Transgender Identity on Campus

The challenge

What it means to be transgender—and the associated issues and complications—is a conversation that has saturated college campuses in recent months. Building a community that is respectful to transgender individuals requires people to better understand such issues and—often—think differently about gender and the ways our world asks people to identify as female or male (such as public bathrooms.)

Clark University’s Difficult Dialogues’ Spring 2013 symposium “Diversity and Inclusion Embodied”—part of an ongoing series to create conversations around controversial and meaningful issues—focused on the challenges faced by transgender, transsexual, and intersexed individuals and the relationship between bodies and diversity and inclusion.

“We’re aiming to bring an issue that’s important into the open,” said Clark’s Higgins School of Humanities Director Amy Richter. “Ongoing participants in the series have the chance to deepen and expand their conversations, and one-time participants learn how to use dialogue to explore difficult topics.” As they aimed to build their ability to talk about transgender issues on campus, Clark looked to Public Conversations Project to support their process.

The Action

60 people—including students, faculty, staff, and members of the community—participated in a community conversation that was jointly facilitated by Professor Jennifer Plante and practitioner John Sarrouf. Plante, who studies and speaks about issues dealing with transgender, talked to the group about the many complexities involved in issues of transgender children, including children born with ambiguous sexual biology. Sarrouf then spoke about how dialogue can be the means to more deeply understand each other and all of the complexity of these issues.

"Someone said they felt like they were in the church of dialogue," said one of the facilitators.

Following the two presenters, the group broke into five different circles for small group dialogue, guided by a set of questions and facilitated by Clark dialogue fellows. “Someone said they felt like they were in the church of dialogue when John talked—there’s something so powerful and passionate about the way he talks about dialogue,” shared Plante. “He created a safe space for people to share their thoughts and ideas without feeling castigated or too shy. By insisting that this was a place for sharing and not judging, he created an atmosphere that allowed multidimensional dialogue to take place.”

Community participant Marty Hellman said it was the first time he had the opportunity to be part of a dialogue. “Having a structure and a format in place created the space and safety for me to bring myself to that conversation.” Hellman added “there were a wide range of skills and perspectives in the room and John did a masterful job of being able to respond to whatever was happening in a way that was supportive of everyone. Some people needed more directing than others and John was skillful at doing it in a way that was respectful and nurturing.”

Images via Flickr user Jirka Matousek

The shift

“It’s a really difficult issue to talk about,” said Sarrouf. “I think there are a lot of assumptions that many of us have about the issue that are misconceptions or just based on lack of familiarity. And you can see from the news coverage that it’s an issue that triggers a lot of anxiety and questions and confusion.” However, the community conversation that night allowed people to deeply explore what it means to have a gender.

Hellman said the structure of the conversation helped him shift the way he talked. “There was an invitation to let go of my personal need to always be right. There’s an energy, angst and edge when I’m coming at a topic trying to change someone’s mind, which feels very different from when I’m sharing what’s true for me,” explained Hellman. Plante noted that she, too, sees dialogue as being a valuable tool regardless of the topic. “We talk about issues with our own personal bias and it’s hard to get out of own lens sometimes and see what other people are feeling and experiencing.

Dialogue creates a safety that allows people to be honest with each other without being hurtful,” she said. “I’m constantly surprised by the wonderful things that can happen from dialogue—even things that are sometimes scary are wonderful.” 

Practitioner perspective

I heard people say they had never reflected so deeply on the complexity of this issue. One student said this was the first time she took into consideration that people who believed different than she did were people with a set of concerns, confusion or fear.

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