Blog: Gender Identity in Higher Education and Research Institutions

July 17, 2020

By Ana Belen Amil

This article was originally published on the GE Academy website here on July 7, 2020.

Imagine you are an 18-year old student, entering University for the first time. You arrive early for the Orientation Sessions; you get in line to receive your Welcome Package. The place is fully crowded with people you’ve never met before. Everything is new, scary, and exciting. It is finally your turn: they hand you over a folder with your student ID card, health insurance papers, a map of the campus, your email account details, and the schedule of your classes. The person handing you the folder looks at you, then looks at your ID photo, reads your name, and stares at you some more. He has a confused look on his face.

“There must be some mistake”, he says.
“No, there’s no mistake”, you say.
“Yes, there is. Let me contact the Student Services Office.”
“No, thank you, everything’s fine”—and you quickly grab your folder, put it under your arm, and disappear into the crowd with your eyes on the ground before the person has time to reply.

This scene will repeat itself over and over and over for the next three years, every time you hand in your ID, for anything. Security guards will stop you to check your identity. The librarians will look you up and down before lending you a book, so will the GP when you enter the Medical Centre for a routine check-up. There will be phone calls. There will be questions, even intimate questions, embarrassing questions. You will have to give many explanations, and repeat the same explanations, dozens of times. Because your ID has the wrong name on it. That’s not your name. So you take courage and knock on the Students Services Office’s door.

“I’m sorry, I understand, but there is nothing we can do. Institutional Policy.”

There will be constant delays, at best, for almost every simple daily activity. When entering the restrooms, the locker room, once again, the questions, the awkward looks, the scared looks.
You sit in the classroom, and the professor calls you the wrong name.

“That’s actually not my name.”
“But it is here on the roster, is there a mistake?”
“It is not a mistake, but my actual name is Sarah.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
And there it goes again, the same explanation, the forced coming out, this time in front of 20 complete strangers. This professor understands. This professor understands. He takes note.
Your email address also has the wrong name. That’s not your name. Every time you receive an email, it is not addressed to you, it is addressed to somebody else. So you take courage and knock on the IT department’s door.
“I’m sorry, I understand, but there is nothing we can do. Institutional Policy.”

By now, everybody knows. You can see them gossip while they walk past. Some of them are nice, and some of them ask you the most inappropriate questions even with best of intentions. Every day is a struggle, a self-explanatory struggle.

Expressing one’s gender identity is a human right recognized by the European Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Court (Arrubia, 2019, p. 360). Around 2% of the population does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth; nevertheless, domestic law around the globe varies enormously in the recognition of this right. Only a few countries allow for legal change of gender markers; many others only do so after an often-invasive process of medicalization; in others, it is plain illegal. Navigating a heterocis society is full of challenges, from minor to life-threatening ones. What can higher education and research institutions do to protect the rights of the trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming members of its community to self-determination? How can they remove obstacles to make room for everybody’s safe gender expression?

Let’s have a look at this short checklist, inspired by the recommendations of Chevalier & Buggy (2020) in their Resource Guide. Safeguarding, Supporting, and Supervising Gender Minority Students in Institutes of Higher Education.

  • Misgendering (this is, using the wrong pronouns when referring to a person) and deadnaming (addressing or referring to somebody by a name they no longer use) can take a very heavy emotional toll on transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people. If intentional and repeated, they are considered harassment. Educate your entire community on the importance of respecting everybody’s chosen name and pronouns.
  • Healthcare providers (both physical and mental) must receive dedicated training to competitively cater for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. They experience discrimination so frequently in these settings that they end up avoiding them altogether, with serious health consequences.
  • Make sure that application and matriculation forms, surveys and all sorts of data collection tools specifically ask for preferred name and pronouns. Accommodate your data management systems as much as possible so University ID cards, class rosters, email addresses and the like reflect people’s gender identity.
  • Create accessible guidelines that provides explicit details on each administrative step needed for somebody to change their gender marker or name. Avoid “institutional gatekeeping” and medicalization of this process by all means.
  • Provide as many opportunities to list preferred pronouns as possible: on name tags at conferences, when scheduling appointments online, on email signatures, when creating a profile for accessing the institutional intranet, etc. This creates an atmosphere of respect and safety and contributes to normalizing the practice and making it part of the institutional culture.
  • Utilize gender neutral language: promote the use of the singular their/they/them instead of “s/he” or variations of those.
  • In addition to gender segregated facilities, provide gender neutral restrooms and locker rooms. This cannot be emphasized enough. The use of the restroom is highly anxiety-provoking for non-cisgender people.
  • Establish “safe points” of contact within the institution that trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people can approach for support and advise. These contact points or nodes should be educated on gender matters and enthusiastic in assisting vulnerable populations.
  • Trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people are particularly exposed to harassment. Make sure that the institution has a transparent, fully operational and accountable mechanism to receive both formal and informal harassment complaints and to address them in a timely and efficient manner.
  • Have regular “quality checks”. Conduct surveys and/or focus groups to monitor the efficacy of inclusion measures, identify best practices, and provide a safe space for people to raise their concerns.
  • Take advantage of Pride Week (around 28th June), the Trans Day of Remembrance (20th November), the Trans Day of Visibility (March 31st), to display supportive paraphernalia, drive awareness-raising campaigns with community involvement, post messages on social media (create or follow a Hashtag), and host academic and social events around the topic.


Arrubia, E. J. (2019). The Human Right to Gender Identity: From the International Human Rights Scenario to Latin American Domestic Legislation. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 33(3), 360–379.
Chevallier, C., & Buggy, C. (2020). Safeguarding, Supporting, and Supervising Gender Minority Students in Institutes of Higher Education.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash