Groundbreaking course on transgender studies creating change at Ryerson and beyond
When Cat Carpenter’s cousin came out as transgender, no one in her family knew what to do.
“They really struggled. They didn’t know about gender pronouns or gender dysphoria or what these complex feelings were,” Carpenter said, explaining that her family is from a small, Northern Ontario town and had never been exposed to trans issues before.
So, when Carpenter learned of a Ryerson University course devoted to transgender studies, she signed up right away.
Offered for the first time in winter 2019, and already at capacity for next semester, the course, Trans Studies and Communication, is the first of its kind at Ryerson devoted solely to learning about trans studies.
‘About far more than gender neutral washrooms’
Students in the course learn how gender connects to class, race, sexuality, disability and colonial violence.
“It’s about far more than gender neutral washrooms,” said course professor Marty Fink (who is trans and uses the pronouns they/them), noting that while having that safe space is critical, students go much deeper in their learning, studying what’s needed to create societal change.
Larger systemic change is crucial, Fink said, since trans and non-binary people are affected by racism, misogyny and colonial violence. It’s a personal issue for Fink, who has lost two trans women friends to suicide in recent years.
As such, the Professional Communication professor strives to develop courses that support trans students who feel under-represented in curriculum or on campus.
“The course unearths erased histories of trans resistance, as well as ongoing movements for trans community organizing and support. Rather than only focusing on violence or oppression, the course and student projects draw on movements for trans caregiving and accessibility, resilience and support,” Fink said.
“This emphasizes the beauty, excitement, and joys of being trans, and student work creates further opportunities for gender expression and transformation,” they added.
Class more than doubles in size
So far, the class is in demand. For next semester, maximum capacity was extended, more than doubling student enrolment – up to 130 from last year’s 60 – and there’s already a waiting list.
“It’s really great that we’re creating something new and students are responding,” Fink said, noting that trans students are especially grateful for the course.
“If you study for four years and you don’t see yourself reflected in your curriculum at all … to get that experience, it helps them feel more engaged in their education, which is very important,” Fink explained.
Students praise diversity of curriculum
Saadia Khan is one of those students.
The 22-year-old trans student (who uses the pronouns they/them) is non-binary and Muslim. They came out to their social circle within the past year.
When Khan first learned of Fink’s class, they said, “It was really exciting.”
“It was a really positive experience. Everyone was super respectful. And when students didn’t know certain things, they asked,” Khan said, noting that they were one of a handful of trans people in the class.
For Khan, who is of Pakistani descent, the diversity of the course curriculum was one of the most important aspects.
“Not only do we have a trans professor, but one that understands that there are different types of trans people who face different issues.”
“Most of the syllabus was trans authors of colour, and I’m not white, so I don’t have the same experience as a white trans person. So, not only do we have a trans professor, but one that understands that there are different types of trans people who face different issues,” Khan said.
Course accessible to all
For Fink, another crucial aspect of the class was ensuring there was diversity not only in the curriculum – but among the academic disciplines of students.
When planning the course, which is part of the School of Professional Communication in the Faculty of Communication and Design (FCAD), Fink purposely ensured the writing-focused class qualified to fulfil Ryerson’s “lower liberal” course requirement – which all students need to take.
“I did that intentionally, so that any student in any major could take it, not just as an elective but for a credit. This is a way to ensure anyone at Ryerson can have access,” Fink said.
It means the class includes students from all across the university – from nursing, journalism and computer science, to marketing, early childhood education and fashion.
“That’s what’s really exciting, is the way students can think about these issues in concrete ways in terms of what they’re studying. How is a nursing student going to find this relevant to their other courses, what about a student in new media and digital design?” Fink asked.
Carpenter creates guide to help families
As Carpenter’s case illustrates, the impact of the course goes far beyond classroom walls. Not only did the class help her understand more about what her cousin was going through – it empowered her to use what she’d learned as a Professional Communication student to create a guide for her family to understand more too.
“I wanted to create a resource for families to use, so if someone comes out as trans, they can gain the skills to navigate the process,” Carpenter said of her guide, a non-academic, simply written PDF, which she created as her final project – and dedicated to her family.
“Students are making things for this class that don’t exist in the world.”
“Before, with my cousin, my family was asking things like, ‘Well, are you a boy or a girl?’ But what if you’re neither? For some, it’s a mind-blowing concept,” Carpenter said.
In Carpenter’s guide, she defines basic terms in plain language, and answers questions like, “What if I mess up and use the wrong pronouns?”
Carpenter noted that she came up with the idea to create the user-friendly guide when she searched for something like it online and came up empty-handed. While some material existed, it was overly dense and wouldn’t have helped her family.
Fink said they too had the same experience when searching for material to help their parents. They say the fact that one of their own students is now creating that resource is incredibly rewarding.
“Students are making things for this class that don’t exist in the world,” they said proudly.
‘A step in the right direction’
When asked about her family today, Carpenter said while it’s a long journey, her family is now using her cousin’s chosen pronouns and chosen name, “which is a huge step.”
Fink says that kind of impact isn’t isolated to Carpenter’s family.
“For students who have never even thought of gender issues before, to have them say at the end of the term, ‘Thank you for exposing me to this material, because it allowed me to help my friend who just came out, or to understand this family member who is trans,’ it’s huge,” they said.
As for Khan, while they note that society has a long way to go, Fink’s course gives some hope.
“This course was really impactful for me,” they said. “It’s a step in the right direction.”
- Consent Comes First
Ryerson’s resource for anyone affected by sexual violence
- Being an Effective Trans Ally, external link
Resource from The 519
- Native Youth Sexual Health Network, external link
Canada-wide resource for Indigenous youth
November is Trans Awareness Month.