This is the first part of a series exploring the experiences of transgender and non-binary students. TCS conducted interviews with four volunteers, and these articles aim to faithfully portray their thoughts and worries about a number of topics: life at university, the Gender Recognition Act consultation, the meaning of their identity, and what they wish other people knew. Volunteers for these articles were naturally diverse – one transgender male, one transgender female, and two non-binary students – and their experiences and world-views reflect this. Although a select few questions were asked to all participants, the conversation took a natural direction in each interview, and the aim is not to compare what different individuals say. Rather, it is to provide an unfiltered account of the experience of non-cisgendered individuals in their own words.
Deasil is a transgender woman, defining herself as “in various ways… a classic trans woman”, illustrating this by the fact that she has not worn a pair of trousers in over a year. As she tells me, her transition and outward presentation is “stereotypically binary”; explicitly presenting in a way considered traditionally female is “incredibly important” for her. Though she presents in this way, it does not necessarily reflect her conception of gender. As she later stresses, transitioning is “a weird thing, and it’s just hugely individualised.” The key is broadening your mind to fathom the experiences and interpretations of others, and how they naturally differ from one’s own.
Our conversation begins by talking about the confusing early stages of Deasil acknowledging an incongruity between her gender and assigned sex. “The earliest time when I knew being trans was a thing, and seriously questioned my gender, was probably in about Year 10. […] There is a story, but it’s pretty much that pretending to be male felt wrong, and I didn’t quite know what the solution was. I wasn’t sure whether I was actually just a cross-dresser in some sort of way. I thought that for a while until about the end of Year 11, and at around that point I figured out that no, it definitely wasn’t just clothing or anything like that, and it wasn’t just an action that I wanted to do, it was a thing that I was.”
Coming out is not a simple, singular event. For Deasil it happened in stages. The first time she came out was to a very close friend in the summer before Year 13. “First coming out was incredibly painful, I tried to meet in person but couldn’t physically say the words, so I instead emailed him later.” She describes how this is as far as she could go in school; she and her friend temporarily drifted apart – “not for any bad reasons, we’re in fact now better friends” – and until university she was “just sort of trying to get through things.”
The second time she came out was via a Facebook post in first year. “[It was] on the 14th of November last year at about 10 o’clock, and I can remember that very specifically. Effectively I spent most of Michaelmas term becoming more and more internally stressed about things, mostly because I definitely wanted to come out and I knew that I absolutely could. And I think a week before I came out I went to a trans coffee meeting, which in itself was a little bit stressful to go to, but which was really reassuring by the end of it.”
Students at Cambridge have access to a large number of sympathetic groups and are mostly surrounded by tolerant individuals. But that fact alone shouldn’t conceal the enormity of the decision. “I stayed up quite late the night before just stuck thinking, and I thought ‘I will write this post and leave it, and if in the morning I think I can do it, I will’. […] I think that day I had the strongest emotions I’ve probably ever had. Which was not fun because it was huge amounts of anxiety, especially when being with people where I didn’t know if they had seen the post, for example. Because I went down to the faculty, I went and sat in a lecture hall, as normal, and I don’t think I learned anything from the lectures, because I was sort of a bit terrified. I think I was trying to regulate my breathing, I was that panicked. And I think over the course of that day people came up and said… not things that would inherently ‘out’ me… but comments to show that they understood. I spent the next couple of days doing kind of ‘clean up’ – making sure that everyone knew.”
Coming out to people at home was the final big step. “Because I’d been so stressed out, I’d basically not been in contact with my parents for a solid month by that point. They actually sent a porter to ask if I was ok, and many messages. And I eventually managed to send off an email I think. And that was stressful in its own way. But again, their reaction was mostly good.”
Cambridge is surely one of the safest environments in the world in which to come out. Yet, this makes how we react to people choosing to do so all the more interesting. Deasil can remember only having one substantive conversation specifically about being trans in over a year at Cambridge. Whether through uncertainty, or awkwardness, or a desire to normalize being trans as much as possible, students often react to this sort of information with deliberate silence. Why? “It’s a type of social taboo effectively. Even if you are well-meaning, liberal, any of these sort of things… for the vast majority of people it is so far outside the subject matter they are comfortable talking about. I mean, it’s a weird combination of things where it’s both a medical issue, and so people don’t want to talk about it because that’s personal; and it’s also […] in that realm of sort of queer things which again most people tend not to directly talk about. I mean, people will talk about it, and certainly the pockets in which people talk about queer stuff are larger both in Cambridge than in other places, and specifically when it comes to sexuality rather than being trans.” Deasil is a member of a choir, which is inevitably a social space to chat and make friends. “But, like, would we talk about sexuality? Do we even talk about gay people? Not very much.” Even less so for discussing trans issues. “I think particularly what happens in Cambridge that might not happen in other places is that people overthink it, and people think – in a very nice sort of well-meaning way – ‘ok, here is this person’, and you might internally think ‘oh, how the hell do pronouns work?’, or ‘what are they going to do with their body?’… all these sort of things, but you don’t ask them basically because you have enough sense to realise that it could go wrong, especially if you ask it in the wrong way.”
This fear of something ‘going wrong’ if we even try to address a person’s trans identity – wondering whether our knowledge is consonant with some pre-conceived idea of ‘wokeness’ – coupled of course with a desire to ensure our trans friends have an experience that is as ‘normal’ as possible, can prevent us from asking after the welfare of somebody who has just undergone a monumental personal journey. In a later interview, another person would tell me that the same appears to be the case with lecturers who shy away from addressing certain queer issues in the curriculum.
Deasil admits that she does not know a solution that would work for everyone, “because everyone is different when it comes to being able to answer questions. But I would strongly advocate directly asking questions, because it’s just a better way to communicate. There is no point standing around not quite saying something, it’s much easier to just ask directly and risk maybe phrasing it in a really ignorant way, but actually learning something properly.”
Of course, she explains, “it’s nice in some ways to have being trans be just a non-issue.” But is absence of discussion the best way forward? “Especially after recently coming out I would have felt a lot more confident if people had literally just come up to me and said: ‘do you want to have a conversation about gender?’ – literally, that casual.” Again, Deasil is not claiming to speak for all transgender students, and to assume that would defeat the very purpose of these articles. But it’s clear that our notions of propriety towards transgender students, while well-intentioned, can sometimes be counter-productive.
Obviously, “you should definitely be a little bit careful about how you ask things.” But a more open discussion can also help to dispel prejudices still adhered to by certain types of people. Which people? “Basically, the people who tend to get stuck on the idea that misogyny is the driving force… well misogyny is kind of the driving force if you look at it academically… but people who tend to think that you have a man and you have a women and that women in general get the short end of the stick, which as a simplistic idea is true, but it misses out a lot of complex nuances like, for example, that you can not be one of those things, which far too many people sort of neglect when they actually try to think about an idea of gender.” As she elaborates: “I think even people who personally know trans people, when they explain or discuss gender as a societal issue, are working from a simplistic concept of man/woman and misogyny, rather than working in things like non-binary experiences or general trans experiences. Because most, if not all, cis people can’t truly […] empathise (rather than just sympathise) with what it means to be trans/non-binary, and their basis of gender is conceptually very limited – not through deliberate choice, just a fundamental difficulty. In the same way I, a binary trans person, find it difficult to empathise with non-binary experiences… though the process of transition means a lot of the ways I interact with society are the same as someone who is non-binary.”
This “innate conceptual bias” derives from the natural way we all use our lived experiences to interpret the world. “…Which is fair enough, because that’s how people tend to experience things like gender or race or questions of identity; what feels right to you is what you have experience with, but I think a lot of people should realise that a broader understanding of gender is more accurate to actual potential lived experiences, even if they don’t quite get that.”
I ask about the institutional support available for trans and non-binary students at Cambridge, should they need it. How responsive is the University? “CUSU appears to be great and obviously they run things like the trans coffee meet-up I went to, and all that sort of stuff.” Deasil has only had “limited experience” with talking to the University itself about trans issues, and therefore does not feel able to make a broad judgement. However, she emphasises that the staff and fellows she has come out to have been universally positive – and she has been able to change her details on various systems, although some remain unchanged, which she admits is “probably in part down to me”.
Perhaps it is almost impossible to know, but I am curious about whether she believes her experiences as a transgender student have been typical. “I think I’ve had it better than a lot of people, I can definitely recognise that. Part of that is because I’m in Cambridge, which is, as places go, very queer-accepting. Part of that is because my family is mostly decent. My sisters and mum were all great pretty much from the word go. My dad took longer, the biggest change especially was pronouns, but now he’s pretty much ok.” Her brother still hasn’t changed the pronouns he uses, and continues to say harmful things – “I don’t care at this point. I mean, he’s 14, I see him rarely enough that I don’t really care what he thinks, at least at the present moment.” Overall, she thinks she’s “had it generally better than a lot of people. I definitely haven’t had to worry about really bad adverse reactions from anyone, I haven’t had to worry about my safety, or having a home, having a place to live, nothing like that.”
Nevertheless, even in somewhere like Cambridge, it seems hard to avoid having the occasional bad experience. “In my case especially misgendering, it really… it guts me. It’s that sort of physical reaction. Which is not great because in most cases it’s not actually a thing you can easily solve. So, a person may say ‘he’ accidentally, and either that’s because they don’t know me, or because they’ve slipped mentally. […] But it’s one of those things that you have to decide how to deal with. And in my case, that’s been pretty much leaving it. It’s rare enough that I just try to ignore it.” Would she ever correct someone? “Not usually, it depends exactly who it is, but in general no. I think I last had to actually correct someone some time ago, the beginning of this year maybe.”
Deasil volunteers in a primary school, which inevitably brings its own challenges when young children lack awareness of trans issues, or a filter for their instinctive thoughts. “I do the teaching with two other girls, and in this context I think it’s a case of [the children] seeing two people who are clearly cis, and then seeing someone who looks a bit ‘weird’ gender-wise, and then I’m stuck in the unfortunate position of having a child call me ‘he’, and not knowing how to respond, and not being able to respond really. And then feeling just kind of bad for the afternoon.” The word ‘bad’, she explains, is simply the easiest way to characterise how she feels – it is deep instinctive reaction that is hard to understand if you have not experienced it first-hand.
It is difficult to know how to solve such issues. But for many people an important way to improve the lives of non-cis individuals is to massively simplify the process of getting your identity legally recognised, bypassing the current need for medical diagnosis and presentation of evidence by adopting a system of self-ID that would be inclusive of non-binary identities. Over the summer the government consulted widely about bringing the Gender Recognition Act (2004) into line with such standards. For Deasil, the majority of the current requirements and paperwork for legal recognition of a new identity are “just a bit pointless, and are only intended to effectively regulate ‘abnormal people’.” She explains, “whenever I’ve had to look through government or NHS things about trans people it’s just a bit silly, really, because the language and the attitude they take is at least 20 years out of date. So, at least as far as that goes, I’m happy that [the consultation] has happened. Obviously, I don’t know what actual changes will be made as a result.” The outcome is still to be determined, but many people are hopeful that UK policy will eventually reflect what many consider to be international best practice.
Our conversation draws to a close. I am aware that it has gone on for longer, and thrown up many more interesting issues than I had anticipated. For me, the biggest take-away was the idea that some students are better helped by active engagement with them about gender issues, rather than general silence outside the usual circles in which these issues are discussed frequently. Not that this should be taken as a rule of thumb – but it is certainly worth reflecting upon.