Commentary | Trans*forming the classroom

The erasure of trans* folks at McGill, why it matters, and how to change it

You’re in Leacock 132 for your Physiology 209 class, and the professor is talking about hemoglobin and iron levels in blood. She states that women must ingest 28 milligrams of iron a month more than men, due to loss of blood during menstruation. Calling this a women’s issue might not seem problematic at first glance, but it is one of many forms of trans* erasure that happen in McGill classrooms.

Trans* erasure is the refusal to acknowledge the existence of trans* people, often excluding them out of a desire for simplicity. The idea that someone might identify and live as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth, have more than two chromosomes, or identify anywhere outside of binary assumptions of sex and gender is rarely brought up in class.

Trans* erasure happens every time we look at a study of ‘men versus women’ without recognizing that non-binary people exist. It happens every time we learn about the pregnant woman’s health needs, when these needs apply to all pregnancies. It’s when we learn about the effect of testosterone levels, and instead of specifying this, the professor says something like, “men show heightened levels of aggression.” Gender identity is independent from physiological processes such as menstruation; the characteristics often attributed to various genders are dependent on cultural norms, and are not universal.

Trans* erasure doesn’t only harm trans* people: it also misinforms all students, who walk away with inaccurate beliefs that continue the cycle of trans* ignorance. For example, if an undergrad student sits through every science class learning a simplified and inaccurate version of human biology and human experience, and then goes on to medical school where they learn the same thing, our education system will be producing doctors who are ill-prepared to provide trans* patients with adequate care. Gaps in our education system result in gaps in societal knowledge; this is a self-perpetuating cycle that must be stopped.

But it’s not just biology-based classes that are problematic. In almost any subject that deals with people, assumptions are made about ‘men’ and ‘women’ without middle ground, alternatives, or nuance. Why can’t we learn about psychology or nutrition without ignoring the incredible diversity that the nearly seven billion people on this planet have to offer?

There is a certain amount of trust that society puts in our educators. We expect students to come out of our education system knowing how to behave in the world. Shouldn’t the aim, then, be to teach in a way which is as accurate and inclusive as possible? Professors and TAs must present material that accurately represents the world we live in – that is, a world where trans* and intersex people exist – and model trans* inclusivity.

For example, avoiding gender essentialist claims is very easy. Instead of “women” in the first paragraph, the professor could have simply said, “people who menstruate must ingest 28 milligrams of iron a month more than those who don’t.” People with uteruses can get pregnant and those with prostates can have prostate cancer, regardless of their gender identity.

Educators and students alike need to challenge normalized academic discourse and practices, which ignore that trans* people exist. A start can be as easy as having a ‘check-in’ at a first conference or seminar, where people are given the chance to express their preferred name and pronoun(s). When faced with problematic class material that assumes that gender and sex are equivalent, or that there are only two possible genders, we should talk about it critically and acknowledge that the material is lacking. Finally, as teachers and students who also do our own research, we must be wary of reproducing these same problematic models in our own work.

Fighting trans* erasure in the classroom is a step toward making our campus a safer and more inclusive space, and our graduates more accurately informed members of society. What is there to lose?

*“Trans*” is an umbrella term describing people whose gender identity does not match the gender they were assigned at birth. It includes both binary-identified trans folks (trans men and women) as well as those who identify outside the binary. Intersex describes a number of conditions in which one’s physiological sex characteristics do not easily fit the medical definitions of either male or female.

The Trans* Working Group is a subset of Queer McGill. It was created at the end of the Winter 2012 semester to better serve the trans* community at McGill, and to encourage the participation and inclusion of trans*-identified folks within the community. The authors of this article can be contacted at trans.workinggroup@gmail.com.


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