Morehouse’s new policy accepting trans men misses the point by clinging to the gender binary
A person’s gender is not something that can be contained—it’s fluid.
By Ramon Johnson
The Morehouse community has long had difficulties facilitating an inclusive campus environment for marginalized gender identities. This is particularly troubling given the high standards, goals, and ideals expressed as the foundational principles of the institution.
Since my first year at Morehouse in 2013, the majority of people I’ve encountered assumed that only cisgender men attend and graduate from Morehouse College. I used to hold my tongue and passively respond with laughter. I made myself smaller to avoid conflict and further interrogation of my identity. But now I wish I had the dignity and courage during to inform them that their assumptions were wrong, as these are the same assumptions that have led to Morehouse’s problems with gender today.
Understandably, I was a young Black college student dealing with narrow depictions of manhood and conservative institutional policies that were being forced upon me. Thankfully, I would eventually find other LGBTQIA+ possibility models along my journey and become more comfortable in my own skin. I joined Morehouse Safe Space, the institution’s gender & sexuality student collective, to find community when cisgender brotherhood wanted no parts of me.
Together, we did amazing work on campus to combat institutionalized queer/transantagonism. We also gave each other the gift of bristahood: a bond of friendship that is tied to freedom; not a gender binary or other mythical norms. Every year, we organized on the shoulders of previous leaders who also helped pioneer efforts to ensure LGBTQIA+ Morehouse students can thrive today.
So as a gender nonconforming graduate of Morehouse College, I was excited to hear that the school had formed a Gender Identity Admissions and Matriculation Policy that explicitly welcomed transgender men for the first time. However, I was deeply concerned to discover the policy would de-enroll students who start to identify as women while matriculating at the institution.
I was also disappointed to know that there are still no tangible LGBTQIA+ resources for students on campus outside of treatment like PrEP (Pre Exposure Prophylaxis) and LGBTQIA+ student organizations. It also broke my heart to see 15 months of community engagement from the administration exclude the insights and concerns of LGBTQIA+ folks and erase over 24 years of free LGBTQIA+ student labor. The day-to-day realities as experienced by transgender, gender nonconforming, bigender and nonbinary students has reached a deafening pitch.
Policies like these are counterproductive; only leading to trans, nonbinary, bigender and gender nonconforming students being subjects for consumption. It is great to be included, however inclusion is not enough when tangible resources are lacking.
LGBTQ+ inclusion initiatives are based on multiplicity of premises and meaning-making that are socially constructed. What these campus initiatives and policies do and do not do is a product of the interests of various subjects occupying space and different levels of institutional power.
For example, according to Morehouse President Thomas, “The Gender Identity Admissions and Matriculation Policy was “developed over the course of the last 15 months of community engagement.” It allegedly “reflects insights gained through the work of a policy task force, discussions with every constituency of the College, counsel from the LGBTQIA+ Faculty task force, and two surveys,” but the insights of transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people were not considered during this 15 month process.
According to a recent New York Times article, Morehouse President Thomas told reporters that “the policy was not driven by transgender students on campus.” LGBTQIA+ alumni and students have actually been using the hashtag #MorehouseCannotEraseMe on Twitter to express how their concerns and emails were ignored during the formation of the policy. This was no surprise since cisgender men make up the large majority of the institution’s administration, and the concerns of LGBTQIA+ students and alumni have been ignored for many years.
The formation of policies like this must center the concerns and insights of those being impacted. Keeping these students informed about these decision-making processes before final decisions are made is also important.
Oftentimes, people in positions of power want change to happen privately in order to avoid marginalized groups asking too many questions and wanting too many answers, but the public and private have always been interconnected for Black people. Change must happen publicly and privately, simultaneously and in partnership. Doing so creates transparency for transgender, nonbinary, bigender and gender nonconforming students to know what moves are being made about their safety.
As many of these ignored students and alumni have pointed out, de-enrolling any student who begins to no longer identifies as a man while matriculating at the college only reinforces the gender binary. A person’s gender is not something that can be contained—it’s fluid. Expecting current and prospective students to understand their gender identity and gender expression off jump while trying to police how their gender trajectory will unfold as they matriculate at the college is just as violent as the trans-exclusive policy in place before.
Prior to my Morehouse journey, I identified as a cisgender gay man. I had no idea of how my gender trajectory would change throughout my undergraduate years. After many years of being taught how to properly perform manhood, I felt confined and secretly feared the freedom of my gender nonconforming peers during my second semester. These experiences coupled with Morehouse’s appropriate attire policy drove me into a deep depression, causing me to fold into myself out of shame.
This new admissions policy will carry on the same trauma to current and prospective students if they are not given the capacity to remain students regardless of how they identify. I cannot imagine how many nonbinary, transgender, gender nonconforming and bigender students are suffering because their institution is requiring them to put limitations on their gender in order to get what they need and maintain their well-being.
It is imperative to understand that LGBTQIA+ people are human, not things that can be disregarded and easily disposed. These institutional changes must be informed by transgender, gender nonconforming, bigender and nonbinary experiences, otherwise they fail. Admissions offices need to be required to receive proper education regarding transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming and bigender identities.
So much of what we know about gender identity is constrained between A and B binaries, and there is no room for complexity. So much of what we have been conditioned to understand about a person’s gender is through what we see and not understanding how they feel and think. If these institutions are truly serious about supporting every individual’s right to self-identification, they must release the mythical norms around what transitioning is and what transgender, nonbinary, bigender and gender nonconforming identities look like. Failure to do so will only result in the continued violence of interrogating people’s gender identity and expression as invalid or fraudulent.
As a gender nonconforming alumnus, I know the institution’s historical erasure of LGBTQIA+ students personally. Previous protests and demonstrations have shown how ignoring this community makes the institution complicit in the violence exacted upon them and others in today’s society. This must come to an end. To assist in this transition, I suggest all colleges and universities commit to the following:
- The allocation of more funding and appropriately trained and aligned staff to LGBTQIA+ Resource Center. This helps ensure students have a physical space on campus that can support them.
- The inclusion of an LGBTQ non-discrimination clause for students, faculty, and staff in the school’s policies that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexuality, gender identity, and gender expression.
- The appointment of a director of Diversity & Inclusion who is specifically aligned and invested in facilitating an inclusive campus environment.
- The formation of an external accountability team, composed of radical community activists who are already educated and invested in doing this work.
- The implementation of accessible gender inclusive restrooms on campus in dorms, academic buildings, student centers, and administrative buildings
- Offering comprehensive health benefits for transgender, bi-gender, gender nonconforming, and non-binary students and employees, including coverage for hormone therapy, mental health counseling, and transgender-specific surgeries.
- For “single sex institutions” transgender admissions policy must reckon with the complexity of the gender spectrum. The policy must provide multiple gender identity categories for students to choose when applying for admission. The policy cannot dismiss a student who decides to transition as they matriculate through the college.
- The Office of Admissions must create key outreach opportunities and recruiting events, including pamphlets, that enable the college to embrace and source LGBTQIA+ prospective students to apply .
- The Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities needs to fill positions in the humanities and social science departments with scholars who study sexuality and gender–more specifically, scholars who label their work “Black/Queer/Feminist” [The word “Black” must be included in their label.] (Lee, 2014)
- Ensure the President of the college and the VP of Student Affairs and Student Development create consistent and effective campus-wide programs to mitigate transphobia, sexual violence, and homophobia, queer/trans antagonism.
- Publicly announce the abolishment of gendered attire and protest policies.
- LGBTQIA+ diversity/Sexual Assault competence training must happen on campus every semester. The school website must show when trainings occur and how many faculty and staff members attend.
- Appoint transgender, gender nonconforming and nonbinary people to serve as tenured professors, members of the board of trustees, and other positions
These are just a few steps institutions can take. Some of the above have already been repeatedly suggested to previous administrations at Morehouse who have failed to meet these suggestions. These steps may not eliminate all instances of institutional homophobia, queer/transantagonism, and cissexism but they will certainly aid in fostering a more intentional safe space for all students at colleges and universities.
The school we know and love should be invested in treating everyone with every ounce of the dignity and respect they deserve, not only in rhetoric but in action. Issues like these cannot and should not be dealt with discreetly. This is a systemic issue that permeates campus, no matter how friendly and encouraging a few administrative folks are toward LGBTQIA+ students.
Black people and Black colleges need deeper understandings of how the gender binary was not made for us. We have been conditioned to focus our attention on respectable forms of drag to navigate through the world with hopes that we can be seen as worthy by dominant culture. This leads to Black people feeling pressured to force our way into categories and rigid performances that were designed specifically for our exclusion. Any attempt to fulfill gender roles as outlined outside of Blackness reinforces the violence against Black folks who are committed to challenging dominant culture. This requires a (re)discovery of the ways we can relate to ourselves and our bodies that are conducive to our freedom (Alston, 2005).
Ramon W. Johnson is an interdisciplinary artist and researcher at New York University with a concentration in Black Queer Studies . A native of Ellenwood, Georgia, Johnson received their Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Morehouse College with Cum Laude honors. As a current Richard J. Koppenaal Scholar at New York University, much of Johnson’s work explores Black LGBTQ+ archives, fatphobia, identity formation and what tangible resources are needed to affirm Black Transgender, Nonbinary, Gender Nonconforming, and Queer people on HBCU campuses. After the completion of their graduate studies, Johnson aspires to become an educator of gender & sexuality studies while continuing to create art that affirms Black LGBTQ+ people through their multimedia archival projects and music.