My alma mater, Brighton College, recently introduced a new uniform rule to accommodate transgender students, which made it the first college in the country to give all students the choice between either trousers and a shirt or a skirt and a blouse, regardless of their gender. Richard Cairns, the headmaster, said in an interview with the BBC World Service: “If there are children or youngsters or teenagers in a community who feel that they are somehow not allowed to be themselves, then that undermines their performance.” Under this assumption, he introduced the new rule in order to make sure that all students “feel valued as individuals.”
However, although Mr Cairns noted that this change was “widely welcomed in the school community,” the response outside of the college has not been entirely positive. There were several negative comments posted in response to online articles announcing the new rule, and one woman even made a YouTube video criticizing it. Such feedback proves that, though the concepts of cultural gender norms have recently been challenged in the media by celebrities such as Caitlyn Jenner and films such as The Danish Girl, many people are still hesitant to accept any deviation from the binary categorization of male and female.
This episode made me reflect on the state of affairs at the other end of the country, in our own community at the University of St Andrews. At an educational institution where there are no formal obligations to dress or play sports according to a gender, are gender norms still relevant to our community? According to Jacob Williams, the Sexualities and Gender Officer for Saint LGBT+, they are. He says: “Unfortunately, in St Andrews at least, cultural norms with regards to gender identity and expression still exist and are quite prevalent – it is an ongoing task to try to and challenge the wider community to be more accepting of individuals who do not conform to stereotypes.” Indeed, Chris Walker, the Outreach Officer for Saints LGBT+, told The Saint: “Even outside of the debate over isolated gender norms (male or female), as a gay man I encounter on a regular basis ignorance within the community about masculinity, heteronormativity, and all that stuff.” He adds that “a lot of people tend to get turned off by discussions of gender, or think it’s all a load of political correctness rubbish, but if you actually look into it you start to see how these social issues really do affect people’s lives on a daily basis, particularly within the LGBT+ community.”
Such issues surrounding the discussion of gender are compounded by confusion over appropriate terminology. As Thadd Hall, the Socials Officer for Saints LGBT+ notes: “In Western society especially the understanding of gender has always been rather prescriptionist and understood in incredibly dichotomous terms, with few exceptions made for those who do not conform to those standards.” However, Mx Hall points out that there are ways to bridge the gap between these terms: “In many Western languages, there is the ‘he’ and ‘she’, and some in English have tried bridging this gap by coining neologisms, such as ‘xe/ze’, or applying the sole pronoun without a gender connotation, ‘they.’” Mx Hall is an advocate of using ‘they’ singularly, stating that it is a “perfectly acceptable, non-neologistic answer to this gap in the English language, and, of course, language changes, so even if it were non-traditional, it is a reasonable evolution.” Mx Hall adds: “It also stays within the linguistic patterns set up by pronouns in the English language and so prevents the learning of new words like ‘xe/ze’. Overall, it is more convenient and no more subject to ambiguity than the average pronoun.”
Further to these conceptual uncertainties surrounding language and terminology, the issue of gendered facilities is one that is currently being debated in universities up and down the country.
At the moment there are no facilities within the University of St Andrews that have been specifically designated as gender neutral, something that Mr Williams is hoping to change. “We have been working on proposals for gender neutral facilities for a couple years, and ideally this is something we would already have in place,” he says. This is a change that would be welcomed by Mx Hall, who says: “I would love for gender neutral toilets that do not feel like I am coopting a disabled space that someone from that community may actually require in the time I am using it and that didn’t feel like… a way of shepherding us away from cis people into a solitary stall. I would like [if] trans and nonconforming people [were] seen as just as normal as those who are not. Allowing us to go into a bathroom that is not a single stall would at least help us feel less ostracised.”
In spite of these continuing issues, Mr Williams does suggest that recent events have helped to improve the acceptance and understanding of students at the University. “I think with the success of events such as dRag Walk we are gradually seeing a reduction in the importance of socially imposed norms,” he says. Indeed, tickets for this year’s Glitterball, hosted by the LGBT+ committee, sold out in minutes and suggest that such events are attracting interest from students far and wide.
In addition to improving attitudes in the wider community, the LGBT+ events this year have also helped to enhance the society itself. Mr Walker says: “The LGBT+ Committee’s events this year have been generally very well received, particularly our week-long QueerFest celebrations, which I think allowed a lot more people to feel part of the community than had done previously.” He points to the Pride Parade and the event with transgender speaker Grace Oni Smith as major breakthroughs for the Society during these celebrations, adding: “We still have a long way to go to reach out to everyone, but I think we’ve made some pretty bold steps this year.”
Although the St Andrews LGBT+ society may still have things it hopes to accomplish, it currently constitutes a stellar example to the rest of the community with regards to acceptance and support because, as Mx Hall points out, “everyone is truly welcome.”
One student, Mr Walker, told The Saint: “Getting involved with the LGBT+ community here in St Andrews has opened my eyes up to a whole range of issues, especially regarding gender.” He adds: “Coming from a very socially conservative country (Northern Ireland) and growing up in a climate where discussion on sexuality and gender is very much repressed, to be able to engage with people about those sorts of issues has been a really positive thing for me.” Another student who has had a similar experience is Mx Hall. “I come from a very conservative state in the middle of nowhere”, and so joining “such an inclusive sphere really has made my university experience so far so much more enjoyable.” In short, as Mr Williams points out, being involved with Saints LGBT+ is “a process of always learning to become more accepting and understanding.”
Indeed, Mr Williams notes that the LGBT+ society is constantly striving to educate other students, saying: “The key thing to do is to inform through any avenue we can – be it a poster or social media campaign or smaller events put on to raise awareness.” Such initiatives have the ability to make a big difference within our community, especially considering that it is one where most students hold progressive attitudes and are open to new ideas. Including ones about clothes. Mx Hall says: “There is always the idea of the ‘St Andrews Outfit,’ with the Ray Bans and heels for women and the tweed and red trousers for men, but I’ve always found this to be more myth than anything. At least in the circles I frequent, everyone is fairly accepting of what people wear, be it outrageous shirts, PVC skirts or anything in between, anyone can wear anything.” While some misconceptions about gender within our community remain, the openness of which Mx Hall speaks suggests that there is potential for this to change. The sooner, the better.
To find out more about Saints LGBT+, join their Facebook group or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (Recipients of Saints LGBT emails are anonymous.)