It can be rather depressing, spending time with students when you are approaching middle age. I remember when I was a student I felt so grown-up, such an adult, but more time has passed since then than my age at the time, and now as a 40-something they’re so young, and I feel so old in their company.
Something uplifting about today’s students though is their ability to do something I couldn’t nearly thirty years ago: come out of the closet if they are trans. They have their own challenges, but finding a path at least is more straightforward than it used to be. The Big Gay News at my university back in the day was adding a “B” to “L&G” to make an LGB committee. Trans people didn’t exist in Maggie’s Britain as far as the general public including me was concerned, and it was possible to number all of my student union’s out L,G, and B people in a medium sized house party. I know this because as a geeky engineering student it was often me who did their sound and light. Most of the rest of the Technical committee of which I was a member would not go near them, citing fears of being accosted for anal sex despite the glaringly obvious conclusion that none of them were of a type likely to be accosted for any kind of sex. Such was the casual homophobia of nearly three decades ago.
I made a lot of really good friends in my university’s LGB community, but the one thing I could never bring myself to do was come out to them. At the time, to have left the closet as a trans person would have exposed me to significant danger in my everyday life, and hostility or even abuse from the medical profession. I had to remain hidden for most of the next two decades before coming close to a breakdown forced me out of it.
It’s odd then in the last year or two to encounter students again in that context through attending Prides for my union and separately meeting the trans welfare group from my local university. Now the T and other letters proudly sit beside the LGB, though for convenience as an old fogey when it comes to the others I stick with LGBT+. Large numbers of trans people are able to come out at young ages, and they are not afraid to show themselves.
There’s one thing about these youngsters though, they seem by my observation to have among them a significantly large number of non-binary-identified people, while relatively fewer of them are binary-identified like me. It’s a stark contrast between those of my generation among my circle of older trans friends who all stumbled out of the closet in our 30s and 40s, we are nearly all very binary identified while they are not.
It’s the golden rule of talking about diversity: never speak for someone in another minority whose identity you don’t share. I can never speak about what it is like to be a person of colour, for instance, or a trans man, or a cis gay person. I thus can’t speculate on behalf of my young non-binary friends because I don’t share their experience, but I can apply my experience of being in the binary from back in the day to try to make sense of this generational shift.
It has been very interesting in recent months to make the first steps coming back to a new gender identity clinic most of a decade after originally being referred to one of the older ones. There is an obvious difference in the paperwork provided to new patients, gone is the rigid prescriptivism and instead a far more patient-centred approach takes centre stage. The explanation is in terms of WPATH guidelines, and for the first time ever in print from a medical source, I see mention of people with non-binary identities. What was deemed invalid and would have seen you denied treatment only a few years ago is now part of the mainstream, while when I first went to that clinic above a West London supermarket there was still some concern over attendance as a trans woman wearing trousers, now you are welcome at my new clinic whoever, you are.
So this begs the question, were the people in my generation who might now identify as non-binary were they twenty years younger pushed into binary identities by the expectations and establishment of their time?
It’s a difficult question to answer. Since it’s likely that the same percentage of people of my generation as the current one would have come out as non-binary had they had the chance it’s certain that some of them have been pushed into binary identities both trans and non trans. To understand why that is the case you have to go back to the life of a closeted trans teen in the 1980s.
Today, we have a frame of reference. There are trans* people in public, and you can find out everything you need to know online including that there are more identities than just male and female. In the 1980s, not so much. You might just have heard of Jan Morris or Caroline Cossey, but the narrative was one of tabloid horror stories, and there was no other information. Certainly nothing on trans men. Looking in a library was no help, LGBT books were something you’d only have found in a specialist bookshop in London somewhere if you’d known about it, which of course you didn’t.
So I’m guessing a lot of my generation had a lot of strife with relation to their identities. “I like wearing dresses but I’m a boy, I must be a pervert!” “Am I gay?” “No, I can’t be, I fancy girls!” “And I want to be a woman!” Being a closeted 1980s trans teen was hellishly confusing, making it out alive was an achievement in itself. When the only choices we were presented with were “Boy” or “Girl”, it’s hardly surprising that one of those would be where we ended up. To try to work out through the lens of nearly three decades whether at the time an identity that wasn’t on the list of choices might have been appropriate is impossible.
It’s better to look at today, and to the future. If you want a tangible measure of how far we trans* people have come as a community both in terms of social acceptance and access to treatment, look no further than the way our trans younger people are able to express themselves. It doesn’t matter where each of us places our own identities, that we are no longer a community bound by cisnormative boundaries matters, it shows we have the confidence to shape our own destinies.
And that, my friends, is a very good place to be indeed.