‘Allyship is a verb’: We spoke to trans students about how to make Cambridge more trans-inclusive

The trans experience doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or stressful – we can all play a role in making Cambridge a more welcoming environment

CW:// This article includes references to transphobia, gender dysphoria and trans-exclusion

Although universities are often painted by mainstream media as bastions of leftist propaganda, organised discrimination against trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming people is still distressingly common. These last two weeks, Cambridge has seen a number of graphic transphobic stickers across lamp-posts, walls and railings around the city. 

The trans community has rallied beautifully against this to take the stickers down. Students have put up trans rights and “trans joy” stickers in their place. Although they definitely do not endorse vandalism, the CUSU Women’s Campaign and LGBT+ campaign have been handing out pro-trans stickers for students to “use as they wish”. 

In light of these events, we spoke to trans students (and consulted the amazingly well-formatted trans inclusion guide which was created by the Cambridge SU LGBT+ Campaign trans and non-binary reps) to compile a list of ways for Cambridge-specific trans allyship:

Support within colleges and departments

Within academic institutions, such as colleges and departments, trans students can often feel as if the burden of countering TERF propaganda and supporting trans inclusion is entirely on them, an emotional burden that can be absolutely exhausting to juggle alongside a Cambridge workload, living their lives, the unprecedented-ness of these times, and the increased amount of discrimination and erasure they face as trans students.

Allies (especially those in leadership and/or welfare roles) can help by ensuring that departments/colleges have specific guidelines on how to support trans students, and when these are lacking, they can play a role in helping to push for changes.

Some initial steps allies can take to help make colleges and departments more comfortable environments for trans and gender-non-conforming students include ensuring that bathrooms are accessible to and comfortable for non-cisgender people and that this accessibility is openly displayed.

JCRs must also ensure that Gender Expression funds are established, sufficiently-funded and easily accessible (including to students who may need their anonymity protected), and that dress codes for formal events are inclusive of diverse gender presentations.

Even when measures may be in place within colleges/departments, there are often ways in which these can be improved, to make them more extensive or accessible. A first-year trans mathematician told the Tab that the gender expression fund at their college is only around 40 pounds, barely enough to cover 1-2 binders. They said that “Proper funding, whether it’s gender-related therapy, surgery, or money for gender good clothes, can and will change everyone’s mental health and performance at university.”

Sticker on lamppost (Photo credits: Anonymous)

Alex Parnham-Cope, a trans law student, shared that in their first year at the university there were posters and flyers from a TERF organisation on the tables in front of the faculty every time they went to lectures. They had to take sole responsibility for removing the flyers, but when they came out of the lecture they’d all be replaced.

The faculty said that the person putting them there (either a student or someone working there) didn’t have permission to put them up but the faculty wasn’t going to take any responsibility for removing them. In situations like this, it can be helpful for allies to remove such materials, if they feel safe and comfortable in doing so.  

Representation in student politics

Adequate representation in JCRs, MCRs and other forms of student politics is extremely validating and comforting for trans students. On a more concrete level, it ensures their concerns are listened to and that access and mental health needs are effectively addressed. 

Sticker on lamppost (Photo credits: Anonymous)

Trans students should be represented on all committees where possible, and when not directly represented, officers should make an active effort to represent trans concerns and perspectives. All officers should understand university/college/department policies that affect trans students, and be aware of broader trans issues and ensure these are considered when making decisions. 

The  trans inclusion guide signposts a number of helpful resources where people can keep informed about trans issues: these include news media websites such as Gay Times, The Advocate, and TransActual that platform trans voices and news. For more general literature media/on the trans experience include Trans Britain (2018) by Christine Burns, Gender Explorers (2020) by Juno Roche, Amateur (2018) by Thomas Page Mcbee, Gender Reveal (2018), and Disclosure: Trans Lives on Screen (2020) on Netflix. 

Engaging with transphobes and engaging in trans activism

Alex told the Tab that since he originally matriculated in 2018, TERF propaganda has definitely accelerated…a lot of well-intentioned cis feminists at the uni can get swept into it because they don’t recognise the dog whistles”. (The Cambridge SU Women’s Campaign has released a comprehensive guide on why TERF ideology is harmful and how to spot it which is helpful for learning more about this). 

While many trans students feel that, ideally, the university would stop intensely maintaining neutrality on this front (which places the onus on trans students to defend themselves), the trans movement at Cambridge (and elsewhere) is unified, strong, and easy to get involved with. The Trans Students at Cambridge page on Facebook, the LGBT+ campaign, and queer-focused events through college feminist societies and the women’s campaign are easy ways to get involved. Also, look out for exciting events and educational meetings organised during Pride weeks and Pride month!

Sticker on a Cambridge bench (Photo credits: Anonymous)

Rowan, a first-year non-binary student at Magdalene who led the Trans Joy counter-stickering campaign told the Tab: “The sticker movement started after I found some graphic and hateful stickers on lampposts around Cambridge. I spoke to friends on a group chat with trans people and cis allies in, and we collectively decided that more needs to be done to combat such vile displays of bigotry.”

“I suggested that we put up stickers illustrating the concept of trans joy and fighting for trans inclusion and liberation would be the best way forward, as I wanted to create a visible display of solidarity for the whole LGBT+ community at Cambridge. More than anything, I didn’t want people to see such bigotry go unchallenged”

On the concept of Trans Joy, they added: “Too often in the debates which surround our identities, our humanity is completely disregarded… it is so easy to be overwhelmed by the important but often disheartening posts which discuss all the struggles faced by trans people. There is more to the trans experience than our suffering.”

Sticker on lamppost (Photo credits: Anonymous)

Trans joy is a concept that cis allies are encouraged to engage with– Rowan told the Tab: “It would be so nice to see more cisgender people spreading trans joy, and engaging with all forms of trans life, rather than just the ones which focus on our suffering. I have loved seeing the trans joy stickers around Cambridge today as they remind me that my experience is something beautiful, not something to be looked at with pity or shame.” 

If you spot anti-trans stickers, scribbling over them or removing them (with keys rather than hands to protect yourself) is a good course of actions, this post by the CUSU LGBT+ campaign has more information on best practices).

Interpersonal interactions with trans people

Crucially, most trans students just want to be treated as regular people, and not have their trans identity foregrounded in everyday interactions with a multitude of random acquaintances. This may differ for closer relations, such as friends or partners: One trans student pointed out that every trans person has different dysphoria triggers, which may require communication and adjustment in closer, more personal relationships (for example, they said they personally hate being touched on the waist). As with much which has been talked about here, different people experience things in different ways and there is often no ‘one size fits all’ answer– if in doubt, ask (respectfully)!

Sticker on lamppost (Photo credits: Anonymous)

 However, there are several important steps cis allies can take to make general, impersonal spaces less uncomfortable for trans people. Remembering, looking out for, and using people’s pronouns is important. One trans student shared the discomfort they are currently experiencing with one supervisor who hasn’t been using their preferred name/pronouns, despite these being on their email and zoom name. 

If you do mess up, it is best to quickly correct yourself, apologise and move on: It’s best not to make a big deal about it or treat trans people as inherently fragile, which can be exhausting to deal with constantly. If you are struggling with someone’s new name, practicing privately (even mentally) and listening to a song that repeats said name may be helpful. If you hear someone else slip up, correct them politely and move on. 

Normalising gender-inclusive language

A lot of our ‘everyday’ language can inadvertently reinforce the gender binary (think: ‘Ladies and gentlemen’). This is not just dysphoria inducing, but often grammatically unnecessary and easily fixed: ‘He/she’ is strangely common in writing, however it is an awkward term that can be very easily substituted with ‘they’. Beginning formal emails with ‘To whom it may concern’ (instead of Dear Sir/Madam) and addressing gatherings with ‘Hi everyone’ are other examples of easy ways to use gender-inclusive language. 

Hazel, a non-binary first-year medic, said that “it takes very little effort to use neutral/trans-affirming language, correct pronouns etc, but choosing not to is deliberately choosing to cause needless harm.”

Sticker on Trumpington street sign (Photo credits: Anonymous)

Terms such as ‘womxn’ and dichotomies such as ‘female and non-binary welfare officer/ male welfare officer’, which lump non-binary people in with women may be dysphoria inducing for some trans people, and should be used very very cautiously. Remember, when in doubt, be more specific with what you mean! For example, depending on the context, it could be more appropriate to say ‘women and non-binary people’, ‘marginalised genders’ or ‘trans people, non-binary people and cis women’ instead of ‘womxn’.

However, it’s worth noting that the trans community can sometimes be divided on how inclusive terms are. For example, terms such as ‘marginalised genders’ are preferred by some, who find it a helpful and appropriate way to group together those who share common gender-based experiences, whilst others find its conflation of women and non-binary people uncomfortable.

As one trans student said: “No one term is universal. The key thing is that if your politics are going to be truly trans-inclusive you need to prioritise trans voices”. Remember that terms are always evolving! There’s no set-in-stone list of ideal terms and it’s important to be receptive to correction and stay educated if people raise concerns with terminology used. Perhaps more important is to avoid ‘gender policing’ at events: If you have specified an event is for specific genders, assume that people attending are aware of this and avoid questioning their attendance. 

Whilst for cisgender people, who will usually be in a less vulnerable position, sharing your pronouns (for example, in group introductions) can be helpful by making it a more normalised practice, it is important to make sure that sharing pronouns is never obligatory. If a trans person is closeted, this may force them to choose between outing or misgendering themselves. A good way to bypass this during events and other meetings is to ask for introductions via phrases like ‘Please share your names and, if you like, your pronouns’. 

Sticker on lamppost (Photo credits: Anonymous)

The above is not an exhaustive list, only some first steps. Although desire not to engage must be respected, and inappropriate and/or Google-able questions should be avoided, it’s generally a good idea to ask trans people about their preferences when in doubt, since many trans people will have individual thoughts on these issues.

Trans students often have a fundamentally different ‘Cambridge experience’ than cisgender ones, having to expend enormous amounts of physical and mental resources navigating concerns that wouldn’t occur to cisgender students. However, the trans experience doesn’t have to be uncomfortable or stressful– accommodations via the wider community may allow trans students to simply enjoy their lives whilst exploring their unique relationships with gender.

For more information: check out the Trans Inclusion Guide by @trans_at_cam

Further resources available on learning more about trans-inclusivity:

Reading list by CUSU Woman’s Campaign about trans issues, experiences, and ally-ship

‘Dealing with transphobia online’ guide by CUSU Women’s Campaign and LGBT+ Campaign

Trans resources and action master-list by CUSU trans reps (also contains detailed, easy to navigate list of welfare resources including trans specific helplines and online community spaces)

Related articles recommended by these authors:

• How Cambridge is celebrating Transgender Awareness Week

•Silence is still compliance: There’s more to be done about racism in Cambridge

• International Women’s Day: 41 Cambridge societies empowering women in 2021

• 74% of surveyed students don’t have adequate WiFi: An interview with The 93% Club Cambridge

Featured Image Credits: @trans_at_cam, @cambridgesulgbt, anonymous