Elliot Byrom is the new Trans and Nonbinary Liberation officer for Edinburgh University Students’ Association. Jane Ditchfield, a writer for The Student, sat down with Elliot for a chat about his new role and trans and nonbinary issues on campus.
What is your job and why does it exist now?
So, we’ve had various Liberation Officers for a while, and the role of the Liberation Officers is to support and represent the students who are in minorities, or oppressed groups, and bring their issues to the forefront in the Students’ Association, make sure they have a voice in the Students’ Association but also to have their separate projects which they’ll be working on independently that are to the benefit of that group in particular, as opposed to the more general Sabbatical roles that are trying to deal with the whole student body.
There’s a trans rep this year because there has been a lot of stuff regarding the trans community in Edinburgh that requires a lot of work and a lot of effort. Previously that work has fallen to the LGBT+ rep and the Welfare Officer, but that’s not really fair. It’s too much time on one demographic and there’s no guarantee that either of those people will be trans; the LGBT+ rep this year isn’t, the Welfare Officer is, but next year they won’t be. Having all of this to do on top of their everyday job is very difficult and also it’s trying to represent the best interests of a community that you’re not a part of.
So yeah there’s been a lot of extra work in terms of fighting transphobia on campus because the nation conversation has been so anti-trans in the last year or so and that’s translated into on campus conversations and incidents, such as stickers which have appeared on campus again.
Actually, I scratched one off on my way here! [Stickers around campus have been appearing bearing slogans such as “only men can be transwomen,” and “almost half of transwomen prisoners are sex offenders” which is an invented statistic].
God yeah I talked to security about it, but clearly they haven’t done a good enough job.There needs to be someone whose job it is to get on that and it’s not really in the job description for the Welfare Officer or the LGBT+ officer although I do expect their support. Rosie, in particular, the new LGBT+ Officer is very keen to work together, but because the volume of work is so high it’s not reasonable to expect them to do all this work themselves.
You mentioned the cultural moment it feels like we’re in right now as a country and in the university, do you have a sense for the mood or feelings of the trans community right now within the university?
I think there’s a lot of frustration at the situation. You know generally there aren’t that many transphobes on campus and it’s just very frustrating that they are able to exert so much power because the university hasn’t come down with a stance or doesn’t know how to deal with the situation. It’s also kind of alarming, this should be a fairly simple thing to condemn but instead we’re here having all these conversations about free speech. And it’s not protected speech it’s hate speech, so that’s frustrating.
I read your manifesto but could you go over some of the key points?
So there are a couple of things, obviously the transphobic stickers are a problem. I want to get them out of the way quickly because I don’t want them to take up too much of my time. I don’t want them to be controlling the conversation.
I’m keen to have a resource available to staff on trans issues by September, because I feel like one of the big problems I’ve come across is that there are staff who are well-meaning, they don’t want to be transphobic, they’re not trying to be transphobic, they’re nice and kind but they just have no idea what’s going on. Just absolutely no clue. So I want to have a resource available, and hopefully they’ll have read it beforehand but just so when they have an interaction with a student they have a resource they can turn to so if they don’t know what they can do they can turn to the resource pack and not make a terrible mistake and make everyone feel bad.
I’m also really keen to have more interaction between staff and students in the trans community. The Staff Pride Network are great and it’s just really good to know there are adults out there who are grown up and living their lives and are married and have jobs and particularly are there in an academic setting, so if you’re here training to maybe go into a field like that it’s really inspiring to see someone and go “oh yes, here is someone who has done the thing that I’m going to do and now I can do it much better.”
Are there ways you think the university could affect other organisations or ripple out into the world at large?
Yeah absolutely, and I think in two ways. The university has a particular stance and creates a particular culture within the student body, and obviously that has a huge influence on the number of students that come through and then go out into the world and they’ve been acclimatised to that culture. But also the University of Edinburgh, as an institution, is very prestigious not only nationally but internationally and so to be able to say “that’s how things are now and people just have to sit down and face reality” then I think they’d have a lot of sway in that sort of thing. We have that kind of clout in some ways. If the university has a hardline stance and works really hard at it then it is possible to affect change.
What do you think the key struggles that trans students are facing as they go through university?
One of the big things is that there are various policies which are designed to be helpful to trans people that nobody knows about. For example, did you know you can change your gender with your university? You don’t need to prove anything, you don’t need to have done it legally, they’ll just do it. [The university cannot legally ask to see a gender recognition certificate]. There’s loads of stuff like that where policy is very unclear and nobody knows. I have to send six emails to six different departments before somebody tells me who I need to be talking to.
There’s also the fact that a lot of staff just don’t know anything about trans issues. So, I was in student counselling and my counselor said at one point “I’m sorry you shouldn’t need to be here teaching me stuff,” but I had to go through trans 101 with her, because she didn’t know. It’s just really annoying to constantly be the source of information and have to be an expert at everything, even when you’re trying to find help or assistance.
Also everyone has problems with NHS waiting queues but unfortunately I don’t have much power there. [Chalmers Gender Identity Clinic is the only way to access the majority of trans healthcare through the NHS in Edinburgh. It’s currently seeing patients who were referred in November 2017 and it doesn’t look like it’s catching up any time soon.]
What do you think the general student body’s place is, on the outside looking in, where do you think the average student is at?
I think the average student is completely ambivalent about trans issues. The average cis, heterosexual student doesn’t care that much. There’s a general sense that “oh trans people exist, I guess that’s fine, I’ve got two essay deadlines in the next three weeks, I’m busy.” Which I think can be beneficial. They’re not like hardline opposed to trans issues or trans people existing. Maybe I’m being optimistic but I think that’s the general stance.
Where do you see the Trans Liberation campaign that’s just starting up in ten years time?
Oh gosh, I mean hopefully it’ll have been wildly successful. I think in ten years time it’ll be very entrenched in the university as a whole, in the Students’ Association. It’ll be “we’ve got the candidates and here’s the trans candidate.” Hopefully we’ll grow the community and have stronger community ties.
Sounds like you’re trying to convert people!
No no, just get more people involved in community stuff, have a much stronger presence on campus so if you’re 17 or 18 or however old you are in first year and you’re really nervous you’ll see the places you can go and that it’s going to be great and you’ll have support.
Also, I hope we get more people involved with student politics. Obviously it’s really important to have Liberation Candidates but more trans people and more minority people in general getting involved in wider student politics, whether that’s coming along to student council or running for office: I think it’s really beneficial to have a broad spectrum of opinions represented. I hope by having a firm placing in the Students’ Association’s structure for trans people that makes it easier for trans people to move into the wider student representation system.
Because a lot of this is invisible to people on the outside, are there any examples of times when you were the only person in the room that noticed something? We just said it’s really important to have trans people’s views; have you ever been in the uni and someone’s said something and your ears have pricked up and nobody else’s have?
So so many times! I’m doing a social science, I’m doing Linguistics so I can talk about things. The Linguistics department as a whole is great as an area of study has a good stance on these things, but I’ve been in lectures and somebody will say “he or she” and it’s like “just use they,” or in a tutorial someone says something – and you know they probably don’t mean anything by it – but it’s like, “that’s offensive” and nobody else noticed. And I don’t want to start something at 9am in a cramped tutorial room full of my academic peers and a PhD student who doesn’t get paid enough for this stuff, you know? And they’re all little things.
One example in particular when I was in second year and I went and had a meeting with my personal tutor, and we were talking about what extracurriculars I was doing and I said “I’m on the PrideSoc committee,” and she asked what I was doing on the PrideSoc committee so I said “I’m the trans and nonbinary officer.” So that got put on my notes on EUCLID and I thought that’s fine, I’m not in the closet, and then I got an email from a course lecturer – that I had never spoken to – saying: “Me and your tutor form your tutorial have been talking and we were just wondering if there are any pronouns you’d prefer to go by?”
And, obviously you can see exactly what happened. They’ve seen they have a trans student and thought “how do we respect them and make the space as comfortable as possible? I know! We’ll cold email them to ask for their pronoun preferences!” So they were trying so hard but that was very stressful. I had to email them back to say please don’t ever talk to me again. So it was a subject that I found very interesting but it wasn’t one where I was very comfortable like, having to clarify my gender in front of a room full of people. So that was the worst one.
Let’s go back to pronouns quickly because there’s been a shift in university culture. People are seeing it in the news, and “my pronouns are:” at the bottom of emails or in a round of introductions hearing “my pronouns are this.” Can you talk about why that’s come about?
So pronouns seem to be a much bigger issue with cis people than trans people which is very funny, but when people transition, because pronouns in English are gendered, they might change their pronouns like they might change their name. It’s a very low key, low stress thing. Please just use the correct pronoun and we’ll get on with our day.
And as a linguist, what is a pronoun?
Pronouns in English are “he,” “she,” “it” and “they.” “It” is generally not used for animate objects like people, so if you’re going to refer to someone and you don’t know their gender “they” is a good default, because “they” is gender neutral singular in English. Like, “look at them, I wonder what they’re thinking about?” Exactly!
Everyone has pronouns they prefer to be identified by, it’s just that cis people haven’t thought about it, so having pronouns marked does a couple of things: first of all it makes things slightly easier on everybody, especially if you present in a way that is slightly more ambiguous. It’s impossible to tell with 100 per cent accuracy what pronouns someone has so having them on a badge for example is very convenient so you don’t have to have an awkward “what are your pronouns” conversation. It’s also very important in emails and things because for trans people it indicates that someone is either in the community or an ally to the community, right? So someone who has pronouns on display has a firm stance on the “pronoun issue” so to speak, and that stance is: “this is not an issue, I’ll put them on my signature and get on with my day”.
I feel like we’ve gotten through everything I had, is there anything else you’d like to say?
Yes! I’d like to say to the trans community that if they are interested in anything going on at the university please get in touch, come find me on facebook, talk to the lib campaign. I’m very keen not being one person making unilateral decisions for the whole community. Even if you don’t want to be that heavily involved, shoot me a message. “I think this would be good,” if you like something say “that’s a good idea,” if you hate it say you hate it and I’ll see what I can do. Yeah I just really want as many trans people to be involved as possible!
Please note that an edited version of this transcript was printed in The Student on 27 March 2019
Illustration: Hannah Robinson