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Accommodating Trans Students in Colleges and Universities (1998)

Accommodating Trans Students in Colleges and Universities (1998)

©1998, 2013 by Dallas Denny

Source: This paper was written in the late 1990s, updated in the early 2000s, and updated again in 2011. It has not previously been published. Some links may no longer work.

Author’s note: I would like to thank Drs. Sandra Cole and Jamison Green for their constructive comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. I’d like to see it appear in print.

Accommodating Transgendered and Transsexual Students

In Colleges and Universities

By Dallas Denny, M.A.

American Educational Gender Information Service, Inc.


Transgendered and transsexual (transgendered) students have historically been an invisible population in the postsecondary setting. In recent years they have begun coming forward in increasing numbers. Few colleges and universities rarely have policies or procedures for transsexual and transgendered students and their special needs and are often at a loss when dealing with them.

Support personnel should not only be prepared to deal not only with crises caused by coming-out issues, discrimination, and harassment, but should understand the processes whereby transsexual and transgendered students modify their bodies and social roles and the logistical issues this can raise on campus—such as access to bathrooms and housing quarters or dealing with harassment or discriminatory treatment from staff, faculty, other students, or members of the local community. Support personnel should be aware of sources for information and referral so they can help transgendered and transsexual individuals locate a support group and medical and psychological service providers who specialize in gender issues and who will work with college and university personnel to provide a network of support.

Administrators should develop a priori policies and guidelines to foster a safe and supportive environment for transgendered and transsexual students, make sure staff, faculty, and students receive sensitivity training, and ensure that up-to-date educational materials are available in the library and counseling center.


Throughout history and in all societies, there have been males and females who have transgressed gender norms, wearing the clothing and taking on the mannerisms of the “other” sex. Any number of cultures on all the continents except Antarctica have (or had, until Westernized in the recent past) traditional social roles for these transgressively gendered (transgendered) persons (Taylor, 1995 argues persuasively for transgender roles in human prehistory) . [1] For instance, more than 150 North American Indian tribes had two-spirit roles in which males took on women’s roles and garb and/or women dressed and behaved as warriors (Roscoe, 1987). In Western Europe, such traditional transgender roles were once common, but were systematically repressed by early Christians (O’Hartigan, 1993; Roscoe, 1994). Those who have been unwilling or unable to hide their transgender natures have been (and are still being) persecuted, prosecuted, and murdered (cf Feinberg, 1996 and the Remembering Our Dead website.

Eliminating the established roles for transgendered and transsexual people (and in too many cases, the people themselves) did not, of course, do away with transgendered people as a whole; rather, it drove them underground, to be “rediscovered” and colonized in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries by the medical-psychological community (Benjamin, 1966; Bolin, 1988; Green & Money, 1969; Hirschfeld, 1910; Ulrichs, 1994).

The medical model that arose has pictured transgendered men and women as either sexual deviates (transvestites) or dysfunctional males or females “trapped in the wrong body” (transsexuals; cf Benjamin, 1966 and Green & Money, 1969). The debate continues (cf Lawrence, 1998, Transgender Tapestry journal issues #95 and #96, and Bailey, 2003). Codified in manuals like the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Vols. III, III-R, IV, and IV-TR), individuals with “gender identity disorder” and “transvestic fetishism” have come to be seen as maladjusted men and women who can be “treated” and made better by the medical community. Although this has provided a medical framework to aid transgendered men and women in distress and has indeed helped many, and even though it provides a medical rationale for hormonal and surgical treatment of transsexuals, it has also been in some ways responsible for creating and maintaining the environment of shame, guilt, and illness that causes such distress in the first place (Bolin, 1988).

The 1990s saw the arrival of the transgender community, a loosely-organized consortium of support groups, publishers, information agencies, and activists. For the first time in nearly 2000 years, transgendered men and women have been able to gather and compare notes. This has resulted in a collective shift of consciousness and the ridding of a great psychic load of guilt and shame, and, not surprisingly, in the birth of self-views that differ markedly from the rigid labels imposed by the medical and psychological communities (Boswell, 1991, 1998). The nineties also saw the rise of treatment programs based on self-empowerment, peer support, well-person, and other emerging models which encourage the individual to explore individualized solutions rather than forcing conformation to binary gender norms (cf Warren et al., 1998).

Consequently, labels like “transvestite” and “transsexual” are no longer adequate to describe the myriad ways in which transgendered people view themselves and their life options. While there are indeed males and female who periodically crossdress to emulate as closely as possible the other sex (crossdressers), and while there are indeed both males and females who undergo sex reassignment with a goal of assimilating as “normal” men or women after the completion of medical procedures and a change of gender role (“stealth mode” transsexuals), others claim an essential transgender or genderqueer nature, self-identifying along a broad continuum and choosing from among a wide range of styles of dress and medical procedures; these individuals custom-tailor their bodies and wardrobes to meet their own needs rather than conforming to labels arbitrarily imposed by medical professionals or wearing the clothing or behaving in the manner expected by the traditional binary gender system (Diamond, 1996; see also the website And most of all, many of these people, and especially young people, are out and proud about who they are and what they do.

Challenges to the binary gender system are not the exclusive realm of the transgendered. The Twentieth century saw enormous change in gender norms, and the trend is continuing in the Twenty-first century. Nowhere are these changes more apparent than in young people. General sartorial changes toward greater androgyny (longer hair for males, shorter hair for women; body piercings and tattoos for both sexes; gender nonspecific or genderbending clothing, cosmetics, jewelry, and perfumes; androgynous popular figures like the late Michael Jackson, the artist formerly known as Prince, k.d. lang, and Dennis Rodman, the goth subculture) are buttressed by deliberate gender bending and gender blending by many nontransgendered youth (eyeliner for males and facial hair for women being two examples). In such an atmosphere, the transgendered student may not even stand out!

Transgendered and Transsexual Students in Postsecondary Education

No one knows what percentage of the population is transgendered or transsexual. The DSM-IV gives the numbers of male-to-female and female-to-male transsexuals as1:30,00 and 1:100,000, respectively. Weitz & Osburg (1998) present data from earlier epidemiological studies; estimates of prevalence range from 1:100,000 to 1:2900 for male-to-female transsexuals and 1:400,000 to 1:30,000 for female-to-male transsexuals. Such studies measure only those transsexuals who formally apply for treatment at structured gender programs. The statistics do not capture the many who seek treatment from private physicians or from black market sources, and certainly do not include nontranssexual gender-variant persons. There are no censuses of crossdressers, but some believe the numbers to be as high as 1% (Brown & Rounsley, 1996). Who knows how many men find the wearing of female underclothing pleasurable? For that matter, who knows what percentage of the many women who wear masculine clothing derive some measure of erotic or other personal satisfaction from it? Most transgendered people are invisible, either because they dress in private, or because they “pass” in public as nontransgendered (Goffman, 1963).

Crossdressing is often viewed as a private experience, to be done behind closed doors, and many transsexuals pass undetected in public—another closet of sorts, or so some have claimed. The closet can be a secure place. The risks of being out are many, and can and often do include alienation from family, loss of job, expulsion from school, public ridicule or even physical attack. The primary reasons for secrecy, however, are more often internal than external; most transgendered and transsexual people are ridden with shame and guilt and cannot bring themselves to take the risk of telling anyone.

Certainly transsexuals, who take the extreme step of changing their bodies and social roles to approximate as closely as possible the other sex (a process called sex reassignment) are but the tip of the transgender iceberg. There are many more transgendered people who crossdress and may or may not be considering permanent changes in their bodies or gender roles. It is likely that at any given time, any college or university will have a largely invisible population of transgendered or transsexual students, whether or not their transgender status is apparent or known to officials.

Along with gay, lesbian, and bisexual students, transgendered and transsexual people face a great deal of societal prejudice. Transgendered men and women and gender-variant gay men and lesbians are at highest risk. Perpetrators of hate crimes usually target those who are visibly different (see Denny & Schaffer, 1992). Thus, heterosexual men and women who do not look quite “right” also can become victims.

Unfortunately, there has been no empirical research on the needs and problems of transgendered students (Beemyn, 2003; Carter, 2000). Schools with policies and procedures for dealing supportively with transgendered and transsexual students are still the exception; more usually, the presence of the student can result in hysteria and confusion and, in some cases, malice from an administration that sees as one of its duties the enforcement of gender norms. Happily, however, most colleges and universities have realized the value of a diverse student body and respond to developing issues by seeking to educate their staff and faculty. [2]

Safety and Human Rights

Being visibly transgendered can cause extreme reactions not only from the general public, but from, among others, parents, siblings, spouses and sexual partners, friends, the clergy, law enforcement officers, helping professionals, journalists, government officials, politicians, and school personnel. Young people seem to be at increased risk for violent physical attack. The Remembering Our Dead website, which tracks violence against transgendered and transsexual people, documented an average of two such murders per month in 2002—and names continue to accumulate. Most of the victims memorialized on the site were transgendered women under 40 years of age, and a disproportionate percentage were people of color.

Indifference to the needs of transgendered people is not only unfortunately common, but frequently covertly sanctioned by authorities. For instance, in 1995, Tyra Hunter, a young transgendered woman from Washington, D.C., was grievously injured in a traffic accident (Bowles, 1996). When the D.C. firefighter treating her cut away her clothing and discovered that she had a penis, he exclaimed, “This ain’t no bitch!” and stopped treatment, making jokes with his co-workers for several minutes as Hunter lay bleeding, despite onlookers’ pleas to “Help her, she’s a human being.” Treatment did not resume until a supervisor came on the scene. Treatment of Hunter’s life-threatening injuries were again delayed after she was transported to the hospital, where she died. Despite a massive publicity effort by the straight, gay and lesbian, and transgender communities of Washington, the firefighter was never disciplined (Transgender Nation Washington press release, 4 June, 1996). Hunter’s mother was subsequently awarded substantial damages by a court of law (Tyra Hunter Lawsuit Settled in D.C., 1 August, 2000). Several years later, at the same intersection at which Hunter was fatally injured, Stephanie Thomas and Ukea Davis, two young transgendered women of color, were shot to death as they sat in their car (see The Google-powered newsgroup transgendernews reposts news stories of discrimination, brutalization, or murder of transgendered and transsexual people; most days the feed includes at least one such posting.

Discrimination against transgendered people is widespread, and federal and state laws have institutionalized this discrimination. A number of courts have ruled that transsexuals and crossdressers are not protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1963 (cf Kirkpatrick v. Seligman & Latz, Inc., et al., 1979), and transsexuals and crossdressers are specifically excluded from coverage by the Americans with Disabilities Act (Howard, 1991). However, recent Title VII case rulings have been favorable; see for more information. The passage of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) (GLB-News, 20 September, 1996) and recent court rulings in Texas (Pesquera, 1999; Littleton v. Prange, 2000) and Kansas (Downs, 2002) destabilize and render potentially render illegitimate the formerly legal marriages of post-operative transsexual men and women—and for that matter any marriage of a transgendered or transsexual person, as, in the opinion of at least some lawmakers, they are neither “men” nor “women,” and one of each is required by DOMA for the act for marriage. This “no same sex” marriage ruling cuts both ways against transsexuals, who not only may be denied the ability to marry as a member of their new sex, but as a member of their former sex (cf Birmingham News, 8 March, 1996). The marriages and marriageability of intersexed persons are similarly jeopardized by DOMA (Beeman, 1996).

The failure of the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) to become law makes transgendered and transsexual people continuing fair game in the employment market. They can be and often are fired for no other reason than their transgendered status becoming known, and unless they live in one of the few places where gender identity and expression is protected, there is little legal recourse for those who find themselves unemployed because they are transgendered or even because others think they might be (cf Smith v. Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., 1975), or even if they are fired because they have crossdressed away from their place of employment (ACLU, 2000). Nonetheless, the majority of transgendered people are gainfully employed, although underemployment and periods of unemployment are common, especially around the time of gender role transition. Those who do not look “typically” male or female may have especial difficulty in finding and keeping jobs. Many large corporations, 4 states, more than 40 cities, and a number of public school systems and universities have voluntarily put into place transgender nondiscrimination policies. [3] [4] Even when such policies are strictly enforced, harassment and systematic pressure to resign can and does occur from co-workers and lower- and middle-level management.

Discrimination against transgendered people spans all social arenas. Despite the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, they are not allowed to serve in the military. Churches frequently turn them away, and, amazingly, so do uninformed physicians and psychologists to whom they go for help (Franzini & Casinelli, 1986; Green, 1967). Schools (even universities) and other organizations may try to impose dress codes or otherwise enforce gender norms. Rejection by families and friends is common (cf Denny, 1995). Government agencies like the Veteran’s Administration [5] and welfare agencies frequently treat the transgendered with scorn and derision, and they may be harassed or arrested without reason by the police. Under such conditions it is understandably difficult to attend to one’s education.

The school can provide safe space in this sea of discrimination, or it can be a part of the larger oppressive machinery. To a great extent this will depend upon the overt and covert messages sent down the chain of command from the highest levels of administration. Attitudes “trickle down” from above. If there are blatant or subtle signals that it is permissible to harass, tease, or persecute transgendered and transsexual students, the school’s staff, faculty, and other students will be more likely to engage in such behaviors than if they receive a clear “hands off” message.

Administrators can do a great deal to ensure transgendered and transsexual students receive opportunities equal to those of other students to: attend classes; reside in on or off campus in dormitories or other student quarters; use bathrooms in all buildings; dress as they see fit; join and attend clubs, fraternities, and sororities; participate in sports and other extracurricular activities; work on or off campus to help make ends meet; and even walk down the street in safety. Moreover, administrators can ensure campus police and local authorities understand transgendered and transsexual students are not criminals or otherwise undesirable and that their function is to protect rather than persecute the students. [6]

One way to do this is to codify nondiscrimination against transgendered and transsexual students in university policy, develop guidelines for implementation of that policy, and enforce the guidelines. Such policies and guidelines should parallel those developed for other minority students, including religious believers, racial and ethnic groups, and gay/lesbian/bisexual students; or, universities that have such policies already in place can serve as models. [7]

Another way to protect transgendered and transsexual students is to incorporate information about transgender issues into training for staff and faculty and into the curriculum. Sensitivity training should be offered to or even better required for employees and incorporated into orientation sessions for new students. A pamphlet or handbook on transgender issues can be developed and distributed to new staff, faculty, and students. Factual information about transgender and transsexualism can be integrated into both existing and planned courses or a transgender studies course can be introduced.

The university counseling and guidance center should be an important part of this education process. [8] Counselors should be encouraged to educate themselves about transgender issues by reading books, journal articles, and magazines on the subject. They should also be encouraged to contact local transgender support groups, most of which would be more than happy to provide educational materials and perhaps a panel of speakers for seminars. Such groups can provide access to information and referrals to helping professionals. Counselors should be made aware of local and national resources so they can make appropriate referrals.

If resources are limited (or if the population of visibly transgendered and transsexual students is small), a single counselor or faculty member can be identified as a resource; this individual can serve as a liaison between transgendered and transsexual students and the university and disseminate information on transgender issues to the rest of the campus. A specified individual at the campus GLBT office can also serve this purpose.

The university library should be encouraged to stock up-do-date materials about transgender and transsexual issues. Much of the older literature has been shown to be inaccurate and in fact some is quite libelous (Denny, 1997a).

The campus newspaper is an important tool for dissemination of information. Editors may be grateful for the suggestion that they provide coverage or perhaps profile a (willing) transgendered or transsexual student; perhaps a student can be found on another campus if one is not available locally. Local transgender organizations or nationally-known transgender activists who live nearby, are visiting campus, or are otherwise in the news can address important issues like discrimination and violence against transgendered and transsexual people. The campus radio and television station can be encouraged to do interviews and cover transgender news items. Campus clubs, social groups, fraternities, and sororities can be encouraged to educate themselves about transgender issues. If there are a sufficient number of transgendered and transsexual students, they can be encouraged to form a school-sponsored or off-campus support group or social club, perhaps with the assistance of the campus LGBT office. Transgendered and transsexual students should also be encouraged to network with and educate gay, lesbian, and bisexual groups, which are nowadays quite common on campuses and which generally welcome transgendered and transsexual students. LGBT organizations without campus affiliates should be included.

Sometimes LGBT groups, although officially trans-inclusive, are also in need of education. A single out transgendered student can do much to educate such groups.


Some transgendered and transsexual students may be invisible in educational settings, either because they do not crossdress in public or because they have transitioned gender roles and are unreadable (that is, their transgender status is not ordinarily detectable). Others may be jarringly visible because of their modes of dress and behavior. Almost all transgendered and transsexual students (or for that matter, anyone at all) can benefit from counseling, although counseling should in no instance be made mandatory simply because the student is transgendered or transsexual. On the other hand, individuals who are unduly hostile towards or disturbed by transgendered and transsexual students should, if their attitude makes for ongoing conflict, be encouraged and in some cases required to enter counseling. Such students. faculty, or staff should be subject to disciplinary action or expulsion if they harass transgendered students.

Transgendered and transsexual students go through a “coming out” process similar to that of gay, lesbian, and bisexual students. It’s not uncommon for this coming out to occur when an individual is in his or her 40s, 50s, or even later, but increasingly, young people are becoming aware of and acknowledging their transgender or transsexual status earlier in life. The Internet and the increased visibility of the gay, lesbian, and transgender communities provide a framework that facilitates this coming out; isolated students should be encouraged to make contact with campus LGBT groups.

Most transsexual and transgendered students will be aware of and actively using social media like Facebook and Twitter and virtual spaces like Second Life. If not, they should be encouraged to do so, for it’s a good way for them to find and correspond with their peers. However, students should be encouraged to meet their peers face-to-face at support groups school-based clubs, and transgender events in the larger community. Most areas of the U.S. have at least one annual transgender conference. Such conferences include dozens of workshops and social events and are safe spaces. Most have scholarships and are particularly interested in using them for young people.

The counselor may be confronted by a student in crisis. After years of denial, self-examination or environmental stressors may lead the student to feelings of depression or suicidality. Under these circumstances, the student is apt to suffer from feelings of intense hopelessness, shame, and guilt. Conversely, a crisis may be triggered by harassment, physical attack, or sexual assault. Standard crisis management techniques must go hand in hand with sensitivity towards the special characteristics and needs of the transgender student.

Having worked through the initial stages of self-acceptance, the occasional newly-out student may become “gender euphoric,” enthusiastically wanting to tell the whole world and making brash and impulsive decisions that may negatively impact his or her life. Equilibrium may not be reached for several months. To minimize the chance of later regrets, the counselor should work with the student showing such signs in order to negotiate a slow and orderly coming-out process.

Simply by being who they are, transgendered youth often find themselves alienated from their families and other support systems (Denny, 1997b). Counseling staff should make sure the individual has an adequate network of supports. Sympathetic family members may be available, and fellow students and other transgendered or transsexual persons, a supportive religious community, and trans-inclusive gay and lesbian organizations like Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbian and Gays (P-FLAG) can be enlisted to form a network of support, as can dorm-mates. Needless to say, therapy for a student without a visible system of support should continue after the immediate crisis is over.

The Closeted Student

As noted, students who have not come to terms with their transgender issues may be plagued with guilt and shame, to the point of hiding their status not only from their families, friends, and counselors, but from themselves. Obviously, they are in need of supportive space in which to explore their issues. The university counseling center is such a space, and transgender support groups are another. The student should not be pressured to come out to others, but should certainly be told that doing so is an option.

He or she should be provided with educational materials and encouraged to enter counseling to explore the ramifications of what it means to be transgendered or transsexual and work through any guilt and shame he or she may have about the gender issue. The student should be encouraged to interact with his or her transgendered and transsexual peers, as they can be a tremendous source of empowerment and support. The university should compile a reference list of transgender resources from which to draw on in this and other instances.

Closeted students may not clearly understand or admit what is going on within themselves. They may not be able to differentiate their gender issues from issues of sexuality, feelings of worthlessness, depression, or a wish to harm or kill themselves. Their transgender or transsexual feelings may be ego-dystonic, especially if they have deep-seated conservative or fundamentalist religious beliefs that cause them to tell themselves “I can’t be like this!” They should be helped to understand that gender and sexuality issues may or may not be related, that being transgendered or transsexual (or lesbian or gay) is deep-seated and life-long, and that their feelings cannot be “cured” or made to go away, but can be integrated into their lives and can even become a positive part of their self-image. They should also be helped to understand that being transgendered does not necessarily or even ordinarily lead to gender-role transition, and that they are free to make whatever life decisions they wish.

Self-Destructive Coping Strategies

Transgendered and transsexual men and women in denial cope with their conflicts by using a number of strategies, some of which can be quite self-destructive. For instance, they may cycle between periods of purging and compulsive crossdressing, alternatively buying and throwing away or destroying expensive clothing, cosmetics, and reading materials. This “binge-purge” syndrome is quite common, especially in male crossdressers and male-to-female transsexuals. Individuals who purge typically swear they will never crossdress again and divest themselves of everything that reminds them of the behavior. Material purged may include contact information they will need when they once again begin to acknowledge and deal with their issues. Purging is an emotional time, characterized by denial and self-loathing. In a purge phase, the student may stop attending counseling sessions and refuse to return phone calls from the counseling center; this may be the counselor’s only indication that a purse has occurred. Inevitably, the individual will eventually once again begin to accumulate clothing, sometimes in an almost manic fashion. The inability to abide by the decision to purge can lead to additional guilt.

In their denial, transgendered and transsexual individuals may immerse themselves in gender stereotypical behavior and behave in hypermasculine or hyperfeminine ways. They may get married. Male-to-females may father or female-to-males bear a child. They may engage in risk-taking behavior like skydiving or rock-climbing, enlist in the armed services, join the police force, or become firefighters. On campus, they may participate in ROTC or play team sports or join fraternities or sororities. They may be quite convincing in these roles, but eventually (often, later in life) many will become unable or unwilling to continue with the lives they have made for themselves. They become depressed and frequently suicidal and reveal their feelings to families, friends, and employers, often with disastrous results. This sort of coping style will be familiar to counselors who work with gay and lesbian students in homophobic environments.

Substance abuse is common among transgendered people in denial, and eating disorders may also be present. Patterns learned early in life may endure for decades, eventually becoming health- or life-threatening. It is difficult for students with substance abuse problems or eating disorders to deal productively with their transgender issues. For such students, counseling for the abuse problem and Alcoholics or Narcotics or Overeaters Anonymous or other appropriate support groups is indicated. The student may also have obsessive or compulsive behavior that relates to crossdressing.

Many transgendered men and women avoid dealing with their conditions by becoming workaholics, structuring their time so tightly that there is little time to think, much less engage in crossdressing episodes. Many rush into marriages or other relationships, assuming it will “cure” them. After marriage, they may have children in attempts to prove their masculinity or femininity. When the individual comes to terms with the transgender issue later in life, there is frequently a great deal of pain and distress all around as these relationships change or, all-too-frequently, dissolve in an atmosphere of rancor and acrimony. Partners often feel betrayed and may become angry, and may use minor children or the crossdressing issue itself as tools for emotional blackmail. Transgender youth are as subjectively bound up in their relationships as older adults, and may find it equally difficult to come out, and equally disastrous if they do.

Depression is common among transgendered men and women, as are thoughts of suicide. The student may view his or her situation as hopeless. Given the lack of support he or she may have from family and friends and the general lack of information about transgender issues, this is hardly surprising. Many transgendered men and women have low self-esteem, with resulting difficulty in establishing or maintaining social or intimate relationships. Self-injurious behavior and self-mutilation are not uncommon among transsexuals (Haberman & Michael, 1979). It is not atypical for self-injury to center on breasts or genitals, which are frequently viewed as hated reminders of one’s sex of assignment. Males may attempt to castrate or penectomize themselves, or may bind their penises so tightly they become damaged. Females may bind their breasts or cut them with knives. Other areas of the bodies, especially fingers, may be burned, cut, or mashed.

Many transgendered people, especially those unable or unwilling to disguise gender-nonconforming behavior, have difficult early lives. They are commonly beaten, shamed, or otherwise punished by their parents and society for crossdressing or simply because of a visibly gender-variant appearance. They are teased or harassed by their peers and punished at school because they are gender-nonconforming. A significant minority will have been physically or sexually abused. Such emotional and psychological experiences can lead to profound depression, dissociative disorders, or other psychological difficulties which are important to address in the counseling setting. These psychological problems are not caused by being transgendered, but rather by society’s hostile reaction to crossdressing or other gender nonconforming behavior. Many transgendered and transsexual students escape such early maltreatment, and most, considering their generally unfavorable situations, are remarkably well-adjusted and function well, but counselors should be aware of the need check for co-existing psychiatric conditions.

Transgendered and transsexual students may engage in sexual acting out behaviors. The danger of transmission of HIV and STDs is well known, especially on campuses, and students should be made aware of the need to practice safe sex techniques. Murders of young transgendered people is distressingly common, and students who engage in prostitution or who have sexual encounters with partners who do not know their genital status until it is revealed in a “Crying Game” fashion in the bedroom are at special risk. Students whose sexual behavior causes problems on campus should be dealt with in the same fashion as are other students; they should not receive additional censure or punishment because of being transgendered.

Helping the student understand the self-defeating nature of self-destructive coping mechanisms can help in their elimination. Providing the student with other, healthier coping mechanisms, reading material, and outside sources of support can also help.

The counselor should make the student understand that the only effective way to deal with transgender feelings is to acknowledge them. This does not mean one should or should not crossdress, or should or should not present an androgynous appearance, or should or should not change one’s gender role; it does mean one should acknowledge that transgender and transsexual feelings are real, valid, and that while they may wax and wane, they will not go away.

The counselor can help transgendered and transsexual students work through issues of denial, guilt, and shame and help in developing guidelines to let them act upon their feelings in such a way that their well-being is not jeopardized. If a student has a desire to crossdress, for instance, but does not want this fact to be known to others, the counselor can point out that such a behavior might be impossible to conceal in a dorm or in the parents’ home, but might be indulged in with little risk in the privacy of a motel room or at a support group meeting, or at one of the many transgender conventions held across the country. The counselor can provide referral to sources which can help the student learn how to dress and behave appropriately in public. Support groups can be especially useful in this area.

If a student is considering changing gender roles, the counselor can help him or her understand both the social and medical realities of doing so. Medical technologies have their limitations. Strictly speaking, a “change of sex” is not seamlessly possible, but for most people, surgery, hormones, and (for males) electrolysis can make the body look much like that of the “other” sex and enable them to live as members of the “other” sex. Not everyone is undetectable, however, and genital surgeries are limited in effectiveness and pose the same risks and potential for unsatisfactory results as any other surgery. Some physical characteristics—for instance great height, or short stature in adulthood, cannot be changed. Relationships with others are profoundly affected by gender role change, and even close ties such as those to parents or siblings may be permanently damaged or even severed because the other parties do not or cannot cope with such a dramatic change in appearance and role.

The counselor can help the student understand that drastic all-or-none decisions need not be made. It makes more sense to gently explore modifications to one’s body and social role than to embark upon a mission to aggressively and systematically eradicate all signs of masculinity or femininity and replace them with the characteristics of the non-natal sex. There are many stopping places on the gender continuum, and it is possible to rest comfortably at any place before moving or putting down roots. For example, many transgendered people permanently live cross-gender roles without having genital surgery; others crosslive without ever having taken hormones. Yet others are perfectly happy blending their gender, presenting an androgynous appearance, or alternating between male and female roles. And the journey need not always move “forward.” Having explored gendered space and finding it uncomfortable, some students may wish to return to more traditional space, or may choose to move around gender space in a fluid manner, altering their presentations according to the circumstances. Increasingly, physicians are prescribing puberty-blocking drugs that stop masculinization and feminization while the adolescent figures explores his or her gender identity. The counselor can educate the student about these options and facilitate their exploration.

The counselor should realize, however, that transsexual (as opposed to transgendered) people have no desire to be gender-ambiguous. To transsexuals, living between sexes is more horrifying than living permanently in the sex to which they feel they do not belong, which they find very horrifying indeed. They are in search of a relief that can be found only by permanently changing gender roles; there are no halfway spaces for them. Transsexual students should not be browbeaten into taking on a transgender identity, although it is important they know such a course is realistically and responsibly open to them. By the same token, nontranssexual transgendered students should never be forced into a transsexual path.

There is a clearly prescribed course of action for those who choose to transition gender roles. The Standards of Care of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health require counseling before initiation of hormonal therapy and a mandatory period of crossliving before consideration for genital sex reassignment surgery. School counselors can work with a gender-specializing therapist to provide a continuum of care for the transsexual student.

The Self-Accepting Student

As transsexual identities and transgender expression becomes more accepted in our society, more and more students will have worked through their coming out issues and will start college in the midst of or at the beginning of a process of exploration and change. Certainly, such students can benefit from counseling to help them better understand themselves, but their major issues are likely to lie in coping with the immediacy of their lives, especially as regards their gender issue. How are their professors and classmates responding to their perhaps ambiguous appearance? How are they coping with disapproval or loss of support from their parents? How is their sexuality being affected? Are they facing discrimination in class, in the dorm room, in employment? Are they able to locate appropriate sources of support—gender specializing counselors, medical professionals, support groups? Do they have a source for safe, medically prescribed hormones?

In recent years parents and helping professionals have supported boys and girls in gender-variant expressions and transition at a young age is becoming common. However, those who have permanently crossed gender roles are no less likely to need counseling than any nontransgendered student. A variety of problems may present themselves; these can range from a difficulty in admitting one is sometimes detectable by others as transsexual (i.e., that one does not always “pass”), to wrestling with the decision about whether, when, and how to tell a lover about one’s transsexualism, to dealing with being “outed” by a friend or former partner. It’s not uncommon for such a revelation to result in the desertion of the transsexual partner or friends, which can be devastating to the student. Post-transition students can still benefit from counseling and from support groups, and should be referred to such, if they express an interest in such sources of support.

Many transgendered and transsexual students will have close ties to the gay and lesbian community that can be jeopardized by their transgender or transsexual coming out. Acceptance as a gay man or lesbian does not necessarily translate into acceptance as a transgendered man or woman. Reactions can in fact be quite hostile, with gay or lesbian partners feeling the transgendered student has “sold out” to heterosexuality or is rejecting the queer community; indeed, sometimes the transitioned student does move away from alternative communities. Many, however, maintain or establish ties with the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community. Many of the issues faced by gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals—for instance, coming out, facing rejection from friends and family, coping with discrimination—are similar to those faced by transgendered and transsexual students. However, many transgendered and transsexual students will lack ties with sexual minority communities. While such students should be encouraged to make contact with the gay/lesbian/bisexual community and offered counseling to help them overcome any unreasonable fears they might have about GLB people, they should not be forced into doing so, as for some transgendered and transsexual students, an important part of their self-identification is their heterosexuality—regardless of the biological realities involved, they see their attraction to those of the same natally assigned sex as heterosexual. Similarly, students who are sexually attracted to members of the natally “opposite” sex may define their orientation as gay or lesbian.

If local sexual minority communities are ignorant about transgender and transsexual issues, they may be unwilling to accept transgendered and transsexual students. It should be noted that many such organizations have added transgender to their names or mission statements, but may lack expertise in dealing with an actual transgendered person. In such cases, the affected communities should be encouraged to explore their issues with transphobia, perhaps by having transgendered or transsexual speakers or by openly discussing the works of Bornstein (1994), Feinberg (1996), or other authors who bridge the gap between the gay and transgender communities.

Just as heterosexual friends and lovers need help adjusting to a new view of the student, so, to, will gay and lesbian friends and lovers. In either case, a systems approach can be useful in dealing with relationship problems (Rosenfeld & Emerson, 1998). Both the transgendered individual and his or her significant others need to understand each others’ experiences and feelings.

Not only the student, but family, friends, and lovers—gay, straight, or in-between—can benefit from counseling or therapy to help all parties involved work through the problems caused by the coming out and possible transition of the transgendered student.

Medical Needs

Transgendered and transsexual students have the same medical needs as other students, but they also have special needs. Human sex hormones are an essential part of the transition process, and are required for proper health. Students with prescriptions for hormones should be able to fill them at the campus pharmacy and have routine blood work done at the campus clinic. At least one physician at the clinic should have the knowledge to write prescriptions when appropriate, as determined by the Standards of Care of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health. The clinic should be prepared to make referrals for breast augmentation (for transsexual women) and surgical construction of a male chest (for transsexual men) and for other surgical procedures like laryngoplasty, facial surgery, and genital sex reassignment surgery, also as determined by the Standards of Care.

Clinic personnel should be respectful of the student’s gender identity and expression and use appropriate pronouns (usually this is keyed to the gender presentation of the student). If personnel are uncertain which pronoun to use, they should ask respectfully—but only when the presentation is deliberately androgynous. When a student is clearly presenting as male or female, or expressed a wish to be referred to with male or female pronouns, those pronouns should be used, regardless of the level of passability or how he or she is dressed.

Some transgendered and transsexual students will be uncomfortable, even in a supportive setting. If so, they should be reassured that they will be treated with respect.

Students who are closeted may be reluctant to seek medical help because of fear their bodies may “give them away.” A male with shaved legs or a female who binds her breasts may avoid unwanted attention by simply staying away from the doctor.

Clinic personnel should know what tests should be done on students on hormones (typically, blood tests of hormone levels and liver function). If they need assistance, they can get this information from WPATH.

Some transsexual people neglect their bodies because of shame and guilt. They’re especially likely to avoid procedures that remind them of their natal sex. Prostate screenings, breast examinations, and pap smears should be done as appropriate for the student’s anatomy and age. If the student is reluctant, he or she should be told of the importance of the procedure and encouraged— but not forced— to submit.


A number of practical problems regarding access to space and facilities can present themselves in the postsecondary setting. Is the student to be considered a male or female, and where should he or she be housed? It is certainly inappropriate to house a transgendered woman in a male dorm, but at what point in transition should the change of dorms be made? When the student first comes out? At the time of gender-role change? Only after genital surgery? How do the university and the student deal with discrimination in the dorm? How does one choose an acceptable roommate? Which bathroom should the student use? The mens’? The womens’? Both? Neither? What if there are shared shower facilities?

The bathroom issue is an important one in our culture. The psychological well-being of the transsexual student will demand that she or he not use the restroom that corresponds to the natal gender, and yet other students or faculty may complain if he or she uses the non-natal bathroom. Most students seem to support bathroom access for transgendered and transsexual students; indeed, parents often seem to be the driving force when there are protests (cf Feldman, 2002). There are likely to be only a few students who are uncomfortable with sharing the bathroom with a transgender student, but their feelings should be respected. The transsexual student himself or herself may be uncomfortable because of the reactions of others.

There are a number of ways of dealing with this situation. If single-use bathrooms are available, the problem is solved, for no one’s privacy could conceivably be violated because someone uses a single occupancy bathroom with the “wrong” sign on the door. If there are no single use bathrooms, then perhaps one multiple-use bathroom in each building can be designated a unisex bathroom or designated as open to transgendered and transsexual students. Beware, though; intersexed students may find it stigmatizing to be excluded from the bathroom of their target gender.

If other strategies won’t work, as a last resort to prevent incontinence the transgendered student can enlist a compatriot to run interference, making sure a bathroom is clear and watching the door while the student is inside; or when the student enters the bathroom, an “out of order” or other suitable sign can be placed on the door so those who do not wish to share the bathroom with the student will know not to enter. A lock can even be placed on the inside of the door to prevent others from entering while the transgendered student is present. Again, this is a last resort, to be used only on occasion until proper policies can be put into place.

Such remedies, while perhaps practical, are makeshift, and may offend the transgender student’s dignity. The real problem is helping other students understand that transgendered and transsexual students are human beings with a right to use the restroom without fear and without discrimination.

Housing can also cause difficulties, especially if other students balk at sharing a room with the transgendered student. One solution is to house the transgendered student in a co-ed dorm, or, if in a sex-segregated dorm, in a single room without a roommate. If possible, crossliving transgendered and transsexual students should be paired with roommates of the same gender as their mode of presentation. It should be noted that some students and their families may be uncomfortable with this. Some universities have designated certain dorm rooms specifically for use by transgendered and transexual students (Walsh, 2002, Weir, 2003).

Transgendered and transsexual students should never be placed in the position of not being able to go to the restroom or of having to go long distances in order to relive themselves or denied access to campus space (including dorms) or activities, but (this being less than an ideal world), it is not unrealistic to expect all parties involved to compromise. Under no circumstances, however, should the transitioned transsexual student be required or expected to use the bathroom of the original gender or placed with members of his or her original sex in a same-sex environment (by for instance, placing a male-to-female student in an all-male dorm). Recently, a public school teacher with unreasonable and repeated objections to a transgendered teacher’s use of the facilities was required to use alternative facilities herself (ACLU, 2002).

Post-operative students, being legally members of the new sex, should have no bathroom or other restrictions on access to space. They are entitled to use locker rooms, compete in individual and team sports, obtain medical care from the campus clinic, and otherwise participate fully in university life as members of their reassigned sex, regardless of whether or not they “pass.” It should be noted, however, that the male-to-female transsexual athlete, especially when she excels, can attract the attention of media and in some cases may be ruled ineligible to compete against other women by sports associations (cf Bricking, 2000 and Kathy Loses her Medals).

A national initiative to provide access to persons with physical disabilities has resulted in single-use bathrooms in most public buildings; these are ideal for use not only by persons with physical disabilities, but by transgendered and transsexual students and others, like fathers with young children who require privacy for changing diapers or helping a female child on and off the toilet. Campus designers should be made aware of the bathroom and housing issues of transgendered and transsexual students so they can plan for their needs as well as the needs of others as they design future buildings.


Transgendered and transsexual students often change their names at the time of transition. Some have gender-ambiguous names like Chris or Leslie and have no need to change names; others choose to keep their original names, even if they are more commonly associated with the original gender than the new one. Others will change their names from clearly masculine or feminine names like Fred or Barbara to other equally sex-typed names of the target gender.

Name changes are legal on the individual’s say-so, but practically speaking, they require associated paperwork, including alteration of driver’s licenses, birth certificates, and passports, and of course, school identification. Transgendered and transsexual students should be allowed to use their name of choice on ID cards and transcripts. Some transgendered and transsexual students will have a court order mandating that all legal documents be changed, but names are a matter of personal preference, and can be changed through common usage, without going before a judge. It’s important that staff realize use of the student’s preferred name and pronouns and the mode of dress of the student is not a deception, but rather a reflection of the student’s inner reality becoming manifest. There should be no administrative barriers to prevent this from occurring. Campus legal aid offices can and should help in facilitating name changes and other legal work needed by transgendered and transsexual students.

In our binary-minded society, there are, on forms, typically only two blanks to check in the box marked SEX: M and F. Rothblatt (1994) likens this to the apartheid once practiced in South Africa. People into making a choice between categories, neither of which may be appropriate. Transgendered and transsexual students and intersexed persons—even those interested in walking the lines between the genders—often must, for practical reasons, choose one or the other.

Legally, a post-operative transsexual is considered a member of the new sex. The status of other transgendered and transsexual students is less clear, but in some states (for example, Texas), courts have held that transgendered persons have “changed sex” without genital construction surgery. Identification with sex designations that are discordant with the appearance of the individual can cause practical difficulties with, for instance, getting a job, getting through security at an airport, cashing a check, interacting with government officials or police officers, or being admitted to the hospital, and can result in great embarrassment and even threat of physical harm when identification must be presented. In such instances, legal obligations are unclear, but potentially a student whose life is adversely affected by an administrative decision could sue if that decision resulted in physical, financial, or emotional harm.

There is really no reason, other than tradition, to require M or F on identification cards, or for that matter, on application blanks. Forms can be modified to include a third category, other, or unspecified. It’s also possible to simply drop the sex designation—which is, after all, a private matter, as are race, ethnicity, and religion, which have already been dropped from many identification materials. If existing forms still have the sex designation, it can simply be left blank.

The pronouns appropriate to use for a transgender student are, of course, those the student prefers. Generally speaking, crossdressers prefer to be addressed with pronouns appropriate for the way they are dressed. Transgendered students may or may not care which pronoun is used. Transsexual students are almost certain to take offense if natal pronouns are used. Such students have strong identifications as members of the new gender, and can be devastated when called by their old names or when inappropriate pronouns are used.

Some students may prefer nontraditional pronouns like ze or hir. If they do, their wishes should be respected.

Many nontransgendered individuals have difficulty adjusting to pronoun use. They make occasional pronoun “slips,” or call the student by his or her original name. This is less likely to cause offense than the deliberate misuse of pronouns or names. With gentle reminders from the student, such slips of the tongue become less common and eventually happen only infrequently. Human nature being what it is, mistakes occur on occasion, even from the transgendered and transsexual students’ most avid supporters. Unfortunately, those who disapprove of or who are angry at the transgendered student—including school officials—are likely to realize the power of names and pronouns to injure, and use them as weapons. Such deliberate misuse should be construed as harassment and dealt with as such.


Transgendered and transsexual students, like everyone else, are sexual beings, with the same needs for love, romance, and sexual expression as other students. Some transgendered and transsexual students will be asexual. Some will be attracted to males, and some to females, and some to both. It’s not unusual for transgendered and transsexual students to pair with one another sexually.

Whichever partner a transgendered student chooses, the relationship is likely to have some aspects of a same-sex pairing. For example, the student may be living a male role, pre-transition, with a male partner. Superficially, this will look like a homosexual relationship. If the transgendered student transitions, remaining with the same partner, the couple will give the social appearance of being a heterosexual couple, and yet will have matching genitals. Similarly, a postoperative transsexual woman in a relationship with a nontransgendered woman will be what is for all practical purposes a lesbian relationship, and two post-transition transsexual men will be in what seems to be a gay male relationship. It’s good practice to follow the student’s lead as to whether the relationship is heterosexual or homosexual.

This raises all sorts of problems for those who love to pigeonhole such things. Will partnered transgendered and transsexual students be allowed access to the special rights accorded to heterosexual couples (married family housing, domestic partnership, spousal discounts, child care), or will they be excluded? And if excluded, will the couple be covered by policies allowing gay and lesbian couples access to the same or similar privileges? What about the married heterosexual couple who remain married after one or both transition? Such matters will most likely be decided on a case-by-case basis. Administrators should be advised, however, that a legal marriage endures even if one of the partners has genital surgery (Rothblatt, 1995).

When gender is deconstructed, sexual orientation becomes confusing and in large part meaningless (Denny & Green, 1996). However, the fact that they may make others uncomfortable or confused is not a legitimate basis for excluding transgendered and transsexual people from the rights and privileges enjoyed by others, whether those others be heterosexual or homosexual.


America is slowly awakening to the fact that transgendered and transsexual persons are human beings who differ from other human beings only because of their gender issue. After decades of vilification and ridicule in newspapers and on radio and television talk shows, transgendered people themselves are becoming organized and demanding to be treated with dignity, and they are being heard. Whereas formerly outrageous discrimination, unjust incarceration, and even murders of transgendered people went unremarked, such treatment, although still occurring, is now likely to result in an outraged response and picketing by transgender and gay/lesbian/bisexual activist organizations. Heterosexuals are also likely to take a strong pro-transgender stance. Indeed, transgendered and transsexual students are often popular with their peers, enough so to win voices in the student government (Students at Pennsylvania college elect transgendered president, 2002).

Colleges and universities are one of the battlegrounds on which issues of transgender and transsexual inclusion are being played out. In 1995, noted transgender author and activist Leslie Feinberg was the first choice for students at the commencement ceremony at Bradford College inNew England. When Bradford’s President first vetoed Feinberg, then stonewalled students’ attempts to negotiate, the senior class staged a ’60s style protest, taking over the administration building amidst a firestorm of publicity. Bradford’s President capitulated, and Feinberg was invited and gave a rousing speech at commencement (Ormiston, 1996).

Politicians have long treated transgendered people with contempt and considered them easy targets. At one time, the supporters of transgendered people wilted before such criticism, but increasingly, they are withstanding it. In 1993, the University of Northern Arizona came under attack by governor Fife Symington because of plans to have a class on sex and gender taught by Thurin Schminke, a female-to-male transsexual (Faught, 1993, Torre, 1993). The University stood its ground, Schminke taught the class, and nothing more was said.

The issues surrounding transgendered and transsexual students are complex, but really no more complex than those of other students; it’s simply that in the past, colleges and universities have not been particularly concerned with their issues and so may find them perplexing. This is changing, however, as members of the newly organized transgender community, more confident and open about their identities than before, begin to question the status quo. This has already had an effect on the larger community: a number of cities and states have passed ordinances making it illegal to discriminate against transgendered people; schools and businesses have developed nondiscrimination policies, organizations such as the National Organization for Women have approved statements on transgender inclusion, and most gay/lesbian/bisexual organizations have changed their names and mission statements to include the transgendered (see Currah & Minter, 2000 for a thorough discussion of transgender equality issues, and visit for a list of states and cities with transgender legal protections).

Having found their voice and having begun their move toward political and social equality, transgendered and transsexual people are now visible in all parts of society. Many colleges and universities have taken steps to accommodate their gender-variant students, just as they have changed to accommodate the needs and demands of other minority populations. Other colleges and universities have not yet taken this step. It’s safe to say that sooner or later, almost every post-secondary school will be confronted with the issue of gender-variant students. Here’s hoping that when that day comes, every school will have policies and procedures in place to ensure these students can pursue their educations in an atmosphere free of discrimination.


[1] Transgender has come into common use as an umbrella term for all gender-variant people. Transsexual people are covered by this usage; however, some transsexuals object on ideological grounds to being lumped with nontranssexual gender-variant people. Consequently, this work frequently speaks of transgendered and transsexual people; when the term transgender is used in isolation, however, it should be not be read as excluding transsexual people.

I use the adjective transgendered rather than the more common transgender because the latter is sometimes made into a noun. People are transgendered; they are not “transgenders.”

[2] Beemyn has categorized the ways college and university administrators should proactively respond to transgender issues. They are:

* Create a well-funded Campus LGBT Center with a full-time professional director and support staff

* Train the trainers on transgender issues

* Provide training on transgender issues to student affairs administrators and other staff members who regularly interact with students

* Develop policies and procedures for addressing transphobic violence and harassment

*Assist with the creation of a group for transgender and gender questioning students

*Offer trans-specific programming

* Use trans-inclusive language on school forms, printed materials, and web sites

*Add “gender identity” to the college’s non-discrimination policies

*Establish a mechanism to change the gender designation on college records

* Create and publicize the location of unisex restrooms and enable transpeople to use the restroom they find appropriate

*Have advocates in units where transgender students are more likely to encounter obstacles

[3] See Currah & Minter’s Transgender Equality for legal information, including an update on cities and states that offer legal protections for transgendered and transsexual people.

[4] In May 1994, the city of San Francisco conducted an investigation of discrimination against transgendered and transsexual persons and passed a landmark law protecting citizens from discrimination based on gender identity for employment, housing, and public accommodations (Green & Brinkin, 1994).

[5] On 9 June, 2011, the Veterans Administration (finally) published a directive mandating respectful treatment of transgendered, transsexual, and intersex veterans.

[6] See the three volumes by The [Massachusetts] Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth (1993a, 1993b, and 1994), which contain many excellent suggestions for educators not incorporated into this text.

[7] See Marty Checchi’s Guide to Transgender-Friendly Policies and Practices at U.S. Colleges and Universities.

[8] A few schools are fortunate enough to have a gender program or one or more faculty members with an interest in transsexual transgender issues, or one or more faculty members who are themselves openly transgendered or transsexual. In the U.S., the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis have excellent gender programs with a variety of outreach and educational materials. Campus Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender offices, which are becoming increasingly common these days, can also be a valuable resource (Beemyn, 2003, Beenyn et al., 2005). Following the lead of many GLBT-focused organizations and businesses, most student GLB centers already are T-inclusive. If they are not, they should be encouraged to become so.


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