For many transgender students, university is one of the easiest times to come out, so finding an institution dedicated to providing support and open discussion is vital – particularly as ignorance and discrimination is still commonplace.
Jane*, who is going into her third year at the University of Southampton, believes university is a great place to come out as transgender.
“When I first started painting my nails and dressing in female clothes, my flatmates barely batted an eyelid,” she tells HuffPost UK. “When I came out fully as Jane, I was stunned at how little of a problem it was for everyone – in fact, even people who were very used to using ‘he’ to refer to me were able to switch immediately to using ‘she’.”
Since informing the university recently of her transition from male to female, 21-year-old Jane says staff have been very eager to support her in every way they can. Although she failed her last year at university due to stress, Southampton has allowed her to retake the year and it has promised her more support.
Jane was able to see a counsellor at the university who, although they weren’t trained specifically in transgender issues, was good for general support. Southampton University Students’ Union (SUSU) also plays a prominent part in Jane’s university life, where she has a position as a part-time officer.
“SUSU reached out on numerous occasions to check whether I’m fine,” she explains. “For example, during elections I was having a tough time coming out to so many people, and a couple of the sabbatical officers contacted me to ensure I was comfortable and able to continue.
“When I wanted to run for a female-reserved space on the Union Council, the SU couldn’t have been better – the staff bent over backwards to ensure I was alright with everything and that I was treated acceptably.”
In the past year SUSU has passed resolutions amending the voting system so people no longer have to publicly identify as male or female, adding sanitary bins to the male toilets to cater for female-to-male transgender students, and pledging to ensure all surveys and questionnaires are trans-sensitive. There is also a gender identity officer.
“There are not any specifically ‘gender neutral’ toilets on campus, which is a shame – there are disabled toilets dotted around which I tend to use,” Jane continues.
“Our SU did pledge to lobby the university to change the signage on disabled toilets to specifically include them as ‘gender neutral’ although this has not happened yet. I’d prefer it if the disabled toilets were better labelled and more maintained.”
Although Jane is very positive about her interactions with the university and SUSU, as well as the LGBT society which she says is “super friendly” and “does a great job”, she has had difficulties throughout her time at university, in particular regarding her experiences with the NHS.
“I think when a transgender person is suffering gender dysphoria, which means experiencing significant distress from feeling that their body doesn’t match their gender, it’s very important they be given drugs as soon as is reasonably possible,” Jane explains. “It’s also vital they have psychotherapy beforehand, to help to deal with the feelings while waiting.
“Unfortunately I don’t think I got this support. The NHS gender identity clinics, although technically very good, have hopelessly long waiting lists, resulting in around year-long waits before drugs are prescribed. I was kicked off this waiting list because of a mix-up in the post.”
Although Jane says she is hesitant to play the blame game, she believes immediate and ongoing support is required in cases like hers.
“My experience would suggest that the NHS is not adequately funded to provide this,” she adds.
Despite her largely positive experiences at university, Jane has been subjected to ignorance elsewhere.
“It’s common for a transgender person to have to put up with comments like ‘but you’re a man really’ or ‘I get that you’re trans, but what’s your real gender, you know, the one you were born with?’
“It tends to go underestimated and misunderstood sometimes. But not only is using an incorrect pronoun with someone rude, it can be quite distressing.
“Although I would never blame someone for mistaking me while I’m male-bodied, I do notice when I’m called ‘sir’ or ‘mister’ by shop assistants or waiters, and it does bother me, even more so when it’s coming from people I know more closely.”
But Jane says it is a “real pick-me-up” when she is referred to as female.
“Even something as trivial as saying ‘hey gorgeous’ or ‘she’ can significantly brighten my mood.”
Jane believes university is generally more accepting than other environments – but she says there is still more work to be done.
“It is still something people don’t really understand – for example, some people aren’t aware that it is totally unrelated to your sexual orientation, and many don’t realise that being trans doesn’t always mean you identify as the opposite gender.
“Some people switch between genders, some people don’t feel like they have a gender at all, and some people feel that they identify with another, third, gender.”
As universities are such large forces of influence within communities, Jane believes they do have a certain responsibility to push for greater acceptance – and to help tackle the issues with the NHS.
“The University of Southampton’s GP is also located on our campus, so I’d argue that the university has a responsibility to push them to step up their game too.”
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*Name has been changed.