Being a trans* student at the VUB (3/3): what we can learn from the UGent

The University of Ghent is at the top of the class when it comes to transgender policy. We asked Joz Motmans, professor at the UGent and coordinator of Transgender Infopunt, about the evolution of the policy at the UGent and the legal situation of non-binary people.

This research file contains two other articles: Two students talked about their name change at the VUB and de Moeial sheds some light on the university’s (future) plans.

Text: Evelien Feys

Image: Andreas Lorrain

While the VUB doesn’t succeed in sufficiently fulfilling the needs of trans* students and has not progressed much further than a BVO (a policy-preparing study, ed.), things are different in the East-Flemisch student city Ghent. The UGent has a developed Transgender Action Plan, as well as a contact point (Trans) for administrative questions, general inquiries and notifications about the transgender topic at the UGent.

How did the transgender policy at the UGent come about?

“For multiple years (since 2008, ed.), there has been a Diversity Working Group at the university, where staff members gathered to discuss all kinds of topics. Among the staff of the Equal Opportunities Cell, many have always had an affinity with gender studies and women’s rights, so the transgender topic was included quite quickly. At a certain moment there was a click that we really needed a specific policy plan, also because there were complaints of students. At first, it was mainly about registration and how we could make trans* students and staff feel safe at our university. That first policy plan was born in 2016.

Subsequently, everything sped up. The Diversity Working Group drew up a Diversity Action Plan in 2019. The Faculty of Law and Criminology developed their own trans* policy in the same year. At that moment, the necessity of such a policy became clear – moreover, we noticed that we needed more than procedures such as the ones described in the policy plan of 2016. People were still encountering problems. Having a procedure does not mean that everything works, or that you haven’t overlooked anything.

Directed by the Equal Opportunities Cell, the transgender staff network was reactivated, which contained trans* students, teachers and staff, and colleagues with affinity. They met regularly to look at what needed to happen, based on the problems encountered by trans* students and staff: getting continuous referrals, not receiving adequate help…

“Training is crucial. You can’t expect administrative staff to just know what to do when they don’t often come into contact with trans* people.”

After the legal reform of the transgender law in 2018, the judgment of the Constitutional Court followed in 2019 (the Court decided that a third legal option next to ‘M’ and ‘F’ was necessary for non-binary people, ed.). We would be going to a situation with more than two legal sexes, or a situation without legal registrations: how to anticipate? Together with the inventarisation of the current problems, the legal reforms led to a new Transgender Action Plan, which was approved at the start of 2020 by the Board of Directors of the UGent.

This plan goes much further than a couple of procedures: the imagery and perception also needs to move away from the binary. The university has to communicate in an inclusive way and address people correctly. The restroom signalization has to change. There needs to be more sensibilisation, also for teachers and students. A lot of changes don’t ask much, such as the creation of an email address ‘’. In this way, all questions and remarks arrive at the same service and they can be followed up properly. These are small things that make a big difference.”

So, the UGent has a trans contact point. How do they work?

“They are the contact point for trans* students and staff. They are people who know what needs to happen and where to go. Often it concerns name changes or adjusting email addresses and forms of address. The contact point then contacts the appropriate services: student administration, the job service or the housing service, depending on the question.

Besides that, they have asked Transgender Infopunt to give training to different services. This training is crucial. You can’t expect administrative staff to just know what to do when they don’t often come into contact with trans* people. During these training sessions, I noticed that people are open to it, and that they like to be offered guidelines and frameworks. 

“The wellbeing aspect is very important as well, and we’re missing that a little bit at the moment, also in the policy framework.”

Often they have very specific questions: when a trans* person is hired, do I have to brief supervisors or colleagues, and to what extent? That needs to be properly discussed, also with the person in question. Another example is a contract with a legal name, while communication and the recording of work hours need to happen under a different name.”

Right now, the focus lies on administration and communication. Are there other things you would like to see accomplished in the transgender policy of the UGent?

“There are a lot of points that need to be worked out. An important element, for example,  is screening the curriculum and class material on stereotypical or binary elements in terms of gender.

The wellbeing aspect is very important as well, and we’re missing that a little bit at the moment, also in the policy framework. How can we really make sure that both students and staff feel good about themselves, feel heard, and know where to go? If we look at the wellbeing of trans* and non-binary youth, it’s still a difficult point. 

We know that the suicide numbers are very high, for example. And imagine you then have to sit through a lecture from a professor who speaks condescendingly of trans* people. You can’t tackle the discourse of every professor, but we can make sure that those students have somewhere to go, and that they can file a complaint about situations like that.”

Joz Motmans

Why does the implementation of a transgender policy differ so much between universities?

“I think that the UGent is lucky to have quite few actors who believe that the university should be a forerunner and who do transgender-related research themselves. Pieter Cannoot or Gerd Verschelden from the Faculty of Law and Criminology, for example – and I myself am of course also active on the topic. The UGent has been active for years in the field of gender studies as well, which definitely offers a gateway to this topic.

“There isn’t a single university that is not working on it, but I think that it’s not always a priority.”

We also have several prominent trans* people here, also among the teaching staff. Our rector and vice rector give their full support. After all, without support from the top you won’t make it. We were only able to develop the priorities we had set out, such as communication or imagery, into an actual Transgender Action Plan because there was a larger Diversity Action Plan in which everything fitted nicely.”

Is there any consultation between the universities about these issues?

“Yes, there is absolutely discussion, for example in the Learning Network Transgender Policy or in the Diversity Working Group and Social Policy of the Flemish Interuniversity Council (VLIR). Admittedly, other topics such as language, cultural differences and the transition from secondary education are more often centred there. There isn’t a single university that is not working on it, but I think that it’s not always a priority.”

Because of the judgment of the Constitutional Court, there has to come at least a third official category for sex registration into existence. Could this decision speed up the process of policy development at other universities as well? 

“In the past, we have seen a slightly strange evolution there. There was a lot of willingness before the legal reforms of 2017, when there were still strict medical criteria in place for changing sex registration. The waiting lists for medical care were very long as well. Students had often almost graduated by the time they were able to change their registration. At the time, universities and colleges more often offered more flexibility to put a social name on the student card or to adjust some facilities in the meantime.

“As long as your gender pops up everywhere, and all societal structures remain binary, an ‘X’ leads to stigma.”

By doing away with all these criteria, the administrative process is quicker. Because of that, people sometimes reason that an official change is now easy enough that students just have to go through the whole process legally first, and universities will adjust everything after. But of course, there are still students who don’t meet the standards of that binary system of ‘M’ or ‘F’ or don’t recognise themselves in it. For a lot trans* youth those legal steps are not easy to take. A less strict legislation sometimes leads to a stricter application.”

This third sex category has consequences for society in general. Are you a proponent of the third category ‘X’ that is being proposed as a solution?

“There definitely needs to be a reform: the system of only the ‘M’ and the ‘F’ falls short for non-binary people. But whether the ‘X’ offers the solution, remains the question. Malta, for example, has added an ‘X’ option in 2017, but there has not been a single application since. That also says a lot about the fact that even non-binary people don’t want to use this ‘X’. They also notice that something like that leads to stigma and possibly discrimination in society. Think of renting an apartment, finding a job, etc. So, as long as your gender pops up everywhere, and all societal structures remain binary, an ‘X’ leads to stigma.

In Germany we can see the influence of this stigma as well, but in a different way. There, the ‘X’ is interpreted in terms of sex, instead of in terms of gender identity like in Malta. In Germany every child who exhibits a clear intersex condition at birth, must be registered with an ‘X’. Parents don’t have a choice in this. This leads to parents wanting to adjust the situation as soon as possible, and wanting to ‘fix’ the situation with a surgery, without consent of the child. 

“The crucial question is now: why is sex still being perceived as an element that constitutes the state of the person?”

So, in fact the addition of this ‘X’ has had a bit of a perverse effect. The intention was to break open the system, but the people in question are being pushed into the binary system even more right now. No parent wants their child to have to go through life with an ‘X’. It is insufficient to quickly add an ‘X’, if you leave the rest of the societal structures in their binary state. Then you’re only offering lip service to the transgender community, and nothing more.”

Is removing such a marker from the ID a better solution?

“That could indeed be one of the options. But it doesn’t mean that sex will no longer be registered – as soon as you scan your ID somewhere, this information pops up again. I think that it isn’t an ultimate solution, but possibly a good intermediate step. In my opinion, it would be best to stop registering sex altogether.

There is a type of framework at the government, in which information is needed to identify you. They call it ‘the state of the person’: your date of birth, your first name, your last name, your national register number… What is not included, for example, are your religious beliefs or your skin colour, while that used to be the case. This means that there have been developments in the past on which information is crucial for registration. Sometimes elements are added – think about the fingerprint debate – and sometimes elements are removed.

The crucial question is now: why is sex still being perceived as an element that constitutes the state of the person? Why is this so important? Where does this still play a role legally, and should it? What are these data being used for, and can that be resolved in another way? All these issues need to be mapped before we can make important decisions.”

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