I’ve been looking a lot at the environment within universities and high schools for queer and trans students over the last few months, both within our work at the University of Auckland and in researching things around high schools, particularly using the Greens report, which is worth a read in itself.
The thing that strikes me most is the attitude of “our policies don’t explicitly exclude or discriminate queer or trans students, so they’re okay” (often seen alongside the common high school attitude of “we just don’t have any queer students, so we don’t need to set up any support”). Aside from the fact this seems sufficient to ERO, who don’t even take queer students into account when it comes to diversity, acceptance, and safety in high schools according to the Greens report, it’s a widespread attitude that leads to a lot of people in the community thinking, well, that’s good enough, I guess. It’s not.
There’s a massive issue with vague and insufficient policies. The fact of the matter is, considering the discrimination that queer and trans youth experience in literally every single sphere of our lives, when a policy is vague, insufficient, or simply doesn’t exist, it’s safer to assume that the motivation is discriminatory. This came up in the Greens’ report – when a school has no policies or support or even visibility of queer students, then closeted or questioning students are going to stay that way. If they experience bullying or discrimination or have any issues, and their school has no visible policies explicitly protecting them – as queer students experiencing bullying, not just any students – then they’re far less likely to self-report any issues.
The same goes for universities, and perhaps even more so, considering the size of the student body, the isolating effect that has, and the knowledge that with over 40,000 students there are bound to be many who will not accept you and may even wish you harm. This is particularly true in less visible and more contested areas like bathrooms – an encounter with such a student alone in a gendered space, where they think you do not belong, may very well not end well.
The size of the institution itself has an effect on the community, too – especially when policies are not standardised. Approaches to issues may vary from faculty to faculty, even from staff member to staff member – when one student talked to staff about changing pronouns two or three years ago, he had no problems and it was done. When I tried earlier this year, they required an official document like a passport with the “new” gender, which would cost a total of around $300 to acquire. It’s clear that interpretations of vague policies like this can vary from year to year, which leaves the system open to abuse.
Explicit policies are one of the best ways of ensuring the safety of queer and trans students, there’s no doubt about it. They’re relatively easy and costless to implement, too – the excuses are few and far between.