Zinnia’s notes on college: The queer campus is all right

Zinnia Jones

Dear diary: I made new friends! My last update on going to college as an adult learner was a generally hopeless wail of despair from a fairly dark place: central Florida at the height of its most recent pandemic wave, facing unavoidable exposure at a state university that’s shown no efforts to make in-person attendance any safer. After another month of this, my outlook and attitude have somehow improved, even if the primary concern in this situation has not meaningfully changed. I still sometimes become anxious and tense on the day or night before classes, but it’s not as strong, and just being able to recognize what this is and point it out helps to blunt its impact. I’ve been spending more time on campus when possible, staying outdoors and exploring the grounds before and after class, and I’ve become less on edge over time. I’ve also found something I didn’t have last month, something that helps to balance out the ever-present risks and make being present there worthwhile. I found my people – a group of people I can trust enough to make a connection even in an environment where someone’s untrustworthiness can prove lethal.

I’ve conducted most of my LGBT-related work and outreach online and I’ve rarely been involved with the communities here in Orlando, or in Chicago before that. Most groups and organizations around here have been more broadly LGBT-focused with very few if any trans people involved. I’m also still just a basically shy person who doesn’t always make friends easily. Being a part of activities meant experiencing that same sense of being the only trans person in the room that I would always feel anywhere else too, so participation in that community actually meant feeling more alone.

Not so at the university’s pride group, a sizable club where everyone has substantial representation. This is my first time participating in such a group, and my first time experiencing routinely being in a room with several other transfems as we all happen to coalesce in a corner together. It’s impossible for me to feel that sense of aloneness here at all. I suspect the same would be the case for others: there are many trans men and transmasculine nonbinary people, and just as many gay, lesbian, and bisexual cis people overall. No letter of the alphabet seems to predominate.

If you don’t yet have any firsthand experience of campus LGBT organizations, what you hear about them will likely include depictions of cancellation-hungry blue-haired social justice warriors terrorizing the campus and surrounding community with no-platforming campaigns and an intolerant puritanism targeting their own as often as outsiders, or narratives from anti-trans advocates about colleges as a site of mass transgender recruitment contrary to the wishes of parents.  This isn’t either of those things. This is a support group. It’s a place for people to introduce themselves, get to know one another, and talk about their experiences and what this has meant in the context of their sexuality or gender. Yes, they can get you your first binder, yes, they know about Transgenderteensurvivalguide, yes, I already helped someone find an HRT provider, yes, I’m not even the only one draped in Satanic symbols – there’s a lot going on here that transphobes and conservatives wouldn’t be happy about.

But it’s that shared background of commonplace disapproval that looms large over the meetings, and it’s part of what brings us together. This is an opportunity to compare notes on our experiences, often experiences of how the other people in our lives have chosen to treat us, and learning how many of them use the same tactics and approaches against us: concealment of one’s identity from elderly relatives, denial of even the possibility of trans existence, remarkably specific invalidations of bisexuality. For many, it’s the same story of experiencing their entire childhood in an environment where queer and trans people simply weren’t present as anything other than an insulting reference, with no information that could help them begin to understand who they are and certainly no one willing to hear them and listen. All they were taught is that this is something they aren’t. Then it turned out that they are.

This is still extraordinarily common. There is an overwhelming contingent of the membership whose families, typically for reasons of religion or politics, are fundamentally opposed to and unsupportive of everything they are. It’s a natural response for people to come to these groups as a support-seeking behavior when support from their family and community is lacking. And this isn’t a group of people who were ever seeking to spur conflict in their families. This is just as painful for them, even as they would have preferred for this to be peaceful; many of them even continue to follow a liberal Christianity.

I would especially like to emphasize that being here has meant getting to see the other side of the stories offered by transphobic parents who reject and disbelieve their trans children. It’s immediately evident beyond a doubt that the trans people here know their own needs very well – and they know exactly what their unsupportive family is trying to do. They relay the same experiences as they face the same struggles and the same rejections recited verbatim from their families as if from the same sources and texts. They are the casualties at societal transphobia’s front lines. Is it any surprise that just being around others like us, knowing there are more people like you out there, knowing you’re recognized and accepted for who you are, is so refreshing? I always feel better because these meetings are affirming to my basic existence as a social person.

Yes, there are some slightly different group norms and practices to learn from the mostly gen Z membership, like snapping instead of clapping to respect sensory sensitivities and passing around stimming objects. There are also some things that aren’t so different, like the group’s policy of being a more open space than a safe space, with the caveats that if you say something inadvertently offensive you can walk it back and if someone else says something offensive you can point it out – or as I call this, having a normal and polite conversation.

Others have highlighted a supposed tendency among younger people to be more ambiguous in their use of labels for sexuality and gender. Something like this does occur: as we introduce ourselves with names and pronouns, most people are very clear on theirs, while some people will openly talk about how they aren’t entirely certain or fixed, or they will explain that it’s something they’re still working on figuring out. Some do use the language of “blurry sets” where there aren’t hard and fast category boundaries or even logical relations – but this is still done as an honest attempt at describing themselves as best they can.

These attempts with their imperfect language are an alternative to silence, an opportunity to work this out in the open with the support of others who are similarly situated, rather than the traditional solitary task of private contemplation of one’s identity which all too often ends only in confusion. Some things are a little new and different here, but not so different as to set you apart or mark this as permanently incomprehensible and inaccessible to you. Things make more sense here than almost anywhere I’ve ever been. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender sociology, public health, psychiatry, history of medicine, cognitive science, the social processes of science, transgender feminism, and human rights, taking an analytic approach that intersects these many perspectives and is guided by the lived experiences of transgender people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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