‘I feel great as myself’: Trans students on what it’s like being out at UCL

November 13th to 19th marks Trans Awareness Week

Transgender Awareness Week is observed every year from the 13th to the 19th of November.

It is a time designated “to help raise the visibility about transgender people and address issues members of the community face.” And former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also tweeted that this week should be a time to “empower trans communities in their struggles for justice, and celebrate their strengths and joy.”

To recognise this occasion, The London Tab spoke to UCL students who identify as trans about their experiences with being out and affirming their identities at university.

A sidewalk near UCL’s Bloomsbury campus was painted in the colours of the trans flag last Trans Awareness Week

‘It can feel very confusing and scary’

Micah (he/they) first came to UCL thinking that most people would perceive them as a man, “or at least ask,” but unfortunately, that was not the case.

They told The London Tab: “Turns out most people would assume I’m a woman because of my voice. I felt very disheartened for a while, especially because I was sick at the start of term and struggling to make connections. So at first, it felt hostile to me to be misgendered.

“But then, I met some really good friends. Even if I didn’t want to speak up and correct someone, they would do it for me. And meeting them made me feel very safe because they didn’t question it.

“Once you find those people, it feels great. But beforehand, it can feel very confusing and scary.”

Micah is also active in the UCL Students’ Union’s Trans Network

Aqua (they/them), who identifies as non-binary and trans, agreed that having supportive friends helps them come to terms with their identity.

They had started to “explore and question” their gender during the pandemic, when they didn’t engage in any social activities nor were in London since “nothing was happening in person.” But still, they found it helpful to discuss their identity with their school friends, who gave them “opinions on names and fashion” and “affirmation and support.”

Because this community and acceptance felt so important, they also hope to “share lodgings with fellow queers” going into their third year next year.

Aqua also want to share a guide they made for changing names in the UK

‘The uni itself has been less than satisfactory’

But while they feel safe around friends, Aqua doesn’t seem to think the same for the uni.

They thought UCL “has been less than satisfactory” in supporting trans and gender non-conforming students, citing the uni’s “unprecedented decision” to leave the charity Stonewall’s diversity schemes last winter, which served as external evaluators of queer inclusion in the uni.

This has been viewed as particularly damaging to trans students since the uni justified its decision by claiming affiliation with Stonewall might restrict “academic debates about sex and gender identity.”

Students protested outside the Provost’s office not long after the decision

A UCL spokesperson responded that they’re “very aware” of negative responses to their decision and are “absolutely committed to working for the full inclusion of trans, non-binary, and gender non-conforming students and staff within the UCL community.”

But there had still been multiple student-led trans rights protests for UCL to rejoin Stonewall, including one at the uni’s Open Day where protesters urged prospectives to “think twice about applying.”

Aqua also told The London Tab: “Whilst I can only speak glowingly about the communities and spaces around UCL (proverbially and geographically), I would recommend to any prospective students some consideration upon [the uni cutting ties with Stonewall] and its indication of UCL’s lack of commitment to supporting its queer students.”

Posters at one student-led protest against UCL’s Stonewall decision (Credit: UCL LGBTQ+ Network)

‘It’s really just affirmed to me that I am what I say I am’

While trans students go through many hardships at UCL and beyond, Micah and Aqua still think being out is important.

Micah said: “I feel great as myself, I feel great as a man, and [being out at uni] really just affirmed to me that I am what I say I am. Before living out like this, I had a lot of trans doubt, like ‘what if I’m faking it for attention?’ or ‘what if I’m just a tomboy?’

“But coming out in uni has helped me realise that I am comfortable as a man and want to take the next steps. It’s also helped me meet a lot of trans folks who are older than me and learn a lot from them, especially about the sexual health of trans people.”

They also want to tell students considering coming out to “give it a go.”

“Coming out will always feel scary, but remember, it doesn’t have to be that scary. You don’t need to climb the portico to yell from the stairs, ‘I’m queer!’ (Though that certainly sounds fun).

“It can be as simple as saying, ‘gender isn’t a factor for me,’ when someone asks if you have a boyfriend. It doesn’t have to be a big ordeal.

“If it goes wrong – don’t stress yourself too much. There are many people for you to meet a uni, whether at clubs, sports, or societies. And if any of your friends take it badly, that’s a reflection on them, not you. It is also probably a good indicator that you shouldn’t stay friends with them,” they said.

Aqua also said: “I’m very glad I came out. My family and friends have all been (if not supportive) apathetic. And it has allowed me to truly live as myself for the first time, which is invaluable.

“I would, in particular, recommend to anyone queer at uni to explore queer spaces such as societies, bars or clubs, as the people one meets here I have found to be, without exception, wonderful.”

Some trans and queer student communities at UCL include the Students’ Union UCL’s LGBT+ Network and Trans Network.

A UCL spokesperson said: “UCL has an unwavering commitment to advancing the inclusion of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming members of our community, and we are determined that UCL will become an environment in which everyone is able to be themselves, and is respected as a valued member of the university.

“We have policies and protections in place for LGBTQ+ staff and students and are continually listening to our community to identify further supportive actions we can take. We have recently launched the Gender Expression Fund alongside the Student Union to support trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students with the purchase of items that will make them more comfortably with their gender presentation.

“Earlier this year we established the LGBTQ+ Equality Implementation group, which includes students and staff, which is developing a strong programme to create an inclusive and welcoming environment for LGBTQ+ staff and students, as well as alumni and visitors, at UCL. We have recently improved UCL’s systems so that staff and students can change their name swiftly and easily, and are guaranteeing that all new buildings at UCL, and any undergoing major refurbishments, include gender-neutral toilets.”

Related stories recommended by this writer:

We spoke to Students’ Union UCL’s Trans Officer during Trans Awareness Week

‘Vindictive and insensitive’: Students and staff slam UCL decision to cut ties with Stonewall

Student ‘enraged and heartbroken’ to discover ‘anti-trans propaganda’ in UCL building