SEXtember: Being a transgender international student
IT’S hard enough being a student studying abroad but how much harder would it be if you were a transgender international student? Dea Putra spoke to one transgender male student about his journey and addresses the misconceptions surrounding transgender people.
International student Kay* was assigned female at birth, but he thinks, identifies, behaves, and feels as the opposite of his assigned birth sex. His gender identity is male, and as such, Kay is a transgender (trans) male.
He is also one of the many people around the world who are transgender, yet misconceptions and misunderstanding of transgender issues still remain at large.
The most common misconception arguably falls onto the issue of biological sex where most individuals assume ‘sex’ to be the same as ‘gender’. In reality, ‘sex’ is what you were assigned as at birth whereas ‘gender’ is what you identify with psychologically.
For transgender people, their gender identity is different to what they were born as, which, as a result, can cause significant psychological distress — also known as gender dysphoria.
Their distress should not be mistaken for confusion however. Trans people are not ‘deceitful’ of their identity and are certain that their gender identity is different to their natal sex, often from an early age.
From there, they may then undertake medical procedures to align their body to their gender identity, usually through hormone treatments and surgery.
More than a year ago, Kay started taking male hormones. He has felt this way about his gender identity since puberty and is thankful to have received enough support from his friends and family members to undergo his transition.
In various countries, such as Australia, gender identity is protected under the law. Discrimination on this basis – along with sexual orientation – is clearly forbidden.
However, this does not mean that discrimination does not happen.
“In places with [no gender-neutral toilets], those who do hang out with me a lot, they know that I never go to the toilet,” Kay said, as he recalled the times he had been shouted at and kicked out of female toilets.
Although he is currently not studying in Australia, his university – despite their inability to change his administrative details – has been supportive in terms of providing counselling services and gender-neutral toilets. This is important, as his university has managed to make him feel safe, in that aspect.
In Australia, many universities are hailed for their LGBTIQ-friendly efforts, such as providing queer spaces, gender-neutral toilets, health support, and providing the neutral label ‘Mx’, instead of just ‘Mr’ and ‘Ms’. But these efforts are not universal.
Though Kay’s physiological changes have become more noticeable over time, he has still not been able to legally change his name and identifier (‘female’ to ‘male’), thus creating new problems.
“Socially, it’s harder now when they ask me, ‘What’s your name?’ I used my nickname once, and it’s impossible for some people; they’d ask your full name, some people actually ask for IDs,” he stated in disbelief.
This does not only happen with peers; Kay has had various encounters where airport officials, healthcare workers, and teachers refuse to believe his identity or acknowledge his rigorous medical and psychological examinations, simply because he looks different to what his birth name suggests.
“’You’re just confused, just pray a lot,” Kay laughed, reiterating what people have told him. “This is because you haven’t found your significant other, so why don’t we get you someone?”
Some people actually think that it is merely a matter of him not wanting to conform to social expectations and norms that comes with being born a certain sex.
“They think it’s to do with how you’re supposed to dress, act, speak a certain way, when it’s not. They think it’s more social than biological,” Kay adds.
Unfortunately, there are also those who believe that being transgender is the same as cross-dressing or being a drag queen.
“It’s completely different, because drag queens at the end of the day … it’s just a way to express themselves,” Kay explained. “Drag is a persona … while [being trans] isn’t something you can turn off.”
Kay believes that the bulk of the problem is the lack of visibility and representation of transgender people in the wider community.
“In the US, there are more trans people in the entertainment industry, such as Laverne Cox, so they’re more exposed [to the issue],” he said.
“In many other places, gender roles are still really enforced … [and people] get their information from the wrong sources.”
And in places where being LGBTIQ is considered a taboo, there is not enough education or accessible resources regarding gender identity and dysphoria, which means people are more likely to be misinformed about trans issues.
“I think a lot of people have trouble understanding the issue because they’re coming from the wrong direction … There’s a difference between ‘things would be better if I was born a man’ and actually feeling uncomfortable in your own body, in your birth sex.”
At the moment, Kay feels that he is in a better place than he ever was. He is in top physical shape, he is doing well at work and in education, and he is supported by his friends and family.
“There are some days that are still worse than others, but it’s nice to know you’re doing something to combat it and actually move on, instead of staying in, standing still — all depressed.”
In the future, Kay hopes that people in general will become more understanding, and less intrusive towards trans individuals. For those who are in the same boat as him, Kay reminds them to be mindful when coming out to their friends and family and wants them to stay hopeful.
“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel”, Kay said.
* Kay’s name has been changed to protect his privacy and confidentiality