My Journey to UBC as a Trans Graduate Student: Expectations met and Hopes unmet
When I was considering/applying to the University of British Columbia and other places for graduate school in the fall of 2018, having a strong LGBTQIA+ community on campus was not on my list of priorities. I had just come back from a study abroad program in Taiwan the previous summer, ready to finish off my bachelor’s degree and looking for that next big adventure to further my education and career as a young political scientist interested in Chinese comparative and gender politics. It was not until after I had finished applying to all of my graduate school picks in January 2019 that I started questioning my gender identity.
“I don’t know if I can be the boyfriend anymore”
The catalyst that sparked me to start questioning my gender was an altercation I had with my significant other; I had been struggling to express intimacy in the relationship since the start of it. I had put all that failure on myself and this led me to commit an act of self-harm in front of her to punish myself for what I had done to the relationship. I had reached complete disillusionment with the performance of masculinity in the relationship and life generally. This moment helped me realize that I had been personally struggling with this issue long before the relationship and college. In order to fully support myself financially through my undergraduate, I had to repress the negative emotions and memories of my upbringing in the rural, conservative parts of Washington State to survive. But it was only a matter of time before all of this would start flooding back to me. What were once past isolated experiences all started consolidating into one question in my head in the following days after this event: “Am I a girl?”
“If you are watching this video, then you are most likely transgender”
Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I was always told that the gender-binary was like brick wall where God would decide to put you on one side or the other when you were born. If you ever tried to cross over this wall, not only would you be unsuccessful in the attempt, but you would forever be a strange, sexually deviant freak trying to avert God’s will. This view of gender and archetype of transgender people was mostly reinforced in the movies and TV shows I had watched as a child like: Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, Lois Einhorn in Ace Ventura Pet Detective or Him in the Power Puff Girls. In many ways, my femininity was always on display while growing up for others to ridicule and judge me over including: mannerisms, clothing choices, hairstyles, hobbies, etc… I was mocked in middle school by the other kids for “looking like a girl”. My favorite shirt during this time was a women’s Joan Jett and the Blackhearts t-shirt my mother bought for me at one of their concerts. I later learned that Joan Jett is in fact a large Queer Icon. During my high school’s ill-conceived Battle of the Sexes week during my freshman year of high school, I defiantly wore my mother’s frilly kitchen apron to school out of sheer contempt for everything that was happening around and to me. Whenever I could not resist the temptation to dress up in either my Mom’s or sister’s clothes throughout grade school, I looked at myself in the mirror and initially feel instant relief and internal peace; however, the influence of these harmful ideas and experiences on my young mind made me resent and hate myself soon afterwards, leading me to battle with anxiety, depression issues and preventing me from further exploring my gender identity.
Now at the age of 21 I, like most transgender youth, turned to the internet looking for answers to the many questions I had about being transgender. YouTube for years has been a major platform for transgender people of all walks of life to communicate with one another about trans issues and experiences. I began binge watching videos of the many transgender content creators on the platform like Stef Sanjati, Ty Turner, Contrapoints, Kat Blaque, Jammi Dodger, etc… The transgender community on YouTube helped me discover that many transgender people have happy and fulfilling lives. This is where I had finally fully realized that gender was a social construct. There was no wall separating the two genders, in fact, gender is a vast spectrum that people can move along as they so choose. Sometimes, the genitalia a person is born with does not correlate to their gender and I was okay with that. I was ready to forgive myself for being who I was, and accept that if I was transgender, my identity as a woman would be valid. So after a month and a half of questioning and starting therapy sessions with a psychologist, I decided to start my transition.
“As a parent, I understand why other parents would not want people like you around their children at school”
Fortunately, I decided to start my transition in a relatively positive setting. Western Washington University (WWU) is about one hour’s drive south of Peace Arch on the US-Canadian border. It had an active queer community with clubs, group therapy sessions and a resource center. In the summer before moving to Vancouver, I even took advantage of free voice training lessons offered by the WWU Speech and Language Clinic. I ended up losing some of the professors I made connections with including a Chinese language professor and a history professor among others. They decided to disassociate from me completely instead of being supportive or accepting. The strongest bonds I made with professors were with the women of the Political Science department, some of them even wrote the recommendation letters for my UBC application. In fear of being rejected by them too, I decided not to tell them about my transition before leaving. Outside of my university, things were a bit harder. I decided to stay closeted at my workplace until the last two weeks before immigrating to Canada. Although my family has increasing been supportive, they continued to dead name and misgender me in public during move-in weekend at UBC.
A culture of acceptance or toleration?
Canada is reportedly one of the most LGBT+ friendly countries in the world. I had a lot of high hopes about moving to Vancouver, expecting it to be a more accepting environment than the one I came from in the US. So far after my first week here at UBC, my feelings have been mixed. I have had ongoing complications with my preferred name. Getting a legal name change is complicated, especially if you are an international student whose is here on a study permit. Although I submitted a preferred name request through the SSC website, some systems like the name on my email account did not change. Most of the responses I received from the IT Centre during the summer was “just get a legal name change”. I had to reach out the Equity and Inclusion Office to straighten things out, but other issue still have not been resolved. The overall atmosphere on campus has not been very accepting to me so far; I don’t think I present myself in a partially attention grabbing or provocative way. Whether I decide to wear no makeup with a flannel shirt, toque and blue jeans or a bunch of makeup with a plaid skirt and a flowery blouse, students, staff and various workers on campus have been staring at me a lot. I think these microaggressions come out of a place of genuine misunderstanding or ignorance. During these first few weeks, I have not been able to walk to my classroom from my dorm without getting stared down by at least a handful of people. I made the decision to transition knowing well that I may raise a few eyebrows from strangers I come across in the beginning. But it sometimes gets to a point where I do not even want to go downstairs to do my laundry in my dorm because I am tired of being stared at by other students either in confusion or disgust. Despite all of this, I have decided to be active and advocate for a better, more inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students here at UBC.
We at the Graduate Student Society want to ensure that students of all sexualities and gender identities and expressions feel supported and heard. Please click this link to help us better understand how to support LGBTQ2SIA+ students on campus: https://ubc.ca1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_9NWQsC872k3KEAZ
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For resources on gender inclusivity at UBC, please visit: https://equity.ubc.ca/resources/gender-diversity/
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For information on graduate student advocacy, please visit: http://gss.ubc.ca/advocacy/