What it's like for gender minority students in Ireland

From housing discrimination, not enough mental health support to deadnaming, the realities for trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming students can be difficult.

A young man seen from behind raises his hand in a crowded classroom

Gender minority students in third-level education are facing a range of issues from administrative barriers to healthcare accessibility, according to a recently published resource guide.

Almost half of all students reported that their institution of higher education had limited gender options on forms, while close to a third had difficulties changing their gender marker.

UCC student, Sam Kelly, was able to take advantage of a new gender recognition act implemented by their college. The act now allows pupils to change their name on their student card without a deed poll. “This helped deal with a lot of accidental deadnaming or confusion with staff when it came to handing in essays or sitting my exams,” Kelly said.

However, the implementation has not been perfect – according to Kelly, his old name continues to pop up in unexpected places, making his life more difficult. “I recently received funding from college to help with some financial difficulties to finish my degree, and even cashing the cheque was near impossible due to my name and gender in UCC documentation being one thing, and my legal name on my bank account being another.”

“There is always a new hurdle or inconvenience waiting to pounce on you, forcing you to have the same uncomfortable and awkward conversation for the millionth time,” Kelly continued.

One of the resource guide’s authors, Dr Conor Buggy, explained that these mix-ups often occur as universities are attempting to merge a variety of information systems – from registration, to grades, to student achievements. “Lots of universities are using old software,” he said. Even staff members aren’t exempt from this issue according to Buggy.

That said, life can be even more difficult for non-binary students, with many colleges not offering a third gender option. Former student Avery worked on their college’s gender identity policy and thankfully had their pronouns respected by staff members. However, their experience with the college’s internship programme was not as pleasant. They went into the office to explain why they wished to apply for internships under a different name than the one in their registry file. “I was met with a cold and dry ‘why?’ before they actually added my name to my file which was rather uncomfortable,” they said.

Many student accommodation services are also segregated by gender – which in effect means non-binary students must go back in the closet to avail of these services.

The study – which was partnered by TENI and the RCSI – showed that over a fifth of respondents said finding safe housing negatively impacted their academic life. Granted, 45 % of them also reported that they lived with their family – though this may be affected by other factors such as the current housing crisis.

Due to the crisis, Kelly knows many gender minority students who would be careful about disclosing their trans status to any potential landlords. “Finding accommodation is hard enough with how little is available, and with such a high demand. Anything that could hurt your chances of securing a place when dealing with generally older landlords is something you would hide,” he said.

UCD student Erin was evicted three times – including once for informing the landlord of her epilepsy. As she generally rents in digs, she would have less protection than most tenants and thus constantly has a lot of anxiety about her living situation. “Added in with racial profiling and the lack of supports for migrants, the best I can hope for in regards to my gender identity is to suffer in silence,” she said.

Almost four in five gender minority students reported mental health or medical issues negatively affecting their performance in college. In addition, rates of mental and chronic illnesses were considerably higher in trans and non-binary students when compared with the general population.

For Erin, being trans has significantly affected her college experience. “It’s given me lots of dysphoria which heavily affects my interaction with the world and myself,” she said. “Imagine every thought of every waking moment pregnant with self-doubt and anxiety, just questioning your presentation and voice and choices and identity.”

While many Irish colleges offer free counselling, Kelly explained that the service is in very high demand but is not equipped to deal with that. Though that applies to the whole student body, Kelly said that being trans often only complicates matters more. “One of the problems with seeking help for mental health as a trans student is that every place falls short and expects the other to pick up the slack,” he said. “It feels like a back and forth between the HSE, my GP and my college of ‘not my job, the others will take care of this part’.”

Dr Chris Chevallier, lead author of the NFX study, said this lack of understanding can often lead to further marginalisation. “[Gender minority students] are afraid of being re-victimised by mental health practitioners,” they said.

Chevallier said mental health practitioners and GPs should actively identify themselves as LGBT+ positive so as to foster a safe space. They explained that lecturers should follow suit, and even go so far as to include that information in their syllabus, along with their pronouns.

While trans and non-binary students face many barriers, Chevallier said some of these can be overcome. They emphasised the need for a “simplified, not medicalised” gender policy. One which is clear and available for public scrutiny.

While the study’s respondents generally reported that their experience in college was between neutral and slightly positive, there is still a lot to be done. From changes in universities – like more gender neutral bathrooms or a third gender option – to societal changes, like the housing crisis.

As Kelly said: “There’s just no framework in place yet for dealing with trans students.”

A copy of the resource guide mentioned is available to download here.

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