Transgender Identity on Campus

The challenge

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 on campus.

“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 Essential Partners to support their process.

The Action

60 people—including students, faculty, staff, and members of the community—participated in a conversation that was facilitated by Professor Jennifer Plante and EP's John Sarrouf. Plante talked about the many complexities of navigating social norms as a transgender person. Sarrouf spoke about how dialogue allows people to more deeply understand one other in all of their complexity.

"John created a safe space for people to share their thoughts and ideas without feeling castigated or too shy.”

The group broke into five circles for small group dialogues, 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 can be a difficult issue to talk about,” said Sarrouf. “There are a lot of assumptions and misconceptions about transgender people, and a lack of familiarity with the issues they face. And you can see from the news coverage, it’s an issue that triggers a lot of anxiety 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 about transgender identity. “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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