Z Nicolazzo addressed a crowd of approximately 100 Monday night at the School of Social Work as part of Transgender Awareness Week. Nicolazzo, who uses the gender-neutral pronouns ze and hir, is an assistant professor in the Adult and Higher Education program, and a faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University.
Nicolazzo’s dissertation consisted of an ethnographic study in which ze worked with transgender students to understand their college experience; hir work was published as a book — “Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion” — which served as the primary focus of the talk.
Speaking of hir own experience, Nicolazzo explained hir coming out narrative is different from what is often considered as the normative narrative for transpeople.
“Oftentimes, we think about normative narratives of transpeople coming out as feeling like people are trapped in the wrong body when they’re a kid,” ze said. “I actually came out as trans in my late twenties.”
At the time Nicolazzo worked at the University of Arizona, primarily with students in fraternity and sororities. Ze moved to Ohio where ze attended Miami University to pursue hir Ph.D. in Student Affairs in Higher Education, and saw it is as chance to start over and come out.
In deciding on a topic for hir dissertation, Nicolazzo explained ze wanted to think about what life was like for people who didn’t necessarily have the same privilege that ze had, to move to a new place. Ze noted ze didn’t have a traditional transgender college experience.
“When I moved to Ohio I didn’t really have a whole lot of trans or gender nonconforming or gender queer people to spend time with,” ze said. “So I thought doing this research would be a way not only to write my community into existence but to find a community to spend time with in the first place, and really try to think about how we could do this project together — me and the participants.”
Nicolazzo explained what ze called the transgender paradox — that there appeared to be a lot of research and writing on the transgender identity, new communities, new industries and new disciplines in the late-20th century, yet there was not a lot of research on transgender college students.
As part of hir work, Nicolazzo spent 18 months with nine transgender college students; ze spent time on campus without them, observing the campus, and then spent time with them. Ze traveled to the places the students enjoyed on campus and those they avoided, as well as the events and classes they attended.
In compiling hir findings, Nicolazzo explained it wasn’t fair to simply pull together and “package” the common themes, because there are too many ways to consider one’s transness, gender and identity. Ze explained those identities change across time and space as well. Instead, ze explained ze wanted to discuss the ways in which the participants’ narratives converge, or arrive, at similar points, but also how they diverge, or depart from one another, so as to not lose outlying moments.
Ze explained the students ze observed seemed to understand what cultural discourses were operating on their campus.
“There was a binary understanding of gender,” ze said. “There were only two ways people could exist on that campus. You could either be a cisgender, nontrans man, or a cisgender, nontrans woman.”
Ze found the participants could easily articulate what these two groups looked like.
Additionally, Nicolazzo developed the term “compulsory heterogenderism.”
“Participants would talk about how their gender identities were erased and instead they were understood through stereotypical notions of sexuality,” ze said.
For example, one participant in Nicolazzo’s study identified as agender. This student explained identifying as agender would require an explanation for what agender meant. Since people don’t typically understand transness, the student explained, it was easier to identify as a lesbian, because that is how this person was perceived.
“This is about cultural erasure,” ze said. “Both the notion of compulsory heterogenderism and the gender binary discourse are what I call twin cultural realities. This is kind of the cultural ether in the air and constructs college campuses as spaces in which trans people are not understood nor can they be understood.”
Another key component of Nicolazzo’s discussion was talk of resilience. However, ze wasn’t interested in using the word in the stereotypical sense, where it is often paired with words like grit. Ze explained the notion of grit implies one is living in a toxic environment and individualizes the reality of someone needing to push through, rather than considering the negative cultural climate itself.
Nicolazzo explained participants did many things to navigate their toxic climate. Some described not walking past certain areas, what ze described as a practice of resilience. Some would listen to music or text as they walked.
“All of these (are) small, little micro-examples of how it is that we’re able to navigate through our day.”
Nicolazzo also discussed what ze described as the labor of being trans on campus.
“The ways in which knowledge is commodified and packaged and basically sold to students who are then seen as consumers of that knowledge and then spill it out all over tests … in much the same way these trans participants were often put on the spot to do the work of educating cisgender people on campus,” ze explained.
At a fall welcome event for the LGBTQ community at the school Nicolazzo observed, ze explained the chief diversity officer actually called on the trans and gender queer community to teach the rest of the community what they need to know.
“This was exhausting that students were basically told in no uncertain terms you need to teach us what we need to know: you different people — is the words that weren’t there — need to teach us normal people what we need to know,” ze said.
Nicolazzo explained hir findings don’t mean anything unless they are used to change how campuses are constructed.
Mark Chung Kwan Fan, assistant director for engagement at the Spectrum Center, said there is a lot of conversation around how to support trans students on campus. Fan explained Nicolazzo has been a pioneer in this space. He also said he thinks measures taken to support trans college students vary from college to campus.
“I think for us (at the University of Michigan), we have been doing work to support our trans students,” he said. “I think that it’s regarding a whole different set of work — policies, programming and events, education — it’s not just one set of work, which I think has been pretty holistic. Z talks a lot about, how do we support students, especially trans students, in not seeing them in a deficit population, but more seeing them as a population that, not needs us, but can use us as a resource.”
Fan said he enjoyed hearing Nicolazzo’s talk of transgender resilience, and how it is possible to reframe what resilience looks like.
“Maybe dropping out of school is a resilient move, maybe taking a break and studying abroad from the actual physical campus is a resilient move,” he said. “For me, prior to (the event), I was (thinking) resilience is trying to work hard and better to be able to achieve your goal, whereas it’s more about how do you take care of yourself in order to be able to be your authentic self.”
Raven Smith, program specialist for events and partnerships at the Spectrum Center, echoed Fan’s feelings on Nicolazzo’s talk of resilience.
“I think a lot of what Z spoke about with resiliency is really important especially thinking about resiliency in research and also just general student support, and as staff members in student life, thinking about the ways we can support trans students on campus in ways that are effective and meaningful and not sort of getting the one centered view of … but instead listening to trans folks and what they need and what works best for them and sort of more molding our programs and our services to best serve students in the way that they need it,” they said.
Rackham student Alex Kime said they came to the event because there is a lot of work within social work and other fields that focuses on marginalized groups, but it is not usually done by members of that particular community.
Kime said much of their work, both as an undergrad and grad student at the University, has focused on considering the effects of in-group and out-group status — how they mediate conversations, communication, organization, working with others and living with others day by day.
“For me, (this presentation) was important, not only because it was Trans Awareness Week, but because it is something I am deeply interested in in terms, if we’re scholars, or educators and teachers, how can we open space or bring folks with us into the spaces that we get invited to?” they said. “Z is a published professor, how is ze taking the narratives of college students with hir long-term? How can we open up a new scholarship as a place of empowerment and knowledge co-creation as opposed to this — look what I discovered, I’m the best, I’m the great researcher? (That’s) very individualized. It doesn’t feel very in line with community or notions of building a community.”