According to a report released by Stonewall this week, two in every five LGBTQ+ students have hidden their identity at university for fear of being discriminated against. While disheartening, this is unsurprising.
My first two years in higher education have been an intimate, restless and unremitting process of identity [trans]formation. Towards the end of my first year studying English at the University of Cambridge, I came out as non-binary – a transgender identity meaning “a person who identifies with or expresses a gender identity that is neither entirely male nor entirely female”.
Remarking upon the ways in which I’d changed since my arrival in college at 18, my director of studies recently described her joy in watching me “forge my own personhood” essentially from scratch. From the Latin fabricari, meaning “to frame, construct or build”, forging is an acutely intimate act in which the “smithy” must create something new and purposeful out of the raw materials they have been given.
And though I do feel newer, more purposeful and more myself now than ever before, all forging begins with a furnace. The tasks of shedding an assigned gender and assembling a different, less understood but somehow more liveable one are incredibly hard work, and such work is often characterised by a great deal of loneliness and fear.
As is the case for 42 per cent of LGBTQ+ university students, I concealed my struggle with gender identity for a significant portion of my degree. Having applied to my college from an all-girls Catholic school, I knew very little about gender divergence when I was thrust into a burgeoning fresher environment with a suitcase full of dresses and the overwhelming sense that now, more than ever before, I must perform my identity within the strict codes of femininity assigned to me by my birth sex and early socialisation.
But the harder I tried to reconcile this gendered performance with my newfound sense of personal autonomy, the more it evaded me. As a result, I spent my first two terms holed up in my room in the grip of severe anxiety and depression; trying and failing to find happiness in a queer relationship predicated on the fact that we were both “femmes”; only comfortable when I could “get away” from the roles I was playing in every facet of my social life and imagine, on my own time, something else.
I was incredibly lucky to form a close friendship with another non-binary student during this second term. They were two years above me, and had only recently come out, but they showed me such warmth and solidarity as I grappled with my own gender identity that after years of repression, that I finally felt safe enough to talk.
Reading back through our conversations from this time is a strange experience – there’s so much vulnerability, so much bathos (“Am I still allowed to wear eyeliner?”), such bittersweet relief in looking back at my fawn-legged trans self and acknowledging how far I’ve come in just two years. I was worried about so many things in the year I spent closeted: all of them the result of learned systemic transphobia and my own internalised shame. Many come to light in my Facebook conversations with this friend:
Me: I don’t even know how to talk about it.
I feel like such a fraud woman for feeling like this
Like it’s a cop out
Friend: What’s been your experience with womanhood?
Me: My experience of womanhood I guess a well-adorned bear trap
You think it’s just an exhibition piece so you step inside it
and it snaps shut
But you can’t leave
And lots of people come and look at you and think you’re part
of the exhibition
And they don’t listen when you say you don’t want to be an
exhibit any more
Or that you never wanted it in the first place, it was just open and waiting for you.
I feel shaky but free oh one last thing how do u even begin to come out to people
Friend: You came out to me, which is a start. And I’m so happy you told me. I think the best thing is really to know you don’t have to take it all at once.
And this friend was right – I couldn’t have done it all at once. By March, I had started altering my physical presentation (binding, shopping in the men’s section, changing my hair) and asking people to use my pronouns (they/them). Baby steps.
It took until winter of this year for me to change my name, come out to my parents (definitely a work in progress) and finally get a referral to a Gender Identity Clinic to discuss my options for biomedical transition.
I have faced transphobia along the way, from misgendering and dead-naming to malicious verbal abuse from acquaintances and strangers; from the ambivalence of poorly-informed university staff and medical practitioners to being told that I had “abandoned women” by no longer publishing under female pronouns.
For many gender nonconforming students, this process can take far longer and feel even more dangerous than my example – particularly in the case of transfeminine people, for whom transmisogyny is a daily threat.
So while I wait on my biomedical transition, which could take years to come to anything, I’m sending all my love and solidarity to the 42 per cent of LGBTQ+ students who know what it’s like to hide in the institutions in which they must “forge” themselves. May our voices grow stronger every day.
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