This past year saw a dehumanizing anti-LGBTQ+ legislative season in many states across the country, which has threatened our transgender students’ well-being and limited their vocational exploration. To support their vocational journeys, we as educators need be more fully responsive to the particular challenges that they face. As we accompany them, we must continue to transform our campuses and communities into more just and humane places so that our transgender students can flourish and lead magnanimous lives.
CNN reports that in the first half of 2022, state legislators introduced 162 anti-LGBTQ+ bills, a record number even in comparison to last year’s flurry of activity. The majority of these laws target transgender or gender-nonconforming youth by restricting their participation in sports and their access to bathrooms or gender-affirming health care.
Even though this legislation focuses mostly on minors, its negative effects are “seeping into higher education,” according to Inside Higher Ed; it is “normalizing antagonism toward LGBTQ+ students on some campuses and creating additional pain and stress for a population that already bears more than its fair share.” Across the country we are seeing young trans people scapegoated in ways that have turned their most basic needs into political fodder, intensifying the injustices that they face as they simply try to survive. In states where such laws have passed, the climate for LGBTQ+ college students has worsened, which compromises their mental health, senses of safety, and feelings of being welcomed on campus.
At my university, I am one of a handful of out gay professors who work directly with our transgender students: I have served as an advisor to our Queer Student Alliance and mentored these students in and out of the classroom. I have seen the deteriorating political climate inhibit their abilities to explore their vocations. Even in a state and on a campus that is relatively supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, they feel less certain that they can bring this facet of their lives explicitly into their classes and into conversations about purpose and meaning. If such hesitancy is present in a supportive context, then I think it’s fair to say we are confronting a much larger national crisis—one that is making the free and dignified exploration of transgender vocation less vibrant and less possible.
To support the flourishing of our transgender students and their vocational discernment, we must understand the particularities of their lived experiences and the intricate ways in which their callings are tied—for better or for worse—to the dehumanizing social and political conditions that threaten their existences. As Patrick Reyes argues in The Purpose Gap, for minoritized students, “external conditions have as much to do with one finding one’s purpose as does one’s internal discernment.” Thus, conversations about vocation with students “from marginalized and minoritized communities,” including those from or entering into trans communities, “must begin with [their] material reality.”
Z Nicolazzo’s book length study Trans* in College offers a much-needed analysis of this reality. Isolation and safety, Nicolazzo argues, are two of the most pressing and connected challenges that trans students face. They come to us often already feeling highly isolated, and the lack of safety they experience contributes to their further withdrawal even from queer spaces intended to support them, which exacerbates their sense of isolation. According to Campus Pride, gender-nonconforming students experience significantly higher rates of harassment than cisgender men and women, and view campus climate more negatively. To protect themselves, they may tend to avoid visibly queer parts of campus or the disclosure of their gender identities even when others think it would be safe.
Nicolazzo also documents the pernicious effect of the gender binary—what ze describes as compulsory heterogenderism—on many transgender students who feel pressured to conform to traditional gender norms. They voice increasing skepticism and even resistance to identifying as men or women, instead claiming non-binary identities or even more fluid gender identities. As educators, we would do well to affirm the vocational possibilities of living in these transgressive or in-between spaces. For our trans students to be able to hear their most authentic callings and integrate their deepest senses of gendered selves into them, these identities and forms of embodied expression must be legible and legitimate. We must respect them as worthy and inherently good—sacred facets of who they are and essential to their flourishing. According to trans theologian Justin Tanis, “gender variance” should “be seen as part of our God-given identities,” whose inherent dignity grounds and opens up profound opportunities for our trans students’ senses of calling and vocation.
Collectively, we have to be able imagine together what is still culturally unintelligible to many, but the work doesn’t end with our most empathetic imagining. We must continue to transform our campuses and, where possible, our larger communities.
I recognize that action on these issues might pose challenges and even risks for some readers, given the religious contexts of many of our institutions. As Jonathan S. Coley documents in Gay on God’s Campus, only about 10% of the almost 700 Christian colleges and universities in the United States include gender identity in their nondiscrimination policies. Pockets of student activism have prompted some policy changes on these campuses, the most effective being those efforts that advocate for a more capacious and loving Christianity that welcomes and affirms LGBTQ+ students. Leveraging the values already present within our various faith traditions is one important way to create more affirming spaces for transgender students.
But we should not place this burden for structural change solely on our students; nor are policy changes sufficient, important as they are. (The Lambda 10 Project provides an important list of Suggested Steps to Make Campuses More Trans-Inclusive.) Nicolazzo urges us to move beyond best practices to affirm and amplify the practices of resilience and kinship that transgender students already engage in as they navigate challenges on campuses. On our own campuses, we must be more attentive to trans students’ responses to daily indignities and hostilities, and work with them to create the supports that help them thrive on their terms. We must bolster the networks of kinship and belonging that sustain them—both on campus and off—and strengthen the efforts of their transgender peers and supportive allies who nourish their fullest development.
Ultimately, the flourishing of our transgender students depends on what Nicolazzo calls an “epistemology of love”: We need to see and embrace the particularities of transgender identities with our deepest commitment to love them in all their gendered complexity and vibrancy. From this loving embrace, we can cultivate the communal connections they need to thrive into their most authentic self-understandings, situating them in relation to the calling of the larger community in which they find themselves and to which they aspire to belong.
Geoffrey W. Bateman is an associate professor in the Department of Peace and Justice Studies at Regis University. In 2017, he participated in NetVUE’s inaugural faculty seminar on “Teaching Vocational Exploration.” His scholarship on vocation includes “Queer Callings: LGBTQ Literature and Vocation” in Cultivating Vocation in Literary Studies and a forthcoming essay, “Queer Vocation and the Uncommon Good.”