I have a trained a lot of faculty and staff on how to be more thoughtful about LGBTQ+ identities, and more inclusive in their daily practice, yet one theme is always chief among their concerns: how do I work with and avoid offending transgender, non-binary, and gender diverse students? I find that most often their unfamiliarity with the mountain of language and terminology associated with this population only heightens these concerns. While I try to instill confidence in their ability to create that mindful and inclusive space, I also want them to understand why this must be a community responsibility.
Consider what this might look like in practice: Meet Taylor, our new favorite imaginary student. Taylor comes from a rural yet privileged hometown, steeped in conservative values and rooted in a strong Baptist community. Much of Taylor’s life has been spent questioning their identity, yet never had the exposure or language to understand or unpack how they were really feeling. Additionally, this wasn’t something Taylor felt safe questioning openly in their environment. Taylor is thrilled to come to college, hoping the experience isn’t marked by their parents guiding Taylor away from all things tagged as diverse, multicultural, or queer. Taylor is in your first-year seminar course, and upon receiving your welcome message notices your pronouns listed in your email signature. Taylor lights up, and immediately finds time to come to your office to discuss how they’ve been feeling about their own gender identity, wanting to share that they don’t feel like a man or woman. What do you do?
We should impress on all factions of our campus community that giving intentional thought to better serving gender diverse students is both critical and urgent, partnering this message with the encouragement that it is easier than most people think. We have to move away from the mindset that our resources for LGBTQ+ identified students lie only with specific people, often those that also identify as Queer, and only within specific offices, often charged in some way with cultivating inclusion on campus. You should feel empowered to become comfortable engaging with LGBTQ+ students.
Faculty and staff will often imply that they believe themselves unlikely to be engaging with a student that might come out to them as Queer. Yet the narrative of students struggling with their gender identity or sexuality and spending time on the institution’s webpage seeking out the most appropriate resource for support is further from reality. It is more likely that students will share this with those whom they have trusted connections with: meaning you.
Here a few things you can remember…
When a student shares with you their sexual or gender identity, don’t assume that you know why they did. They may have told you because you will be navigating their records and want to avoid you loudly declaring your confusion around a potential mismatch between the system and the person standing in front of you, but they may not have. Anytime someone shares a marginalized or oppressed identity with you, recognize the importance of the moment and extend appreciation for the courage and vulnerability required to share this part of themselves.
Ask how you can support them, understanding professional boundaries and circle of influence – don’t assume that you should immediately direct them to the nearest all-gender restroom. No, you can’t go home with them and share the couch while they tell their parents, but you can use language to reduce the stigma around counseling, walk them to their first appointment, and empower them to practice skills in a safe space that will help prepare them to navigate that potentially uncertain conversation. Challenge yourself not to tokenize. Tokenizing students can happen outside of simply reducing their entire being down to their recently shared identity, and using that to inform assumptions you will make about their person in the future – which hopefully you know not to do. Going back to the danger of assuming why they came out to you, don’t also assume that every professional interaction you have with them from now on will somehow center around their gender identity or sexuality. This is a part of them, yet they are still a student like any other. This also isn’t your opportunity for some free professional development through a live case study. Use online resources to hear queer narratives, finding on-campus workshops and resources surrounding the support of LGBTQ+ students, and put yourself in spaces with people who identify differently from you.
Identify resources on your campus, and understand that you simply connecting a student with someone who can better help them succeed doesn’t mean you aren’t doing your part. Prepare yourself to be more inclusive in all situations by practicing with gender-neutral language. This can include using they/them pronouns in the singular by default in situations where you are unsure of how someone identifies, but also thinking about processes that can help you gather the necessary information without potentially exposing students to a name they don’t identify with. Lastly, remember the importance of confidentiality when working with gender diverse students. Feel comfortable checking-in, making sure that they are comfortable with you sharing the name and pronouns they use with you in other spaces, being aware that everyone can’t be open in all spaces.
How would this be illustrated if our imaginary friend Taylor came to see you? First, you would want to recognize and appreciate the courage it took for Taylor to come in and share this important part of their experience with you. Second, validate their experiences, believing in their narrative and affirming what doesn’t feel right to them. Normalize their experience, sharing that coming to terms with who you are is a part of development, and that college is a place with many wonderful opportunities to do that. Ask if they have shared this with others, and if they might be interested in connecting with other students that identify similarly to learn more about LGBTQ+ identities and the on-campus community. Ask Taylor what they need from you and how you can support them, knowing that certain circumstances are beyond your control. Avoid making promises that you can’t keep, like ensuring Taylor that you will always be there, or that everything will be fine – because as we know about the coming out process, it might not be. Maybe next steps include you walking Taylor over to the LGBTQ+ Resource Center/Multicultural Affairs Office/Intercultural Engagement space, connecting them with another professional staff member, and encouraging them to start attending meetings for the LGBTQ+ group on-campus.
What is more important than knowing the complex definitions of every term surrounding gender and sexuality? Authenticity. Students are used to being targeted, intentionally misgendered and identified as a form of discrimination, so you being honest and upfront about what you know and how you can help will take you further than you think.
Elliott Kimball, M.Ed. (he/him/his)
Assistant Director of Intercultural Engagement, LGBTQ+ Outreach and Advocacy
Elliott Kimball currently serves as the Assistant Director for Intercultural Engagement at UNC Greensboro, overseeing LGBTQ+ Outreach and Advocacy. Prior to this, Elliott held positions at UNC Asheville and the University of South Alabama, bringing more than four years of work in higher education across areas such as residence life, fraternity and sorority affairs, sexual violence prevention and education, commuter student programs, and student engagement. Elliott holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from Appalachian State University, and a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership from the University of South Alabama.