A quest for an education, and the reality of being transgender

[CN: discussion on sexual assault and dead-naming]

All I ever wanted was an education; that is really it. Ever since I was young, I dreamt about going to university, and studying something. What I wanted to study varied from engineering to linguistics, to gender studies and political science; really, all I wanted was to learn. There are a few snags there: firstly, I never had the resources; secondly, I never even managed to finish high school. A lot of rhetoric usually goes that one must work hard, that I should have finished high school, that in this individualistic society one has to take responsibility. But it never has been as simple as that. Being a queer trans woman of colour, things have never been as simple as that.

Being a runaway youth (or “kicked out of the house” youth, depending on one’s perspective) high school was the last thing on my mind. In fact, school was a place of hell, of bullying, of nightmares; to not finish high school at that time was to survive as I learnt to live with a gender and sexuality that was confusing as hell. To not finish high school was to keep myself safe, and to leave “home” as a minor still was all about survival in the face of a cis-heteronormative onslaught of judgement. And that is simply where these things start, it was at that point that there was a moment in time where I had chosen to follow through with understanding myself for my own well-being. I never regretted this decision, but I have resented the consequence that society has thrown at me. Since then, I have explored whatever was available to me to survive, and the dream of an education disappeared to the background; when one is trying to find a place to sleep for the night, for food, going through homeless shelters, there is little time to think about any future. It has been only through sheer luck and coincidence that I worked myself off the street and slowly into a lower income life. Now, more than 10 years later I have managed to claw my way up to a middle income.

And it is now, again, that my dream of an education resurfaced; mostly, because I felt the harsh impact that not having an education has on life. Seeking employment as a trans person of colour is hard enough, doing this without even a high school diploma seemed at time an impossibility; truth be told, it has only been through the charity of others that I have managed to find jobs for the most part of my life. In the end, success is less a sign of hard work and commitment than it is a sign of having privilege that sets one ahead in life… sure, it is often hard work that will allow one to drive that privilege to heights, but without the privilege, hard work can sometimes feel (and simply be) futile. But I digress; back to my education: I have spent a lot of time trying to find ways to study in past years, with my first stop being the University of Cape Town. My work experience as an activist managed to get me support from academic staff to get recognition of previous learning, and possibly entrance to post-graduate programmes in either Public Health or Gender and Transformation; now, however, resources & bureaucracy would hold me back yet again.

Eventually I managed to gain entrance into an online Master’s programme at the University of Roehampton; I went in on the recommendation of a (cis) friend, and had all the hope that I might at least fulfil this one desire that I’ve had since I was a child: to have an education, any education really. One cannot underestimate the excitement; a degree, even an online degree, would finally be within my reach. With contributions from my place of employment I would even be able to afford it. It would finally mean, after years and years, that I would fulfil this mantra of “investing in your future” even though it had been long since I was “youth”. While I was initially sceptical about the validity of online degrees, this evaporated because of the sheer youthful excitement that I had once again found. Even more so, in doing it online, I would avoid all the face-to-face interactions that would require me to be on the defensive as a transgender person… Come to think of it, perhaps in my rekindled exuberance I was somewhat naïve.

This dream fast unravelled as bureaucratic nightmares unfolded. While I thought I could keep my studies separate from my life, and just go through and get my Master’s degree and move on, I was wrong; I thought that, since it was online, I could go through it without all the nonsense that being transgender brings, and I could not have been more wrong. All parts of my life interact and intersect, and soon reality caught up. It simply started with a sexual assault in an airport by security, which happened because they could not figure out my gender; they decided to find out… physically, and without warning… Such instances can shake one up to the core at times, and I came out of the experience with a mind that was unable to focus on anything for a while. My hope to keep things separate just didn’t pan out, as I had to inform the University of Roehampton that I would be unable to finish my current module as my assignments simply couldn’t take priority over what I was going through at that time. Yet, to find out that such reasons were not good enough to warrant mitigating circumstances for not being able to submit end-of-module assignments was a wake-up call to reality. The reality that in the end, they weren’t interested really in my wellbeing… I don’t know if this is further amplified because it is an online degree, but as “reputable” UK based university, I had – falsely – expected them to have some conscious when it came to these issues. In the end I had to simply “suck it up”, and move on. I applied for a leave of absence to get myself together again.

And thus we come to now, when I am redoing the module that I “failed” last year… To log on and to see that they changed their system, and had changed my name to my dead-name everywhere. Open to see to the instructor, changed in how it is addressed to me in emails, visible at every post and response I make in the online classroom… I tend to think that cisgender people don’t realise the humiliation and violence that such an action implies, yet when I applied I had been assured that the fact that I had not been able to change the gender and name on my identity document would not be a problem; I had been assured that my name would reflect properly… Yet now, I am even unable to engage in my studies without bearing the humiliation of a dead name. And again, reality strikes as there is no consideration from this university. At this point in time, to drop out would be an option that spares me the sheer violence that this academic endeavour puts upon me; whether I should is of course a different question, and one I have yet to answer.

It is not my desire to bore you with a pitiful story of how the deck was stacked against me, but I want to illustrate something: to access and education as a transperson can be a nightmare, in fact it often is. Trans people of colour don’t do “pity parties” as society so often wants us to believe, our stories aren’t an attempt at “oppression Olympics”; rather we have a keen understanding of the position we hold. I am not pessimistic, I am a realist when it comes to the specific challenges I face; those times that I embrace optimism, reality decides to remind me of how little a trans life is worth this day still. When friends asked me why I committed most of my spare time in October to December 2015 to #FeesMustFall, to a student movement, it wasn’t because I suddenly considered myself a “student”… But it is because there is no struggle that stands on its own, there is no struggle that is only relevant to a single demographic. It is because the fight for an education is an intersectional one, and one that is particularly relevant to any trans person out there, including myself. It is because any fight for a decolonised free education needs to understand the intersections of access to such an education.

As for the University of Roehampton… perhaps relating this would provide some warning for people to stay away from their online programme, though unless one is transgender, the reality of my experience would just ring hollow to most. Another lesson that life has taught me. Perhaps I’ll yet push through with my Master’s, or perhaps I’ll choose to leave the violence behind.






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