Coming into graduate school this past August, I had high expectations of my peers and my program. My graduate program is ranked number seven in the nation and is well known in my area for producing some of the best counselors around. As a group of future counselors and current counselor educators, it seemed reasonable to assume that there would be a higher level of compassion and empathy than in other programs.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case.
I am a transmasculine, non-binary person. When I entered the program, I was using they/them pronouns and went by a shortened version of my birth name, which was fairly gender-neutral. However, since everyone assumed my identity from my look, only those whom I became friends with actually learned my pronouns. My other classmates simply made the assumption that I was a female and used she/her pronouns.
It wasn’t that I was afraid to come out; I would mention my labels (queer, non-binary, etc.) in class frequently. But, being in an academic setting, I hadn’t quite figured out how to tell people that their interpretation of my gender was wrong. Halfway through the semester, I changed my name, which sparked a battle between myself and the program.
During one of our classes, I stepped outside to get some air. Being an anxious person, this wasn’t an uncommon occurrence. Outside, I was approached by a student who thought I was distressed from overhearing what two other classmates had been saying behind my back.
Since this was our largest class, I hadn’t heard them. But she mentioned that the two girls had been complaining about me and my new name-change. Although I didn’t hear them, it was clear that they were close enough for people to think I could have. I became so overwhelmed with fear and panic that I left the building and didn’t come back. This was my worst nightmare coming true.
“This was my worst nightmare coming true.”
As I walked around campus trying to clear my head, I felt betrayed by my classmates and frustrated that I had ever expected better from them. Since our program follows a cohort model, I had these girls in every one of my classes. And as the semester progressed, I started having major panic attacks during class and leaving early. Not only had these two students broken my trust, but the few other teachers and students who knew of my pronouns still struggled to use them. I was constantly being misgendered and now feared standing up for myself.
Worn down, I met with the head of the program to try and find a resolution for the upcoming semester. Instead, I found myself in a lecture about the “importance of coping skills” and how I would never be able to push my clients into uncomfortable situations if I couldn’t face them myself. He made the assumption that I was early in my transition and would eventually adapt to coming out because “that’s how it is in the real world.” He refused to address the two students who had complained about me. He claimed that he did not want to punish their ignorance, but teach them instead. What was clearly missing from this statement was his plan on how this would come to fruition. The conversation was dripping with unrecognized privilege and I left the meeting with zero answers and zero support.
Since then, I’ve become more forward with my distaste for the blatant transphobia of the program, but I have had to secede on some fronts. Though I don’t believe it should be the responsibility of trans students to make their pronouns known, I emailed my professors anyway, knowing that they weren’t going to even ask. I’ve started correcting my classmates and introducing them to guides on how to be better trans allies. But these are not my burdens to bear, and I can only do so much to counter the institutionalized issues which perpetuate this cycle of ignorance.
As the second semester of school continues, I find that the weight of this experience grows heavier with each class. I am constantly on edge, waiting for the next transphobic comment to be hurled my way and it’s left me utterly exhausted. I am moving forward with the medical side of my transition, but I am also spending more time worrying about my classmates’ responses than I should have to.
And the worst part is that I’ve lost hope in the future of the counseling profession. If I can’t trust my peers to treat me with respect, I fear for their future transgender clients.