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For transgender students, a safe space in university halls is ‘great comfort’ — but not a given

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*This story uses preferred pronouns for transgender students.

SINGAPORE: She had not planned to come out as a transgender person until after university, once she was financially stable and independent.

But two months into university life, Kieran Elodie Ng realised she was not going to be able to “hide” this identity for four years.

She thought: “I can’t continue living like this — in a guys’ room, wearing guy clothes and everyone thinking I’m a guy (and) using my dead name.”

A dead name is the birth name of people who have changed their name as part of their gender transitioning process.

“I was having daily panic attacks,” she said. “I remember not wanting to leave the (hostel) room at all.”

So, Ng came out in October 2020 to her family and friends. It was “quite scary”, but many friends were “pretty positive” about it, said the 24-year-old Nanyang Technological University (NTU) mathematical sciences student. Like all the transgender students cited in this story, she has also since changed her name legally.

Her mother’s initial reaction was “sad”, her father “didn’t want to accept it”, and her sister “accepted it quite quickly”.

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Kieran Elodie Ng's coming-out message.

But following this big step, there were other hurdles to overcome on campus – involving, among other things, a months-long effort to switch rooms.

NTU transgender students say that of late, their school authorities have been more understanding. In response to queries, the four local universities that provide student housing told CNA Insider that they are committed to the well-being of students, including those who identify as transgender.

NTU and the National University of Singapore (NUS), for instance, said they are committed to building a “respectful” and “inclusive” environment on campus.

NTU’s Office of Campus Housing has processed “several” room change requests in recent years by transgender students, and all such requests “are processed similarly for all students”.

EASING SAFELY INTO UNI LIFE


But as Ng and several others told CNA Insider, gender transitioning is tough, and universities can do more to help them feel safer – in areas such as housing, the provision of toilets, and allowing the use of preferred names and pronouns.

Such provisions would help them ease into university life in the same way as their cisgender peers, they said.

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Ng had wanted to wait until she was financially stable and independent before coming out. (Photo: Eileen Chew)

Transgender people have a different gender identity from their sex at birth. When they transition, they start to live their life according to their gender identity. Cisgender people are those whose gender identity corresponds with their birth sex.

By the students’ estimates, the number of transgender university students in Singapore is small, but no definitive figures are available. Ng, who is president of Kaleidoscope, an NTU student group advocating for sexual minorities, estimates that there are 50 to 60 transgender students in the university.

At the National University of Singapore (NUS), there are at least 10 to 20 transgender students, said Lune Loh, 25, who co-founded the peer support and representation group TransNUS. Transgender student numbers at the other local universities are not known.

Loh, who graduated this year in English literature and philosophy, lived in Tembusu College. It is an NUS residential college that a friend had said was “more or less queer/trans-affirming”.

Before Loh moved in, a professor wrote to welcome her and said there was a newly refurbished gender-neutral toilet in the basement that she could use, which she was “quite happy” to know.

But the toilet was also open to the public and got dirty easily, she said. And taking a lift down several floors each time to use the toilet or even wash her hands was “cumbersome”.

“It’s a lot of going up and down the stairs and lifts, every single day,” she said.

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Lune Loh graduated this year and is now pursuing further studies overseas. (Photo: Courtesy of Lune Loh)

Each semester, she asked for a room change to a corridor for female students, but to no avail. Although the men living along her corridor were “nice people”, living along the male corridor was nonetheless “a thorn in (her side)”.

AFTER SOME DELAYS, A ‘NEW START’


Over at NTU, Ng’s request to switch to a room on the female floor of a residential hall was successful, albeit after some administrative delays.

When the first semester of her first year ended, her room-mate moved out. Ng reckoned he was confused and felt uncomfortable after she came out.

Not knowing how accepting her next room-mate might be — which was too much to bear — she emailed the hall office in February last year to ask if a transgender student could change rooms. She had not found any information online.

She wanted to move to a female floor and had a doctor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria, a condition that describes the distress over the mismatch between one’s gender identity and one’s sex at birth.

According to Ng, the hall office replied two weeks later and asked for relevant documents, which she submitted. She waited several weeks more and followed up weekly through a counsellor she was seeing at school. But there was no update.

Then came a chance to raise her housing situation with the university’s associate provost of student life, Victor Yeo. It came during a meeting last June to discuss an Inter-University LGBT Network (IULN) research project in which she was involved.

According to her, Yeo said he would speak to the hall office. Soon afterwards, someone contacted her to ask what kind of room she wanted, what her “situation” was and “what (her) transitioning process was already like”.

The university later assigned her a single room with an en-suite toilet in another hall. She moved in last July, about five months after she first contacted the hall office.

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Ng has found a safe space in her current dorm room. (Image: Courtesy of Kieran Elodie Ng)

Although her new room costs more than her old one (which had a toilet shared by four residents), the move has made a difference to her mental health.

“It’s on a female floor, which I do appreciate. And that did help alleviate a lot of the dysphoria,” she said. “I have, essentially, a new start.”

DISTRESS, AND COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS


Gender dysphoria is a psychiatric condition with specific criteria and treatment, and distress experienced with it can range from mild to severe, said clinical psychologist Soon Siew Peng.

In severe cases, the condition can impact “very significantly” on academic or occupational functioning, concentration, social functioning, relationships and other areas of life, said Soon of The Other Clinic, who has worked with trans individuals for about six years.

For some, gender dysphoria can be alleviated by socially transitioning – such as changing their names and/or pronouns, hairstyle and choice of clothing, she said. Others may seek medical interventions like hormone treatment and gender reassignment surgery.

A common misconception about transgender individuals is that they are “just confused”. This is untrue, said clinical psychologist Andrea Chong of The Psychology Practice.

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It is not true that transgender individuals are "just confused", said psychologist Andrea Chong.

Another is that they “can feel happy only if they medically transition”. In reality, individuals have “their own unique experience”, and socially transitioning may be more important for some of them, said Chong, who was previously with the Institute of Mental Health.

Youth is when social identity and having a sense of belonging and community are important, she added.

When your freedom to explore yourself and your identity is held back by other people’s views … it can affect your sense of self.

“Because you start to question: Do I have a place in society? Do I belong to any particular social groups? Can people around me accept me for who I am if I tell them the truth?”

WHY CAMPUS HOUSING MATTERS


Like their cisgender peers, living on campus is vital for some transgender students; otherwise, they may have to commute for up to four hours per day.

A lot of social life also happens in residential halls, and some students want to partake in the suppers, sports and other activities.

“I didn’t want to miss out on the experience because throughout polytechnic, I was depressed and anxious. I didn’t really have a social life,” said Ng.

University is the last chance I have to try and make school fun.”

And for students with unsupportive home environments, the dormitory can be a space to transition and express their gender identities.

“To have my own space is such a great comfort because I know I have somewhere to go back to and be completely myself,” said Andy Winter, who is trans-feminine (someone who was assigned as male at birth but has more of a feminine identity) and graduated this year with an English major and a minor in creative writing.

The 25-year-old, who comes from a “very conservative” family, lived in a single room along a male corridor for most of her time at NTU. But she “felt safe” with the arrangement, which included using the male communal toilets.

“NTU halls are gendered like that,” she said. “It’s fine as long as I’m not sharing the room with (a) guy.”

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Andy Winter graduated this year with an English major and a minor in creative writing. (Photo: Eileen Chew)

It was the same for another trans-feminine student who wanted to be known as Sylfr. She began living on campus only in her second year at NTU as lessons were mostly online in her first year amid the pandemic.

This move, said the 23-year-old, “has probably been one of the better decisions I’ve made”.

Like Ng, Sylfr had planned to come out only after university. She initially lived with a male room-mate, who was quite supportive when she came out. But it was she who did not feel comfortable about “experimenting” in a shared room.

“Because it’s going to be weird if my entire wardrobe starts changing,” said Sylfr, who has had hormone replacement therapy for about a year and is now living in a single room with an attached bathroom on a female floor.

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Living on campus has been one of her better decisions, Sylfr said. (Photo: Eileen Chew)

According to Chong, when transgender students have a room that is their safe space, “that sense of safety has lingering effects because it can create a more stable sense of themselves and, in the longer run, better mental wellness”.

‘NO MALICIOUS INTENT’


The transgender students are aware that safety is one of the concerns cited for not letting them live in rooms aligned with their identified gender. But their message is unequivocal: Sex predators, not transgender people, are a threat to safety.

A “common concern” Ng has heard is that “cisgender guys will pretend to be trans women to be predators”. To this, she said: “This doesn’t sound like the problem of trans people. It sounds like the problem of predators.”

Related:​


Transitioning is “an extremely painful process”, Sylfr added. “I don’t think anybody would want to put themselves through it just to (prey on others).”

Elliot, a trans-masculine NTU English student who declined to provide his surname, said: “Transgender people … just want to go to a toilet that matches their gender.

“There’s no malicious intent.”

Most of the transgender students interviewed said the use of toilets — including those outside school — has given rise to anxiety on their part, rather.

“If I go to the male toilet, I’m worried about harassment. If I go to the female toilet, I’m also worried about harassment,” said Ng.

I’m terrified that someone will approach me and ask me whether I belong here. And I don’t know how to respond to that without going through a few years of words.”

For this reason, most of them prefer to use gender-neutral toilets, which are, in default of any alternative, mostly toilets for people with disabilities.

When there are no toilets available that they feel comfortable using, some would hold their bladder until they get home or back to their hall. They may even drink less water, as Elliot does.

WATCH: My life as a transgender university student (11:33)

In an ideal world, there would be more mixed-gender hall floors and gender-neutral toilets on campus, he said.

Ideally, everyone would be allowed to use their preferred names and pronouns, said the students. Non-competitive sport activities and freshmen orientation camps would be less gendered and more inclusive. There would be greater access to psychiatric and other healthcare services on campus for transgender students.

“The simplest change would be to add another field (on university forms): ‘What name would you like to go by?’ Or ‘what pronouns do you use?’” suggested Elliot, 21, who has been granted permission to live in a single room on a male floor, with a bathroom shared with a student in the adjacent room.

“That would be helpful not just for trans students, but also for other students, for example students who have a Chinese name as a legal name but go by an English name.”

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In forms, universities could ask students what names or pronouns they go by, suggested Elliot.

While most lecturers are receptive to the use of preferred names and pronouns when informed by the transgender students, there are isolated cases of lecturers or teaching assistants who are not.

Then there is the issue of dead names popping up for students who have already changed their legal names. When Sylfr receives emails addressing her by her dead name, she immediately responds by asking the administrators to change her name.

FOUR UNIVERSITIES REPLY


CNA Insider asked local universities with student housing about their approach to transgender students requesting a change of room or floor to align with their identified gender.

NTU was the most detailed in its reply. Its Office of Campus Housing has processed “several” such requests by transgender students, said a spokesperson, with the first case recorded in 2015. The university did not address specific cases, citing “student confidentiality”.

Every NTU student may apply to live in its halls, and over 14,000 undergraduates do so, the spokesperson said. All room change requests are treated similarly “with no specific processes for any particular group as everyone is treated fairly,” he said.

If a student asking for a room change can find a room-mate who meets all criteria for staying in its halls, they can be offered a double room, NTU said.

Alternatively, students can be offered a single room with an attached toilet in halls with non-gender-specific floors, subject to availability.

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A hall of residence at NTU. (Photo: Courtesy of NTU)

Dialogue and feedback sessions are available to all students, including transgender students, NTU’s spokesperson added. The school has also provided training for staff in how to “respectfully interact with transgender students”.

At its University Counselling Centre, students who wish to seek advice on transgender issues can request that they see counsellors with expertise in this area, he said.

On the use of names, NTU said that in official documents and correspondence, students are addressed by their names as given in legal documents. This is for “identity authentication”.

“Separately, the university is moving towards a more inclusive approach in our communications,” the spokesperson said without elaborating.

The Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) also abides by legal names for official records. Students who wish to change their university email address to their preferred email name can make a request, it said.

SUTD, which has over 1,000 students living on campus, said it has not received any requests from transgender students to change residential floors. But it will accommodate requests “where possible”.

NUS, where about 11,000 students live on campus, did not say whether it has received requests from transgender students to change their living arrangements.

Its spokesperson said it is committed to building a “respectful, inclusive and affirming campus” where students “enjoy equal opportunities to excel in their studies and develop as outstanding individuals”. “These include students of all gender identities,” she said.

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NUS' UTown has four residential colleges. (File photo: Calvin Oh/ CNA)

NUS counsellors offer professional support to students in need, and the university continues to “engage the student body and other stakeholders to build a respectful and welcoming campus environment for everyone”, she added.

The Singapore Management University (SMU), whose Prinsep Street Residences can house over 200 students, has not received accommodation requests from transgender students, a spokesperson said.

The university is committed to respecting the dignity of all students and providing them with support, he said. It has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination, he added.

SMU student leaders have also been briefed on the use of gender-inclusive language in all communications and instructions for student programmes.

“This helps ensure that transgender students (and LGBTQs) are able to participate in events and activities in keeping with how they identify and express their gender identities,” the spokesperson said.

LITTLE THINGS CAN HELP


Some cisgender students living in halls told CNA Insider they were open to sharing toilets with their transgender peers.

“I don’t mind the other gender using the toilet, much less those from the trans community, who already identify as that gender,” said a female NTU student, 20, who declined to be named and has lived on campus for over a year.

Another student, 22, said he was open to having a transgender room-mate, but acknowledged that there are “definitely” students who would not be. The solution is to offer different hall options based on what students are comfortable with, said the student, who wanted to be known only by his surname Heng.

“There can be designated trans-friendly toilets if there’s strong opposition from (people opposed to sharing),” he suggested as an example.

Chong the psychologist said little changes and gestures can make a big difference; for instance, support given by other students, and staff who use the correct pronouns and preferred names.

“Then it makes going to school a more pleasant experience, rather than something to dread,” she said.

School is just one social setting — there’s also the family, there are friends, there’s the greater community. But if school is one social group that can be supportive, it can go a long way.”

For Sylfr, coming out has improved not only her mental state but her grades. From getting Cs and Ds in her first year, she is now a straight-A student.

“Once Year Two, Semester One came along, and I finally came out and (did) all of the things I wanted to do, my grades basically skyrocketed,” said the bioengineering student. “I genuinely enjoy the things I’m studying.”

While the students feel more improvements can be made, one thing NTU is doing right, said Ng, is “acknowledging (issues faced by transgender students) and actively trying to respond to us”.

“I just want a lot of the same things as other students do,” she said. “I want to be able to stay in a room that I’m comfortable in (and) make friends who accept me for who I am.

“I want to be able to participate in clubs, societies, without feeling like I might be accidentally or purposely misgendered (or) discriminated against; I just want to live my life as who I am.”

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