Student Experience 4

My experiences at Cambridge have been quite mixed and it’s difficult to work out which things are solely “LGBT” relevant. This isn’t necessarily bad, though – bi people and trans people both have higher-than-average incidences of mental illness, so seeing how the University copes with that thrown into the mix is probably relevant to a lot of people in either or both groups.

 

When I was first diagnosed with a mental health issue, most didn’t really know what to do but some seemed willing to learn, as long as it was communicated very clearly and as far in advance as possible. Communication is one of the things people at Cambridge have a very particular attitude towards – the curtness with which people answer emails really affects some people with anxiety issues – so the constant expectation of academic-level clarity can be a drain.

 

As with mental health, so it was with trans stuff – gender doesn’t really come up in my supervisions and so supervisors have gotten all the way to the end of term without ever asking or making a statement that had to be corrected, then have accepted correction when I pointed out their end of term report had it wrong. Most of them have been faintly confused when they see the person attached to the name they’ve been given and it’s quite obvious they don’t quite get what’s going on, but I’ve had very few overt comments. The one memorably bad experience I think I’ve had is a supervisor who decided trans people’s existence was a fascinating intellectual subject and didn’t see why this might be inappropriate. On the college end, it’s been mostly OK, aside from one incident where the Senior Tutor asked me to “just keep using the women’s bathrooms (i’m a trans man), so people aren’t confused and distressed”. He backtracked quite fast when he learned this was “technically discrimination” – basically, the rules are on your side with that one. The main theme here, I’d say, is that it’s overwhelmingly likely that any horrible things that happen will be non-overt and anything that is overt is something you’re likely to be protected from in some way, at least after the fact. Depending on how you process interacting with people, this could be a good or a bad thing.

 

The mix of trans and bi has mostly not been a problem – people who pride themselves on being enlightened, liberal academics tend to at least try to not be overtly homophobic. One of the porters at my college did suddenly stop being so warmly supportive when they realised I still liked boys, but by and large people who can deal with “trans” can deal with “trans and bi”. Cambridge is, I would say, astoundingly safe compared to most of the places i’ve lived when it comes to obvious signs of non-heterosexuality. When I walk down the street with a person i’m seeing who is also trans, we are very rarely harassed – I can count the incidents on one hand. I definitely feel like in most other places we wouldn’t be this safe. I will note that this is in the centre of town – the areas not dominated by students are a bit different. Slightly out of the middle of town I did once get chased by a man threatening to beat me up for “looking like a woman”, but the fact that this was just the once says a lot about Cambridge’s relative safety.

 

The mix of being trans and mentally ill is harder to form a solid opinion on. Supervisors have dealt variously with the mental illness – some have been very understanding when I’ve been unable to attend or respond well in supervisions due to medication side effects, manic twitchiness or depression fog, while others have displayed a stunning lack of empathy for anyone who doesn’t fit the effortless high-achiever mould. People have been less understanding about eating disorder related setbacks than they have been about depression, and I feel this is relevant to my Cambridge trans experience as so many of us have eating disorders. The University Counselling Service was really not appreciative of how being trans might feed into other issues (or alternatively, how not every issue was related to it) and also put my body dysphoria issues down to being on the autism spectrum. The CUSU LGBT+ trans rep really helped me when I came out, though, and they and I are still good friends. From what I’ve heard from people at other unis, our trans welfare is actually pretty decent.