Why standing up to transphobia can make a big difference
Jay talks about his experience of transphobia in school and how positive and negative comments have impacted him
When I hear about other people’s experiences of transphobia, I always count myself lucky. No one has ever physically attacked me, no matter how rude they’ve been or how threatening they’ve been. But the reality is that even the most fortunate trans people, like myself, still experience transphobia in many ways in their lives.
Transphobia in school
Much of my experience of transphobia happened in school. I came out when I was 15, in 3rd year, so I had already completed two full years of education with my fellow students before coming out. Some things that were said and done were innocent mistakes - others were more malicious cruelties.
But in truth, I had seen and experienced transphobia before I had even come out. I was seen as very masculine for a girl, and for a while when I was out only to myself and close friends I was presenting even more masculine than before. People would ask me, accusatorially, “Why do you look like a boy?” It was always awkward - I wasn’t going to come out on the spot, what was I meant to say to a question like that? But at the same time, it was funny - they just didn’t know it but looking like a boy was the point.
When I came out at least, those comments stopped. But new ones took their place. People felt it was acceptable to ask me about my body - did I want a penis? Did I have a penis? What would I do with my breasts? Their curiosity was mine to deal with, and as uncomfortable as it was I would usually try to explain things to people so they could understand. The questions were misguided attempts at learning - they didn’t comprehend that they weren’t exactly being polite.
Some people took it further than that. I was walking with a girl in the corridor one day, on my way to use the bathroom, and she asked me “Wouldn't using the men’s room make other guys uncomfortable?” It had nothing to do with her - she wasn’t using the men’s room - and besides, I generally didn’t use the men’s bathroom anyway - I was afraid of boys who weren’t in my year seeing me and kicking up a fuss, because I knew I didn’t look like them. Her comment set me back too. It took me longer again after that to build up the confidence to use the men’s room.
Being uncomfortable in the bathroom
Bathrooms are often a controversial place for trans people, and her comment was not the only bathroom issue I had. Before I started using the men’s room, someone wrote about me on the walls of the girls bathroom. “Why is there a guy in here?” responded to with “Oh that’s [birthname]/Jay, she’s trans.” I still remember that feeling of being too afraid of being yelled at in the men’s room, but not comfortable being talked about in the women’s either. This was all within a year of me coming out as trans - but it was only the beginning.
As time went on, I got older and more confident. People were less bold to my face, because they knew I wouldn’t take it. Transition year brought its own problems though. A friend convinced me not to do a project about trans awareness in school, which I regret not doing to this day, because she said that “everyone would think I was just a trans person”. That was how everyone treated me anyway. Later in the year, in advance of an overnight trip, the teacher organising it asked me where I would sleep. I felt so singled out - I had been out for nearly two years by now, and yet it was still a question of whether I was man enough to share with other men. We came to a comfortable conclusion - I shared with a group of guys who were friends of my friends, who I knew would be respectful of me.
Transphobic slurs and unprompted support
By 5th year I was becoming the loud and proud activist I am today. In the same way I grew in confidence and resilience, others around me grew in their negativity. A boy who had moved to the school called me a transphobic slur to my face - implying I was tricking people into thinking I was male. The same boy taunted me when I was in the men’s bathroom, asking me why I used that bathroom, why I didn’t use the women’s. I tried not to engage but I was more terrified than I had ever been - this was how so many stories of trans people being beaten up started, and I thought that was how it would end. Luckily, there were two other boys from my year in the bathroom at that moment - who confronted the boy for harassing me. It was the first time someone had stood up to transphobia for me, unprompted. I am always grateful for that protection and respect they afforded me.
People change, and people grow. Some of the people who treated me like this during secondary school apologised when we were graduating - they had realised the harm they had done, and knew better now. Some people had candid moments with me where they told me how much respect they had for me. I believe all of them - but it was still hurtful to go through secondary school feeling like no one cared, and feeling like transphobia was okay. I’m happy some of those people have learned, but it was still painful for me.
That’s why I think it is important to stand up against transphobia, and all forms of bigotry, when you can. You never know the difference it could make to someone to stand up for them when they’re down.