“We are scientists, writers, musicians, engineers. We are people.”
To celebrate the launch of the 2018 Transgender Policy, revised by the Equality and Diversity Unit, we speak to those it may affect about their stories, and what is like identifying as trans* in Oxford.
We recognise that the period of transition can be very complex and difficult for the individual, and we wish to provide a framework for how the University will support students and staff who wish to make changes to the gender identity they were assigned at birth. Our revised guidance reflects our experience that for many people transition is an incremental process, requiring multiple and ongoing changes, instead of following a single process.
Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston
“My students treated me with warmth and respect, and my teaching benefited from the comfort and freedom I felt in my identity.”
My name is Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston, and I am a DPhil student in the English department here at Oxford.
It used to be just ‘Lloyd’, but last April I realised that I was genderqueer. This means that I don’t identify as either ‘male’ or ‘female’ but experience my gender identity as a fluid and evolving mix of masculinity and femininity. Sometimes I feel one more strongly than the other. Sometimes I feel both. Sometimes I feel neither. In an ideal world, I would like everyone to feel free to perform their gender in whatever manner feels best for them on a given day.
For almost eight years, Oxford has been the city and the institution in which I have lived, learned, and loved. I completed my BA and MSt here and was delighted to return here to begin my DPhil. It was in Oxford that I was first given the tools to engage meaningfully with questions of gender and sexuality. It was in Oxford that I was challenged to interrogate my assumptions about identity and those of the society in which I lived. It was in Oxford that I met many of the LGBTQ+ individuals who have most inspired me, from my undergraduate personal tutor, to my partner.
However, when I began to realise that my gender identity could not be comfortably contained within the confines of the ‘male’ / ‘female’ binary, I was nervous as to how those whom I had known, both personally and professionally, as a cis-hetero man in Oxford would react. I worried that the faculty in which I had studied and taught would struggle to understand or accept the non-binary person I realised I wanted to be (or, deep down, had always been). I was concerned that my relationship with my supervisor would become fraught, that my students would feel uncomfortable, and that my friendships would grow strained.
On every front I was proved utterly, and delightfully, wrong.
Friends sent messages of support and encouragement. A former tutor gave me money to help queer my wardrobe. My supervisor shared an anecdote about going to a butcher shop as a child wearing a dress and cowboy boots. My students treated me with warmth and respect (or, at least, as much respect as a grad student ever enjoys…), and my teaching benefited from the comfort and freedom I felt in my identity. I also found myself welcomed into a wider network of LGBTQ+ people throughout Oxford, and, along with my partner, trained to act as one of the university’s LGBTQ+ Staff Role Models. In doing so, I joined a community of activists who passionately believe that any individual, student or staff, will be at their happiest and most productive when they feel most able to be themselves.
Since coming out, I have felt better able to foreground questions of gender and sexuality in my work and in my teaching. This has included publishing articles exploring the relationship between fertility and Irish identity in the work of Samuel Beckett, organising a conference on Queer Modernism(s), and discussing the construction of masculinity in the work of James Joyce in podcasts. I have also felt empowered to work to support equality and diversity within the university, through initiatives such as Athena Swan.
The University’s revised trans policy and guidance, and the ongoing commitment to equality they reflect, help me to feel safe, supported, and encouraged to be myself, and make me proud to be a trans* student at Oxford.
Lloyd (Meadhbh) Houston’s thesis explores Irish modernism and the politics of sexual health. Other research interests include literature and the law, and the institutional construction of obscenity. Their work has appeared in the Review of English Studies, The Library, and the Irish Studies Review. Lloyd is Postgraduate Representative and Communications Officer for the British Association for Irish Studies and convenes the University of Oxford Modern and Contemporary Literature Research Seminar.
“Starting work as my authentic self may seem like a little thing, but it felt like the world had opened up.”
Having a supportive workplace is not something that can be taken for granted. It should be, but it cannot. I have worked in places that were, sometimes openly, sexist and homophobic. As such, I have not felt able to be open about the fact that I am transgender. I kept that part of myself private for many years, which does not make for a happy life. Even after I started medically transitioning I did not feel able to be open in my department. That is not to say I did not work with some amazing colleagues, but not all at my workplace would have been accepting of my transition.
I work in an MPLS subject, and when I look back I see how bad LGBT+ representation is in my fields. In 12 years I met one openly LGBT+ person. One! I assumed I could not continue my scientific work and transition so my academic output suffered. I felt it was a choice, transition or remain in MPLS. I needed to be myself, and so the decision was made. My scientific career was, I thought, over.
However, a part of me refused to believe that was true. So I applied for a role at the Department of Materials, under my new name. At the interview my gender identity was not discussed, not even mentioned. I was asked questions about my abilities and talents; what I could do not who I was. Which came as a surprise. So, when offered the job I couldn’t say no. Starting work as my authentic self may seem like a little thing, but it felt like the world had opened up. The department offered me any support I needed, then got on and treated me normally. Again, I didn’t expect that.
In fact, with so much support, I felt able to take part in various university wide initiatives, joining the LGBT+ Advisory Group and, from there, being given a platform to do many things I never even considered. I give talks, I go into schools, I take part in interviews, and help run youth groups. I have been given a springboard to make a difference in the LGBT+ community, inside and outside of Oxford University.
Now I make myself visible as an LGBT+ scientist. We know that researchers in MPLS do not feel able to be themselves, there are papers that show that. Yet there are lots of us. Way more than I could have imagined. So now I make a point of being an LGBT+ material scientist. I show people that you can be yourself at work, especially here.
We still have improvements to make. The new guidelines are great, and well thought out but I know that we will not leave it there. We will continue to improve. I have seen the commitment to doing so by Oxford University, which is why I am proud to say I work here.
I am doing what I can to show that trans-people are more than just a discussion about bathroom use or the punchline of a joke. We are scientists, writers, musicians, engineers. We are people. And I can do this, all because of the support I have been given by my department and the University.
“My coming-out process started during a chat about gender roles with a colleague. I didn’t plan to cite my own gender identity, but I’m glad I did; she understood exactly what I meant”
I started at Oxford University as a temp in 2016, and in late 2017 I started in my first ever permanent role. I first started interrogating my gender — and the word choice is deliberate; I hope you’re picturing a scene from an overblown crime drama, with lots of yelling and pacing — in 2014, right before graduation. While I’ve long since settled on ‘agender’ (literally, ‘no gender’; the concept doesn’t apply) as a way to explain the results of the questioning process, I didn’t act on it for quite some time. The combination of precarious employment, public-facing work, and my own poorly-timed gender identity crisis has meant that for most of my working life, I’ve been allowing my colleagues to misgender me. It seemed like the path of least resistance, for all it hurt.
My coming-out process started during a chat about gender roles with a colleague. I didn’t plan to cite my own gender identity, but I’m glad I did; she understood exactly what I meant, and that understanding emboldened me to talk to the rest of the team. I started wearing a small, unobtrusive pronoun pin on my lanyard, hoping that people who knew what it meant would catch on. Everyone in the Faculty has been amazing — DPhil candidates with an interest in queer theory pointed me to initiatives run by the Equality and Diversity Unit, and the Faculty’s Athena SWAN committee chair asked me to bring my perspective to the project. I still remember the first time our Head of Admin and Finance used my pronoun in an email; it was surreal and joyful in ways I hadn’t anticipated, like a wrong note in a piece of music had finally been put right.
For LGBT+ History Month, I put together a display on LGBT+ writing and activism through history, and made a point to include a range of trans writers and thinkers, from Sylvia Rivera to Alok Vaid-Menon. I hope to continue raising the profile of transgender issues in the Faculty and beyond, whether through projects and committees or simply by existing as agender at work. Now that I have the opportunity to be forthright about who I am, I’m determined to make the best of it, for myself and for others who might be watching.
Guo Sheng Liu
“I want to believe, I choose to believe, that Oxford — the university, the city, the people — will one day become truly inclusive for all trans people.”
Call me Guosh. Pronounce it a bit like the word “squash”, but without the initial “s”. And refer to me as “they”, not “he” or “she”.
A few months before I came to Oxford to start my undergraduate degree, the thought that I am trans finally burst through the surface of my consciousness. And I was afraid. For my entire life, I had always been ticking “M” on forms and questionnaires not because I ever saw myself as a man but because that was what I was taught and expected to do. Were my life circumstances different, I imagine I might very well have identified as a transwoman, and already be in the process of gender-affirming surgery. But for now, as I still figure out myself, my selves, I feel most comfortable using the label “gender non-binary”: no, neither man nor woman, but not quite something in between. Something beyond, perhaps.
Relocating to Oxford from the tropical island of Singapore involved many changes and challenges. But my trans identity has been a source of optimism and community, despite the isolated incidents of transphobia I have hitherto faced. The trans community in Oxford has been so supportive and so crucial to finding my footing and, quite simply, being happy. Now, the experiences of trans individuals vary a lot; often, my experiences as a trans person have been complicated by and enmeshed with my other lives: as a person who isn’t white, as a person who has depression, as a person who was sexually assaulted, etc. For some of us at Oxford, diversity and difference are not mere buzzwords but realities we have to live, realities which are sometimes painful and unique.
Because of my beliefs, and in order to survive, I have pursued various strands of student activism in Oxford, having been on the committees of the LGBTQ+ Society, our student union’s LGBTQ+ Campaign and anti-racism campaign, and so on. As my JCR’s LGBTQ+ Representative, I advocated for greater gender-neutrality in different aspects of daily life, and led my college’s first LGBTQ+ 101 Workshop for Freshers’. This very same workshop I expanded and improved on when I later became Co-chair for the LGBTQ+ Campaign, and in that role I also sought to create support for LGBTQ+ students on their year abroad. Beyond these and other past projects, I hope to engage with the local city council in the future to make local businesses more trans-friendly for all.
As Co-chair, I was consulted by the EDU on the Transgender Policy and on trans issues in general. I am grateful for this; collaboration between different groups and peoples in Oxford is paramount for improving support for trans students. We cannot expect non-trans administrators and management to be experts on trans issues. It is thus imperative that there is a centralised source to guide policy and shape the daily lives of trans individuals here. In light of this, EDU’s work and presence is unquestionably important.
There remain issues to be tackled. Oxford’s decentralised collegiate system, for example, can be seen as an impediment to implementing consistent structures of support for trans folks. But it can also be seen as an opportunity for individual colleges to efficiently strive and innovate to tackle transphobia in all forms. The end goal must be an Oxford where being trans is not an obstacle or disadvantage to our occupations as students, as teachers, as staff.
I wrote in the beginning that I was afraid. A correction: I still am. I am afraid to live in this world, I am afraid physical and psychological safety will never be something I can take for granted, I am afraid that the little improvements we have forged can be undone in the blink of an eye. The road ahead is long. But I want to believe, I choose to believe, that Oxford — the university, the city, the people — will one day become truly inclusive for all trans people.
We recognise that transition is different for everyone, and seek to support them in their journey. We are grateful to the many people who took part in our consultation, and contributed to the development of the revised guidance.
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