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Stuck in Between: My Experience in Philosophy as a Trans and Non-Binary Student

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

Earlier this year, I came out as non-binary and started the process of transitioning. Given the ongoing consultation taking place regarding reform to the Gender Recognition Act [1], and the ‘debate’ that has accompanied it, I felt it necessary to write about my experiences as a trans student in philosophy. I have to admit to being a little bit cautious about writing this; I’ve never written anything for the public domain before and I am worried about potential harassment that may result from its publication. However, given recent developments in philosophy, I thought it worth the risk. I’d like to make clear that I will only be speaking about my personal experiences, and can’t speak for other trans people.

First off, a couple of clarifications. One way to characterise the difference between being trans and cis is this: transgender people identify as a gender different from the one they were assigned at birth; cisgender people identify as the gender they were assigned at birth. ‘Non-binary’ is an umbrella term for genders that are neither solely male or female and can also be used by people who are agender, bigender and more. Not all non-binary people identify as trans, and whilst non-binary is a term for many genders, transgender is not a gender itself, but more of a mode of being. [2] And, if we want to get more specific, I am a trans-masculine non-binary person, which in itself is still pretty vague and I like that. Hi!

One thing that sticks most prominently in my mind was a google search I did during the time I was preparing to come out. I wanted to know if there were other people like me in philosophy so I googled ‘non-binary philosophers’. The first link that came up was a post on a popular philosophy blog hosting an extract of a piece written by a trans-exclusionary radical feminist that basically claimed non-binary identity is not valid, and an attempt to be ‘special’ or ‘interesting’. Lovely. Thankfully, and in stark contrast to that first expedition, I have found many fantastic trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people online, both those who are involved with philosophy and those who are not, that I have learnt so much from, and respect immensely. My interactions with these people have led me to feel less alone, and online communities have been part of what has made this possible.

I had the somewhat daunting task of telling my professors and teachers that I had changed name; some of them had known me by my old name for years! I was pleasantly surprised that staff at my home department were, on the whole, very understanding and immediately started to use the correct name and pronouns. I remember one instance, in particular, when I saw part of an email chain that I’d been cc’ed into where my head of department had corrected someone else to use my new name and the correct pronouns. In my dissertation supervisions, my supervisor encouraged me to use my experiences as a trans person to inform my work on queer identity. These small actions made me feel more safe, welcome and accepted in my home department.

However, one of the biggest things I have experienced as a trans student has been silence. Over the last few months a vocal minority of anti-trans academics have become louder, with appearances in national media and a solid presence on the internet, particularly on networks such as Twitter. I have felt silence from senior academics and departments across the UK and US in the face of intensifying anti-trans rhetoric, and in the face of graduate students being harassed by senior academics for having spoken in support of trans rights. After a while, silence begins to look like complicity. It is vital that academics across the discipline do what they can to support trans students and staff.

I also experience a pressure to ‘philosophise’ my identity; to explain, defend, argue for it. This is a pressure many marginalised people feel and often I just want to go about my day without needing to justify to another person in the academic sphere that I am what I say I am. Saying that, I really enjoy reading and writing about trans and queer philosophy; I just want to have other options and not be forced to argue for my identity all the time!

I haven’t named the people that inspire me here as I don’t want to inadvertently direct harassment their way. I also haven’t named the academics who espouse anti-trans views--and have been harassing graduate students--as I don’t want to face more harassment than I already have in the past. I do, however, want to end this with a call for the silence from departments and academics to end. As trans people become more visible, and the ‘debate’ continues, the risk of harm to trans people increases. Philosophy has much further to go than it would like to think and departments and academics need to publicly show their support for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. If anyone reading this feels isolated and would like an informal chat, and direction to support, you can direct message me on Twitter.

Solidarity to my trans siblings.


[2] See here for more info on what it means to be non-binary:

Links to check out: Films made by and for trans people, about trans experience Lots of information about being transgender, and links to support organisations Support for trans people, and they provide workshops