Courageous Conversations

The Doctoral College provides a safe space for PGRs to ask members of our LGBTQI+ community a few questions to improve understanding and awareness of EDI matters and diverse experiences at Surrey. Here we share the questions and answers. Thank you to everyone who participated.

QUESTION – It seems like University of Surrey has done a lot for LGBTQI+ people already. We have the rainbow crossing for example. What more would the community like to see happen?

The university does so much more than the rainbow crossing for its LGBTQI+ staff and students from little things like social events via the LGBTQI+ Equality Group and Rainbow Allies Network for staff and PGR students and the SU’s LGBT+ Society for all students, to marking important days such as having vigils for Trans Day of Remembrance and continually reviewing internal policy. There are areas where the university does unfortunately fall short. For example, in theory changing a student’s name is a very minor task, however in the 2021/22 academic year when I was LGBT+ Society’s Trans & Non-Binary Students’ Officer, I noticed an artificial layer of bureaucracy had built up around this process and many of the people who, in principle, could solve this problem were just not aware of this. This was particularly disappointing as one of my DTC co-directors was very good about swiftly getting my name changed on the uni system before I even arrived in Surrey, so I assumed there would be no problems with this process as a result. Charlotte Vale (they/she), PhD candidate in the Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre (also LGBT+ Society’s 2021/22 Trans & Non-Binary Students’ Officer and 2022/23 Postgraduate Students’ Officer)

The rainbow crossing is good for showing that queer life is everywhere, however, it doesn’t directly address the main problem against the community which is people being uneducated about LGBTQI+ lives as whenever people have prejudice against us, it’s not based on an educated opinion. The university should ensure the students are educated about the LGBTQI+ community enough to make everyone feel more comfortable. Student 2

I would like to see Wellbeing services specific to the LGBTQI+ community. There are already some including a counsellor who specializes in LGBTQI+. However, this service should be expanded. The University can also make a conscious effort on pronouns – spreading awareness of sharing pronouns for example, and the use of neutral language. Student 3

Even though I appreciate the rainbow crossing, seeing more rainbows around the campus would be good, since it signals more visibility. Moreover, I would like to see the university giving people free pronoun or ally badges. I would also like to see more information on important LGBTQAI+ figures and history distributed throughout campus. Lara (she/her)

Note from EDI  – pronoun badges are available from the Student Union and badges are now available for staff too.

The addition of the rainbow crossing and boosting of LGBT+ visibility on campus as a whole, with rainbow lanyards and pronoun pins etc, has been great to see in recent years. Visible signs of support like those are always appreciated. From the University’s side there could be further engagement in events such as pride month/history month, and in particular visibility days throughout the year. Beyond symbolism and signs of support, improvements could also be made around some University admin and structure. For example, the method for changing preferred name here is incredibly simple and easy to do by yourself. But changing names on the student records is presently somewhat convoluted and could be fast-tracked. Rose (she/her)

Note from EDI – if a person does face difficulty when negotiating name changes with staff in central spaces, please contact the University EDI team to report this. Researchers can also contact EDI champions and leads within their faculties for support.

QUESTION – What if you accidentally end up slipping into using normative language and upset a non-binary person? Am I likely to be forgiven? What is the best thing to do if that happens? 

You just provide a very quick, sincere apology and move on trying to not repeat the mistake in future. Accept that the person may well be upset but don’t over-apologise, that’s embarrassing for everyone involved. No one is actively waiting for you to slip up to hold it over you. Narratives such as: “I feel like I can’t say anything anymore” etc., are actually quite insulting – the implication is that people are getting upset for the sake of it and you’re just centring yourself rather than accepting the fallibility of being human and trying to learn. Charlotte Vale (they/she), PhD candidate in the Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre (also LGBT+ Society’s 2021/22 Trans & Non-Binary Students’ Officer and 2022/23 Postgraduate Students’ Officer)

If you ask for forgiveness, it is very likely you’ll get it but like in most situations, actions speak louder than words, make sure you practise using the correct pronouns for the non-binary person, there are multiple free resources you can search to help you too. Student 2

I am not non-binary, and thus I will give an answer from the perspective of the person who’s made the mistake. It is important to emphasise that you should always listen to non-binary people first and foremost about this. If I were to slip and accidentally use normative language with a non-binary person, I would correct my mistake and apologise. Whether they forgive me is up to them, and I would make a conscious effort to not make this mistake again. For me, the best thing to do if this happens is to own up to your mistake – don’t try to ignore that you slipped. Be honest, apologise and do better next time. Student 3

Just apologising and correcting mistakes is often enough. Making an effort to get it right in the aftermath is always a good idea and will likely be appreciated and ease any awkwardness or upset. If you’re unsure about what language may upset someone it’s always worth asking directly. Rose

Unless you are also harming the individual in other contexts and not repeatedly misgendering them, I think it is likely you will be forgiven. However, every non-binary person is different and will have varying experiences, so don’t expect them to react the same as another no-binary person you may know. Don’t make a big fuss about it if you do slip up – this may cause the individual further embarrassment (and it’s also just kind of annoying?). Don’t make the situation about you, or over-apologise etc. Just quickly apologise, correct yourself and move on. The person may want to talk about it with you, and I would suggest being open to this discussion. Sarah

QUESTION – I have lots of questions about trans people but I know it’s not right to mine a trans person for information. Where can I go to find out more in a non-judgemental space?

My answer to this is likely to be heterodox among the trans community: ask me! This does not mean you should ask every trans person, I take this approach as I am acutely aware that for most people I’m probably the first trans person they’ve met so I’m very open to questions and know my boundaries. I would ask you to think about the nature of your question though – is this something you would be happy to answer if someone asked a similar question about you? Other responses provide more answers to this than simply “ask Charlotte Vale”. Charlotte Vale (they/she), PhD candidate in the Quantum Biology Doctoral Training Centre (also LGBT+ Society’s 2021/22 Trans & Non-Binary Students’ Officer and 2022/23 Postgraduate Students’ Officer)

Whenever you have questions about anyone, you should first ask if they’re comfortable answering them or when a good time would be. Some questions can be very invasive and make them uncomfortable so be careful. There are multiple books, articles etc. where you can educate yourself, just keep an eye out for recommendations, surround yourself with queer and trans creators you like and you will find places where you can educate yourself. I’ve found personal stories are always better so even things like going on instagram and finding a trans influencer can work. Student 2

A quick google search of ‘transgender’ or ‘LGBTQI+’ will do the trick. There are multiple organizations out there that have FAQs and information on all things LGBTQI+. Student 3

There are plenty of resources online answering common questions, and even some forums where more specific questions can be put to trans peoples. For more in-depth information you may be able to find books or articles on whatever aspect you’d like to learn more about. Rose

I would recommend checking out the plethora of published information on this topic – some great publications include Uncomfortable Labels by Laura Kate Dale, The Transgender Issue by Shon Faye, Trans Like Me by CN Lester, Non-Binary Lives: An Anthology of Intersecting Identities (multiple editors), and Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg. Maybe think about what your questions are and why you want answers to them. What will any answers change about the way you treat trans and non-binary people in your life? Sarah