Trans erasure and teaching moments: University community responds to proposed Trump admin policy with teach-in
When Rebecca Davis, a history and women and gender studies professor, and her students discussed the news that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was proposing to change the federal definition of gender, they wanted to create a space to discuss the realities and histories of trans individuals.
Under the proposed change, as detailed by the New York Times on Oct. 21, the federal government would define gender and sex based on a biological essentialist view. A person’s genitalia at birth would designate them as male or female, essentially erasing trans and nonbinary identities.
This change would be in direct contrast to extended Obama-era civil rights protections which had an important impact on recognizing trans and nonbinary individuals, notably in topical issues ranging from bathroom choice to education.
As with many other policy changes under the current administration, marginalized students continuously experience attacks on existing vulnerabilities. Acknowledging how the proposed change would impact students, particularly in regards to Title IX protections against discrimination, Davis organized a letter, signed by over 100 other staff and faculty, urging President Dennis Assanis and Provost Robin Morgan to take action.
In response to the potential policy changes, the letter urged the university administration “to issue a public statement that affirms UDel as a welcoming campus that advocates for and supports trans and nonbinary students, faculty, and staff.” The letter requested a public statement that would “spell out that the university supports trans and nonbinary students, and articulate the systems of support we have” in order to send a clear message of support to trans and nonbinary students.
Davis, while not surprised, was disappointed in the response.
The response from Assanis and Morgan, which was sent only to signers of the original letter and subsequently submitted to The Review for publication, directed readers to the university values statement, articulating a commitment to a “welcoming culture” while remaining “dedicated to the ideals of personal freedom, free speech and free inquiry.” It additionally reiterated that gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are protected under university non-discrimination policies. The letter ended with connecting to on- and off- campus resources meant to support students, such as the counseling center.
According to Davis, the administration’s response missed the larger point about supporting trans students, who have been enduring “extraordinarily hateful” language from the federal government and are among the most targeted groups for hate crimes.
“It’s clear from what [Assanis and Morgan] wrote that they see it as a question of following policy and indicating the services already provided,” Davis said.
One signatory, professor David Redlawsk, who is chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations, spoke to the Trump administration’s proposed policy and its intended repercussions.
“The Trump Administration’s plan is frankly outrageous, and has no particular purpose except to make life difficult for a great many people,” Redlawsk stated in an email. “Congress should respond rapidly by overturning any effort by the administration to do this.
Jaipreet Virdi, a history professor, also signed onto the letter. For her, supporting trans students is akin to supporting other marginalized identities that experience violence, which the university has done in recent months.
“Erasure is a form of violence, and I don’t think a lot of people see it that way” Virdi says. According to her, being trans is more than just a choice of how to present oneself; “It’s about using your body’s autonomy to claim you exist in this place and in this time.”
To continue building visibility around this issue, the Departments of History and Women & Gender Studies, in association with Students Acting for Gender Equity (SAGE), the Lavender Programming Board, SpeQtrum, the vice president for diversity and Student Life hosted a teach-in on Nov. 8 focused on transgender history and political challenges.
The event contextualized the policy change within the legal world with a presentation by Ryan Tack-Hooper, legal director from the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware (ACLU-DE).
Professors brought light to historical context of notable trans figures: David Suisman talked about the life and legacy of Billy Tipton, trans jazz musician who kept his identity a secret his entire life. Virdi presented at the event, detailing the life and impact of Christine Jorgensen, a trans woman and the first individual in the U.S. to have sex reassignment surgery in 1951. James Brophy, a professor of history and interim department chair, connected the historical context of the policy change to Nazi Germany in which gender and sexual deviation was criminalized and reason for death.
B. Proud, a Philadelphia-based photographer, presented portraits from her most recent project “Transcending Love.” The ongoing project includes portraits of trans couples and families across the country to show the diversity and love in these relationships.
On a more personal note, Alex Szubielski, 2018 Associate in Arts graduate, spoke of the support and struggles he faced as a trans student, at the event.
Julian Harbaugh, a junior studying political science, brought light to the experience of and policy implications for intersex individuals.
“I saw a lot of media coverage about the possible effects the policy change would have on the trans community, but I wasn’t hearing a lot of intersex voices,” they say. “It felt like intersex people weren’t being acknowledged for the definite effects it would have on them. Not every intersex person considers themself trans so it’s important to consider them as their own cohesive group facing unique issues.”
Harbaugh was also disappointed in the university response to the policy change, hoping that the university would do more to acknowledge specific policies to protect trans students, even if federal policies were in flux.
Additionally, they wished the university would focus more on issues that trans and nonbinary students have specifically identified as problems on campus, such as bathrooms and problematic professors, which would make them feel more comfortable on campus among attacks at the federal level.
“There are so few unisex bathrooms on campus, and all the unisex bathrooms are disability bathrooms that have been converted to be unisex as well,” they say. “The university is lumping together two minority populations and saying ‘Okay, now both of you are good.’ Really, they just doubled the population with the same amount of bathrooms.”
Harbaugh has also experienced professors explicitly refusing to use their correct pronouns and ignore them when trying to discuss trans issues, eventually leading to repercussions like getting called on less in class. They expressed frustration in transparency in reporting processes for such situations where a student may feel uncomfortable or unvalued by their professor.
“I wish that there were an easier route to talk about professors that have transphobic opinions or try to silent their trans students in class,” they say. “I don’t know what kind of sensitivity training professors can get, I don’t know if you can report that. If I were to say stuff like that on my teacher evaluation, which is supposed to be anonymous, that is very clearly labeling my evaluation as you know who I am. That’s very nerve-wracking to have that linked back to you.”
Harbaugh acknowledged the importance of discussion and education in bringing light to trans and nonbinary students’ experiences and needs.
“People feel scared to ask about issues like this because they’re afraid of backlash for not knowing about things,” Harbaugh says. “There’s nothing inherently wrong for not knowing about these issues. Ignorance is not a crime, but it’s important that people understand the difference between ignorance and willful ignorance.”
Caleb Owens and Olivia Mann contributed reporting.