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Supporting trans staff and students

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An introduction to the issues equalities practitioners, managers and policy makers need to consider in order to support transgender staff and students

What is ‘trans’?

Trans is an inclusive term for people who identify themselves as transgender, transsexual or transvestite. The word trans can be used without offence to describe people who:

  • are undergoing gender transition (commonly referred to as a ‘sex change’)
  • identify as someone with a different gender from that in which they were born, but who may have decided not to undergo medical treatment
  • choose to dress in the clothing typically worn by the other sex.

There are currently estimated to be 500,000-600,000 trans people in the UK.

What are the issues for higher education?

Many universities and colleges may never encounter or need to support a trans person among their staff and students. On the rare occasions when an institution does have a member of staff or a student who is undergoing gender reassignment, a large number of issues will arise, now underpinned by legislation.

Higher education institutions have a legal responsibility to protect the rights of trans people, both staff and students, and to ensure individuals do not suffer from any direct or indirect discrimination, victimisation or harassment, and are supported in any process of transition.

What might happen if we don’t deal with trans equality issues effectively?

There may be a number of negative consequences if a trans person is not given enough support in transitioning, or if their peers are not educated about what the process entails.

  • A staff member or student may feel they cannot transition openly at the university, despite being deeply unhappy in their current gender.
  • A current member of staff or student may feel they have to leave the institution (without requesting references or completing their qualification or programme of study) and make a fresh start somewhere else to coincide with their new gender identity.
  • A failure to provide training may mean members of staff are more likely inadvertently to discriminate unlawfully against a trans employee or student, making it difficult for the institution to show it has taken all reasonable steps to prevent discrimination.

What are the practical issues?

Transitioning is a complex process, not least because it involves creating a new identity for someone, and the numerous changes in records and data that this entails. ECU’s guidance publication Trans staff and students in higher education: revised 2010 explains in detail the practical matters that managers and equalities staff need to address to support a trans person:

  • accommodation
  • confidentiality
  • criminal records checks
  • degree certificates
  • dress code
  • forms and questionnaires
  • insurance
  • name changes
  • pensions
  • records
  • recruitment
  • references
  • single-sex facilities
  • support groups.

How can we be confident that trans staff and students are supported?

If a university decides not to have a dedicated trans/gender identity equality policy, then trans equality must be included as a stand-alone equality area in all equalities documents and related policies and procedures, such as bullying and harassment and dignity at work policies.

All staff should be made aware of trans equality issues through training and staff handbook materials. A more in-depth discussion will be necessary when a member of staff or student decides to transition. It is important to:

  • include trans equality in all relevant policies and procedures
  • provide trans equality training for staff and students
  • involve trans people at all stages when managing their transition
  • deal robustly with bullying and harassment of trans staff and students
  • respect trans people’s identity and privacy.

ECU’s guidance publication Trans staff and students in higher education contains a wealth of information about how to support trans staff and students, drawing on examples from higher education institutions that have been through the process.

Further information


The Gender Trust is recognised as an authoritative centre for professional people who encounter gender identity-related issues in the course of their work. This group includes employers, human resources officers, health workers and information services.

Press for Change is a political lobbying and educational organisation that campaigns to achieve equal civil rights and liberties for all transgender people in the UK through legislation and social change.

The Gender Identity and Research and Education Society initiates, promotes and supports research, particularly to address the needs of those in whom there is a strong and ongoing desire to live and be accepted in the gender in which they identify, although different from that assigned at birth.

The Beaumont Society acts as a support network and promotes better understanding of the conditions of transgender, transvestism and gender dysphoria.

The Trades Union Congress has developed a comprehensive guide, LGBT equality in the workplace, addressing LGBT issues in a trade union context.

UNISON has a factsheet, Bargaining for transgender workers rights, which contains many helpful suggestions.

The University and College Union has a web page listing LGBT resources.

The National Union of Students has a dedicated Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans Campaign.