Living life on campus as a trans person can be a real challenge

Post Two Thousand: A New Column for LGBTQ+ Youth

Hey y’all, welcome to the first edition of Post Two Thousand, a column about LGBTQ+ young folks experiencing queer culture in the 21st century.

So, let’s get down to it.

Just like finals and hysterical religious protestors, awful roommates are a fact of life on college campuses. Maybe they’re too finicky with the thermostat, or they’ve thrown up on your bed, or they make you pick them and their drunk friends up at 4 a.m. on a Tuesday. At some point in any undergraduate’s career, they will be paired up with somebody who fundamentally grinds their gears, typically out of difference in personality or habits.

Unless you’re transgender. I’ve had my fair share of terrible roommates in the past — one of them even threw up on my bed! — but for some reason, the conflict we’ve had has almost always stemmed from their “disagreement” with my gender identity. We’d be getting along just fine until they start asking why I have such a masculine name, what the flag on my wall means, or why the words “he” and “him” are in my Instagram bio. Then there’s an issue. Their parents will drive down to scream at me, they’ll demand I get evicted, and, eventually, they’ll leave in a huff, citing “personal reasons.”

These reasons are not personal. They’re hateful. And they provide increasingly common excuses for cisgender students mistreating their transgender and non-binary roommates.

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When discussing this with some of my friends, I’ve heard more instances than I can count of having to put up with gender-based harassment and inappropriate behavior from the folks they live with. Just as awful roommates are a fact of life for college students, transphobic roommates are, unfortunately, a fact of life for transgender college students.

But they don’t have to be. My university knows that I’m transgender. They know that I’ve experienced vile harassment from roommates assigned to my dorm by the housing office. And I’m certain that I’m not the only transgender student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who has gone through that. But housing, as far as I’ve heard and seen, has not done anything to ameliorate this problem. Transgender students have to resort to these ragtag assignment systems, where they find other transgender people online or in their classes and pair up for the next semester. It doesn’t always work; not many transgender people feel safe enough to disclose their identities online, especially in school-related forums. All you can really do is cross your fingers and hope your new roommate won’t spit on your toothbrush.

There’s a long list of reasons explaining why our housing system isn’t inclusive: HB142 makes the legality of some rooming assignments dubious, prospective students are not asked for their gender identity on their official applications, the department doesn’t necessarily have the funds to make the changes, et cetera, et cetera. I understand where they’re coming from, but none of these reasons are reason enough to expose transgender students to potential harm. Your dorm room should be the one place on campus where you feel safe. When university policies endanger transgender students by randomly assigning them with possible bigots, they are not letting them live like their cisgender peers.

So many simple solutions to these issues are out there. Universities ought to start looking into them. Especially in a state still facing the ramifications of HB2, it is imperative that our colleges create housing programs that are not only accessible, but vital, to transgender and non-binary students. There will always be awful roommates. But with thoughtful reconsideration of our housing policies, we can help protect transgender students from the more malicious ones.

I’ve been kind of struggling to figure out whether it’s worthwhile for me personally to work within the current system or without. The short answer is because I’m a Levine Scholars Program recipient, and because I have literally everything to lose if I directly challenge the system, is that I think the best contributions I can make to revolutionary work is by doing a pretty reactionary thing, which is working through or in tandem with the system.

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I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I’ve had a lot of conversations with other radicals, particularly honors students. None of us have even reached our own personal consensuses, much less a consensus with one another. For me, it’s kind of like the theory with arrestables and non-arrestables: some folks are able to lay their lives on the line during certain actions, and others are just not. Some of us can be openly radical, and some of us have to be more implicit.

I’ve tried to follow in Casey Aldridge’s footsteps, because he was another Levine recipient, and was also able to be pretty openly radical. But, unfortunately, I can’t fully do what he did. If I get kicked out for any reason, then I have no way to pay for college. And that’s not to say you can get kicked out for being too leftist. But the things that may come along with it — getting arrested, participating in the black bloc, certain kinds of actions, etc. — may get me kicked out, or at least severely disciplined. Besides, I’m not cisgender and straight-passing like Casey is. He had enough social capital to successfully navigate both radical spaces and the centrist academic BS. But people already perceive me as a threat to their institutions, and as I’ve found out in increasingly harder ways, I have to adapt in order to be heard.

I don’t like the concept of reform any more than you do. I’m so sick of shrinking myself in order to be seen and understood. I’m so tired of having to connect the dots for certain people. And I’m really, really tired of watching people like the Chancellor take credit for the work of me and my folks. If I was able, I’d be way fucking less inclined to be working with the Dean and the Student Government Association. But I’m not. Given my own personal situation, I just can’t risk some things. So I feel like the only way I can be heard and make at least one or two somewhat meaningful changes is by working with these systems. I hate the whole “work within the system to change it!!” argument, but to some extent, that’s the best I can do.

This is still an ongoing conversation I’ve been having with myself.

Nikolai Mather is a transgender student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Post Two Thousand” is an ongoing column that is being published on a weekly basis.

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