Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

Gender-Inclusive Universities and Student Privacy

For many students, attending university is a profound, often life-changing, transition. It is often the student’s first time living on their own without parental supervision. This lifestyle is also accompanied by a period of self-discovery, of defining and redefining a sense of personal identity largely independent of the influence of family and friends from home.

For students who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, this rite of passage can also be a deeply empowering one. Indeed, attending university may be the student’s first real opportunity to explore their gender identity in a safe, comfortable, and accepting college.

That does not necessarily mean, however, that students who are non-binary, gender fluid, or otherwise gender “non-conforming” are prepared to disclose their gender identity. Even in gender-inclusive universities, the decision to identify as non-cisgender can be a difficult one — potentially exposing the student to discrimination on campus, in the community, and at home.

For this reason, maintaining student privacy must be a top priority for all university staff and stakeholders. Let’s examine the issue of student privacy in gender-inclusive universities and the best practices for protecting it on campus and off.

What is a Gender-Inclusive School?

exterior of a university campus and green lawn.Gender-Inclusive Schools Photo by Zhanhui Li on Unsplash

Fundamentally, a gender-inclusive university seeks to create a truly diverse, accepting, inclusive and welcoming space for all students, including students not identifying as cisgender. The principal mission of a gender-inclusive university environment is to redress the marginalization and discrimination nonbinary students have historically faced on campus.

The cultivation of a truly gender-inclusive culture in higher education is intended and expected to a broader integration of LGBTQ+ persons in workplaces and communities across the nation.

Gender-Inclusive Practices at University

Gender-inclusive practices at university centers primarily on enabling students to engage with the learning community in the manner of their choice about their gender identity. A critical concern in this arena is housing.

Non-binary, gender fluid, and gender nonconforming students may feel more comfortable, for example, in housing designated for the gender with which they identify. A trans woman student, in other words, may feel safer and more comfortable in female student housing.

Gender-inclusive housing means, ultimately, that students can choose who they prefer to live with, whether male, female, or coed, without the fear of harassment or discrimination.

The Student Privacy Challenge

Privacy Please sign hanging on a door.Student Privacy Photo by Jason Dent on Unsplash

The challenge of maintaining student privacy in a gender-inclusive environment derives foremost from the failure to precisely define what information can be disclosed, how, and when.

For example, just because a student has expressed interest in gender-inclusive housing doesn’t mean that they want to receive informational materials designed for LGBTQ+ students. Receiving these materials at home, through email, or text may compromise the student’s right to privacy and may even subject them to discrimination and violence.

For this reason, it’s critical to balance data-driven, personalized marketing tactics with sensitivity and discretion. The information students provide on application and enrollment forms regarding their gender identity, for instance, isn’t automatically appropriate for use in student communications.

What does Informed Consent Mean?

Protecting student privacy, ultimately, involves prioritizing student consent. It’s critical that one not simply assume that the student is “out” as a transgender person just because they have indicated their transgender status on student forms or personal surveys.

Rather, faculty, staff, and administrators should actively seek the student’s informed consent in all processes that might relate to the issue of gender identity. This should include, for instance, ascertaining the student’s preferences for inclusive housing.

This should also include obtaining the student’s permission to communicate with the student regarding inclusivity in general and LGBTQ+ processes and services in particular. Students should be allowed to determine what types of communication they will receive and how, whether by phone, text, mail, or email.

They should also be asked to define how they wish to be identified on campus and with parents, friends, and family members off campus. The stark reality is that LGBTQ+ persons may live very different lives on a gender-inclusive campus than when they are in their home environment or native communities.

The risk of violence and discrimination, unfortunately, is still all too real. Even in the most inclusive of university environments, students simply may not be ready to disclose their identity, even to gender-fluid or transgender peers. This means that maintaining the privacy of LGBTQ+ students can be a complex and ever-evolving process, but it can be critical to the student’s physical, mental, and social well-being.

Thus, faculty and staff must be proactive and conscientious, including routinely checking in with the student to determine what, if anything, has changed regarding their privacy preferences.

The Role in Safeguarding Student Privacy

Privacy is a vital concern for every student, but it is especially significant for transgender or gender-fluid students. For these students, a breach of privacy can subject them to violence, discrimination, and harassment. Thus, despite the safety and acceptance students are likely to find in a gender-inclusive university, it is incumbent on faculty and staff to take care to safeguard student privacy.

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