Not your token: Trans bodies in post-secondary spaces

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By Robert Molloy

Transgender: Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender does not correspond with their birth sex

Cisgender: Denoting or relating to a person whose sense of personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex

Note: These are experiences of a white, binary trans man who is a settler on this land

It’s Nov. 1: the beginning of Trans Awareness Month. I check my email, and there are eight new messages. Two are from the Ryersonian. Three are from students in the journalism program. Two are from the 519 and one is from a seemingly cisgender student asking for resources. 

On average, when working in the Trans Collective at the Equity Service Centres, I receive 10 to 15 emails a week from across the university. And throughout Trans Awareness Month, the number skyrockets. 

It’s almost as if at the stroke of midnight, the Ryerson community remembers that trans students—studying in the SLC, getting coffee at Balzac’s, sitting within your lectures—were there all along.

Most of my job at the Trans Collective involves community care—supporting any trans students on campus by means of funding or by offering a safe space to talk about issues. This month, the average email begins almost the same every time. “Hello, my name is _____, and I have to write an article about transgender students at Ryerson. My deadline is tomorrow, can you meet with me in the next two hours? Thanks!”

Now comes the dilemma: Do I respond? 

I know what happens if I do: about four cisgender students will appear in the Trans Collective within the hour. They will not knock on the door. They will ask me if it is a good time, and I will say yes through gritted teeth. They sit on the couch with a notebook and a pen, often with a phone recording on the side. They will tell me that they’ve never seen this office before. They compliment the string lights and the posters about respecting pronouns.  

And they will ask the same questions I have answered for every other student: “What’s it like to be trans on this campus?” “How can I support trans students?” “Are the statistics about trans students true?” 

If I am lucky, and they have done their research, my pronouns will be correct in the article. They will have their “source” for their story—a real life trans person. A piece of representation. A token. Often, I check the story when it is published to make sure I am not misquoted—this happens frequently. And often, I never hear from these students again.

On top of all of this, I am only one person speaking for the entire community. 

Now for the scenario where I don’t answer the article. They will go to the Ryerson Facebook page and post a call-out for trans voices on campus. Another trans person will have to go through the same procedure—sitting in the uncomfortable silence of explaining the ins and outs of gender identity to a reporter. How strange is it to have one person speaking for an entire community? 

The want for accurate representation comes with the price of exhausting emotional labour. How can I ask someone to sit in my place?

The Trans PULSE project, one of the only studies that exclusively looks at statistics on trans experiences across Ontario, released the first round of reports in 2014. It said 13 per cent of trans people have been fired for being trans, 58 per cent could not get academic transcripts with their correct name or pronouns, 20 per cent have been assaulted and 57 per cent have avoided public washrooms out of fear. 

On top of that, 35 per cent of the trans population considered suicide.

Trans students are not on this campus for you to use only as research for a project. We are not topics of debate in your tutorials. We are just trying to get a degree. 

This Trans Awareness Month, consider the humans behind your list of questions. Our names. Our pronouns—not as preferred, but as mandatory when in and out of the room. 

We are more than a statistic. We are more than your assignment. We are so much more. 

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