Coming out as transgender can be very difficult for anyone. In coming out, trans people sometimes risk losing their friends, ending relationships and severing ties with their families. They may experience violence or disownment. It is a brave thing to do. But trans students at Oxford face an additional hurdle when coming out; the reactions of their colleges.
The university has done a significant amount of work to meet the needs of trans students, which has culminated in the University Transgender Policy. However, most colleges have done little in considering how to react to a student who tells them that they’re going to transition. Coming out as trans tends to require a lot of admin – if you want to change your name, title and gender records, or to be known by a different name or pronouns, you’re going to have to speak to your college officially at some point.
In the absence of preparation, colleges tend to react in an ad hoc fashion, so individual experiences vary wildly. Some colleges have reacted very supportively, listening carefully to what students need, and getting training for staff who needed it. These colleges often made all the difference to the wellbeing of potentially very vulnerable students.
Last year, I decided to change my name to Crash. I told my friends, and I was happy to be no longer burdened by my old name, having hated it for a long time. I now needed to inform my college and tutors, and make sure that from now on I would only be referred to by my new name and pronouns (‘they’). I knew how to make some changes, like my Nexus address, myself (and I later compiled an online resource for the LGBTQ Society about this), but I had no idea who to approach at college. I was advised by the University’s Equality and Diversity Unit to speak to my Senior Tutor, whom I very nervously emailed.
The reply I got was disheartening. I was told that there was little they could do without an official deed poll – something I couldn’t get at the time due to family considerations. (The story of being told ‘nothing can happen without a deed poll’ is one I’ve heard a number of times, but a legal change of name is only required for the updating of the official name on your student record.) I also asked if he could pass a message on to my tutors explaining that I’d changed my name and wanted to be referred to by different pronouns. He told me this was something I’d have to negotiate personally, and was not for him to pronounce upon.
Luckily when I did contact my tutors they were all supportive – my senior tutor passed my details on to the academic administrator, who was very kind and sorted everything out. A few months later, a problem arose when one of my old tutors was organising tutes for me and told my new tutors what my old name was. That was very upsetting, but I spoke to him and he was very apologetic.
The difficulties I faced weren’t caused by individuals being malicious. But when caught off-guard and unsure of what they’re meant to be doing, people make mistakes and can seem unsympathetic. The issue is that at many colleges, trans students genuinely have no idea what kind of reaction they’ll get – so I know many people who live a double life, out to their friends and closeted to their colleges. Or they never come out at all, and fear of how colleges will react is part of that. That has a serous effect on people.
Over the last year the OUSU LGBTQ Campaign has been working on a plan to get colleges to improve this situation. After a consultation with a few colleges over the summer, we distributed a briefing to all Senior Tutors in Michaelmas. We made four recommendations: to affirm the University Transgender Policy, to identify the changes a college might need to make if a student wants to come out, to suggest points of contact for individuals to approach for support, and to communicate this information to students on their website.
These recommendations would make a huge difference in encouraging trans students to ‘take the leap of faith’, and ensuring adequate support from colleges. Unfortunately, only one college has followed all of them (hooray for Merton!). So this term, the LGBTQ Campaign, with our new LGBTQ Officer Jenny Walker, is going to work closely with JCRs and MCRs to make sure that colleges take note of what we’ve said and make necessary changes.
Trans students make themselves hugely vulnerable by telling people at their colleges that they’re trans. Colleges need to put systems in place to ensure they get the support they deserve.
PHOTO/ Bi Magazine Staff