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The struggles of being non-binary at university

I was dreading the tutorial. It was my second semester of English Literature, and after a first semester of coasting around the literary world, we were now working chronologically, which meant that I had just been thrown into the medieval period. I hated it.

Furthermore, it was January, typically freezing, and I got lost. My tutorial was in one of the many buildings that makes up the row of Buccleuch Place, up a musty spiral staircase, and through a door that was easy to miss. I was slightly late, there was chaos regarding who was actually meant to be at that tutorial.

I began to think that I would rather be anywhere else. That was until my tutor began the icebreakers. At that time, I hated icebreakers – hated the feeling of anticipation as we moved around the circle to me. I hated the pressure to say something smart.

Literature tutors often ask for a favourite author. While others name Tolstoy and Austen, the closest I can come to naming a favourite author is Rainbow Rowell.

I hated the fact that I never managed to introduce myself in the way that I wanted to. But as my tutor rattled through the list of what she wanted us to say about ourselves, she asked if we would introduce our personal pronouns.

The first time I was asked for my preferred pronouns by another student was the first day of fresher’s week. A whole semester would pass before I would be asked by a tutor.

For the entirety of the first semester, I had been squirming with the anticipation of being misgendered in every tutorial. If someone referred to me, were they going to use ‘she’? Was somebody going to call me a ‘girl’, grouping me where I didn’t really belong?

I wore pronoun badges to tutorials as often as I could remember, but badges are small, and people don’t often stop to read them. My cisgender friends told me that I should correct people in tutorials, but I’m chronically shy and the idea of interrupting somebody to correct them on my pronouns just felt – wrong. I considered emailing tutors, but the anxiety gnawed at me until I didn’t say anything at all. I just had to smile and cope every time somebody called me ‘she’.

It’s not that I blame anybody for the mistake. It’s just hard to navigate a world where you don’t fit into the traditional binaries.

By the time I entered university, I had something of a handle on my own personal identity. I was settled and assured with neutral pronouns, gave up on the idea of changing my name (nothing ever feels as right as Jasna).

I felt I was at a fairly reasonable state with my presentation, though dysphoria for me waxes and wanes. Having to enter my gender as female on my personal details for MyEd was like a kick in the teeth. It felt like a constant reminder that, as much as the university paraded itself as LGBT-champion, the actual reality of this was that support was scarce.

My first year was consistently traumatic. Not just in terms of my gender identity – but for me, as a person. I was completely torn apart. University was supposed to fix me, to be the best thing that ever happened to me – and yet I hated it, never wanted to go, was constantly stressed, and was having panic attacks. They were so bad I sometimes thought I was going to have to go to the hospital.

My hands would shake over my keyboard as I tried to force myself through essays I didn’t know how I’d write. I wrote one through tears. Other students threw me lifebuoys, helping me proofread and restructure essays and breaking down concepts I struggled with into pieces that I could understand.

As my world fell apart around me, it felt like the university was attacking me. My first year was plagued by a campaign of transphobic stickers that I did my best to scrape from lampposts and buildings. But as fast as I (and others) could remove them, they would reappear.

Despite attending a liberal university it felt like my existence as a trans person was under attack. I didn’t know, and still don’t, who was putting up the stickers.

I didn’t know who in my classes might turn out to not believe in my identity. Sometimes, when I mentioned that I was non-binary in passing, I felt a vice grip of fear in my chest about outing myself. What did the others at the table think?

But my first year of university was also the first year of my life that I started following online activism. I followed outspoken trans and non-binary people and shared their posts on my Instagram stories. I worried about how other people would react – and was grilled by people over whether transphobia still existed in Britain, and if anti-trans violence did. My friends were constantly supportive and, with their advice, I blocked those whose constant questioning was uneducated and harmful.

It was a slow and rocky road, but I began to cut transphobia out of my life and surround myself with positive people. People who accepted my identity, supported me, and were willing to stick up for me. The friends that I made in my first year have been my greatest support, and I’m so grateful to have met them.

Though I almost never actually attended any PrideSoc events as they clashed with something else, their presence as a society on social media and following members also made me feel incredibly supported.
Even though we were often having to fight against transphobia, it felt good knowing that I was surrounded by other people who were willing to fight. It also felt good knowing that there were others like me out there, on campus. PrideSoc has always felt supportive and reminds me that we are a community, one that looks out for each other.

I also bought my first chest binder in first year. Though wearing it was often panic-inducing for me, I was afraid of getting stuck in it. The act of owning it and having the option to wear it was empowering.
Through the university’s gender empowerment fund, I was later able to get a better fitting binder that is much more comfortable to wear. Though I don’t often wear it as my dysphoria is starting to fade, knowing that it’s there is a great comfort. The university funding it was hugely helpful for me, as binders are expensive and I had been unsurprisingly terrible with my money during first year.

For me, being non-binary at university is a life full of ups and downs. University has been difficult – both academically, and trying to navigate my identity in this new sphere where I don’t know how and when to mention that I use they/them pronouns.

In having had to fight against university events that hosted speakers that were widely-known to be transphobic, I have often felt attacked by the same institution that I am a part of. But equally, the experience of being in university has brought me closer to friends and a community that has been hugely supportive and a deep source of comfort. It is hard to summarise my feelings on the way that my experience has been so far as there is so much to say.

But, if I’m being truly honest, I’m glad to be here, and the moment I was first asked for my pronouns in a tutorial reminded me that, even when everything felt overwhelmingly negative, there shone a light in the dark.

2 replies on “The struggles of being non-binary at university”

I’m sorry to read that you went through some difficult times in first year, and it’s great to hear that your dysphoria is fading and you’re glad to be here. I wish you all success in the rest of your time at uni and beyond.

But I have to take issue with your penultimate paragraph. You say, “In having had to fight against university events that hosted speakers that were widely-known to be transphobic, I have often felt attacked by the same institution that I am a part of”. How many such events have there been? You make it sound as if they’re a frequent occurrence – you’ve “often” felt attacked. As far as I’m aware there’s been one event that was accused of being transphobic (though in fact it was about women’s rights), and that was on June 5th. Two speakers at that event had been accused of transphobia (with very little actual evidence), but it’s an over-statement, and a repeat of the hyperbole on social media in the run-up to the event, to say that the university was “hosting speakers that were widely-known to be transphobic”. If I’m wrong, could you say in the comments section what these other events were that hosted speakers widely-known for their transphobia?

If I’m right, and you’re exaggerating, I want you to think about the effects of what you’re doing here. Over-stated claims like this one raise the temperature on campus and get people wound up which then makes everything a whole lot worse. Imagine yourself as the first-year you were not so long ago. Is it fair to that person to tell them that there are frequent events where the university hosts well-known transphobic speakers? I don’t think so – it’ll make them far more afraid than they have any reason to be. And it makes it harder for readers to take you seriously.

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