Given that students whose experiences of university are daunting and challenging are those most likely to drop out, I would have thought that the University of Sydney would want to provide those students with the greatest possible degree of support. But since enrolling at Sydney University, I’ve had a series of difficult interactions with the administration in trying to improve how it can engage with my gender identity, under my new name and pronouns. Transgender students such as myself are likely to be extremely frustrated when dealing with the university’s apparently non-existent policy in relation to these issues.
After enrolling at USyd, I am given a whole bunch of information as to how the university has classified me. They ask me for my “gender”, but only give me options for sex, ignoring the large gender spectrum and failing to give me correct options. They also do not give me the opportunity to skip or not provide an answer.
My UniKey and my university email address are both based off my legal name, which means that I will engage with people on Blackboard under my legal name, as well as submitting all my assignments under that name. The university asks you for your preferred title, and gives you over 20 titles to pick from, including “King”, but no gender neutral options. Do we really have more Kings on campus than students who’d want to use a gender non-specific title? I call the University to question their online forms, but nothing comes back. I weep after hours spent at the Arts desk, trying to be patient and negotiate a middle-ground. The administrators do not budge.
At O-Week I get my ACCESS card. They ask me, “what name would you like on it?”, and I am so touched that I am ready to cry. I am smiling in my ACCESS card photo. I begin to sign up to clubs with my name. I get a few confused looks, but have confidence and the legitimacy of my ACCESS card on my side. I get asked, “Is that your real name?” a few too many times. I remember the clubs that don’t have people who ask this, or who ask for my preferred pronouns.
I go past the SRC stall, and sign up for collectives (like the Wom*n’s Collective) that acknowledge the diversity of the gender spectrum. I see collectives including people who don’t fit the gender binary by asking them for their pronouns, practising them, apologising when they fail to remember, and not making their mistake into a big deal. I feel euphoric when I see and hear all this, and feel like I can easily engage with my first week of university.
I try to email all my tutors before I attend class, to engage and explain to them that I do not want my legal name called out. I do not pass as the gender I identify as, but I don’t want people to learn my “deadnames” (names from which individuals have moved on). I fail to get through to most of my tutors, and am unable to talk to them about my name until the end of the first lesson. My deadname has already been put on display in my first tutorial. I awkwardly have to negotiate the confused classroom for 60 minutes before I can talk to my tutor one-on-one.
I learn to avoid the first tutorial, turning up at the end to talk to the tutor. They remind me this lesson counts as part of attendance. I try to remind them about respect for gender identity, but they feel the unease and awkward balance of power, and remember me as a problem student. I feel less confident about the second week of class.
The use of my pronouns is subject to the number of people who respect and have engaged with transgender people before. In some subjects I am lucky, like Gender Studies. In other subjects, I struggle to convince the tutor, let alone the students, to use my pronouns, rather than the ones they assume or want to assign to me. I see other students who get “X” gender markers on their passport, who change their legal names through Births, Deaths and Marriages, and I envy them. I hope for the financial situation where I can afford that.
To counter these difficulties, I attend the Queer Collective meetings religiously. It’s running a campaign to try and get people to engage with this difficulty for transgender students. I hope that it works, because I want to get through my degree. Five to six years here means that I’ve got a lot of bullshit to face if university doesn’t listen and engage with me on these issues.
I live on my own. I struggle for employment, because no one wants to hire someone who’s transgender. I move across half the campus to use a bathroom that I know will be safe for me, rather than fearing embarrassment when cisgender people shoo me out of their bathrooms. I fear physical assault, which I’ve faced four times in my travels to and from university. I struggle with my mental health, the way society treats me, and whether or not I’m going insane—as well as my diagnosed illnesses.
I see how much little things affect my desire to stay at uni and continue my studies—little things like my name, and acknowledgement of my gender and pronouns. These things would make me more comfortable in classroom situations and in group work assignments. If the University would deal with these issues appropriately I would save a large amount of energy that I expend trying to fight them—energy that could go towards studying, or socialising, and being part of the university campus.