New Strides in Gender Inclusion at Wheaton

Members of the Network for LGBTQ + Inclusion, Support, and Advocacy during a meeting.

The strength of Wheaton is our close-knit community. The warmth and courtesy that we extend to one another is a hallmark of the Wheaton experience, however, when it comes to being an inclusive community; kindness is not enough.

Many students who identify as gender non-conforming (GNC) or transgender have endured transphobic experiences that leave them questioning whether they belong.

One member of the Class of 2022 described their experiences this way:

“I feel at home here, but it’s far from perfect, from conversations around transgender identities being led by cisgender individuals, to such humiliation as being misgendered in front of an entire class — there’s things that need to change.”

To help support the Wheaton community in doing more to combat gender-based exclusion, the Network for LGBTQ+ Inclusion, Support, and Advocacy teamed up with the new Student Gender Initiative (SGI) to develop “Creating a Gender-Affirming Wheaton: A Guide” that is now available online.

“The guide is important because it offers practical tips, tools, and resources for better supporting transgender, nonbinary, and gender non-conforming students and employees at Wheaton. Many faculty, for example, would like to use inclusive language and practices in the classroom but are not always sure where to start. And many students, especially new arrivals at Wheaton, are not aware of existing procedures for helping them update their names or other Wheaton documentation. This guide is designed to help connect Wheaton’s intentions—creating an inclusive, welcoming space for all members of our community—with concrete resources and actions we can take…” said Assistant Professor of Sociology/Women’s and Gender Studies Kate Mason, a guide co-author.

Justin Martinez ’22, who helped co-author the guide and is a leader of SGI, said “The notion of empowerment has truly manifested itself in Creating a Gender-Affirming Wheaton: A Guide as it provides a platform for historically silenced voices to be acknowledged and understood. Providing a unique sense of normalcy to queer experiences in our community, this guide is a powerful and proactive step toward making Wheaton a safe space for all.”

LGBTQ+ Engagement Coordinator and guide co-author Mike Pratt described the value of the guide this way: “I’m excited that there is now a treasure trove of supplementary resources readily available for people to sift through in order to continue their own education outside of formal workshop spaces… The guide provides information around legal name changes, best practices for proper pronoun usage, and more.”

Professor of Religion and Coordinator of Jewish Studies, Jonathan Brumberg-Kraus, a member of the network is also thrilled about the guide. He noted: “The guide is particularly important,  first because it represents a public statement that Wheaton not only strives to be a gender-affirming institution welcoming to trans, gender non-binary, gender-non-conforming, and queer students, faculty and staff. But it does more than that, by emphasizing how we care in the detailed, informative, and thoughtful content that went into putting this document together… I think it’s also important because it makes better known the work of Wheaton’s Network for LGBTQ+ Inclusion, Support, and Advocacy, the group of staff, faculty and administrators on campus that composed the guide with students, and that we’re here as an on-going presence to include, support and advocate for the LGBTQ+ members of our Wheaton community.”

Wheaton is not alone in our need to improve our awareness of and resources for GNC and transgender students.

According to a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, “52.1 percent of incoming transgender college students reported their emotional health as either below average or in the lowest 10 percent relative to their peers.” Their report goes on to state that: “The college experience of these students is very different from that of their cisgender peers, but they are not assured that the campus they encounter is ready to address their needs and respond to transphobia and cissexism.”

The guide is so important because it gives the tools for the Wheaton community to reduce the number of adverse experiences faced by trans and GNC students.

Nikki Vaynshteyn ’22, who is a leader of Wheaton’s SGI and co-author of the guide, said: “I have been a witness to the injustices trans students face due to a lack of affirmation and support on campus. Trans students on Wheaton’s campus deserve better. We must work diligently, thoughtfully and with care and empathy to support the trans and GNC community and create an equitable experience. If we want to exist in a socially responsible and unified community, it is up to all of us to educate ourselves and show up for each other.”

The work of SGI and The network is not the first step Wheaton has made to promote gender inclusion.

The network led a workshop during Faculty Workshop Week in May 2020 on gender inclusive classroom strategies. And among many other storied efforts, in 1983 Wheaton hosted a conference that invited hundreds of educators from across the country to learn more about “gender-balancing” the college curriculum. Between 1987 and 1988 when the first co-educational class began at Wheaton with male-identifying students, there were notable efforts to consider how the college would support the needs of male and female-identifying students.

The network and SGI’s efforts to support the campus in thinking beyond the gender binary is the next step in Wheaton’s equity and inclusion journey; and it must be a priority for us all.

Despite prepping for hall openings this summer, Associate Director of Residential Life and Housing Operations Lyndsey Aguilar, set aside time to help co-author the guide. Her dedication to improving the experiences of LGBTQ+ students is something she believes is critical for everyone on campus to become involved in.

She said: “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect… [It is up to the] many people at Wheaton to genuinely come together to create and advocate for equitable experiences so that all are called on in class by their preferred name, students in the residence halls feel safe with where they live and their gender identity, and that everyone in the Wheaton community has the space to be who they are without judgment.”

– Shaya Gregory Poku, Dean for Equity, Social Justice, and Community Impact