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Misunderstanding from universities making life a struggle for trans students

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The NUS has identified the biggest problems faced by trans students in its new study.

It seems that bullying is a real problem for trans students at UK universities, with only 20.6% saying that they feel safe whilst at university and one in three having experienced bullying and harassment on campus.

Of students who have experienced transphobic bullying, 60% who have experienced a physical assault have seriously considered dropping out, as have 56.3% of those who have been threatened, 53.1% of those who have suffered harassment and 41.7% of those who have been called names.

Worryingly, according to the report, “only nine out of 55 (16%) of students who have experienced homophobic or transphobic physical assault reported it to the police.”

The study was carried out by the NUS through a national survey of 4,240 students, alongside focus groups at various universities - Bangor, Nottingham, Manchester Metropolitan, University College London, the University of London and Glasgow.

Feeling accepted in general is also an issue for trans students, with 51% saying that they have seriously considered dropping out of their course, 65% because they didn’t ‘fit in.’ 

Practical issues that make everyday life a struggle for trans students were revealed through the university focus groups.

Difficulties encountered include the lack of gender-neutral toilets and facilities, the lack of policies to update their names and genders in the student register, and issues with university security services.

One focus group member spoke of not having a place in which to safely get changed when visiting the gym, saying: “I've not had any surgery and get changed in the men's, and I'm aware how unsafe this is and also that security etc would likely blame me for taking the risk if I was assaulted in gym changing rooms.”

Another, a respondent to the national survey, gave this account of the difficulties faced in dealing with their university:

“There was no policy on how to update gender on student records. I spent over a year sending emails back and forth with the uni explaining that I was not going to provide ‘a gender recognition certificate or a letter from your surgeon’ (yes, they did ask for those) and it is unlawful and discriminatory to ask me to do so.

“Eventually I caved and brought them a letter from a doctor – but there was a whole year in which my student record listed me incorrectly as ‘female’ next to my very male-typical name. I do not know how many members of staff had access to that information but it was too many.

“My department also outed me as trans to all my lecturers during my undergrad without asking me first. The uni-run counselling service also initially refused to change the name on my file to my actual name. Disability Services refused to get me my educational assessment re-printed with the correct name and pronouns.”

Another student reported how they had to write their dissertation without use of the library, as student services at their university had failed to update their name on the records despite regular contact, meaning they were refused admittance.

Others reported that a lack of communication between various university departments meant them being registered under different names for months at a time:

“I had to interrupt my studies twice due to mental health, and change to part-time when I returned due to estrangement and continuing mental health issues that were definitely affected by issues of transphobia and cissexism in the classroom and at uni.”

Perhaps predictably, general ignorance is cited as another issue. The report reads that “all trans participants report being misnamed and mis-gendered, although with different frequency, and being constantly asked inappropriate questions about their sexuality or identity.”

The prevalence of transphobia, with the majority of students responding to the survey saying that there was a lack of procedure for reporting transphobia in place at their university.

54% of respondents said their institutions “did not provide necessary support” in this area.

Aside from everyday practicalities, trans students are also more likely than other groups to suffer from general health problems.

41.6% of trans respondents reported having a disability, which takes into account mental health problems such as depression and physical issues such as high blood pressure.

The NUS report states that “further research is necessary to better understand the link between mental health issues and students’ gender identity.

“However, it seems that coming out in a non-supportive environment, difficulties in accessing appropriate treatment and losing family support are aggravating factors of depression and mental health problems.”

Unrelated issues, such as diabetes, are often not seen as separate from students’ gender identity, and “educational institutions seem to fail in offering them adequate support.”

Of those who transitioned whilst at university, accessing treatment, depression, anxiety, the costs of treatment and having to get a job to pay for it, focusing on studies during hormone treatment, isolation and lack of support from families were particular problems, with one in seven having to interrupt their studies to undergo treatment.

Responding to the national survey, one trans student said:

“I was made homeless at the end of first year because my parents were having a hard time coming to terms with it, which meant that my first year grades were not great. Starting hormones in second year, and the associated emotional changes, meant my second year grades were bad. The fact that I cannot breathe/etc easily in third year is also impacting my study, and the financial cost of transition (the campus health service lied about referring me to [a hospital in London] and I had to go private or I would have killed myself) has made it near-impossible for me to continue being a student.”

The NUS is calling for change as a result of the findings. Amongst a number of other things, it is calling on universities to enforce a zero tolerance policy towards transphobic behaviour, establish a point of contact for trans students on campus, improve access to on-campus health services and provide gender-neutral facilities such as toilets.

To see the full study visit the NUS site here.

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