As educators situated on the bridge from high school to college, it
is our job to ensure that our students transition into the adulthood
that is most supportive of their joy and wellness.
That process often includes the college search, and for transgender
and gender nonconforming (TGNC) young people, the application experience
can be very activating. TGNC youth experience a particular urgency as
they apply to colleges. That urgency lies in a desire to live free of
the limitations imposed by the gender binary (the idea that there are
only two genders) and cisnormativity (the assumption that everyone is
cisgender, or identifies with the sex assigned at birth).
Therefore, when supporting our TGNC students in postsecondary
planning, we have a choice—we can either uphold the cis- and
heternonormative ideals prevalent in our society, or we can embrace
gender liberation and provide the nuanced care and support TGNC youth
require during this critical transition.
As two counselors who have helped students through the process, here’s what we’ve learned along the way.
My own experience supporting TGNC youth really pivoted when I came
out as trans and nonbinary in my late 20s. I had been a college access
counselor for almost seven years at that point. And even though I worked
at one of the most progressive high schools in New York City, It was
only after the city passed an ordinance prohibiting workplace harassment
and deliberate misgendering that I did it. I thought to myself, “What
would I want the young people I work with to be able to do?” and the
answer became clear; I put on my big kid pants and shared with the whole
Opening that door changed me. Soon, the little queerlings, as I like
to call them, knocked on my door. “How did you KNOW? And when?” they’d
ask. As I answered and listened I learned all the ways that TGNC young
people learned to hide themselves.
One student came in as a junior. Listless and disheveled most days,
she could barely hold eye contact. Then one day her mom shared after a
College Fair Night that her child was trans. I understood why this young
person’s light was dimmed. Over the next few months, she transitioned.
She changed her name, began hormone therapy, began to dress as she
wished, dyed her hair fire engine red, and wore eyeliner to school for
the first time.
She was truly alive and it was a sight to behold. Now she had a
supportive family, a supportive school, and a supportive counselor. Can
you imagine what would have happened if even one of those had been more
hostile to her?
Over the next few months, she transitioned. She changed her name, began to dress as she wished, dyed her hair fire engine red, and wore eyeliner to school for the first time.
When I met the principal of my new school this year, we talked about
her students—predominantly black and brown young people, mostly boys.
Our meeting, coincidently, was on Trans Day of Remembrance. The event
honors the many trans people who are slain each year—mostly black and
Latina trans women who were, not unlike my new school's students, also
told they were "boys." We talked about how even with no "out" trans
students, we owed it to our students' future selves to make the school
as affirming as possible. I asked her what it would be like to have an
openly genderqueer counselor, and she said: "We'll all just have to
We all just have to learn.
We have to.
We owe it to the young people we serve, to our colleagues, and to
ourselves to learn and to demand environments that not only openly
support trans youth, but help them turn their brights on.
As counselors who are committed to supporting our students in finding
the best and most welcoming universities for their continued education,
we must also ensure that our high schools are equally welcoming.
Efforts to dismantle heteronormativity and cisnormativity must be
intentional and explicitly supportive of trans and gender-expansive
experiences. The following steps can help support that work.
María Mónica Andia is director of college success at the Brooklyn Emerging Leaders Academy (NY). Lenni Yesner
is a school counselor and director of college, career & future
planning at City Polytechnic High School of Engineering, Architecture
and Technology (NY).