Unlike many universities across the country, Rowan University has implemented many programs — like having gender-inclusive housing options, all gender restrooms and allowing students to use a preferred name on official student documentation — that help its transgender students. Although these programs are a step in the right direction, they must be built upon.
Despite students being able to request a preferred name on official university documentation and online portals, staff are not given the same option. Despite Rowan bringing awareness to transgender rights through advertising events like the day of silence and transgender day of remembrance, the university has not meaningfully addressed where the majority of its transphobia is — the curriculum.
From biology to psychology, content is cisnormative and too often blatantly reinforces systemic transphobia. Individual professors have addressed these issues within their own classes, for example, by adopting more inclusive language, but overall, the curriculum itself for many classes reinforces a rigid gender and sex binary based on cisnormativity. The idea of a gender binary not only reinforces cisnormativity and transphobia, but it also leads students to misunderstand the very fundamentals of concepts.
When learning about sexual differentiation, many of my biology professors have reverted back to using binary language despite teaching about the existence of multiple sexes and differences in sexual development among various organisms. The idea of the gender binary is so strong that it negatively impacts the accuracy of lessons about biological sex, and this teaches students information that is either outdated, misleading or outright incorrect.
In other courses, such as Anatomy and Physiology I & II, the material is also cisnormative and outdated, framing sex and gender as the same and as binary. Many doctors, notably Dr. Danielle Jones, an OB-GYN and social media personality, have begun using more inclusive and accurate terminology when talking about anatomy and physiology. For example, saying “people who menstruate” instead of “women” when talking about the experience of menstruation is more accurate; it includes the experiences of people who are not women but still menstruate, and it does not make the assumption that all women menstruate since many women, even cisgender women, do not. Using binary language as a crutch muddles the accuracy and precision of language, so even from a purely linguistic standpoint, the language should be updated.
Human Sexuality, a course dedicated toward the understanding of the psychology of the human sexual experience, has reinforced cisnormativity due to the slow updating of the course. Like the other Rowan courses, it currently relies on outdated material, and because the material is outdated, much of what the course teaches about transgender experiences is simply wrong. The book used by the course defines gender differently throughout the chapters, but most consistently settles on the following definition of gender: “a term or concept that encompasses the behaviors, socially constructed roles, and psychological attributes commonly associated with being male or female.” In the one chapter dedicated to gender, there is no mention of nonbinary individuals, but outdated terminology like “transsexual” and “transvestite” are introduced.
Although students are taking this course to learn more about human sexuality so they can better help others in their chosen fields — often psychology and medicine — they end up learning outdated information that, when applied, is actively harmful. When a student thinks they have learned about issues faced by transgender individuals, but in reality, they have been taught outdated stereotypes, they might use what they have learned in practice, spreading misinformation and further perpetuating transphobia. Rowan is in the process of updating this course, but it and the material it uses should be updated much more frequently, using student input (especially LGBTQ+ student input) to ensure the curriculum is teaching the current standards which break down transphobia instead of building it up.
Transphobia is not just perpetuated in one or two courses. It is systemic throughout society and especially within academia, so it is no surprise that it is at Rowan University. Research on transgender health is not lucrative, and since those in charge of allocating research funding are often more conservative, it is difficult to do. Updating the curriculum is expensive, but if Rowan really wants to help transgender people and fight transphobia, these updates are necessary. The university should be consulting with staff, students, advocates, activists and researchers while making these updates because the longer the university waits, the more it reinforces transphobia and the harder it will be to change.
For comments/questions about this article, tweet @TheWhitOnline.