Supporting and Understanding Gender Identity in College

The college years are some of the most formative, character-building years in a young adult’s life. For many, college is the time they solidify their personal, ethical, religious, and political beliefs. For others, these years may be spent discovering their true sense of self in their sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. A lot of learning is done in college and perhaps one of the most salient things someone may learn in college is how to understand, accept, and appreciate the differences of others.

A topic somewhat new to academia and popular culture alike is the concept of gender fluidity, and how to support and understand individuals who may identify and express their gender in ways that some would not consider traditional. According to Postsecondary National Policy Institute, 10% of college students identify as LGBTQ+. With the rise of this particular minority group on college campuses, it is essential that everyone educate themselves on how to be the best ally, friend, and classmate.

What is gender fluidity?

Before diving into why and how to support people who experience gender fluidity, let’s lay the groundwork for understanding all of the language involved in the discourse surrounding gender and gender expression.

  • Gender is how someone identifies and may correlate to the gender they were assigned at birth that aligns with their sex (male or female). If someone was born a female and identifies as a girl or woman, that person is cisgender, meaning their gender identity and expression aligns with their biological sex.
  • If someone identifies as a gender they were NOT assigned at birth, that person is transgender.
  • If someone is gender fluid, it means that they experience their gender on a spectrum, and may express more masculine, feminine, or androgynously in accordance with how they feel most comfortable. Many gender-fluid people do not identify as transgender, some choosing to align themselves with no gender at all, all of the genders, or no label.

Regardless of how a college peer chooses to identify, it is their choice and their choice alone.

How does a gender-fluid individual present himself/herself?

So, how does someone experiencing gender-fluidity present himself/herself, and what is life like for them? While this varies from person to person, many gender-fluid individuals will choose pronouns and clothing that conform to their gender presentation, perhaps using masculine pronouns such as he/him/his and choosing traditionally masculine clothing some days, and more feminine clothing and pronouns such as she/her/hers on other days. Other fluid individuals prefer they/them pronouns or other neopronouns that are unattached to being male or female, paired with androgynous gender fluid clothing. It may seem odd to those who have identified as cisgender their whole lives to grasp the concept of gender fluidity, but many gender-fluid identifying people describe it as experiencing the reality of both genders, just in different timeframes, experiencing a sense of gender euphoria when presenting according to how they feel.

Supporting gender fluidity on campus

As our society grows more inclusive and understanding, the percentage of people becoming comfortable enough to come out as gender-fluid and live their lives accordingly has increased. So, how can you understand and subsequently support the people around you who identify as gender-fluid? There is no complicated step-by-step guide, nor a specific “how-to” manual in that regard, but there are some basic guidelines that may allow your peers to feel safe, comfortable, and appreciated.

Use their preferred pronouns

Being a good ally to the LGBTQ+ community involves dedicating effort to honoring pronouns, creating inclusive spaces, and educating oneself in areas of inexperience. Although it may take some getting used to, switching back and forth between someone’s pronouns in accordance to their preference is probably the best way someone can be supportive of a gender-fluid college peer. By using the pronoun they identify with, you are proving to them that you hear what they have to say, you respect their feelings, and are dedicated to their comfort.

Take time to listen

Beyond usage of proper pronouns, being supportive can be as simple as listening and validating their experiences as members of the LGBTQ+ community, or as involved as joining a local campus campaign to educate and spread acceptance regarding identities across the gender spectrum. Dormitory living is an aspect of college life that is unique to on-campus living. Allowing gender-fluid dorm mates to use the bathroom and showers that they feel comfortable with will relieve social stigma and gender dysphoria. If campus policy does not support your gender-fluid peers, becoming part of a movement within the student council to modify policy and create a safe, inclusive place for everyone may be a massive way to show support.

Educate yourself

Remember, being a part of a minority group can be stressful, harmful, and even dangerous for some people. Do not expect your gender-fluid classmate to be an educational resource for you or someone who answers all of your LGBTQ+-related questions. There are many online resources, as well as books and other media that can be an asset to you on your educational journey towards understanding and appreciating those around you.

Whether it is using their pronoun of choice, respecting their presentation using gender-fluid clothing, honoring their identity in social situations, or educating yourself on the reality of being different, there are many avenues to being a good ally to gender-fluid individuals, most of which involve simply supporting their right to be comfortable in their own bodies. From organizing student body councils to make inclusive campus policies, to simply honoring someone’s pronoun preference, everyone has the ability to improve the quality of the college experience for their gender fluid peers.