Heidi Blake speaks to two students about their experiences of dealing with gender transition in a university environment
Students who define themselves as ‘trans’ open themselves up to a bewilderingly plentiful array of identity options, even by post-modern standards. The term is an umbrella which covers those who identify variously as ‘gender queer’, ‘gender neutral’, ‘gender-fluid’, ‘trans-gender’, ‘transvestite’ and/or ‘trans-sexual’.
Despite the continued blossoming of so-called Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) communities at universities around the country, the reality is that trans students remain an all-but invisible presence on most campuses. According to Lucy*, YUSU’s current LGBT officer, who self-defines as a trans-sexual woman, “People just don’t know about trans issues. They think of LGBT as LGB with a T shoved on the end for effect”. It seems curious, in this fast-moving, consumer-driven age in which the principle of free choice reigns supreme, that such ignorance should prevail about a demographic who have made, or seek to make, the ultimate free choice. “That’s why I’m doing this”, Gamble tells me, “because I want to make sure people know about the issues, and that the right kind of support is there for trans people. Unless that’s in place, there’s no way trans students are going to come forward: if you don’t accommodate them, they won’t come.”
Before it was only in my mind that the battle was on. Now it involves everything: my mind, my body and other people
Lucy is a third-year Chemistry student, and is currently the only known trans-sexual at York, though she tells me she has heard there might be others who are not out. She came out to her friends as “trans-something” last Easter, and finally “changed from a man to a woman in Week 2 of Autumn term”. By and large, Lucy’s friends were supportive of her coming out, “apart from one, who was very much like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know you anymore’, but then, after a few weeks, realised that that there was nothing really different; just something more.”
Just after Christmas, Lucy began taking hormones which effectively produce a female puberty (blessedly for her, perhaps, minus menstruation) resulting in softer skin, reduced hair growth, reduced libido, redistribution of body fat, fuller cheeks, some breast and nipple growth, decrease in genital size and, eventually, infertility.
Lucy began to realise she was trans when, at the age of 10, she found herself unable to explain to her mother her “complete horror” at being told she was to be sent to an all-boys secondary school. She describes her school-years as “socially the worst of my life”. She came to a full realisation of her gender issues when she was 17, but wasn’t to act on it until she came to University. “I continued to live as a man at that time because the hardest part is getting it out. I had no-one to talk to about it; I couldn’t talk to my parents because it’s not the sort of thing that you do, so I bottled it in.”
Even at a liberal institution such as York, coming out as the only transsexual on campus must have been a lonely and frightening prospect. How did Lucy cope with the early stages of transition? “I tried the counselling service and they were dreadful—they kept trying to divert onto other aspects of my life which they felt they could deal with, when what I needed counselling for was my trans issues.
Eventually, I found out that I had to go to my GP, so I went to the health centre and they did the usual questionnaire. The GP sent me to an NHS psychiatrist for scrutiny, who sent me away again saying I was just a confused little boy.” By this point, Lucy had already come out as trans-sexual and was living as a woman. Having been dismissed by her psychotherapist, she went away feeling distraught and suicidal. “I felt as though either she was trying to make me feel really shit or what I thought I was wasn’t what I was. One of the theories is that, because there’s money involved and they need to get patient lists down, they try to force you off the waiting list without treating you.” Thankfully for Lucy, when she eventually told her parents, they were not so judgemental. “They were fine about it. My mum wasn’t expecting it when I told her, but she said she wasn’t surprised”.
It was in the summer before Uni that I started transitioning, and I arrived there very much a women and not a trans person
Lucy was finally diagnosed as a trans-sexual following six sessions of private psychiatry and was put on hormone therapy. When I ask about the effects of the hormones, she replies wistfully, “Not much has happened to me physically yet”, but she describes the intense mood swings which are one of the recognised side effects of the treatment. “I’m moody as hell at the moment. Recently, I’ve been going up and down like a yo-yo. I don’t even know myself what’s going on. I’ve been going into depression and I’ve never been so bad before. Last week, I broke down in front of everybody. I was drunk and so were they, but the mood swing was genuine.”
Clearly the process of transition has not been easy so far. Is Lucy convinced that she made the right decision to change? She replies thoughtfully, “I’m convinced that this is right, but life is actually harsher now that it was before; it’s a lot more stressful. You gain in one bit and you lose in the rest really. Before it was okay, because it was only in my mind that the battle was on. Now it involves everything: my mind, my physical body and other people. But it’s one of these things where you’ve got to work on it.”
However, in some respects it sounds like Lucy is happier now than she has been. “In my first year, I was a bit screwed-up, and I spent my second year recovering and coming out. This year, I’ve noticed a big difference. I have a lot more friends now and they’re a lot closer. I feel as though I can actually do things now. In my first and second years, I did very little.”
Lucy says she has been pleasantly surprised by the benign reaction to her transition on campus, though she finds it perplexing that “people on my course still haven’t said anything about it after seven months. People still talk to me as they used to, but no-one’s mentioned it.” She finds it frustrating when people get their gender pronouns mixed up in reference to her, or use the name she went by before the change.
Off campus, things have been harder. “It seems pathetic to get upset by it, but it’s really hard when people shout at you in the street, or ask if you’re a man or a woman.” Perhaps this is why Lucy declares her intention to stay in education “for as long as possible” and plans to stay in York to do a Ph.D.
Despite her commitment to being a woman, Lucy has not made a final decision to have a gender reassignment operation. “The main question for me is, is there a point in it? At the moment I don’t want to be in a relationship, so there isn’t . But if I did then I think that would be the thing to tip me over.”
After meeting Lucy, I spoke to Ruth, a second-year philosophy student at Warwick who also self-defines as a trans-sexual woman. Ruth has been on hormones for six months and has lived in a female role for almost two years. She came out to her mother at 16, though she did not tell her father until two years later. “My mum just didn’t know quite how to deal with it; she didn’t react badly as such. She said she would be there for me, but she had her doubts. Essentially she’s just slowly adapted to it. My dad found it harder to accept, and he still mainly calls me by the old name and mixes his pronouns.”
Ruth tells me she began to come to terms with her trans identity at 16. “I realised that the way I was thinking wasn’t normal. Mostly it was about wanting to wake up in the morning as a girl rather than a boy. I tried crossdressing, but it didn’t do anything much for me. It wasn’t about that, it was that I felt stuck in the way I appeared to the world and the way I acted. I felt uncomfortable trying to put on a male role.
“It was pretty much the summer before I went to University that I started transitioning, and I arrived there very much as a woman and not as a trans person.” The people Ruth lived with in her first year initially did not know she was trans-sexual, though several of them found out through the year. “Most people were very decent about it, because fortunately most of my friends are very openminded. Although one person seems to blank it out almost like it’s something terrible that she doesn’t want to think of, which is quite sad.
“A lot of my friends at Uni still don’t know I’m trans, which was a deliberate decision I made and that’s why I transitioned when I did. I find it hurtful when people take me as male, which still happens occasionally.” It is impossible not to notice that Ruth speaks with a highly feminised voice, and I ask her whether this is the result of the hormones she is taking. She explains that it is not possible for hormones to reverse physical changes like a broken voice. “However, most people’s voices have a far greater range than you’d expect. When I was about 16, my voice had dropped quite late, so I essentially just worked it back up again. And I do student radio, so I suppose I’ve got better at watching my voice. For me, it was a gradual process; other people really work at it.”
Like Lucy, Ruth does not prioritise the gender reversal operation. “My major priority is getting through university, and in terms of being trans, the main thing is about being able to express myself. As far as anything down there is concerned, it’s important but not as important. It’s your outward appearance which matters most.” However, Ruth does plan to have the operation when it becomes financially possible for her to do so. “It is important for me, and for my relationship. I’ve been with my girlfriend for a couple of years now. I’m bisexual.” Ruth met her girlfriend shortly before she transitioned, so I ask her how the change has affected their relationship.
“The intimate bits are very complicated indeed. But it’s certainly possible to be in a relationship and I’m happy to be in one. It’s very difficult for a lot of people, but it’s worked for us.” Similarly to Lucy’s experience at York, Ruth does not feel she has experienced too much adversity living as a trans-sexual at Warwick. “The only prejudice I ever experienced was from someone I tried to buy a banana from in a university café, rather bizarrely. I had a deal card which had my name and photograph on and she refused to believe it was my card, because it was a girl’s picture and a girl’s name. I was looking pretty ambiguous that morning.” Ruth seems to have no major regrets about making the transition: “In a way I’m probably at the best point I’ve been at in my life. I’ve got an active social life, I’m doing alright on my course, and I’m pretty happy a lot of the time about how I look and stuff.”
Despite her positive outlook, there are clearly aspects of trans life which she finds wearing. “I’m still very, very conscious about my appearance. I’ve pretty much got the worries everyone has about ‘Oh my God, do I look alright’, with the additional ‘Does my gender look right?’ on top. But I am growing breasts, which helps because I’ll be able to wear low cut tops soon, rather than stuffing my bra with tissue to appear normal. It’s simple things like that which make a difference. And a lot of the more masculine hair growth dies back a bit with the hormones, although I still have some facial hair. Having to think about these things every day, and being reminded that I’m trans, can be really soulsearching.”
The NHS booklet A Guide for Young Trans People in the UK, stipulates the importance of maintaining a positive identity: “Just because you’re trans doesn’t mean you don’t have the same prospects as everyone else. Trans people usually fall in love, succeed in their chosen careers, have good friends and loving relationships with their family just like everyone else. Living as a trans person might be difficult because society is not equipped to deal with such things. It is up to us to change that and a good start is to remain positive.”
How very true. In the meantime, the rest of society must equip itself to welcome and accommodate brave trans people dealing with what is a complex, fraught, but potentially lifeaffirming choice.
*Name has been changed
Resources for trans students
YUSU LGBT officers
Lucy and Matthew Pallas hold regular drop-in sessions for those needing support and advice related to their sexuality or in coping with transphobia.
York LGBT Project
A project run by York City Council Youth Service for under-25s, providing a safe space for discussion and meeting new people.The group meets every Thursday in the city centre
A website providing information on all things trans, with a forum and a chatroom for discussion and support
A web forum for talking about trans issues, coming out, sex and prejudice.
Homophobic and transphobic bullying help