Mean-mugged, Misgendered, and Marginalized

More than half of trans students face debilitating depression (compared to 37% of their cisgender peers). The lack of support and acceptance on campus — from being misgendered by professors and peers to housing decisions that place them with hostile roommates — play key roles.

collage showing non-genedered characters collage showing non-genedered characters

Illustration by Erikas Chesonis.

Every day, as I get ready for class, I have to make a decision: to be myself or to assimilate. Though it depends on my mood, I tend to choose the latter. After waking up, I walk straight to the restroom. “I wish it would grow out faster,” I whisper to myself as I look at my reflection in the mirror and run my fingers through my hair. It used to be shaved, but now my hair touches the lower half of my neck.

Then, I wash my face and apply some light makeup. I dab Glossier’s Cloud Paint in Puff across my cheeks, glide Milk’s glitter stick to soften certain features and highlight others, and apply a tinted lip balm for a pinky glow on my lips. I walk to my closet, grab my short-sleeve denim button-up, and put it over my bare chest. The weather is about 72 degrees, a rare sight for Syracuse, so I slip on my black miniskirt. Today, my legs look a little too thick and hairy. But I can’t tell if it’s because of my gender or body dysmorphia. Regardless, I put on long socks to cover my calves and slip on my loafers. I grab my Telfar messenger bag and make my way to my first class.

As I walk on the promenade, people often stare at me. I’ve learned to ignore it — mostly. But certain moments make it unavoidable. Like when someone walks too close or tries to engage. I look away and hope the encounter doesn’t become violent. It hasn’t happened on campus yet, but based on my experiences, I can never be completely sure it won’t. Sometimes stares become harassing howls of transphobic, degrading, or threatening remarks. Other times, it becomes physical, like when a man grabbed my thigh in a park. I just try to prepare myself for the worst.

River Chau

“My name is river now,” I wrote in the caption. “As I began to live my life more authentically, I decided to look towards nature for inspiration. River — a free-flowing source of water that serves as a passage between lakes, seas, and oceans — is an in-between state, with no clear start or end, without restrictions to a binary.” Photo courtesy of River Nguyen Chau.

In my art history class, we’re exploring abstract expressionism. “What do you all think about this painting,” my professor asks about Willem de Kooning’s Woman I. “There’s something oddly misogynistic. There’s an underlying violent, objectifying gaze,” I respond. Another student adds while looking at me: “I agree with him.” I stare at them blankly. The student continues, but all I can think about is being misgendered. I don’t say anything. I don’t correct them. My professor, who knows my pronouns, doesn’t say anything either. I remain seated and stay quiet for the rest of the class.

A Community at Risk

For trans students — students who identify outside of gender norms including those who identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, and two-spirit — this is an everyday experience, and these encounters directly impact their mental health. According to data from the Healthy Minds Study, 78% of gender-minority students reported at least one mental health issue (while about 45% of their cisgender counterparts reported the same). More than 56% of trans students faced debilitating depression (compared to 37% of their cisgender peers), and more than 26% percent of trans students said they considered suicide (compared to 10% of their cisgender peers), according to a survey from the American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment.

“It’s not about being in the TGNB (Transgender and Non-Binary) community that makes you more at risk for mental-health issues,” says Luca Maurer, director of Ithaca College’s Center for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Education, Outreach and Services. “It’s living with constant stigma and discrimination.” Transphobia continues to be a pervasive, powerful cultural force. For example, just in the digital sphere, consider this: A 2019 report by the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label and consumer intelligence company Brandwatch analyzed 10 million social media and online posts and identified 1.5 million of those as transphobic. “Unfortunately these findings don’t surprise me. For someone who is in the public eye, I experience abuse on a daily basis,” said the British trans model and activist Munroe Bergdorf in a statement responding to the report’s release.

“It’s not about being in the TGNB (Transgender and Non-Binary) community that makes you more at risk for mental-health issues. It’s living with constant stigma and discrimination.”

Issues regarding trans bodies continue to earn mainstream attention. In 2013, when Coy Mathis, a 6-year-old transgender student from Colorado, wanted to use the girl’s restroom, they kicked up conversations around bathrooms that helped fuel change in educational spaces and beyond. In 2019, researchers from Clark University and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst published a study in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation based on a survey of more than 500 transgender and gender-nonconforming students and recent grads, asking them to identify policies and accommodations their institutions offered and their importance. The list included 17 services, and gender-neutral bathrooms ranked No. 1. Yet, only 45% of those surveyed said their campuses provided those facilities.

My campus features 73 gender-neutral bathrooms and offers a map and a guide titled Peeing in Peace: A Resource Guide for Transgender Activists and Allies created by the Transgender Law Center. “Bathroom access is not a luxury or special right,” the guide states. “Without safe access to public bathrooms, transgender people are denied full participation in public life.” The guide includes a brief overview of how bathrooms have long been a space where people who possessed authority, power, and wealth denied access to others — including “white” and “colored” bathrooms eliminated by the Civil Rights Movement and the creation of accessible public restrooms for those with disabilities thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Many people have stereotypical expectations about who will be sharing the bathroom with them,” the guide states. “When they encounter someone who doesn’t fit that stereotype, they sometimes get confused, angry, or afraid.”


of cisgender college students suffer one or more mental-health disorders


of gender minority students suffer one or more mental-health disorders

But as trans issues gained traction, the conversations quickly expanded from who can use what bathroom to whether transgender/non-binary (TGNB) people should be able to take part in the military and have protections at work and if their genitalia alone dictated their gender identity. Trans folk also gained more visibility in the U.S. thanks to pop culture. Laverne Cox became the first trans person to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy for her role as an imprisoned trans woman in Orange is the New Black. When Caitlyn Jenner, known for her Olympic career and Kardashian connections thanks to her marriage to Kris Jenner, came out as trans, she ignited a media frenzy. Pose became the television show with the largest trans cast of any show in history, with trans writers and directors such as Janet Mock, a Black trans writer known for her New York Times best-selling autobiography Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More.

Despite these visibility gains, the TGNB community continues to face discrimination. In March 2020, Idaho’s Governor Brad Little signed a bill banning transgender girls from playing on girl’s and women’s sports teams. He also signed another anti-trans bill that will block trans people in Idaho from changing the gender marker on their birth certificates. Trans people also continue to face violence. According to a 2018 report by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, 52% of anti-LGBTQ homicides in 2017 were committed against trans and gender non-conforming people, and 40% of anti-LGBTQ homicides were committed against trans women of color. In the U.S., Forbes reported that at least 30 transgender women and gender non-conforming folks, a vast majority of whom were women of color, were murdered in 2019 alone. And 331 trans people were murdered, hung, or lynched globally that same year. This figure, while jarring, does not account for the incidents that are unreported, misreported, or the suspicious circumstances in which trans women vanish.

How Misgendering Damages Students

These societal issues impact trans folk experiences at college and undermine their success along with their mental health. While trans students share a unifying identity, each trans student is different, with unique personalities, strengths, and challenges. Yet, many face similar issues: Being misgendered in the classroom, living in assigned housing can be difficult if their roommate is transphobic, and finding counseling services to support their needs. “The reality is that gender-binary discourse goes beyond sex-segregated bathrooms, sex designations on forms, or sex-segregated leadership activities,” said Z Nicolazzo, author of Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “Although it definitely includes these things, it also is about the very way cisgender students, faculty and staff think gender into — or perhaps more to the point, out of — existence.”

“Calling people their right names and pronouns, I don’t see it as political correctness. I see it as suicide prevention.”

Much of the time, transphobia — whether it’s microaggression, aggression, or just disrespect — remains unchecked. “People will be going to classes and their professors won’t use their pronouns or their professors will be endorsing transphobic views or asking the class whether trans people are real or not,” explains Kai Thigpen, a licensed social worker at the Mazzoni Center for LGBTQ Health and Well-Being located in Philadelphia. These experiences erode well being. Research demonstrates that when chosen names are used, odds of depression and suicide decrease. A 2018 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health interviewed 129 youths in the Northeast, the Southwest, and the West Coast and found that young people who could use their name at school, home, work and with friends experienced 71% fewer symptoms of severe depression, a 34% decrease in reported thoughts of suicide, and a 65% decrease in suicidal attempts.

Genny Beemyn, director of the Stonewall Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and coordinator of the LGBTQ advocacy group Campus Pride’s Trans Policy Clearighouse, believes colleges need to require gender-minority training for professors and staff similar to that required regarding sexual harassment. “Is it any wonder that trans students have mental-health issues when they are typically denied the ability to be seen as how they see themselves on a daily basis?” Beemyn said in an article about the mental-health struggles of trans students. “This means making sure that students are able to use the name they go by and are treated as their gender throughout the institution. Students need to be able to indicate their gender and have this gender be used for housing assignments and sports teams. They need to be able to indicate their pronouns in administrative systems and have these pronouns respected.”

B. López, a Ph.D. candidate studying composition and cultural rhetoric at Syracuse University, has experienced the damage misgendering can do both as a graduate student and as an educator. While they refuse to tolerate being misgendered by their faculty peers, they’re more understanding with their students, who may have never met someone who is trans and gender-nonconforming like themselves, but this doesn’t make it less hurtful. López understands that they’re different from the stereotypically prescribed high-education instructor but remain assertive in the classroom as they work to cultivate a bigotry-free space.

López isn’t white; they’re Latinx. They’re not male; they’re a trans-masc-presenting enby (who at times gets misidentified as a butch lesbian). They wear their hair shaven on the sides and slicked back with gel, short-sleeve, queer-artist graphic tees, floral button-ups, and quirky accessories like cat-shaped earrings, or socks with their partner’s face on them. López introduces themselves to their students with their pronouns and tells the kids to just call them B. Yet, some students in their introductory writing and rhetoric course consistently misgender them, face-to-face in class or through email. “All of this gets layered on, causing them to not take my grading seriously or taking my authority in the classroom seriously, constantly pushing back and talking to me in certain ways because of my identities,” López says.

B. López

B. López, a Ph.D. candidate at SU, refuses to tolerate being misgendered by faculty peers, but they afford students a bit more understanding since they may have never met someone who is trans and gender-non-conforming. Photo courtesy of B. López.

Using someone’s chosen name or preferred pronouns may seem like a small gesture, but it has a powerful and lasting impact. “Calling people their right names and pronouns, I don’t see it as political correctness,” says Maurer. “I see it as suicide prevention.”

Beyond the Classroom

Similar to classroom settings, TGNB students often struggle to feel safe in their own homes. Thanks to first-year random housing assignments, trans students frequently end up living with a transphobic roommate. Eli Blodgett, now a junior stage management major at Syracuse University, always struggled with university housing. During his first year of college, Blodgett spoke to his roommate only a handful of times — in part due to the roommate’s reaction to his identity. Once, he remembers his roommate put in their dorm-floor group chat that she needed a lightbulb. Blodgett saw the message, handed her his spare, but not one word exchanged between the two. For his second year, Blodgett sought out an introverted roommate (like himself) for an on-campus apartment. Blodgett wanted to live with someone outside of his own department since he spent the majority of his day with them. He eventually asked a peer from his writing-intensive class with whom he had worked on projects over the semester. She agreed.

That summer became a formative time for Blodgett. With the support of his chosen family, he publicly came out with a new name and pronouns on social media, including the Facebook group with his entire department (students, faculty, and staff). Blodgett, who identifies as a fat, transmasculine, queer person with a disability, began to experiment with his clothing, wearing navy button-up shirts and sage-green sweaters instead of floral skirts.

Coming to back school, Blodgett continued to explore his transness, becoming more comfortable with his identity. But his roommate wasn’t. One night, Blodgett was lying down in his room with the lights off. He heard footsteps walking up the stairs that eventually passed his room. “And she has this flag in the window and everyone thinks I’m gay,” his roommate complained on the phone, referring to Blodgett’s trans flag he hung up in his window. Blodgett stayed quiet.

After that night, Blodgett stopped inviting friends over — especially those who were “queer-looking,” a similar experience to his high school days, when he would avoid bringing any friends home to protect them from his unaccepting parents. Blodgett struggled to feel comfortable in shared spaces, quickly making dinner to eat in his room, avoiding the living room, and never confronting his roommate even with the smallest inconveniences. Blodgett didn’t even want his roommate to look at him; the look of disgust on her face made him feel ostracized, watched, and policed. His presumed safe space was no longer safe. “It’s one of those things where you have to think how all of your actions are perceived,” Blodgett explains. “I’m considerate of how my actions are going to impact other people, but I don’t like to think about how my existence is going to affect someone else.”

Eli Blodgett

“It’s one of those things where you have to think how all of your actions are perceived,” says Eli Blodgett, a stage management major at SU. “I’m considerate of how my actions are going to impact other people, but I don’t like to think about how my existence is going to affect someone else.” Photo courtesy of Eli Blodgett.

Blodgett went to housing service before winter break with the hope of moving out the next semester. When requesting a housing change, he struggled to explain the situation since he didn’t want to bluntly state that his roommate was transphobic in fear of retaliation. The staffer asked if they had had a conversation surrounding the issues. When Blodgett said they didn’t, the staffer told him that there was nothing he could do.

Universities around the country have vastly different housing policies. At SU, there are no online resources or guidelines for trans students navigating housing services. Other schools such as Ithaca College, an hour away from SU and listed as one of the top ten trans-supportive colleges and universities nationally by The Advocate, place their Trans Housing Policy online, allow trans students to request accommodations for their specific needs with priority, and handle each case individually as each student has different interests and/or intersectional identities. A trans student may want to live in a single or a four-bedroom style apartment. They might want to be a part of a living-learning community not specifically for those of trans and queer experiences. Trans students may request to live off-campus due to transphobic experiences they had with roommates. "Some schools just pair people up but not everyone wants a trans roommate," Maurer says. “Our process allows them to tell us what they need and then they get priority because every single person is different.”

An Absence of Counselors With a Trans Perspective, Understanding

Counseling services are not always safe spaces for trans students either. A 2019 study from the Journal of American College Health, states that universal health services are failing to meet the needs of transgender students. Many students reported that providers misgendered them, addressed them by the wrong name, and asked inappropriate questions about their gender identity causing transgender students to dissuade from returning to health care services.

Ionah Scully, a Ph.D. candidate studying cultural foundations of education at SU, remembers the difficulties they experienced trying to seek treatment. The health center denied their therapy because they were deemed “high risk.” They had just started their first month as a doctoral student and came out of treatment for an eating disorder, which caused them to be severely underweight and suffer from a low heart rate. They had suffered two heart attacks the previous summer. “I feel like eating disorders are this contradiction to my identity,” says Scully, who identifies as non-binary and two-spirit (a Native, all-encompassing term created in the late ‘90s with intentions to reclaim their pre-colonial gender norms similar to queer). “I shouldn’t be succumbing to these white standards of beauty and body. I don’t. It comes from wanting to disappear and not to take up space when I’m told I’m not supposed to.”

Ionah Scully

“I shouldn’t be succumbing to these white standards of beauty and body. I don’t,” says Ionah Scully, a Ph.D. candidate studying cultural foundations of education at SU. “It comes from wanting to disappear and not to take up space when I’m told I’m not supposed to.” Photo courtesy of Ionah Scully.

SU referred them to a number of local therapists, but none stuck. The only authority specializing in eating disorders in the area made several ableist statements to them, comparing the IQs of women and Indigenous people as less than. The next therapist referred to Scully’s partner, who also uses they/them pronouns, with an “it.” Scully corrected the therapist, stayed until the session ended, then left — and never returned for another session. They had exhausted almost every option and felt helpless.

They tried to call the SU health center numerous times. “Please just let me see someone,” Scully begged them. “I’ll even sign a waiver if I die.” Yet, the university refused to see Scully, likely due to their policy to refer students with complex issues to higher-level care outside of campus. By the next summer, Scully was losing weight again, and as doctors told them they were going to collapse, they did and sprained their ankle.

They eventually began to recover and got referred to their current therapist in Ithaca, who they drive an hour bi-monthly to meet. While this therapist, who happens to be queer, has helped them begin to recover, Scully still feels like their intersectional identities and issues aren’t fully recognized.

Other trans students also need counseling services to diagnose them with gender dysmorphia to access hormones and gender reassignment surgery, which not all counselors possess the training to do. “A lot of us in mental health don’t get training around these issues, and it happens often where people come in and they’re like ‘I need a letter for top surgery’ and you don’t really know what top surgery is,” Thigpen explains.

Role of LGBTQIA+ Resource Centers

With the challenges they experience, many trans students turn to LGBTQIA+ resource centers as the safe haven on campus. Maysam Seraji, a part-time senior studying political science at SU, became involved as a student staffer during a period of their life where they were still exploring their transness. They later became a community coordinator, organizing programs such as Fusion, a monthly discussion group for queer students of color. “The resource center just changed my whole life,” Seraji says. “This pocket of people cared about each other. We cared about learning about it, and teaching each other. It shaped me so much in all these fundamental ways.”

Maysam Seraji

“The resource center just changed my whole life,” Maysam Seraji says. “This pocket of people cared about each other. We cared about learning about it, and teaching each other. It shaped me so much in all these fundamental ways.”

While these centers provide students with more comprehensive resources (like events, guides, and community), they also serve as an underground gateway to information from who’s the best counselor for trans students at the health center, which professors might be transphobic, and tips on gaining access to hormone therapy.

Some universities also implement innovative programming to support trans and queer students. At Washington State University, the Q Center offers both drop-in and scheduled counseling services to all students. Rutgers University’s Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities provides information for how students can access hormones with their student health care plan and grants aid to trans students in emergency situations. Kansas State University created a program that connects trans folks on campus to local and regional trans and human rights groups to allow for opportunities for community building, employment, and mentorship.

At many universities, however, trans students continue to be underserved and undersupported. Many LGBTQIA+ resource centers, like UC Irvine’s (as stated in an external assessment report), continue to be underfunded, leaving the staff unable to find the monetary support needed to aid queer and trans students. Resources for students may be also inaccessible for students with differing levels of ability. At predominately white institutions, trans spaces are often centered upon whiteness — causing trans students of color to feel ostracized within their own community.

Though trans students may face heightening violence and increased mental-health issues compared to their cis colleagues, they continue to persevere. “It sounds very doom and gloom but most TGNB students don’t just survive, they thrive,” Maurer says. “So despite all the odds, this is a population of folks who are resilient, resourceful, tenacious, determined. These are all skills we’ve had to cultivate to get all the way through college.”

“So despite all the odds, this is a population of folks who are resilient, resourceful, tenacious, determined. These are all skills we’ve had to cultivate to get all the way through college.”

My college experience came to an abrupt end in late March as the global COVID-19 pandemic began to engulf everyone’s daily lives, creating a “new normal” filled with social distancing, Zoom calls, and uncertainty. As home for me — like many LGBTQ students — remains a place of constant misgendering and unacceptance, I took refuge at a friend’s apartment where five people shared a three-bedroom space. My mornings changed. I woke up, and it was already the afternoon. I missed my first class, but luckily I watched a recording of the lecture. My body ached, my mind felt numb, and I felt lost in another depressive episode. I mentally prepared myself to get out of the bed I shared with my friend, and after an hour of mental reassurance, I did. I didn’t change and continued lounging in an oversized hoodie and sweatpants.

I logged onto my computer and began organizing the agenda for a digital meeting I had for MARGINS, the mentorship program I co-established for students of color and LGBTQ+ students in my department. That day, more than others, I was reflective. “I think I’m going to change my name,” I said, turning to one of my roommates sitting across the living room. She smiled at me, knowing I’d been contemplating this for months now.

A couple of days later, I got ready like I used to do. I applied makeup with the same blush, soft highlighter, and lipgloss. I rummaged through my luggage and decided to wear a dark, neutral checkered jacket over a ribbed tank top with a mid-length denim skirt. I walked outside. I quickly deflected the sunlight from my eyes with my arm. It was the first time I left my apartment in two weeks. My friends took my picture on the side of our apartment building, and we walked back inside to quarantine.

Looking at the pictures, I grinned and quickly posted them on Instagram and Twitter: “my name is river now,” I wrote in the caption. “as i began to live my life more authentically, i decided to look towards nature for inspiration. river — a free-flowing source of water that serves as a passage between lakes, seas, and oceans — is an in-between state, with no clear start or end, without restrictions to a binary.”


The Affordable Colleges’ Transgender College Student Resource Guide serves as a clearinghouse for a range of issues, projects, and information that seeks to empower trans students and assist them as they advocate for themselves and those in their community. Also consider the National Center for Transgender Equality. In addition, The Trevor Project provides crisis intervention and mental-health services for ages 13 to 24. Call their crisis hotline at 866-488-7386.

View a complete list of resources.