Four years ago I embarked on the most terrifying endeavor of my young adult life: starting college. As I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see tons of my underclassmen friends posting selfies of their first walk of the year to the Ruane building for classes, videos from the Providence College page of move-in day, statuses from my graduated class wishing the Freshman class luck, and my TimeHop picture of me in my first dorm room in McVinney. That last one isn’t such a happy memory. I knew I wanted to cut my hair but couldn’t, I knew I needed a binder, and I knew I was embarking on an even more terrifying moment in my life: coming out as transgender. In college. At a Catholic (therefore, not the most accepting of gender identity) college.
My college experience was very different (but also not that different) from a cisgender Freshman’s experience. Which is why this is my “To the Class of 2020” status to those who I can really relate to. To those who need a “status” geared towards them. Here is some advice and maybe surprisingly, some solace.
Let me begin with a twist on the cliche given to our cisgender counterparts: These are going to be the worst four years of your life. These are going to be the best four years of your life. Listen to me, your TransDad, when I tell you concentrate on that second one. There will be days that will -pardon my language- fucking suck. There will be days when your dysphoria (if you have it) is so bad you need to stay in bed, yet your friends are watching LOTR or hanging out around campus and you are upset because you’re missing from those memories now. You will have professors who misgender you in front of the class and you were too afraid to correct them. People may not know how to approach you at first. You may give up doing school work on a night you really had to because you were searching the trans tags on Tumblr again. Hell, your birth name could get called as you walk across the stage during graduation.
However, do not let those taint the overwhelmingly amazing time you’re about to have. My beautiful, wonderful, intelligent, transgender child of mine, you’re going to learn so much, meet the best friends you will ever have in your entire life, you’re going to feel 100% yourself, and the future’s so bright for you. Yes, you. I promise you it is. Don’t let the shit of the media, those who don’t accept you (no matter if they’re your family or not) or bad days take any of that away from you.
That’s the most important (and emotional) part. But here are some basic survival tips:
Orientation: The stuff seems stupid, I know. It’s like weird finger painting stuff. You feel like these emails from Campus Events are treating you like a small child, but really, they’re just doing the small talk portion of making friends for you. Go to them! If you’re nervous about finding accepting people, find an event that’s fandom-like or go to the involvement fair to talk to your LGBT group. I met my best friends (some of whom also fall on the LGBT spectrum, even the gender spectrum) through a showing of the Avengers on the quad. I almost didn’t go because I was afraid. It’s okay to be afraid other times, during orientation however, be as brave as you can. Go to the stupid finger painting events. You’ll meet people.
Meeting People: Out or not out, this may be scary for you. If you’re out, introduce yourself as yourself. Give your pronouns then ask the person you’re talking to theirs. If they’re rude about it, they wouldn’t have been a very good friend anyways. If they accept the exchange or even if they’re curious (genuinely, open-mindedly curious, beware of bullshit curiosity.) then you’ve met a probable good person who could become a friend.
For those not out, you could come out right there or wait. (I waited, because I wanted my hair cut first and a binder. But that was my own personal need. You may be different and that’s super okay!) When I first came out, I used a shortened androgynous version of my birth name. It is okay to not have a name yet or to wait until you’re ready. Don’t be anxious about them not accepting you when you do come out. They’ve only known you a little while, therefore the change won’t be as scary as you think it might be for them. Plus this is about you, not about anyone else. People are going to be more open minded than you think.
Coming Out: If you have to do this, ease yourself into it. Start a conversation about gender or LGBT issues. See how your friends react and which one of them seems the most informed. Talk to your friends and educate them on the issues in this neutral place. Then if you’re ready, find just one of your friends you feel the most comfortable with. Have dinner alone with them, invite them for coffee, catch them between classes where you can talk. Ask if you can confide in them and explain how you feel, how you identify, what name you’re trying out or have chosen, etc. You don’t necessarily have to come out to all your friends like this. Maybe you’re comfortable enough to sit all of them down and come out at once. Or perhaps you’re like me, where after confiding in said person, you just let them come out for you by talking to everyone else. I’m a passive person and I really don’t suggest doing this. While it worked out okay in the end, there was a lot of confusion for a really long time before everyone understood. If I didn’t get nervous after that initial step, I probably would have either came out to the rest of my friend group at once (if you have one of those) or individually continued to come out (which is sort of stressful).
Rooming: If you can, ask for a single if that would make you the most comfortable. I was very lucky I had the best, accepting roommate. The truth, not everyone is that lucky. Cis people included. Talk to housing to see if there’s a situation that would work for you; either having a single or trying to live with roommates of your gender. If you’re not out in the beginning like I was, you could try coming out to your roommate if you get along well with them. If not, try living with them but not being out. Don’t be afraid of switching rooms if you’re uncomfortable with the situation you’re in. Talk to housing about the issue. Some housing folks are very Trans friendly. Others may need a bit of guidance. I was the first pre-transitioned trans masculine person on the Dude side of our single dorm my Senior year. They had a lot of out-dated trans rules that me and some other folks were helping to change during our time at PC. You could be that person too! It’s a good feeling.
Bathrooms: If you’re school was like mine, it’s hard to find a bathroom you’re 100% comfortable in. When I was living in the Girl’s dorms, I referred to it as “the walk of shame”. Take comfort in the fact that all Freshman bathrooms are shitty. So like, even if you were using the bathroom you belong in, it’d still be an uncomfortable experience.
Joking aside, find times to shower or use the bathroom when you know other people wouldn’t be around. Between classes, the earliest of mornings, or the latest ungodly hour of night is always the best time. I’d shower during my breaks or when I was up late finishing assignments. For trans feminine friends, my femme trans boys, or non-binary pals, try setting up make-up stations in your room. (Besides, there’s not much space for good make-up-ing in the bathroom anyways).
Public bathrooms were like anywhere else. However, a lot of colleges have a few single stall ones. If you can find that single stall beauty, utilize that sucker. If it is across campus and you have 15 minutes to pee before your next class in that building you’re currently stationed in that is horribly single-stall less, maybe wait until someone comes out then go in. Or go during class. Surprisingly, not many people are peeing during class. (And in college, most of the time, you can just stand up, walk out and pee instead of asking or signing out. It’s SO weird, but you get used to it. And it’s awesome if you have anxiety about the whole “asking to pee” thing. Thanks, college!)
Binding, Tucking, and All the Uncomfortable Things We Do: If you are in pain or having dysphoria, breaks between classes are your friend. Use them well. Run back to your room, strip yourself of the evil, and crawl into bed and take a nap to feel better. And like, that goes for if you’re just tired, having a bad day or anything else too. You can do homework between classes now and it’s smiled upon instead of frowned upon. You can play PokemonGo in that weird one hour gap between Bio and Lit Crit. Also, eat the food. Use this time for fooding. College scheduling is magic. Utilize it well.
BUT if you are in pain and have to be in class or at a meeting, or activity, or the sport, etc., etc, everyone looks grimy most of the time. Don’t feel guilty for going binder commando during class or wearing heavy sweatshirts or sweatpants. It’s 8 AM, you’re in Civ, your friend punctured a hole in your coffee cup so it’s undrinkable now and you’re in the front row of lecture, AND you’re in pain. No one’s looking at you. We’re all miserable and feel like shit. The cis wouldn’t want to not be breathing during such a hell scape either.
Class: Speaking of the hell scape, if your school doesn’t have ways of changing your birth name to your preferred name on the roster, I recommend emailing your professor. It can be a scary feeling not knowing their level of acceptance, however, colleges are known for a more liberal outlook, thus it’s more likely the professor will accept you than not. Also, if they don’t accept you, they’re most likely not going to say anything or do anything. It could get them in trouble for not accepting your name and pronoun change. I personally haven’t had a problem with this, but if you do, definitely talk to someone about it. Either go to what diversity or LGBT resources you have on campus for help or even your Dean. But as I said, don’t stress too much about this. Most likely the professor is going to be excellent and willing to learn about trans issues and have your best interest in mind. You, as a student, already have so much on your plate to stress about.
In the email itself, say something to the effect of, “Hi Professor ____, On the roster / attendance sheet my name appears as *insert birth name here* However, I prefer to be called / am called *name here* and use *insert pronouns here*. Thank you! If you have any questions, feel free to ask.” It’s simple and quick. No need for a long explanation unless they ask any further questions.
Partying: The even worse hell scape. My school (I’m sure yours too) has a reputation for nightlife. And whether or not you’re excited about it or are denying you’ll ever end up in this place, you need to know about it. You will end up at a party, deniers. I’m sorry. Even if you don’t drink, you’re going to encounter drunks at 12 am coming back from the library. And if you do drink, don’t be ashamed! It’s the experience. Just be careful. Go with friends, never alone. Throwing up happens, but don’t let it get past that. Just think with your head. You do not want to get transported for numerous reasons: 1. Your health. 2. Your school will not be pleasant towards you if you do. There’s academic consequences at most schools.
Just be smart and I can’t emphasize this enough, stay with friends. Let people know where you are. If you’re in a situation, please call someone. People get weird when drunk and no one deserves to be taken advantage of. People aren’t as accepting when they’re drunk.
Parents: They’re complex when a bird leaves the nest, but when you’re freshly out as trans or coming out as trans…oh boy. I wish I had better advice for this category. It’s one in post-grad I’m still struggling with. If they’re accepting, AWESOME. That’s fantastic! A + + to your family. If you’re unlucky like me, well, that’s complicated. It often feels like you’re living two lives. One is a pseudo-lie, uncomfortable, but it makes your parents happy. The other, it’s you and you want to love you. But loving you feels guilty, being happy that you’re you feels guilty because that happiness, that assertion of YOU makes your parents sad. Winter breaks are hell. I’ve been there. Try not to let them ruin your happiness. Tell your friends about that horrible thing your dad said to you on the phone so they can laugh, then assure you there’s absolutely nothing you should feel guilty for. Love yourself. Your parents, I hope, will come around. But do not (please, do not) let their processing of your transgender journey ruin you. No one deserves that feeling. Talk to people. Treat yourself during these hard days.
Just Little Wrap Up Things: This is trans and cis advice, but it is important to hear it another thousandth time. No, trust me, you’re not stupid for seeking help. College is the next level of academia. Everyone needs help and you should not feel ashamed for using what the school offers. It’s being offered for a reason, after all. GO to tutoring sessions, ask that question, and go to office hours. I wish I did this more, really.
Also, talk to your professors about stuff other than school work, if time allows it. Some of the most meaningful conversations were with professors and getting to know them is wonderful. One of the reasons I miss PC so much is because the English Department there was filled with the best people. Build a relationship with your professors; having adults around you that know you well really helps.
Do activities. Join clubs. Trust me. They actually are weirdly helpful on a resume (experience as a radio DJ has taken me far, surprisingly) and you meet people as well as find new interests. Do not be afraid to try new things. Your hobbies will change and you will develop new ones.
At the same time, don’t feel guilty about having to pick and choose between hobbies. You may want to try everything, but there’s only 24 hours in a day. Most of that’s going to school stuff, shrieking about school stuff and sleeping. Give yourself a rest.
I’m sure there’s questions, individual situations I cannot tackle, and anxieties any Freshman reading this wants to let out or to be answered. Honestly, I could write a whole book. Therefore, if you need help from a trans person who has been through this, email me. Please. My email is email@example.com. My name is Konner, I was an English Major, I’m now getting my MFA in Poetry. I’m a trans dude, I like dogs, and I want to be a college professor someday. It’s good to have someone you can turn to for advice. I offer up myself because I wish I had someone like me when I was your age. Best of luck, small Freshman child and remember, TransDad is only an email away if you have questions or just need a friend. You’re going to have a great time, I promise.