By Ethan Kutlu 

TW: transphobia, violence, suicide, mental health

Pride month is here, but how proud can we really claim to be regarding our policies impacting members of the LGBTQI+ community within and outside of academia? Although improvements have been made, there are still challenges that many within the LGBTQI+ community face everyday. Some of these challenges are driven from a lack of knowledge or underrepresentation. Since this month is intended to be a celebration and acknowledgement of the LGBTQI+ community, I would like to take the time now to speak on some of the transgender community’s struggles and needs, specifically the experiences of trans graduate students and trans immigrants. The rationale behind focusing on the trans community is that in the first 6 months of 2020, there has been a record number of anti-trans bills proposed around the U.S. The passing of these bills will restrict trans individuals’ rights to access health care, employment, and education more than ever. Bringing visibility to issues that trans individuals face and to increase awareness are keys to having better-informed and equipped allies and support systems which the trans community needs urgently. 


Access to Transition Related Care

Trans individuals can medically and/or socially transition or choose not to transition at all. Transitioning may be necessary in some cases if the person experiences extreme gender dysphoria. However, some trans individuals may not pursue these surgeries either due to financial instability, medical reasons, or by choice. Importantly, medical transitioning is neither quick nor as simple as walking into a medical office and requesting a procedure. Surgeries can not only prove difficult to request, they also take time, and are both physically and mentally taxing. The full spectrum of surgeries for transitioning can include up to 8 different surgeries. The cost of these surgeries combined can add up to anywhere between $100,000 and $500,000. Although some health care systems recognize gender affirming surgeries, 55% of trans individuals’ insurance claims that sought coverage for transition related surgery were denied in the U.S. Additionally, up to 25% of the trans community still struggle with getting coverage for hormone treatment. Moreover, in some U.S. states as well as in some other countries, trans individuals must visit various doctors and therapists to be ‘cleared for’ the surgeries. It should be noted that 33% of trans individuals in the U.S. cannot afford visiting doctors, and 23% did not see a doctor when they needed to out of fear of being mistreated or misdiagnosed. Surgeries become even more complicated if you were born in a country where being transgender is illegal or where there are no regulations for transgender health care. In those situations, one of the only solutions is to migrate to a safer place. For some transgender immigrants, one possible solution is found through graduate school experiences, as some universities offer health care packages that cover at least a portion of the gender affirming surgeries. 


It may be difficult to think of graduate school as an ideal solution for individuals looking to transition. Graduate school  has been shown to be extremely mentally challenging on its own (Evans et al., 2018). Nevertheless, for some trans immigrants, graduate school provides their only chance of survival. Despite the physical and mental challenges of transitioning, trans individuals also face homelessness and abandonment from their family. For trans immigrants, it also means alienation from their home country, language, and culture. If a trans immigrant makes it to graduate school, they can only take steps in their transitioning when time allows, as they cannot simply take leave of absence due to many visa and employment restrictions and timelines. Within the trans community, this is indeed the norm. Many trans individuals have their surgeries during holiday seasons and school breaks to prevent being absent from work--though this also means that many must be sure to look into their options as early as possible, as these times are often booked very far in advance. After their surgeries, trans individuals have to go back to their life as quickly as possible, despite healing processes that can take up to 6 months. 


Harassment and Violence 

It is estimated that there are somewhere between 15,000 and 50,000 undocumented transgender immigrants residing in the U.S. today. It is almost impossible to know the exact number as many trans individuals have to remain in hiding for their own safety. Being “stealth,” or staying undercover, is an essential part of some trans individuals’ everyday life to protect themselves from harassment and violence. Harassment towards trans individuals starts very early on for many. In one survey, 77% of trans individuals indicated that they experienced mistreatment and harassment at school, while only 5% indicated that they have support from their teachers or school staff (2015 U.S. Transgender Survey). From adolescents to adulthood, the situation is much of an improvement, either. Approximately, 80% of the trans individuals in the U.S. report depression, and up to 50% of individuals indicate that they do not feel comfortable using a bathroom that aligns with their own gender identity. There are, unfortunately, no numbers to report regarding trans immigrants. 


Being harassed and being obliged to stay undercover can also deeply impact trans individuals’ employment opportunities. In a recent survey, it was found that the unemployment rate among transgender individuals was three times higher than the unemployment rate in the U.S. (2015 U.S. Transgender Survey). These are not surprising numbers as many trans individuals have to go through ID changes to be recognized with their authentic self and to eliminate workplace harassment. However, as mentioned earlier, the ability to update documentation and IDs often  depends on medical transitioning. 


Being Trans in Graduate School

While graduate school might be the best option for many trans immigrants to transition, it is also the worst time in terms of career opportunities, as many graduate students are expected to travel to academic conferences and interviews. Traveling while transitioning is almost an impossible task (e.g., border patrol rejections due to unmatching self presentation and passport photo). Only about 28% of trans individuals were able to update their name and/or gender markers on their passports in the U.S. For trans immigrants from other countries, this is a never-ending struggle, an unattainable dream. While some countries recognize gender affirming transition, there are many red-tape regulations where trans individuals’ well-being is put at risk. Not being able to change documentation restricts travel for conferences and often makes it a traumatic experience for those who can travel. 


Another issue that stems from the ID regulations is the name change. In some universities in the U.S., trans individuals can change their names on class rosters. However, changing their so-called “business name,” which is used for teaching and research assignments, as well as  other duties on campus, requires official document changes such as the social security card. Social security card name changes, however, can only be done via passport changes for trans immigrants. If trans immigrants cannot change their passport, they cannot change their social security card, which restricts them from changing their business name. This puts many trans graduate students, many of whom have teaching and/or research assignments, at risk. While violence and harassment against transgender and non-binary individuals is a palpable risk both within and outside of  academia, it is almost impossible to be stealth in your own institute. 


Name changes do not only impact teaching or research assignments, they also impact publication records. From changing their research focus to changing their names on each of their publications, trans academicians are often reminded of the traumatic experiences that they have to bear on a regular basis. For graduate students, this is even more complicated as some universities refuse to change names on theses or dissertations as well as diplomas without government-issued paperwork. 


To add to the difficulty faced by trans individuals having to endure these challenges (many times by themselves), these challenges are often not recognized by many organizations. For instance, trans individuals are not considered for promoting diversity in health-related research programs offered by NIH (see Part 2 There are currently no organizations, fellowships, or scholar programs specifically for trans people to continue their higher education. Also, since trans experiences are not widely heard and made visible, just how much medically or socially transitioning trans folks have to endure in order to stay in academia is not often fully understood within the cis-community . For instance, in the academic job market, diversity statements are now becoming a more frequent requirement. For trans folks, it may be traumatic to write a strong diversity statement. Additionally, there may very well be fear within those individuals of being discriminated against or worse, leaving many to question whether exposing their experiences is worth the trouble. The lack of context within the cisgender community may also hinder their understanding of how much a trans individual has had to and continues to bear on a regular basis. 


The last couple of months have made for strenuous circumstances for most. However, COVID-19 may not be the only pandemic that we are living with. Discrimination, hate, and transphobia are other forms of a global pandemic through which trans folks have to navigate literal life and death scenarios while trying to hold onto their dreams. For some, those dreams entail staying in academia. It is a continued hope of mine that academia can stand tall as an exemplar for other fields. However, academia is currently neither accessible nor inclusive for many transgender folks. Funding agencies, institutions, and organizations must incorporate more trans-inclusivity, awareness, and a more robust (or at the very least, existent) support system for trans individuals. Furthermore, having more trans voices in positions throughout would drive much else in society forward towards a brighter future for all. 


I suggest we aim to flatten the curve of discrimination and exclusivity. For many years, trans bodies have had to be in a lockdown of their own, their visibility was restricted, and their voices were silenced. May we be prouder in June 2021 by being more trans-inclusive from here onwards! 


If you would like to learn more about trans issues and support trans people, please visit the following websites:


Resources for Transgender People in Crisis

Transgender people in crisis should contact The Trevor Project's 24/7 Lifeline at 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386), Trevor Chat, the Trevor Projects' online messaging service, or The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273- TALK (8255).


Transgender Organizations

National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), Washington, DC (advocacy)

Transgender Law Center (TLC), San Francisco, CA (legal services)

Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), New York, NY (legal services)

Trans People of Color Coalition (TPOCC), Washington, DC (advocacy)

Transgender Legal Defense and Education Fund (TLDEF), New York, NY (legal services)

Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition (MTPC), Boston, MA (advocacy)

Trans Youth Family Allies, Holland, MI (support services)

Transgender Programs at LGBT Organizations

GLAAD Transgender Media and Education Program, New York, NY/Los Angeles, CA (media)

Gender Identity Project at the NYC LGBT Center, New York, NY (support services)

Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders (GLAD) Transgender Rights Project, Boston, MA (legal


Task Force Transgender Civil Rights Project, Washington, DC (advocacy)

TransLife Center at Chicago House, Chicago, IL (support services)

HRC's transgender resources, Washington, DC (advocacy)

L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Transgender Economic Empowerment Project, Los Angeles, CA (support


TransJustice at the Audre Lorde Project, New York, NY (advocacy)

Transgender Support Network at PFLAG, Washington, DC (support services)


Other Resources:

The Nursing License Map's Importance of Gender Affirming Care for Transgender and Gender Expansive Youth

If you would like to know more about how to practice trans-inclusivity in your department, I would be honored to offer assistance: [email protected],


Author’s Note:

I would like to sincerely thank Archie Crowley for their assistance in editing this document as well as for organizing this series of blog posts. I also would like to thank the LSA community for their commitment to diversity.


Author Bio:

Ethan Kutlu is a Linguistics PhD candidate at the University of Florida minoring in Developmental Psychology. His interdisciplinary research focuses on speech perception, racial bias, and development of visual attention. Ethan also works with many national and international organizations to improve trans visibility both in and outside of academia.