Feminist Locker Room Talk: My experience of being trans on the King’s campus

I am a white, non-binary transsexual woman who graduated from King’s a little over a year ago. While I loved my time at King’s, there were elements of the campus culture that were extremely toxic for me. My undergraduate degree was the point in my life in which my struggle to repress my true gender began to ramp up to its climax. As most trans people would agree, that period of profound identity crisis is nothing short of hellish. For me, my steadily intensifying gender dysphoria led me to drug and alcohol abuse, sleepless nights, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

One might think that a progressive and welcoming community like King’s would have been an ideal place to be supported through these feelings, and a great place to transition. The King’s community certainly talks quite a bit about supporting trans and non-binary folks. But my experience was very far from the rhetoric of inclusivity that many on campus espoused. Instead of being a place in which I could freely experiment, away from the transmisogyny endemic throughout society, I found King’s to be an aggressively gendered space.

Perhaps most vexing to me was that it seemed to me that this campus dynamic was specifically cultivated and sustained by the same core of feminist activists who most loudly and frequently stated their acceptance and support of trans and non-binary people. The feminist doctrines preached on the King’s campus were progressive, nuanced and trans-inclusive and largely align with my own transfeminist views. The problem for me lay in the way the King’s campus community practiced feminism in an informal, day-to-day manner.

While modern feminist theory warns against assuming the gender of others, in practice this precept is often disregarded. Frequently this comes out in the context of venting: “Can you believe person A did action Y? Men eh!” Of course it is unfair to ask marginalized groups, such as femme, indigenous, and queer folks to abstain from venting about their oppression. Obviously, there is a space for colloquially and informally calling out the collective bad behaviour of cishet people, white folks, settlers and others who wield hegemonic power and privilege in our society. But a distinction needs to be made between private venting and public harm.

At King’s, gender felt like a team sport and this “public venting” was just the “locker room” trash talk. But I didn’t choose my team. When I was born I was drafted onto the team with blue jerseys, a fact that caused me much pain, and at King’s I was never able to forget that. My treatment on campus ranged from getting dirty looks when I got excited in class discussions for taking up too much space as a man, to being told that the A&A gender-neutral bathroom by Prince Hall was “not for me” the first time I mustered the courage to publicly act on my inner gender identity.

To a cisgender man, such events would have been trivial annoyances. Maybe a feminist hating, alt-righter would have raged about “feminazis” to his friends for an evening. A progressive guy might feel chastised by such experiences and seek to modify his behaviour. But for me having aspects of my personhood being gendered as inherently “male” was incredibly damaging to my budding trans identity. Many incidents stayed with me for years, and still bother me today.

At King’s I felt that because I looked like a man and was forcibly brought up as a man that I could never be anything but a man. There was simply no space for me to experiment with androgyny or ambiguity on a campus in which my gender was a public, political fact rather than a way of being that belonged to me. Because I didn’t feel safe identifying as a woman I actually covered up my experimentation with femininity and avoided the King’s gym lest someone perceive my shaved legs and painted toenails, as well as wearing long pants 24/7 on campus, regardless of the temperature. Of course I feared antifeminist queer bashers but I also feared being labelled an imposter and appropriator by the King’s feminist community. Whether or not that fear was justified is an open question. But the fact remains that I did not feel as if I was safe to explore my gender on the King’s campus, as my AMAB (assigned male at birth) status made me feel like I was a threat to feminist spaces. I do not think I was (or am) alone in feeling excluded in this way.

I hope I have shown the way that “feminist locker room talk” disregards the reality of trans lives and bodies, in favour of a mythologized “perfect trans person” that has perfect knowledge of their gender and is comfortable enough to disclose it to those around them. As well, I hope to have pointed out the way in which the gender binary can be unwittingly reinforced by feminists who hold positions of trust and power within progressive communities. I hope that those reading don’t see my words as an attack on the King’s feminist community, which does do amazing work advocating for the majority of women on campus, but instead as a gentle push to think about the women and others that are left behind.

Two months after graduating I began my transition. Once I was free from the toxic King’s environment I was easily able to recognize and begin to work through my gender. I’ve now been on hormone replacement therapy for a year and have been out for almost as long. For the first time in years my life is something I enjoy and I am the happiest I have ever been. I just wish that I could have been allowed the space to transition earlier and I fear for those AMAB trans people at King’s who may not be able to survive as I did.