Being trans makes adjusting to college life that much harder but Isabella Gallinaro highlights how in many ways it’s a chance to be out and meet others just like you.
It’s the first week of college! All across the nation, tens of thousands of students are getting ready to start the academic year. Countless tasks must be carried out, from the odyssey of finding accommodation to the rather more banal purchase of stationery. Clueless freshers try to convince themselves they know what they’re getting into; even more clueless international students (like yours truly) grapple futilely with the Dublin housing market and the semantics of the word “craic”. Today, on this here column, I’d like to talk about a particular subset of students. They’ll be making up a small but steady portion of the college population this year, and have been doing so for as long as universities have existed. I’m talking, of course, about transgender students.
Going to college is usually the first time we get to hang out with other transgender people outside of the Internet.
Before we get into the thick of things, a little Trans 101. Thanks to people like Laverne Cox, Jamie Clayton, Laura Jane Grace, and Tom Phelan, to name a few, transgender visibility in pop culture has greatly increased in recent years. However, we still walk into embarrassing misconceptions whenever we stick our nose out into the mainstream.
As such, it’s best to set down some ground rules. To clarify: a trans woman is someone who was declared male at birth, only to realize she is a woman later down the line. Vice versa for trans men. This realization can come at 5, at 20, at 70. Not all trans people want to take hormones or get surgery. Some trans people, rather than being men or women, use labels like “nonbinary”, “agender”, “bigender”, and others. They have a different approach to the man/woman binary, but are no less trans for it.
The opposite of transgender is “cisgender”: a cis person is someone who looks at the gender they were assigned at birth and goes “yup, sounds about right”. Obviously, cis people make up the majority of the population. Finally, a person’s trans status is not tied to their sexual orientation, physical appearance, behaviour, or pretty much anything else.
With that out of the way: college! What a wonderful time for a young trans person. Many of us realize our actual gender in our teens. Many of us also spend our teens in horrible, terrible places, like secondary school, or small country towns, or the secondary school of a small country town. As I’m sure many readers will agree, these locations aren’t especially good for the development of a non-conformist identity. Thus, college life presents a plethora of exciting new opportunities: the opportunity to try out a new name, to be referred to by different pronouns, to buy that skirt or that blazer and wear it around campus, to cut your hair super short or grow it out or dye it a truly eye-popping shade of green. More often than not, the loosening of parental surveillance tends to play a key role.
But the most important perk offered by college life, and I’m sure many of my cis readers will agree, is the opportunity to meet people of the same stripe as ourselves (perhaps rivalled only by the opportunity to meet people of a completely different stripe). Adolescence is often even harsher and more lonesome for a trans kid than it is for most other teens. Going to college is usually the first time we get to hang out with other transgender people outside of the Internet.
Of course, even in college, one can’t exactly walk around shaking hands and asking new acquaintances if they’re trans, at least not without wearing some form of body armour. It’s more or less feasible for cisgender non-straight people to form friendships with people in different social circles without outright disclosing their sexual orientation. However, trans people tend to have a harder time, since trivial details like your name and whether you’re a “he”, a “she”, or a “they” are sort of bound to come up in conversation, and having to explain to everyone that you’re really a Chloe when you look for all the world like a Sean or a Tom can be pretty daunting. As such, a college’s LGBT society tends to play a key role in a trans person’s campus life. I’ve certainly formed many close friendships through UCD LGBTQ+ (a big shout out to them for letting me write this, by the way). A practice employed by any LGBT society worth its salt is asking people for their name and pronouns before most society events, particularly at the start of the year. I can attest that this custom is slowly being adopted, or at least acknowledged, by other societies. It’s simple, quick, and it would be immensely helpful to the trans community if it became more commonplace on campus.
I’ve certainly formed many close friendships through UCD LGBTQ+ (a big shout out to them for letting me write this, by the way).
But even today, living on campus as an out trans person is possible, if you want it badly enough (some people don’t, and that’s ok!). Lecturers generally prove amenable to the idea of calling a student by a different name or pronouns. The head of your school might even be willing to change your data in the class roster. If you know where to look, there are gender-neutral bathrooms on campus – even something as simple as walking through a door to splash some water on your face can be a source of aggravation when you’re trans, depending on the little person painted on the door. Getting lecturers to actually employ your chosen name with regularity can be difficult (they do have several hundred other students to worry about, after all), and schlepping to the one bathroom that doesn’t box you into a binary you want no part of can be a workout, but it’s possible. If you’re trans and out, people will probably ask you weird questions about certain delicate regions of your body, and some people will outright hurl abuse at you. For some trans people, that’s way more trouble than being out is worth. For others, it’s the only way to survive.
In conclusion, I say to my cisgender readers: we are here. As with most human beings, we tend to be okay people once you get to know us. So do! We’re all different people: you’re bound to find at least one trans person who’s absolutely excellent banter. Just don’t ask any weird questions. You’ve read the column, right?
To my trans readers, I say: we are here! You are not alone. Keep that in mind when the world seems staunchly against you. Love is the key to survival, and you are loved.
Have a good year at college, everyone.