By Jesse Ashman
Having come out in my first year of studying an undergraduate degree in English Literature, I am about to start a new university for the second time – this time as postgraduate student, below are some things I learnt from the first time at university.
- You are not alone
While it seems statistically unlikely, there are other trans people at university. I might have been extremely lucky, but I had a small support-cluster of trans friends on campus. There is, of course, no way to find out if you have a potential trans comrade without being very rude (asking if someone is trans is rude, and does not help with making friends). This extends into professional academia as well. I’ve found, especially when dealing with queer theory, you will start using more and more texts by trans academics; it isn’t just my generation of trans people in higher education, others have walked this path before. This also isn’t just confined to the arts; I particularly recommend Evolution’s Rainbow, by Joan Roughgarden, who is a biologist and a trans woman. For me, it’s comforting to know that if you do get to the higher circles of academia there will be others there who too have had to go through explaining things like ‘my pronouns are actually…’ and ‘the gender is wrong on my passport because…’ which brings me on to…
- People will surprise you
It’s nice to have other trans people to talk to, but it’s also good to bear in mind that people outside of the community will surprise you. If you do choose to disclose your trans status, I’ve found that you can never assume who will be understanding and who won’t. Some of the most supportive people of my experience as a trans student have been people who I would never have guessed before coming to university would be. I especially remember one member of staff was extremely passionate about the injustice of me not feeling comfortable taking part in a conference because it would mean being put in single-sex accommodation. The overwhelming majority of people, especially proper-adult people who have had more years or more life experience or both in order to become educated on trans issues, were understanding and used the correct pronouns after having been corrected a minimum of once. That being said, doesn’t just apply to people already informed on trans issues. During my time at university I found myself explaining my trans status to a hall full of boisterous high-school students – after having clumsily explained in what I thought were the simplest terms possible, the reply came back from one of the particularly loud members of the pre-pubescent audience; ‘fair enough.’
- You will study texts that completely ignore your existence
You can explain the existence of trans people to an IRL (IRL = In Real Life, for any non-digital natives reading) person, no amount of careful explaining to a hardbound copy of Freud’s essays on sexuality will change its mind about the development of gender. As soon as you go into any reading about gender a trans person will find many texts that ignore or misunderstand their existence; erasing it or using it as an ‘extreme example’ of gender variance or worse, by implying that the existence of trans people infringes upon women’s rights. There is no easy solution for this, the only partial remedy I can offer is to write your own opinions, challenge tutors who portray outdated theories in a positive light and try to use any salvageable elements of texts like this. It is unfortunate that it’s almost impossible not to encounter academic articles and books that have no understanding, consideration or a negative view of the trans community and it’s important to bear in mind that this does not represent the view of most people. Especially now, and especially after someone has undergone a little education on trans issues – most people have prejudices based on misunderstanding and not on hate.
- It is Okay to challenge the institution
Bearing this in mind, this goes not just for trans issues, and is definitely something that all students should be made aware of ; it’s okay to challenge the institution (the institution being academia, the university system and established knowledge). Being at university means you’re part of the academic community now – and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise, to imply that your opinion is less valued based on your age or position as an undergraduate, is a self-aggrandising moron. It’s perfectly okay to point out when a text ignores or contradicts your existence or when you disagree for any other reason. And it’s certainly perfectly okay to point out when a staff member makes a mistake when talking about gender, either as a general concept and especially when they’re talking about your own gender.
One of the problems I regularly encountered on a course made almost entirely of women was seminar leaders jovially pointing out ‘there’s only X amount of boys in the class!’ – the tally was always one short and a lot of apologies were made. Just because someone is an authority figure does not mean they won’t concede when they are wrong, and any member of staff who doesn’t should not be involved in teaching, or in academia. University is about broadening horizons and collective knowledge, not an established knowledge being passed down from on high by the doctors and professors of the university. (Although one piece of information I would like them to pass down is what actually is the difference between a professor and a doctor except that one makes me think of the bird from Bagpuss). It is often difficult to be assertive when you know or suspect authority figures to be wrong, but you should challenge them whenever you are able.
- There will be bad days
And lastly this one almost goes without saying – there will be bad days. There will be days when you feel entirely alone, when you feel like there is no one in the institution who would even scrape the tip of the iceberg of understanding trans experience and as if every piece of study was designed without you in mind. The best thing to remember is that this is natural, and this is okay. I haven’t met a single student, trans or otherwise, who hasn’t had bad days. It doesn’t mean you’re not strong enough to get through a degree, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t good days to come – and this is the most valuable piece of information I learnt as an undergraduate and if I was to choose one thing to pass down to my first-year self it would be that bad days are okay. So okay in fact that despite the bad days I chose to start it all over again within few months of graduating.
Jesse is an English literature graduate and aquatic snail enthusiast from Essex. He graduated from Queen Mary, University of London and is currently studying for an MA in Sexual Dissidence at the University of Sussex.
Follow him on Twitter: @JesseAshman
Illustrations by Jesse Ashman