Colin McKnight

I just wrote about Betsy DeVos a little over a month ago. I didn’t think I’d be returning to the current secretary of education so quickly. However, when someone in such a high position of power makes decisions that could damage the hard-earned progress that the transgender community has gained thus far, something needs to be said.

As Moriah Balingit from The Washington Post reported, the Department of Education has announced that it is no longer investigating complaints from members of the transgender community about instances of harassment due to bathroom laws, a decision that Catherine Lhamon, a former education department employee under the Obama administration, labeled “deeply dangerous.”

This is not DeVos’ first time interacting with the transgender community. On one hand, as The New York Times reported, DeVos had expressed disagreement with the president’s decision last year to overturn Obama’s bathroom policies, believing that they could potentially endanger transgender individuals. On the other hand, in an interview at CPAC 2017, she claimed that the Obama administration’s transgender protections were an “overreach.” 

I understand that my ethos on this subject is questionable, as I am not a member of the transgender community, and thus, I will be relying heavily on the quotes and opinions of members of the transgender community and other individuals for information for this column. 

Unfortunately, transphobia is not some new issue here in North Carolina. The war over HB2 is still extremely fresh in our minds, and former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has still not backed down from supporting the now partially repealed law, according to an NPR interview.

More recently, last December, a transgender employee of a Sam’s Club in Kannapolis, North Carolina filed a lawsuit against her former employer after she claimed that she was harassed and fired because of her gender identity, thus proving once again that ignorance is still too common a problem in the Old North State.

Of course, I’m not arguing that transphobia is just a North Carolina phenomenon, but it’s important to point out a problematic pattern when one is so obvious. Our country’s history is not one of the kind of open-mindedness and “freedom for all” that we constantly brag about in our slogans and mottos and patriotic songs. The truth is, any minority group that is perceived as “threatening” to the straight, white, cisgender male image that we put on our cereal boxes and in our TV shows has been and still is mistreated in our nation. 

On college campuses though, one would expect this to be different. Colleges and universities are supposed to be, and are often sold as, places where students are confronted by new ideas, viewpoints, and people, and where they grow in knowledge and understanding. Thus, in theory, transphobia should not be capable of existing in such places.

However, many, including myself, would disagree with that statement. Writer Stacy Jane Grover, in an essay for Inside Higher Ed, wrote on her experiences in college that “Every day, I felt pressured to hide my identity, and when I did dress affirmatively, other students harassed me, and faculty members did not acknowledge me.” She goes on to encourage college administrations to not take a passive stance in providing assistance to the transgender community on campus, and to actively help transgender individuals deal with discrimination both while enrolled and after graduation.

Grover shares this stance with co-founder of Trans Student Educational Resources Eli Erlick, who in an interview with Huffington Post, argued that “Most colleges don’t pay enough attention to this until they have a student negatively affected by policies they may or may not have, but we’re encouraging colleges to solve problems before they happen.” Both Grover and Erlick, in these statements, hope that college communities will step up to support the transgender community and actively oppose transphobia.

This leads me back to Secretary DeVos. As previously mentioned, despite the progress that has been made, transgender people are still being discriminated against and harassed, as can be witnessed in the news. Times when social change are currently in progress are often the times where the most resistance and aggression can be met. Having federal protection to ensure safety and security for the transgender community would be great, but, unfortunately, it will have to be on a state-by-state basis for now.

I want to end this column with more than just a call for support and unity, which are absolutely things that should be practiced on our campus. Oftentimes, the stem of someone’s transphobia, as Deja Nicole Greenlaw wrote, is ignorance. So, I’m going to advise that we all do a little reading. From the National Center for Transgender Equality’s site, to the more college-focused CampusPride.org, there are tons of online resources that can help you to learn more about the transgender community and its story.

Wiping transphobia from college campuses is not going to be an easy task, but by better understanding the history and struggles of the community, you can do your part.