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Diversity: the on-campus conversation about transgender and non-binary students

Despite the fact 2015 was a groundbreaking year for the transgender community, some colleges and universities are still finding some resistance to the growing awareness of issues related to transgender students.

In 2015, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville experienced backlash from students, alumni and deep-pocketed donors—who threatened to pull funding—over the publication of an informational article about gender neutral pronouns on a university website.

In response, the school removed the article and sparked a debate about the university’s responsibility to have these types of conversations.

While this conversation can result in the same type of negative response that UT experienced, students and faculty at Belmont are trying to see both sides of the issue and successfully initiate that conversation within the Belmont community.

“This type of issue puts the administration in a difficult position,” said Caresse John, associate professor of English at Belmont. “What happens when the funding gets pulled? Yes, the comfort of the students should be taken into consideration, but if there is no funding, the quality of their experience won’t be made any better.”

While the administration has an obligation to protect the student experience as a whole, which is facilitated by that funding, it is just one part of the academic community.

“Ideally, there should be enough support coming out of the woodwork from students, faculty and the media. If you make enough noise, someone will hear you,” said John.

The Belmont community is no stranger to this noise. A 2008 faculty change brought to light that sexual orientation was not protected against discrimination in Belmont’s policies.

“Faculty senate and Bridge Builders started making noise and the Vision started writing articles and The Tennesseean started writing articles, then The Associated Press got involved, and it got the attention it needed to make that change. Once you get enough attention, things can change,” John said.

Keeping the lines of communication open and building a relationship with the administration is how the student-led group has been able to navigate LGBT issues on campus, said Drew Swisher, president of Bridge Builders.

“The discussion about trans and non-binary students is just starting. A lot of the conversation comes down to helping people on campus become familiarized with how to support trans issues,” he said.

Kam Johnson, a transgender student at Belmont, is working to raise awareness about trans issues with Residence Life.

“I didn’t experience a lot of pushback from Belmont when I came here because I didn’t know I had rights, so I didn’t exercise them,” he said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to do now. We are organizing events where we hand out Title IX cards so that students know what their rights are.” Bridge Builders is working to reach out to departments like Residence Life, as well as other faculty groups and the administration.

“Belmont is on its way to being a place where these discussions can be had. The conversation isn’t perfect, but the fact that the dialogue is being facilitated is an important step,” Swisher said.

A lot of what Swisher, Johnson and others aim to do is raise awareness about transgender and non-binary students on campus and educate the Belmont community about the language and concepts associated with them.

“There seems to be a concern that if you make a mistake with the terminology or the pronouns, you’re going to make people mad — you aren’t. The only way to avoid making mistakes is to ask questions and have dialogue about it,” said Swisher.

As a group, Bridge Builders works diligently to remain an open line of communication and learning for students and faculty alike.

“We don’t see the faculty and administration as an enemy. We just want to work with them and help them realize Belmont’s goal of being a welcoming community,” Swisher said.

Although transgender issues are still largely uncharted territory at Belmont, students and Belmont administration are building a relationship to initiate an open dialogue– a promising step toward creating a valuable college experience for every student.

The exchange of ideas and willing communication among the different groups making up the Belmont community is the first step in fostering an environment of acceptance and learning for students of all experiences.

“The university is the space for learning in our nation. It is vital to a democracy for the university to be a safe space for different experiences. We have to learn about them,” said John. “Changing minds is a hard business, but it’s core to the notion of what a university should be.”

This article was written by Hannah Garrett.

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