Walking the talk on supporting transgender students

May 2, 2014, 12:43 a.m.

We are extremely lucky to go to school on a campus where the majority of students don’t outright hate transgender and genderqueer people.

A brief refresher: A transgender person is someone whose gender identity does not correspond with the sex they were assigned at birth. For example, a transgender woman might have been assigned “male” at birth but she identifies as a woman. “Genderqueer” and “non-binary” are terms to describe people who identify somewhere in between the male/female gender binary, or outside of that binary entirely. I use “trans” as an inclusive term to include both transgender and genderqueer/non-binary people. (Note also that there are different language and frameworks for gender nonconformity in non-Western cultures.)

It is highly likely that you, the reader of this article, hold socially liberal views when it comes to trans issues. Or, perhaps you’re ambivalent, but you generally believe that gender is complicated (duh!) and people should be able to manifest their identities with integrity and authenticity.

Unfortunately, there is a mismatch between these positive attitudes towards trans students and Stanford community members’ skills and knowledge for actively supporting their trans peers.

If you care about ending the marginalization and ostracization of trans students at Stanford, it is time to both talk the talk and start walking the walk. Below is a list of “calls to action” for making a better community for our trans classmates. Some of these suggestions may seem hard, time-consuming or unnecessary, but we—the organizers of Transgender Awareness Week—ask that you return to this list, internalize some of these ideas and ask yourself how you might change your everyday practices to make our community more accepting.


1) When doing introductions for a student group, a class, a dinner, a dorm and similar settings, ask people to state their preferred gender pronouns. For example: “Welcome to your CS 106A section! Let’s go around and say our names, preferred gender pronouns and major.” This gives an opportunity for trans students to clarify what pronouns they like to go by, so that they can avoid being misgendered (called the wrong gender).

Do not only ask if you think trans people are in the room; this should become a normalized practice in all Stanford spaces. Another reason this is an important practice is because you cannot know someone’s gender by looking at them. By always asking for preferred gender pronouns we begin to destabilize the notion that we can assume people’s gender identities.

2) Make, or find online, gender-inclusive bathroom signs for all of your events (also known as gender-neutral bathrooms). For many trans people, bathrooms are a source of anxiety and potential harassment or violence. Imagine: There is an event you really want to go to—all of your friends are going—but you don’t know if you will have a safe space to go to the bathroom. This is really quite simple: If you don’t want to marginalize trans people, you should be making, printing and posting gender-inclusive bathroom signs for every single event.

If you have fears or doubts about the safety or necessity of gender-neutral bathrooms, there are many resources online to read. If you feel the need to ask ahead of time, Stanford spaces should be flexible in giving you permission to post the signs.

3) Teach yourself about “they/them” pronouns. Many trans and genderqueer people, including many of your classmates at Stanford, prefer to be referred to as “they/them” instead of “he/him” or “she/her.” This is Stanford, so I know some grammar buffs are cringing in their seats right now. Time to start getting those cringes out of your system and remember that gender is a complex social construct that won’t always fit into currently prescribed rules of grammar. Make the effort to accept and affirm your classmates’ identities by using they/them, even if it is difficult at first.

This is another reason why it is important to ask for people’s preferred gender pronouns—how do you expect to look at someone and know whether they use they/them?

4) Notice whenever there is a conversation about “gay and lesbian” issues, marriage, oppression, discrimination, representation, etc. that does not include specific discussion of trans people. Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a very real and horrible reality; remember that discrimination on the basis of gender identity is far more pervasive, un-checked and violent.

5) Never, never, NEVER ask trans or genderqueer people about their medical or legal transition—this includes asking about hormone therapy, surgery or their plans for medical treatment. I know you’re curious—but ask yourself why you are curious. Why is it so important to know someone’s genital make-up? For example, if you know the person in front of you is a trans woman and wants to be known and recognized by the world as a woman, then her genitalia is 100 percent irrelevant. On this topic, actress and activist Laverne Cox from the TV show Orange is the New Black says: “The preoccupation with transition and surgery objectifies trans people.” To hear more from Laverne, check out her lecture at Cemex on May 8th.

If you are asking a trans person about their transition, it should be because you are already in a supportive friendship with them or they have chosen to share with you. Not because you are curious, or want to learn from their experience. By the same measure, if someone does share private details with you, don’t casually repeat them to others.

6) Be precise about the language you use. A transgender woman was not “born a boy”—she has always been a woman, but was “assigned male at birth.” Always remember that a “trans man” is someone who identifies as (and therefore is) a man, and a “trans woman” is someone who identifies as and is a woman—not the other way around. “Tranny” is a pejorative and violent word that should never be spoken at Stanford; I write it here in the hopes that readers now know to never use it. If you refer to groups as “boys and girls” or “ladies and gentlemen,” you are excluding non-binary trans people. Remember, what we consider acceptable language is constantly changing—this means you need to constantly be educating yourself.


This is an incomplete list, but it’s a start. It might feel like a lot. But we think all students—no matter their gender identity—deserve to attend a university that accepts, affirms and supports their identities. We think all students deserve to attend a university that is actively trying to improve its ability to accept, affirm, and support students.

Do you?


Violet Trachtenberg ’16

President, Stanford Students for Queer Liberation


For more information about Transgender Awareness Week, a week of programming aiming to build skills around trans issues to improve the Stanford community, please visit ssql.stanford.edu. Contact Violet at [email protected].

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