There is a misconception held by many queer secondary school students that universities are very progressive and tolerant places. The It gets better project is all but built on this idea promoted by society that it’s okay if times are tough now, because one day you will escape your small town. You will travel to a big city where what once made you different and ostracised will make you popular and interesting. This is a nice narrative, but it’s a slow burner, there is no telling when exactly things will ‘get better’, and university should certainly not be guaranteed as a boundary of acceptance. Those freshers are still the same students who were at your school three months ago, it’s not like they took a ‘how not to be a transphobic/homophobic dick’ course over the summer.
I was excited about being out and proud from the word go – this was my first mistake. I will say this, I was extremely unlucky. The first two friends I made in halls were very homophobic and transphobic and it took the first term for me to realise the futility of reasoned debate but by then a lot of the damage had been done. It took me two years to start recovering from my resulting severe depression, social anxiety and agoraphobia that resulted.
Male students were more aggressive than their female counterparts, often coming across as personally offended by my lack of femininity. At my first CGCU ball I lost count of the number of times I was asked why I was wearing a suit with some people repeatedly offering to buy me a dress for the next time, insisting it was “too weird” for me to not wear a dress. In halls I was the first trans person most had met, and for a few, the first gay person. Most laughed and said “they didn’t understand, it was too confusing” and that was that, but there were other responses too: “Do you have a vagina?”, “You’re too pretty to be gay”, “So you’re bicurious?”, and my personal favourite, “No you’re not, that’s not real”. The people I wasn’t out to led to some interesting insights. When asked about trans people one housemate said: “They all live in some freak-town somewhere”. I must have missed my eviction notice.
One of these male ‘friends’, would try and convince me every time he got drunk that I was straight and that homosexuality wasn’t a real thing. This lasted two months, and would often happen in crowded rooms. No one ever said anything. How is a queer student meant to feel safe and know they’re not disgusting when so many ‘allies’ sit by and say nothing? What about a non-binary student, with no legal gender recognition, knowing if they do try to make a complaint to hall officers, it’ll have to be preceded by a ten minute trans 101 talk, so they can even grasp why you’re upset.
The supposed society for LGBT people, IQ had a reputation at the time of being a group of “cis, gay white guys”, and the IQ women’s group was hyper-feminine to an extent that I found uncomfortable. I viewed it as just one more place to be harassed, if I wasn’t a girl or a guy where was I supposed to go? IQ has since improved greatly, now with trans officers, and the women’s group openly welcoming non-binary individuals.
Things alleviated for me in later years, I joined Women’s Rugby and the Feminist society – they were the first places I felt safe at Imperial. I’m now in fourth year, and students that didn’t understand at all in first year, now share my trans friends. These experiences aren’t totally isolated to first year though, I started to try and get people on my course last year to use my pronouns/chosen name, most still call me she/her and by my old name. I got in a fight with a friend who told me I needed “psychiatric help” and he “wanted to save me”. I didn’t report it, even the well meaning tutors and students by and large are quite uninformed, for me it just wouldn’t be worth it.
Since I cut my hair short, using the women’s bathroom (the bathroom I am most comfortable in) is a challenge. I get a lot of stares, double takes, and a couple of times a week have to explain “I’m not a boy”. In areas where there’s drinking it’s worse, I’ve been asked about my genitals multiple times, and recently was half-dragged out of the toilets by a girl.
Imperial doesn’t do enough to support and reach out to queer students who are likely to be the victim of harassment and experience poor mental health while under their care. They give us three talks a year on plagiarism and its penalties, but none on what is inappropriate and offensive behaviour towards any marginalised group. In halls they bundle up to 300 students in a limited space, take your money, and then wish you luck. Being made to find yourself disgusting and intolerable for something so inherent to your being, such as your gender identity, such as your sexuality, is a cruel act. Unfortunately I am not alone in this experience, with it potentially having the worst of consequences, 35 to 48% of trans people attempting suicide before the age of 26. This is a widespread problem, and there is a lack of support, education, awareness, and clear punishments for harassing students.
It’s taken a few years, but I’ve eventually found an accepting group of friends who use my correct pronouns and accept me for who I am. You shouldn’t have to suffer so someone else can become educated, but there’s at least sometimes some positive outcome of it. In answer to the “It gets better” narrative, it may do, but it won’t always be an easy journey. I will be graduating this year, and have had some amazing experiences and learned so much but to me Imperial will always be the place that could have been so much better.