“So I’m a nonbinary trans man and I’m starting college next year. At college I want to start going by my preferred name and pronouns, maybe presenting a bit more masculine, etc. BUT. I’m confused on one thing… Should I tell people I’m trans when I meet them? Like, I don’t want to like, have to explain what being trans is or stuff right when I meet people, especially since I have trouble with social anxiety already. But I’m worried they might assume I’m a girl if I don’t explain.”
-Question submitted by Anonymous
Liam Lowery Says:
Hi there, Anonymous. As a non-binary trans man who started going by my preferred name and pronouns in college, I’m glad you reached out with this question. The fact that you’re reaching out at all indicates you have your stuff far more together than I did as an incoming freshman, but I will tell you the top three things I wish I had known when I started undergrad.
The first and most important thing I can tell you is to let people pleasantly surprise you.
When I rolled into my all-girls dorm and met my lady roommate, I stutteringly told her I was trans Actually, I may have said, “I’m a dude, kind of like inside?” I braced for impact, assuming she would ask to change rooms. Instead, she said “cool” and asked me if I wanted to order pizza. Don’t discount that you can get lucky.
What’s more, all the women in my dorm who I feared would shun me were friendly and generally disinterested in my gender identity. That’s because from the first week on, we had papers to write, philosophy texts to read, passages in Russian to translate (maybe that was just me). On top of that, people were hooking up, fighting, and going to Taco Night at the cafeteria. Which is to say that once you are in school and dealing with the day-to-day, it will likely not be as challenging as it seems in the abstract.
My advice is to practice your script for when you meet people initially. Maybe you want to say you’re non-binary, maybe you just want to say your name and preferred pronouns. It will probably change, but the important thing is that you set boundaries for your everyday interactions and introductions that are comfortable for you. Once you do this a few times, you will get used to it and feel out how much you want to say and when.
Now, to the second big thing I wish I’d realized sooner. There is a major pitfall to be wary of, especially as a trans person: you will feel pressure to do the unpaid work of educating people when there are others who are tasked with that responsibility. Try not to fall into this role.
Early in my time in undergrad, when I did happen upon some poor unfortunate soul who had no clue what gender identity was and had never heard the word trans before, I would talk with them at length about gender identity and why it mattered. I had at least thirty of these conversations in my first month of school, I kid you not. It left me feeling burnt out and unsatisfied.
Here is the thing, Anonymous: you are at school to learn, just like everyone else. And hopefully, have a blast and make a lot of friends. But you are not there to be anyone’s personal gender identity educator, even if you happen to be an expert in the subject area.
Looking back, I realize that those people who had burning questions about what gender pronouns are should have just googled it. I mean, give me a break here—gender pronouns are what they sound like!
Asking me those simplistic questions just because they knew I was trans was disrespectful of my time. If nobody is paying you to do that educational work and there are a lot of great resources available to people who want to be allies, you do not need to be that resource. Stepping into that role instills an expectation that trans people exist to educate cis people. If you want to get involved on your campus, advocate for your school to include a transgender 101 training at orientation so that all students will get some info on trans identities—that would reach more people than a one-on-one chat with you.
The other important pitfall to side-step is one I never realized until I was done with school, and it might be even more important than the whole “you are not everyone’s gender professor” thing.
My RA didn’t really get it when I told her it was important that she take the sign with my given name off the door. Instead of complaining to the building manager, I ripped it off and put up on that said Liam in big, honking block letters. I did that, more or less, all through college: I would email professors at the beginning of the semester and ask them to change my name on their class rosters. Usually they would, sometimes they wouldn’t. I would get called by my given name in class, be embarrassed, and stop participating. Or if I felt brave that day, I would clear my throat and say, “Actually, I’m Liam.”
Those moments were far from personal triumphs. What I should have realized is that there were salaried staff members at my university tasked with helping students—including me—deal with administrative issues. By making my problems and myself invisible, I was giving them a free pass not to engage with the issues transgender students often face at colleges.
Look for opportunities to lessen your load so you can take full advantage of being a college student. For instance, contact a dean at your school and ask them to inform professors about your preferred name. Let people do their jobs for you, and by extension you will show them how to do it for other trans students.
There you go, Anonymous—those are the things I wish I knew when I started school that have remained relevant (at times, too relevant) since graduating. Good luck at college, and remember: you’re there to learn and occasionally have fun!
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