Navigating USyd as a gender-diverse STEM student

I don’t believe lecturers, tutors, workers, or even the students of USyd have ill intentions, but rather lack understanding on how to properly accommodate and support LGBTQIA+ students within the classroom.

I always hoped that USyd would be an inclusive environment for gender-diverse students. Now that I’m well into my second year, I have my doubts. 

This hope for inclusivity stemmed from a lack thereof at my religious single-sex school in the Western suburbs of Sydney. While I am thankful for the quality of education I received, this adolescent experience had detrimental effects on my mental health at the time. The constant reduction of my gender as something equal to my biological sex, coupled with demeaning ‘class debates’ about the validity of LGBTQIA+ individuals,  became the foreground to some of the apprehension I felt towards the environment of tertiary study. I wanted a university experience in which my gender was taken seriously, and as only one aspect of my identity. 

Starting university at the beginning of 2021, I became more confident in myself and began dressing as I wanted to, rather than how I thought I ought to. To this day, I thank the ‘OutWest’ program held by Twenty10, and the unapologetic confidence of Cal’s gender in Netflix’s ‘Sex Education,’ for normalising how to live beyond gender conventions and feel proud in my identity. In turn, I started to notice how the University addressed me and my transgender peers within the content taught in lectures, how tutors spoke to me, along with the systems and processes put in place to assist in transition. 

My experience has been mixed, to say the least. 

Despite updating my legal name at the end of last year, most University services including Zoom, USyd email address, UniKey, Canvas page, and tutorial run sheets don’t acknowledge this. I ticketed the issue with the Student Centre multiple times (the last being March this year), which sent me down a vortex-like email chain; they claimed that they had escalated the issue with senior staff, yet little change has been made to my user experience to this date. The only sites that recognise my name, to my knowledge, are Sydney Timetable, SRC voting, and in-class AutoCAD software. 
In addition to this, I’ve had multiple higher-ups multiple USyd staff contact me that my personal information is out of date, to be expected from the  Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and the Unique Student Identifier (USI) registry. Although I changed my name on both of these systems at the beginning of the year, every couple of days I receive emails claiming my name is inconsistent with the Sydney University database (my deadname); threatening to cut off access to HECS. 

It was easier to change my name legally than through the Student Centre. This is both deeply concerning and unacceptable.

The delivery of content regarding gender in USyd classes is also convoluted and out-dated. Studying a STEM degree, I’ve noticed that a range of actions — from the presentation of statistics in lectures, to the way students are addressed by tutors — reflect a largely ignorant view of gender diversity on campus. In the early lectures of CIVL2010 (Environmental Engineering), a brief ice-breaker survey was conducted, asking for our gender through a selection of either “female” or “male”. Additionally, the lecturer quoted statistics from the UN, “Fertility Rate, Children Per Woman”, assuming that only women, and every woman, can reproduce within a given age period – skewing the dataset by excluding any alternatives (i.e. woman-identifying individuals who cannot reproduce; non-woman identifying individuals who can reproduce). 

On the other hand, some lecturers have been quite forward thinking. In the delivery of the opening lecture of MATH1005 (‘Statistical Thinking with Data’), I appreciated a class-wide questionnaire in which the lecturer  acknowledged the existence of transgender individuals, and allowed us to select ‘other’ when we inputted our gender (instead of selecting a gender at random, as we would do if not given the option). Similarly, in the  online recording of CIVL2201 (‘Structural Mechanics’), welcomed  the class using the word ‘everyone’, a simple gender-neutral term inclusive of all people. 

I admit these are marginal changes, yet they make a world of difference. 

I don’t believe lecturers, tutors, workers, or even the students of USyd have ill intentions, but rather lack understanding on how to properly accommodate and support LGBTQIA+ students within the classroom. In turn, we receive a weak sense of support on campus by its employees and official support systems, uplifted only by the societies and student bodies that have a large queer representation.  

CIVL2010 tutor Sophia Costantino has told me that she received little to no formal training on how to acknowledge queer students in her induction, let alone how to accommodate them in the classroom. This clearly has to change. For a university with the vast wealth and resources that USyd possesses (raking in a massive $1.04 billion  surplus last year), such a feat is certainly tenable, and any opposition clearly stems from a plain lack of care.

So, here are some ways the University can improve their allyship towards transgender individuals, particularly in STEM. 

If there are going to be multiple unisex disabled bathrooms in the Peter Nicol Russell Building (PNR), then at least make them all readily available at all times; one shouldn’t be ‘temporarily locked’ at any given point. Further, if gendered statistics are necessary in lecture spaces (or if they are the only information out there on a topic), then the lecturer should explicitly mention their limitations on the lecture slides and/or in class. When tutors introduce themselves to the class, they should, if they are comfortable, include their pronouns, just as they do for their emails and name. Finally, if there are cohort-wide surveys, there should be a ‘non-binary or gender diverse’ option, not strictly just male/female.

The battle for acceptance is not a complicated one. Let’s stop making it so.

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