Authored By: Matthew J. Lindenberg
The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) community has been a very hot topic recently on college campuses. The deaths of LGBT students Matthew Shepard, Raymond Chase, and most recently Tyler Clementi, have lead to the realization that, "our colleges and universities are not the welcoming places we think they are for the LGBT community," (Sterling, 2010, p. 1). Although progress has been made, the LGBT community is still a misunderstood one, especially the "T" subpopulation of the LGBT acronym. Unfortunately there is no definitive information on the number of transgender students, but the Transgender Law and Policy Institute (TLPI) estimates that roughly "two to five percent of the population is transgender" (TLPI, 2007, Para 1.). However, "many transgender people are not public about their identities, so they might not tell anyone about it." (NCTE, 2009, p. 1). The majority of advisors are not knowledgeable about Trans students. "Research finds that transgender students often feel marginalized and experience high rates of discrimination" (McKinney, 2005, p. 2). Given that academic advisors play a crucial role in student success, the purpose of this article is to inform academic advisors about transgender students are, better understand the difficulties transgender students face, and to provide seven tips for successfully advising transgender students.
What is Transgender?
The identities of transgender people are known within the LGBT community but are not necessarily welcoming or even knowledgeable on the subject. In order to better understand these students, academic advisors need to learn about who these students are. According to the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE, 2009), the term transgender refers to “people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth” (p. 1). Transgender individuals associate themselves with gender identity and gay or lesbian individuals identify themselves based upon their sexual orientation. Gender identity is “an individual’s internal sense of being male or female or something else” (NCTE, 2009, p. 1). A person’s gender identity is not physically visible to others, it is only internal. By contrast a person’s sexual orientation describes “a person’s attraction to members of the same or different sex” (NCTE 2009, p. 1).
Transgender, just as Lesbian Gay or Bisexual, individuals do not decide one day that they are going to become transgender. Everyone in this world is born with a gender identity. The difference between a heterosexual individual and a transgender individual is that a heterosexual person is born with the same sex identity externally as they feel internally. While a transgender person is born feeling like the opposite sex or in-between internally from what they were assigned externally at birth. “At an early age transgender students typically feel that they do not fit into the sex assigned to them at birth” (McKinney, 2005, p. 2). From a young age transgender individuals do not feel the same way that heterosexual individuals may feel. “They may question whether they are male, female, or something else, and may feel uneasy about it” (McKinney, 2005, p. 2). Therefore, it is important that transgender students are able to express themselves freely so that they may live their lives as content human beings. There is diversity within the transgender population. On one side of the spectrum are transsexual individuals, “whose gender identity is different from their assigned sex at birth” (NCTE, 2009, p. 1). Transsexual individuals may or may not choose to transition to the opposite sex by taking hormones or undergoing surgery. On the opposite end of the transgender spectrum fall individuals who consider themselves as genderqueer. “Genderqueer transgender individuals do not identify their gender as either entirely male or entirely female” (NCTE, 2009, p.1).In between the transsexual and genderqueer identifications are additional types of gender identity that individuals can identity as, which fall under the overall transgender umbrella. The types of gender identity that fall within these two extremes, according to the National Center for Transgender Equality includes:
- A cross-dresser is a term used for people who dress in clothing traditionally or stereotypically worn by the other sex, but who generally have not intent to live full-time as the other gender.
- Bi-gendered individuals who have a significant gender identity that encompasses both genders, male and female.
- Drag queen is a term generally used to accurately refer to a man who dress as women for the purpose of entertaining others.
- Drag king is a term used to refer to women who dress as men for the purpose of entertaining others. (NCTE, 2009, p.1)
Seven Recommendations for Academic Advisors of Transgender Students
1. Be Educated
McKinney (2005) noted that “Many student affairs professionals overall rarely acknowledge the gender identity issues faced by transgender students” (p.2). Academic advisors should learn about transgender issues if they are to truly assist all students.
Advisors can educate themselves by visiting LGBT campus offices, where available, and participating in Safe Zone ally training to learn about tools needed to support LGBT students. Here is a list of campuses that offer Safe Zone training.
Additionally, there are several websites devoted to transgender issues where advisors can learn more about transgender individuals, including:
It is important for academic advisors to remember that transgender students need and deserve access to good quality academic advice. Therefore, advisors should deliver the same high quality advising services to transgender students that they provide to the rest of their students.
2. Meet Transgender Students Where They Are
It is important for academic advisors to remember that transgender students will potentially be at different places in their development process which can be examined in more detail by Bilodeau and Renn’s transgender identity development model (Evans et. al, 2011). For example, they may not know for sure that they are transgender. Some students may like to express their internalized gender identity in the seclusion of their residence hall or apartment, but may not feel comfortable expressing themselves in public. Others may be transsexual and have already had sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) or are on hormones and in the process of getting ready to have SRS. When speaking with students who identify as transgender it is appropriate to ask by which pronoun the student prefers to be called, or if the student prefers to go by a different name than what is listed in the college’s database system. It is important for advisors to meet students where they are in the process and respect that not all transgender individuals are the same.
3. Help Transgender Students be Themselves (Be an Ally)
Many transgender students are afraid to be themselves and sometimes will never publicly be the people that they really are to avoid potential ridicule or because of fears for their personal safety. In order to support students in becoming their true selves, academic advisors need to act as allies for these students. As an ally, academic advisors can advocate for transgender students on campus, support awareness activities for faculty, students and staff members, and create a comfortable, inclusive, and safe campus atmosphere for these students. One person can make a difference in creating a more open and welcoming environment for transgender students. When transgender students feel safe to be themselves they are more successful both in and out of the classroom.
4. Refer Transgender Students to Campus and Community Resources
Advisors play an important role in referring students to appropriate campus and community resources, and this is especially true for transgender students. It is important that transgender students find the resources that will provide them with the sense of community needed to be successful. Some useful campus resources to investigate (where available) include: LGBT Office, Health Center, and/or the Counseling Center. Academic advisors should also encourage transgender students to get involved with off-campus LGBT groups such as Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbian and Gays (PFLAG), transgender support groups, LGBT community centers, online supportive Trans chat rooms or you-tube groups.
One of the most important services academic advisors provide students is a listening ear. Even when academic advisors have limited knowledge of transgender students or the overall community, just allowing students to talk about their experiences can be helpful. Some transgender students may not have anyone else that they feel comfortable talking to and may simply need someone who will listen to them. “It is important that student affairs professionals understand their (transgender students’) experiences and the obstacles they confront at most colleges and universities” (Beemyn, Curtis, Davis & Tubbs, 2005 p. 2). Academic advisors can act as an outlet for students who need a safe place to share their experiences. The Trans experiences that an advisor may encounter could range from having the institution recognize a legal name change, gender neutral bathrooms issues or how the transition is affecting the student’s career and academic progress.
6. Ask Questions
Listening is important, advisors should also ask questions and learn from their transgender students. Many transgender students like to take advantage of opportunities to educate others about transgender individuals and the daily struggles they face. When advisors ask questions, students know that advisors are engaged and truly interested in learning more. Many transgender students are open to answering questions. Some appropriate questions advisors may want to ask transgender students include:
- Which pronoun do you (student) prefer, he/she/they/them?
- What name would you like me (advisor) to call you?
- What issues, if any, are you facing on campus?
- Are there adequate facilities on campus to meet your needs (e.g., restrooms and locker rooms)?
When advisors ask questions to better understand issues transgender students face, most transgender students are happy to answer the questions. However, it is important that advisors carefully monitor students' level of comfort in answering questions and adjust their questions accordingly. Educating and sharing as a Trans individual can be intensely personal and draining, therefore advisors should strive to create a mutual learning environment.
7. Coach Students on ways to Gain the Support of Their Family and Friends
Many students want to tell their parents about their gender identity but are afraid of the potential negative reactions. “Many Transgender students experience isolation and rejection from family and friends” (Beemyn et al., 2005 p. 2). On campuses with an LGBT Office, advisors should refer students to that office for specific advice about how best to deal with family issues. On campuses without an LGBT Office students may look to advisors for advice on how and when to approach their parents. Advisors can help students by weighing the pros and cons of coming out, creating a game plan and exploring ways to structure conversations with their parents. It may help the student reach a better outcome when the advisor role plays the student and the student plays the role of the parent.
Academic advisors should want to see all students succeed and reach their highest potential. Transgender students face unique challenges. The more advisors know about transgender issues the effective we can be advising these students. Advisors take the time to know about transgender issues and listen to these students play a crucial role in creating a more accepting and welcoming environment for transgender students.
Matthew J. Lindenberg
Graduate Student, Higher Education and Student Affairs
University of South Carolina
Beemyn, B., Curtis, B., Davis, M., & Tubbs, N. J. (2005). Transgender issues on college campuses Retrieved from http://secure.gvsu.edu/cms3/assets/3B8FF455-E590-0E6C3ED0F895A6FBB287/Transgender%20issues%20on%20college%20campuses-Beemyn-New%20Directions%20ch%205.pdf
Evans, N.J., Forney, D.S., Guido, F., Patton, L., & Renn, K. A. (2011). Student development in college: Theory, research, and practice (2nd ed. ). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
McKinney, J. S. (2005). On the margins: A study of the experiences of transgender college students. Journal of Gay and Lesbian Issues in Education, 3, 63-75. Retrieved from
National Center for Transgender Equality [NCTE]. (2009, May). Transgender terminology. Retrieved from http://transequality.org/Resources/NCTE_TransTerminology.pdf
Sterling, J. (2010). Deadly Warning. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from
Transgender Law and Policy Institute [TLPI]. (2007). Transgender issues: A fact sheet. Retrieved from