Understanding ‘trans*’

Transgender Day of RemembranceSteph Muldoon considers what university life in Leeds is like for students who identify as trans*.

When ticking ‘female’ or ‘male’ on a form, the majority of students will not hesitate in selecting their birth-assigned gender. For others, this choice is more than a fleeting tick and is in fact loaded with questions. Being a trans* student is an experience which for most is impossible to relate to but, through raised awareness, ignorance can be eliminated and diversity embraced.

I spoke to a transwoman in  Leeds about her experiences. I learnt that she discovered that she is trans* after joining the University. It seems that, for some, the liberation of university life allows people to be more open and explore their true identities. Although she did commend Leeds University Union’s LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) Society for its social and welfare aid, she did emphasise that the whole process of finding oneself is something only you can do.

LGBT has two trans* welfare officers who have two drop-in sessions every week and provide practical and emotional support for any individuals who come under the umbrella term of ‘trans*’. LGBT also holds a coffee hour in the Union every day during which students can meet new people in an open and comfortable environment.

Gender identity and sexuality can sometimes appear inseparable but the two are, in fact, completely different matters. I was assured that sexuality has nothing to do with gender identity. The sexual orientation of a trans* individual cannot be assumed through their preferred gender. The aforementioned student stated that in her opinion, when it comes to meeting people, if you don’t accept yourself fully, then you can’t expect others to, and ultimately she is just glad to have accepting friends. She also commended Leeds, saying that it is a good city in which to identify as trans*, due to the student culture that allows for diversity and acceptance. Leeds also has a Gender Identity Clinic, in which counselling and treatment are available. However, this is not without its problems. Although the clinic offers acceptance and facilities, the waiting list for treatment is extremely long and by the time a student’s three or four years is over, they may not have been able to receive treatment. It is evident that although treatment is available, more spaces need to be made available in order for it to become more effective.

November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, which serves as an annual reminder of those who have been killed as a result of transphobia. Transgender Europe’s Trans Murder Monitoring Project reveals that there have been 265 murders of trans* people in the last 12 months, motivated by prejudice. On November 20, LGBT held a minute’s silence during their coffee hour and had a stall in the Union raising awareness in order to honour the day.

Due to media sensationalism, for many people, the word ‘trans*’ is automatically linked with surgery. However, this is a rather two-dimensional understanding; although it is true that some trans* individuals do choose to undergo surgery, certainly not all do and it is by no means a pre-requisite for identifying as trans*. One transwoman I spoke to has recently begun hormone replacement therapy yet does not wish to undergo genital reassignment surgery. Another student stated that she has no intention of having surgery and is dubious about hormone treatment. Candid documentaries can be enlightening yet sometimes portray the extreme minority as the majority, leaving the public with a blurred representation of the truth. There are other gender identities outside of the binary: one student I spoke to identifies as ‘genderqueer’, a gender identity outside of male and female. The asterisk in ‘trans*’ stands for all of these non-binary gender identities and so acts as an umbrella term that many can identify with.

A lot of trans* people do not identify as either male or female. This can create uncomfortable social situations, even with the simplest of tasks such as going to the toilet. Speaking to the aforementioned student, she told me how ‘passing’ as your preferred gender can become stressful, as some may not accept you as your preferred gender until you completely embody it. In having to choose either a male or female toilet, it is as though you have to physically  ‘pass’ as one or the other. Those in between, unsure or outside the binary should have the option of a gender-neutral toilet that they can access comfortably. LUU has one gender-neutral toilet close to the Terrace in the Union building. Charlie Hopper, LUU’s Equality and Diversity Officer, expressed a wish for this to be promoted more. She also told me that she has been working with the Union’s HR team in order to provide training for staff to increase awareness and appropriate support.

One transwoman I spoke with explained that the teaching staff at the University of Leeds are extremely supportive and use her preferred pronoun willingly. Another student expressed how each department differs in terms of the relevant support available, due to how feminine or masculine a subject is perceived to be. In terms of careers, it appears that on the whole, jobs in the public sector are less accepting than those in the private sector. However, the situation is definitely improving. Cuba recently elected its first transgender politician, Adela Hernandez.

Trans* is of course attached onto lesbian, gay and bisexual to create a unified group: LGBT. One transwoman I spoke with believed that the T is not related at all to the LG and B, but it becomes closely associated with them due to similar struggles. This can create misconceptions in which people see each category as the same thing. She asserted that eventually it should be separated but this may cause more harm than good. Another trans* student believed that the unity was a positive thing, due to the diversity and acceptance that comes with the culture of LGBT communities. Although sexuality and gender identity are integral within LGBT, the two do not define an individual or this particular group.  Being trans* is not a choice or a momentary decision but part of an individual’s identity that is unchangeable and so should not be demeaned or dismissed as a ‘phase’.

Jo Hamlyn, Co-Chair of LGBT Society, told Leeds Student about the society’s response to trans* issues:

JH: The society provides a welfare officer specifically designated to trans* issues, as well as four others who are more than capable of dealing with a multitude of trans* scenarios. These welfare officers each have hour-long, confidential drop-in sessions during the week so that students can drop in for a chat about anything they might be going through. We are aware that more can be done within the LGBT society and across the Union as a whole so we are working closely with our welfare officers and the Exec to make sure we keep improving services and removing ignorance for trans* identified people.

LS: How do you deal with the isolation that could be caused by being trans* in LGBT?

JH: Coffee Hour is not dedicated to trans* students but it is a safe space that many people use to relax and to just be themselves in the company of other LGBT-defined people. We have a lot of positive feedback regarding this space, it makes people feel welcomed which is important when members are feeling isolated. All of our members are encouraged to come to the events we host. We have trans* specific events in the pipeline: namely trans* workshops which serve educate people about the trans* community. These are very powerful events as a lot of harm can come from ignorance, regardless of the intent. We hope that these sort of events make trans* students feel cared for within the society.

LS: Do you think the ‘T’ necessarily belongs with ‘LGB’?

JH: Stonewall (a very influential LGB charity and equal rights group) see ‘LGB’ as sexual identities, whereas ‘T’ is in relation to gender identities which are two separate issues. Therefore, they do not directly lobby or advise trans* issues but support anyone who is both trans* and LGB identified. It is important to see that they are certainly not the same thing, for example: A male-to-female person who is only attracted to men may identify their sexuality as heterosexual. Our society is both LGB and T, because it is found that together we can create a large community of support for each other. Also, I think that generally ‘LGB’ identified people can more easily relate to

words: Steph Muldoon
photo: Becki Bateman

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