Transgender Identity and Higher Education Discrimination

This summer, Domaine Javier received an abruptly disheartening expulsion notice from California Baptist University (CBU).  The private “Christian” university in Riverside informed the transgender 24-year-old woman from the Philippines that she was expelled for “committing or attempting to engage in fraud, or concealing identity” in university judicial processes, according to The Riverside Press-Enterprise.  She never received the opportunity to start the nursing program at CBU, three blocks from her home.

Javier, who is biologically male, fraudulently (from CBU’s official perspective) checked the female box on her application form.  Javier has identified as a female since she was a toddler.  “That’s how I see myself,” she said.  During a background check, CBU officials learned that Javier appeared on an April episode of MTV’s “True Life” controversially titled “I’m Passing as Someone I’m Not.” She declared on the show at one point, “I am a girl trapped in a guy’s body.”

When I first learned about Javier’s story, two interrelated but distinct questions arose. Did CBU discriminate against a transgender woman? Is higher education (and society at large) discriminating against transgender people by only providing the options of male or female on identity forms? I am leaning in the affirmative on both questions.

To the first question, one of the more provocative ideas I have learned in recent years from gender, feminist and queer scholars is that gender is a social construction, a performance. I mention this because I want to pose some more questions. What determines your gender: your biology or your socio-cultural performance? If there is a conflict there, as there is with transgender individuals, what should people identify as? Do they, should they have a choice?

According to CBU officials, people must choose their biological gender — otherwise they are “concealing identity.” But that directly assumes that biological identity usurps socio-cultural identity? Why is the biological superior? Why can they not be on two sides of the same coin, on the same plane? Why can socio-cultural identity not be deemed superior?

The construction of the term transgender places biological and socio-cultural identity at least on the same level (and some transgender people place the socio-cultural over the biology). CBU officials ethnocentrically made biology the chief determinant of Javier’s gender identity. In other words, CBU officials decided to impose their views (which is widespread and mainstream unfortunately) on transgender people instead of judging them and their identity from their perspective. That is how and why CBU can say to Javier that she lied, refusing to understand her transgender perspective.  That is what racists have long done. That is what sexists have long done. That is what religious persecutors have long done. That is what homophobic people have long done — imposing ideas and ideals of your own race, gender, religion or sexuality onto another. It is discrimination in its classic form.

Fifty years ago, CBU officials would have probably unashamedly proclaimed that they did discriminate against her. But this is the 21 century, a political environment in which discriminators rarely show their cards, fervently resist the discriminatory label and find some other excuse to broadcast why the injustice occurred.

In a more ominous sense, application forms with only male and female options may be discriminatory as well. So, we as an academy should probably share the blame for this injustice. 

   

But then again, if we added a third identity to the gender section — transgender — I can understand how many transgender men and women would be fearful of checking that box, fearful of discrimination, fearful of the social ostracism that is bound to follow.  This fear emerged among African-Americans in 1967 when racial identity was first added to many admissions forms. Many people still are fearful of discrimination when they have to identify by race. 

Nonetheless, without the transgender option, colleges like CBU are free to justify their discrimination of transgender people using the fraud excuse. And, transgender people will continue to be forced often times to choose between “their identity” and how society identifies them, based on their biology. They now must choose between deceiving themselves or deceiving society. This is a crude, absurd, vicious choice we have put before them.

Dr. Ibram H. Rogers is an assistant professor of history at SUNY College at Oneonta.  He is the author of The Black Campus Movement: Black Students and the Racial Reconstitution of Higher Education, 1965-1972 (2012).