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Q&A with Z Nicolazzo, author of "Trans* in College"

by Kari Dickinson | Feb 12, 2018
Z Nicolazzo​We asked Z Nicolazzo (pronouns: ze/hir and she/her/hers), the author of Trans* In College: Transgender Students' Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion, to share a bit about h​ir research and perspective on the experience of trans college students in advance of hir visit to UW-Madison next week.

​Don't miss Z's WISCAPE talk, Fostering Inclusivity for Trans* Students in College, ​on Thursday, February 22, from 12 - 1:30 pm, in the Wisconsin Idea Room (159 Ed Bldg). This event is free and open to the public!

How has your identity as a transgender person influenced your research?

In a word: hugely. As I describe in my book, I came into my own trans identity in my late 20s. At the time, I was living in Arizona, and working in a highly gender normative environment (a student activities office at ​the University of Arizona, with fraternity and sorority members). When I began to come into my trans identity, I felt alone and isolated. I also felt quite vulnerable, especially given the state politics at the time. I knew I wanted to go back to school to get my doctorate, and when I moved to do so at Miami University, I became really curious about what it was like to have a trans undergraduate experience, which I did not have. I also wondered how place influenced one’s understanding of gender, especially given that my previous setting​ -- both geographically and in terms of my work ​-- influenced m​e greatly as I began to understand myself as trans. So yeah, my own sense of self, and my own unfolding understanding of myself as a trans feminine person, was very influential (and still is) in shaping the research I do with other trans people.  

Tell us about your book, Trans* in College. What motivated you to write it, and what is your hope it will accomplish?

Trans* in College is an outgrowth of my dissertation research. In fact, I usually joke with people and say my dissertation grew up and became Trans* in College!  My main motivation for writing the book was that the more I spent time with the nine participants who I had the privilege of working with, I kept realizing we needed more possibility models of who we could all become as trans people. That term, possibility models, is one that Laverne Cox uses to discuss the importance of trans elders, and how we serve as possibilities for who trans youth can become through their lives. I didn’t meet my own possibility models until my late 20s when I began to read memoirs and histories by trans women (books like Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl and Susan Stryker’s Transgender History), as well as trans anthologies like Mattilda’s Nobody Passes. In fact, I feel like I’m still meeting more possibility models now. 

I’m not sure that my book will serve in this role, but I do hope that trans youth may read the book, and may realize that we have always been in education, that we can and do remain resilient despite toxic, gender-dichotomous environments, and we are able to call upon each other to build the communities of love and support we need in order to thrive. While I hope people of all genders will read the book and learn from the nine participants who gave so much of themselves for our project, I also hold true to what I wrote in the dedication to the book: it’s a love letter from me to all of my trans kin, and I hope it provides a respite, a place of healing, and a place where we can come back to ourselves and each other.  

How has the experience of being a transgender college student changed in the last 10 years or so? On the whole, are students receiving more support and recognition than they once did? What are the major challenges they continue to face?

This is such a good question! In many ways, one could argue that trans people have received increased visibility throughout society, which includes throughout educational environments, which could well be a good thing. There is a growing set of research, much of it produced by trans researchers, who are focusing on transness in higher education, and are doing some pretty heavy lifting to elucidate how gender mediates college environments. I think this is all really important, and serves to benefit the trans students educators have been working alongside​ -- sometimes without even knowing it -- for years.

However, as Reina Gossett has stated, increased visibility of trans people is situated uncomfortably alongside increased violence and threat. If we think about educational environments, we can think about the DOJ and DOE choosing to actively dismantle the previously created guidance related to trans youth and facility accessibility. We can also think about how schools have never been built with trans people in mind, and that healthcare continues to largely be denied to trans people, including on college campuses. So while there have been some positive advancements in terms of visibility, and that visibility may well have aided in some college administrators and campuses “doing better,” I am reticent to project an overly rosy picture. There continue to be challenges around not only access and administrative systems, but there are also the continued threats to trans people’s humanity (e.g., professors refusing to use people’s proper pronouns, or trans people feeling so unsafe on campus that they stop out from college, which I discuss in Trans* In College).

How are the actions of the Trump administration affecting transgender college students?

As I talked about in my interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education last year, I continue to be incredibly worried and scared for trans youth in the age of Trump. Not only is he tweeting highly violent missives about trans people, but his recalcitrant bigotry is also emboldening others who already view trans people as nonhuman. In this sense, his administration is clearly having a negative impact (the DOE, under Secretary DeVos’ leadership, is slowly dismantling protections for trans youth, and the DOJ is unwilling to protect those who are most vulnerable, including trans youth), but there is a broader effect here, too. For example, Trump’s rhetoric encourages other people to question trans people’s humanity, and to deny us services. As Laverne Cox has said, the effect of these vitriolic politics and policies is to eradicate us trans people from public life, which includes higher education. There is a lot at stake here, and I see my work as part of my contribution to the collective fight for a more liberatory tomorrow.

What are the most important actions colleges can take to better support their transgender students?

The one thing I keep coming back to in my work and thinking is the importance of being in deep, loving community across difference. I sometimes have people tell me, “I can never know what it’s like to be trans,” and I tell them that’s okay because it’s actually not the point. You don’t need to know how the ins and outs of what it is to be trans to be with and alongside of us in community, and to be in solidarity with us as we make a fight for a better tomorrow. I think it is so important to build communities of support and love​ -- participants and I called these kinship networks through our work together​ -- and I truly believe they have the power to heal, as well as radically transform our world. However, it requires hard work, dedication to being with one another in deep and meaningful ways, and a commitment to learn from our mistakes as we live together. 

Do you have tips for cisgender students on being a better ally to their transgender peers?

Definitely! The first thing I would say is do your own research and work. A lot of cisgender people reach out to me searching for "The Answers to All Things Trans," and I often tell people they need to do their own homework. In the book, participants share stories about how it can be exhausting being relied upon to always be the knowledge provider, so I always encourage people to do their own work first. If there is a question about where to start, I even created the Trans* Studies in Higher Education Syllabus, which can be a really good starting point.

I also think cisgender people should invest time and energy thinking about how gender mediates their lives. Gender isn’t just something of import to trans people. We all have genders, and we all need to be thoughtful about how gender forecloses and/or proliferates possibilities for our lives. Cisgender people often miss this point (that’s how privilege works, right? It operates to make privilege hidden, and one needs to intentionally bring one’s privilege to the fore for scrutiny and interrogation). So by cisgender people thinking about how gender influences their lives, that is a start for them thinking about how gender acts as a broader cultural discourse to mediate everyone’s lives (a point participants and I discuss in the book).


Finally, I would say this –- don’t feel bad for trans people, and don’t care about us because it’s “the right thing to do.” Many of us lead beautiful lives, and have amazing communities, and we have crafted what participants and I call practices of resilience that allow us to navigate our gender-dichotomous worlds. Instead, be with and alongside us because our libertation is bound up together, and because none of us is free until all of us are free.  

What are you reading now?

Well, it’s the spring semester, so I am re-reading some books for the classes I teach, including Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals and Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. I love these books, and have revisited them often throughout my life (I think I am on my seventh reading of Ahmed’s book!), which makes me all the more pleased that I can engage with students on the texts. I am also trying to sneak in some fiction.  I set a goal to read more fiction in 2018, so right now I am reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

Do you have any hobbies you’d like to share with us?

I’m an avid cyclist, and am currently fundraising to participate in the 2018 AIDS Life/Cycle ride. This is a 545-mile, week-long ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and all funds raised go to support the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Los Angeles LGBT Center. 

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