works Referenced (APA)
Anderson, M. (2011). Implicit inclusion is not enough: Effectiveness of gender neutral housing policies on inclusion of transgender students (Master’s thesis). The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH.
Beemyn, B., Curtis, B., Davis, M., & Tubbs, N. J. (2005). Transgender issues on college campuses. New Directions for Student Services, 111, 49-60.
Beemyn, G. (2013). Colleges and universities that provide gender-inclusive housing. Retrieved from Campus Pride Index website.
Buckland, F. (2002). Impossible dance: Club culture and queer world-making. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Califia, P. (1994). Public sex: The culture of radical sex. Pittsburgh, PA: Cleis Press.
Clayton, T. (2013, February 27). The queer community has to stop being transphobic: Realizing my cisgender privilege. Huffington Post: Gay Voices.
Lives no longer hidden: An interview with Carol Steele. (2014, August 21). Polari Magazine.
Marcellin, R. L., Scheim, A., Bauer, G., & Redman, N. (2013, March 7). Experiences of transphobia among trans Ontarians. Trans Pulse, 3(2), 1-2.
U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2013). Digest of Education Statistics, 2012 (NCES 2014-015), Table 5.
West, C., & Zimmerman, D. (1987). Doing gender. Gender & Society, 1(2), 125-151.
Yagoda, J., & Santos-Gonzalez, I. (2012). A proposal for the expansion of gender neutral housing. New Haven, CT: Yale College Council.