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What Anti-LGBTQ+ State Bills Mean for Higher Ed


Dr. Z Nicolazzo, associate professor of trans* studies in education at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of ArizonaDr. Z Nicolazzo, associate professor of trans* studies in education at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of ArizonaOn last Thursday, the governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds, signed a bill into law that will ban trans girls and women from playing sports in college and high school.

This move comes less than a week after Wyoming’s state senators passed a budget amendment to stop funding the University of Wyoming’s women’s and gender studies program. That amendment died in the House, but for scholars watching more and more anti-LGBTQ+ bills across states, concerns are mounting for LGBTQ+ students in higher education, especially trans women and girls.

“Clearly, this will interrupt and mediate the college-going process for trans girls,” said Dr. Z Nicolazzo, an associate professor of trans* studies in education at the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Arizona and one of the few openly trans tenure-track professors in the field of higher education. “If trans girls don’t feel like education is a space for them and face barrier after barrier just to be themselves, then I would assume they actually would be trapped out of higher education before they even get to higher education.”

Since the start of this year, more than 170 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been filed by conservative state lawmakers, outpacing last year’s total of 139, according to Freedom for All Americans, a nonprofit focused on LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination protections across the country. At least 69 of those bills this year center on K-12 school policies.

“What they’re doing is conveying to LGBTQ+ students that they are unwelcome in their learning communities—and we’re excluding students at the K-12 level from the experiences that are fundamental to their college preparation and success as well as to their identity formations,” said Dr. Margaux Cowen, chief program officer at the Point Foundation, a nonprofit that provides college scholarships and support to LGBTQ+ students across the country.

In the first week of 2022 alone, at least seven states proposed laws to limit transgender and nonbinary youth from playing sports, using bathrooms, and receiving gender-affirming healthcare. 

“My main concern, because I work on K-12 issues, is that this just adds an unbelievable amount of stress to young LGBTQ+ people who are already working very hard to make their schools more equitable,” said Dr. Cris Mayo, a professor in the department of education at the University of Vermont and previously the director of the LGBTQ+ Center and a professor in women’s and gender studies at West Virginia University. “And the fact that conservatives are going after children is shocking. It’s predictable. But it’s also shocking.”

Last month, for instance, Florida’s House of Representatives passed the Parental Rights in Education bill, to prohibit teachers and school staff from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third-grade classrooms. Critics have called the legislation the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. 

Yet higher education is no exception, as Nicolazzo noted.

“I really feel a slippery slope with these bills aimed at K-12 schools coming to colleges and universities,” said Dr. Kristen Renn, a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University’s College of Education and a past president of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). “There are a couple of ways to think about the impact of these bills on colleges. One is what this means for the pipeline of LGBTQ+ students potentially coming to higher education. And the other is what this means for LGBTQ+ students currently in higher education.”

Dr. Mario Suarez, an assistant professor of cultural studies at Utah State University’s School of Teacher Education and Leadership, researches how society’s understandings of gender and sexuality shape K-12 education. He takes an intersectional approach.

“Most of what we know from research is that people who have less financial and educational resources are going to be the most affected by these bills,” said Suarez. “Because people with more money can move to more gender affirming places or find more affirming health care. We know this will most impact minoritized individuals of color and their families with lower socioeconomic status.”

Prior to his doctoral work, Suarez, who is trans male, taught high school mathematics in Texas. He voiced worries similar to Renn that higher education may not fully grasp that slippery slope from K-12 spaces that already is underway.

“As someone who was a public school, K-12 educator, I really see how there has in the past been an us-them rhetoric where K-12 schools do their own thing and higher ed folks have more freedom to do what they want,” said Suarez. “But we’re all in this together because what is impacting K-12 education will impact higher education. We already know that and see that.”

Suarez and Nicolazzo also emphasized that anti-trans state bills focused on classrooms are not new. While more national attention is critical, they both said it is just as key to recognize that state lawmakers have been pushing similar bills forward over the past few years.

As higher education leaders consider how to help LGBTQ+ students already on campus, Nicolazzo offered advice on steps they can take.

“I think the first thing is to reach out to trans students and ask them what they need,” said Nicolazzo. “I think often higher education leaders and people in K-12 administration think they know the answers, but really my work shows that trans students, faculty, and staff know what we need best. It’s important that they reach out to trans students on campuses, let them know that they recognize what is happening, and invite them into conversation.”

She has researched how trans students in higher education have built affirming communities, or kinship networks, despite academic spaces not being built with them in mind.

“These were spaces where they could create familial and familial-like relationships with people who saw them as they were,” said Nicolazzo. “Even though trans students operate in this gender binary discourse that permeates all of higher education and even K-12 education, I would argue that trans students are finding ways to be in community with and alongside each other in the way they need.”

She added that campus conversations should not just take trans community members’ knowledge and time but result in actions to better support students. For instance, she noted surveys have found college students, regardless of gender and sexuality, are experiencing more housing and food insecurity “across the board” at this time.

“What would it mean to pull trans students together for a meal?” said Nicolazzo. “These are vital steps that can be taken to listen more and to make sure we’re really centering trans students of color, trans women, and trans girls in particular.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected].

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