- Shevek Imogen Fodor (them/them)
I’ve started to joke that I came to uni as a lesbian woman and I’m leaving uni as a non-binary quoisexual (aka WTFsexual – I don’t know what’s going on). Exploring and discovering my gender identity whilst at university has been a liberating and affirming experience, but it has also had its challenges, and has noticeably had an impact on my (already not great) mental health.
Imagine all of the stresses that extenuate mental health problems at university: trying to fit in with new flatmates, getting used to new living conditions and routines and a harder course with new expectations. Awareness of mental health difficulties and the challenges students face has been increasing, but trans people have all of this to deal with on top of having to navigate an oppressive, cisgendered world.
There is the daunting prospect of negotiating the bureaucracy of administration systems. This can be especially problematic if you are transitioning in the middle of your degree, as aspects of transitioning can be time consuming and anxiety-inducing. Non-binary identities aren’t recognised in the UK, so it can be a lottery as to whether your gender and prefixes will be available on forms. Furthermore, any change to birth certificates and passports, or changing your name by deed poll, is essentially a massive headache, and something I don’t want to think about when I’m worrying about getting my 3000-word essay written and submitted on time.
One of the consequences of this is the prospect of being misgendered and deadnamed by staff and students, who can be ignorant about trans issues. This term I emailed all of my tutors to ask them to use my new name, which is different from the one on the university systems. When introducing myself in the first seminars of term I told my peers that I use ‘they/them’ pronouns. Luckily everyone has been very supportive, but there is always the awareness that people are likely to forget. Being misgendered is a horrible experience, as it intensifies gender dysphoria; try battling with difficult academic theories whilst also having an underlying, overwhelming feeling of being uncomfortable in your own skin. I have been misgendered by councillors, tutors and peers, either because they assume my gender or have forgotten how I identify. Informing and correcting people is especially hard if you also have social anxiety and/or don’t want to make things awkward.
Then there is traversing social life. The realms of sports are very binarised, and intimidating for both binary and non-binary trans people. A personal bugbear of mine is trying to create a space for trans people within performance societies — where roles are often gendered and there is inadvertent transphobic humour — and trying to encourage people to use less gendered language (like alternatives for ‘ladies and gentlemen’). When going out, the consequences of how you present yourself in clubs and town can be terrifying, as you have to worry about being met with transphobia based on how you look whilst also wanting to fit in.
This is just a small taster of what life at university is like as a trans person. It is unsurprising why this extra stress can extenuate mental health problems that are already present.
To end on a positive note, one really great thing at my university has been the support of the trans network, which has a secret Facebook group that helps provide a safe space for our trans community. Here everyone - whether they are questioning, transitioning, closeted or out - can post experiences both positive and negative, questions, and advice. It helps combat feelings of isolation which trans people often experience, and can contribute to anxiety and depression. Being able to talk in confidence has helped me work out my gender identity, and on many occasions it has been such a relief to be able to vent when I've been misgendered or frustrated by ignorance. It also allows more experienced members of the university to help by providing valuable tips on navigating university support and administrative systems, and discuss ways to campaign and work towards making the university more accepting.
Shev is studying English and Related Lit and is blogging because they have always been open about their mental health problems and want to help break down stigma by helping people feel more comfortable so that they can talk about it and reach support more effectively.