Queen’s University Belfast has launched a trans equality policy. The press release on the launch quotes three cis-white men, two from senior management and one from the full-time staff of the Students Union, commenting on the policy. One staggering absence is that not a single comment from a trans staff member or student is included in the press release. What are the opinions of trans staff and students about this policy? Were they sufficiently consulted when the policy was drawn?
This writer, the first trans woman to occupy a research title at the School of Politics (and perhaps in the rest of the university) was most definitely not approached. It is this writer’s fervent hope that other trans/queer staff and students were approached, and engaged with satisfactorily when the policy was drafted.
What is indeed commendable is the commitment of the Student’s Union to trans issues at Queen’s. However, it appears that paid employees in the university who are in charge of equality and diversity issues have chosen to release this policy NOT with the welfare of trans students and staff in mind, but as with Athena Swan in mind, to score some cheap points in internal and external evaluations, for form-filling purposes, and perhaps to include in the next Athena Swan evaluation.
As a trans woman who is on a research title, who has been a PhD student at Queen’s and also a Teaching Assistant in the past (and also worked in several universities elsewhere, in France and The Netherlands) this writer’s take is that this trans equality policy is a very linear, normative one, put together by people with a low understanding of trans issues, trans equality policies launched by other trans-friendly higher educational institutions elsewhere, and by people who wanted a basic guideline for the sake of having it. Just as with Athena Swan, they can then adumbrate ‘sure look how inclusive we are!!!’.
We don’t give a damn!
To narrate a little anecdote, this writer heard about the Student’s Union’s interest in trans issues and approached the Equality Office, as an additional staff card holder. Having experience in trans equality activism, being familiar with trans identity-related challenges from her own personal lived experience, and most of all, having built excellent networks and solidarities with people involved in launching trans and queer friendly/inclusive policy guidelines in other universities (especially in Canada), this writer proposed her services to the Equality Office, expressing an interest in contributing in any possible way for a future trans equality initiative.
There was no reply for a good while. This writer was not surprised, knowing from her lived experience that Queen’s University does not take international students and staff seriously, unless it involved collecting money, a photo opportunity or a similar tokenising venture. Then, there was a reply. In a message written by a staff member of the Equality Office, the sender of the reply implied either A) they do not understand English, or B) they did not read this writers’ message, or c) they do understand English and read this writer’s message but don’t give a damn about what was said in it.
This message did not respond, in any clear way, to this writer’s query, if not offer, to contribute in any way to a trans equality policy. Instead, what does this one-sentence email really imply? How can one deduce the message that this sentence carries, and the mentality of people who come up with such responses?
It is simply that this individual, or their office, does not wish to see this writer, or acknowledge her presence in the university structure. It is a clear indicator that they do not consider this writer, a trans woman who is a post-PhD academic with a pan-European education and professional experience, is suitable to contribute to the university’s trans equality policy. Whether the response to the same message would have been the same had this writer been a white local trans woman with the same profile and credentials is an open question.
Trans equality policy with holes in the bottom
The policy guideline totally lacks a much-needed intersectional focus. It is as if its drafters expected that a group of cis people drafting a policy guideline with ’local’ consultations (read trans support groups based in Northern Ireland) and using politically correct language would suffice. This is simply not true, and is grossly inadequate.
No trans/queer international students!
What the drafters of this trans policy especially forget is the fact that QUB is a Russell Group university. Whether some people who work for QUB like it or not, it is a place with an international staff and very especially student population. Not once does it state a single word about international students and staff, a category that includes highly qualified people who face routine discriminatory and racist and sexist attitudes from border officers, customs officers and even gatekeepers from the local Department of Agriculture (especially at Belfast airports), and indeed (when it comes to students from countries classified as ‘high immigration ‘risk’ places) from the QUB international office.
When you are trans/ queer and non-white, non-EU and have a passport from the global South, your options can get strictly limited, and in the UK, (and very especially in Northern Ireland) you are bound to face specific challenges. Gender self-determination, or to use [cis]parlance, ’transition’ can then become an everyday struggle of a specific sort, from being stigmatised even when flying domestically to numerous other everyday challenges and complications. If Queen’s were serious and sincere about having a workable and viable trans equality policy, it would recognise and address the genuine concerns of international staff and students. This trans equality guideline does not make a single reference to intersectionalities of discrimination, especially to protections that the university can make available to ‘protect’ trans/queer international students of colour if they are faced with multiple intersectional challenges – for example, when transphobia (coming from academic and ministrative and/or peer hierarchies) is couched with racial biases. This trans equality policy does not make a single reference to the specific issues of being trans/queer and a person of colour (and an international student/staff member) in the local context of Queen’s and Northern Ireland, and what the university is prepared to do to assist international students and staff, who make a tremendous contribution to the university’s global profile and financial strength.
Insufficient Evocation of Trans Health Issues and Related Challenges in Northern Ireland
The Trans Equality Policy also does not include any guidelines about trans health, which cannot be separated from reproductive health, and indeed, the existing restrictions on reproductive justice in Northern Ireland. Many cis, trans, nonbinary and other gender-plural students coming to Northern Ireland from outside Northern Ireland (including from other constituent parts of the UK) are insufficiently familiar with Northern Ireland’s draconian reproductive health policies, and it is important to include clear guidelines on such issues in a trans equality policy, especially when it targets the student community.
A trans/queer student going through their process of gender self-determination, and especially an international student going through these processes, do not get the information they need to know when reading this Policy Document. It does not sufficiently explain to them how their specific issues and concerns will be diligently addressed and covered by the university’s Trans Equality Policy. Instead, a student reading the recently released document is most likely to feel like eating bland and tasteless food.
Most importantly, this trans equality policy guideline does not provide a single indication of what mechanisms are in place, or will be put in place, to promote trans awareness in the university, and to enhance trans visibility and acceptance (this excludes the ongoing commendable work of the Student’s Union. This writer is referring to the HR Office, Equality & Diversity Office, International Office and other official divisions of the university).
It is not rocket science that a place with its fair share of prejudices and systemic discriminatory dynamics won’t wake up to trans issues out of the blue. It is crucial to link trans equality and justice in the professional and academic spheres with related challenges of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, [dis]ability, accent-related stereotyping, discrimination and microaggressions. It is extremely important to make the trans equality policy relevant to the specific challenges that are faced by international students and staff in the local context of Northern Ireland.
This trans equality policy, as we are talking about a high-profile (and apparently cosmopolitan and world-leading!!!) Russell Group university, is not worth the paper it is printed on. It is, however, great as a propaganda and form-filling venture.