Trans* Dignity at SOAS: A reflection

The founder of Trans* Dignity at SOAS reflects on their experiences of the campaign so far amid a renewed effort to build more inclusive university campuses for trans* and non-binary students.

In January 2020, we launched our Trans* Dignity at SOAS campaign in response to the underlying transphobia which we, as trans* students, experience daily in our SOAS community. I launched this campaign because we need trans*-leadership to solve this issue.

The choice of the word “dignity” is deliberate. I chose dignity over “rights” or “inclusion” or “acceptance” because these are contingent on cis people’s kindness, which is often in short supply on our campuses. Even “safety” did not feel right to me because it’s such a low bar.

For “dignity,” we are calling for an overdue update to SOAS’s Trans* Equality Policy (the update was promised for 2018). We need a wide consultation of the people who are affected by the policy to ensure that the document is not transphobic in its language and provisions.

We have also been calling for the implementation of trans*-specific training for staff to equip them in creating a welcoming learning environment for trans* students. Almost everyone who we have approached about this has been playing hot potato with responsibility, suggesting we get in touch with people who have already ignored us.

One of the objections to the implementation of training, wrapped up as if it were in a veneer of benign intentions, was that the budget is simply not there. The disingenuity of this excuse was exposed when members of our community noticed a sponsored post by SOAS on Facebook which contained a video “debating” the issue of gender-neutral toilets. A longer video of the “debate” on YouTube included harmful attitudes towards trans* people: “[gender-neutral toilets] set a precedent to make allowances for many different minority groups in society. I do think that is extremely dangerous.”

The video insulted the campaign and the many trans* students who have been calling for more gender-neutral toilets on campus which people can safely and conveniently use. SOAS has issued no apology for sponsoring the post, and we have seen no announcements affirming that there will be more gender-neutral toilets when SOAS reopens. SOAS seems more than willing to use trans* issues to advertise itself as a trans*-inclusive university, yet it is slow to listen to the experiences of current and past trans* students and staff. So slow, in fact, that the Disabled Students and Carers Officer at the Students’ Union felt compelled to put notices on accessible toilets reading that these can be used by non-disabled people who are trans*. SOAS can and should accommodate both its trans* and disabled students.

Updating the SOAS policy provides us with a way to do this. One of our members discovered in early February that the “Gender Reassignment and Trans Equality Policy” was in the process of review, apparently without the involvement of trans* voices. The old policy and terms like “gender reassignment” are outdated. We contacted the Director of Student and Academic Experience in March offering our input in this process and asking to discuss ways to move forward.

We have since been on a back-and-forth of empty promises and statements of “commitment” for months. One of the most absurd examples of filibustering, in full knowledge that we are in the exam period and soon to end the academic year, was the suggestion of allowing everyone in the university to edit this document which is supposed to protect trans* people. This comes despite continually stressing the need for specific trans* and intersex consultation, and the refusal to allow us to freely the edit the draft whilst unnamed ‘stakeholders’ have been given the ability to do so.

We have, only recently, been invited to make suggestions on the document, which would then be approved or rejected by the chair of the Equality and Diversity Committee, leaving her with the authority to decide what does and doesn’t count as an adequate policy to protect trans* people.

Despite operating as a trans*-led collective, our shared feeling is one of inaction, dismissal and disrespect, which is having profound effects on us as individual humans.

I know of at least one member of the trans* community who has made an attempt on their own life as a result of transphobia on campus. I know that there have been drug relapses in our community which could be a direct consequence of our campaign falling on deaf ears.

As for me, I am constantly made to feel disposable as a trans woman of colour, and this treatment contributes to my own suicidal ideation. My whole experience at university has exacerbated these feelings. I do not feel valued, nor do I feel are my efforts to transform the university into one which is welcoming towards trans* people.

I can’t bear to see my trans* and non-binary friends fall into despair and hopelessness due to the response to a campaign that they helped me set up for my own dignity as much as theirs.

Ignoring trans* voices is cruel and extremely harmful, especially for those of us who are multiple marginalised. Whist navigating social distancing, the oppression we face daily, and the stress of exams, the constant dismissal has been exhausting. Something drastic needs to change soon.

Support is available if you are affected by any of the issues represented in this article. Talking to others can be helpful, along with several UK-based helplines:

Feature Image: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash.

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