Beyond the Binary: Gender, Identity, and Change at Brandeis University

By Agans, Lyndsay J. | College Student Affairs Journal, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Beyond the Binary: Gender, Identity, and Change at Brandeis University


Agans, Lyndsay J., College Student Affairs Journal


This article offers a case study outlining promising practices and effective dialogues on gender identity, privilege, and transgender issues. Also presented are methods for student affairs professionals to foster organisational change to serve transgender student needs.

To provide an effective, student-centered approach, colleges and universities must work to meet the needs of all students. Today, it is estimated that more than 7% of college students identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (GLBT) (Eyermann & Sanlo, 2002). The term transgender refers to individuals who do not identify with the traditional gender categories of male or female. For many colleges and universities, the complexity of transgender student's needs prove to be difficult to understand and challenging to address. Some of the needs of transgender students seem, at first glance, basic. For instance, university administrators overlook issues such as availability of housing and restrooms or more complicated and costly matters such as health insurance options and athletic facilities (e.g. locker rooms) until a student in need raises the question. Treating such situations on a case-by-case basis can be problematic for both the student and the institution. Thus, while dialogue is an essential starting point, success in meeting transgender student's needs must manifest in the hard print of policies and in the physical changes in the institution.

The purpose of this article is twofold (1) to suggest approaches to effectively educating students around privilege and gender identity and (2) to share strategies student affairs practitioners can use that will aid them in approaching difficult dialogues around transgender issues. Using examples from the Watt Privilege Identity Exploration Model (Watt, 2007) and my experience as a university student affairs administrator, I will unpack the 'invisible knapsack' of gender and illuminate the struggles transgender students experience associated with privilege.

Gender and Privilege

Gender, in its invisibility, and normative position, exists as one of the most deeply embedded aspects of identity. For these reasons, gender identity also tends to be hidden and an aspect of privilege that is culturally constructed and mandated (Goldner, 1991). By going beyond the binary, that is, making room for more than two normative genders (Butler, 1988), the aim is to eliminate the stigma of "otherness" and draw transgender students away from a marginalized state toward a community core that is open and accepting of diverse gender identities (Schlossberg, 1989). To do so, it is imperative that the student affairs profession explore the privileged status of those conforming to the gender binary.

Difficult dialogues are an important focus point for creating change around matters of identity and acceptance. Signal of acceptance or rejection within a culture come from the power of language and its embedded layers of meaning. In discussing gender matters, in general and transgender matters in particular, there tends to be confusion in regards to meaning of terms. The term transgender signifies the fluidity of gender in a non-specific manner, it also shows that between two polarized, binary, locations - male and female - there is little room for language, let alone identity. Deconstructing meaning is a good starting place in initiating dialogue around issues of privilege, sexuality, and gender identity (Roof, 2002). After all, when there is no name for - no language - to describe who you are, how do you make meaning of self or of identity? A second area of confusion stems from the assumed combination of gender identity and sexuality (and vice versa). Matters of sexual orientation and gender identity do overlap; however, clarifications between those who identify as transgender are not interchangeable with transsexual.

Applying the Privileged Identity Exploration (PIE) Model

Frequently, students who identify as transgender struggle to find social and structural acceptance because many colleges and universities have not taken the initiative to provide non-gendered bathrooms and housing options. …

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