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Emily: Welcome to the STAND Student Podcast, where we dive into important social, political, economic, and environmental issues at home and around the world. STAND is an initiative for third level students and recent graduates across Ireland supported by Irish Aid. My name is Emily Savage, and this episode is all about the experiences of transgender students in universities across Ireland. In today’s podcast I’ll be joined by Cameron Keighron, an NUI Galway student.
If you’re comfortable, can you just introduce yourself with your name, your pronouns and if you wanna tell us a bit about your college degree? So what you’re doing in college, and also if you wanna tell me a little bit about the work that you do with your students union as well.
Cameron: Absolutely. So my name is Cameron Keighron. My pronouns are they/them, I’m a current PhD student in the college of medicine, nursing and health sciences, um, particularly in the discipline of physiology and I’m looking at stem cell therapeutics for Parkinson’s disease. I started off in college doing biotechnology and then I did my master’s in regenerative medicine. So I’ve kind of been assigned as a medicine nerd for a while now. I’ve also been involved with my student union and societies heavily over the last kind of eight to nine years. I held various different positions from class rep to postgraduate taught officer to a full-time sabbatical role as the Vice President and Education Officer.
Emily: If possible, do you maybe wanna tell me a bit about where you were at with your identity when you started in college and kind of like how that has changed as you’ve progressed through your degrees and you know, the years that you’ve been spending in college?
Cameron: Yeah, it’s kind of weird to look back. Like I started college in 2012 and I was completely different. Like if you see a picture of me from 2012, like, I don’t look anything like I look now. I came from quite a rural area in Ireland, from the west of Ireland, I haven’t really left the west of Ireland for most of my life. I kind of like it here, but I came from quite a rural place where in school, there was no talk of LGBT+ people. There was no talk of, you know, gender identity or gender expression. So I really had no idea what was going on in my mind, but I knew that I was different. I didn’t really know how to express that or to even have the language to talk about that.
I came to college in Galway and it was like this explosion of other types of people that I didn’t even know existed before, or didn’t know that they could exist. I spent a lot of my first year exploring different things and thinking about my own sexual orientation, my gender identity. I came out to my parents as gay in first year. And thought that that was, you know, that was the thing that I ticked the box. I was like, yeah, I’m gonna feel absolutely perfect after this. This is all it is. And I remember having a huge sense of relief telling them, but also this still this huge sense of dread because it still hadn’t taken away the little feeling in the back of my mind of there’s more to this than just being gay. And I really didn’t understand at the time what that meant.
But I went to an event called pink training, which is the largest kind of LGBT+ weekend kind of training in Europe, held by the Union of Students in Ireland. I remember going to that down in Cork and I, for the first time met someone who was openly out as trans and happy and confident. And I remember thinking, wow, that makes so much sense. I understand now. And so I came back to Galway and I remember sitting in my student accommodation, I remember texting that person and saying, I think I might be trans. And I did nothing with that for a year. That was all I could do for a year. That was as far as I could go, but it was still a step in the right direction. So I spent another year kind of internally thinking about things and processing things and telling, you know, a few people here and there, what I felt and, um, talking them through with them.
But at the time it was very much, you know, it was a very binary existence, in the trans community in 2012/2013. So the only information that I could really get was very basic, um, female to male or male to female and nothing really in between. So it kind of felt at the time that I had to make a choice, that it was either not come out or come out as something that still didn’t completely fit me, but it was the only way to get to the next steps, I suppose. And this was pre gender recognition that came in 2015, so the only way to access healthcare at that point then was, you know, in the legislation and stuff, was like living as your true self or living at your chosen gender for two years, which seems really daunting and scary to me.
And then I didn’t really know how I could do that or what that meant or how I could even go about proving that. So I kind of felt that I was in this kind of limbo of I don’t know if I’ll ever get the supports that I need and the university wasn’t necessarily very understanding of transitions at the time. Not because they didn’t want to be, but they just didn’t know anything about trans people. There was very few open trans people on campus. Um, like I remember fighting with the LGBT society because they didn’t believe we needed a trans officer because they said, well, there’s no one out, so there’s no one there for us to have an officer for. So that was kind of the culture at the time. And, you know, in the west of Ireland, it sometimes gets a bad name that rural people are very kind of close minded or small minded. And some of the most rural people were some of the biggest supports and advocates that I had in college. And some of the more urban people were the most close minded. Um, and so once I think you give people some time and some education, some information, a lot of the time they do become great supports. And I had some really, really good friends that supported a lot of the kind of exploration of my gender that I did. I tried out different names. I tried out, you know, different styles of clothing, some didn’t work so well, there’s some awful pictures of what I tried to wear in college. And some did work better. I think I only really found my style in the last year.
But you know, as we got to say, 2014/2015, we were leading up to marriage equality we were leading up to the gender recognition act, which kind of skated under the radar in the shadow of marriage equality, which still kind of frustrates me a little bit because the legislation wasn’t perfect when we were putting it through and people were saying this and it’s still not perfect. But it presented more challenges for me then, because you had this gender recognition act. I was already out at this point, you know, as a trans man to lots of different elements of my life, but not all elements of my life. Then I had to make a choice. Am I going to go for a gender recognition cert because it makes sense legally and logistically to do that, or do I wait and hang on and see, do they actually put other options out there? Um, and at this point I kind of feel like lots of trans and non-binary folks could be international spies because I was out to all of my friends in college and all the people that I was within the LGBT society and in certain parts of the union, but I wasn’t out to anyone on my actual degree program bar being gay.
So none of them knew that I was trans and I wasn’t out to my parents or my family. Um, and so I was kind of leading three different lives at this point, which is very exhausting for one person to be doing, because you’re trying to manage who knows what name, who knows what pronouns and who knows what you’re doing that day. And what can you tell someone about what you’re doing or where you’re going or who you’re meeting. Um, and so I really enjoyed my undergraduate experience, but it was very stressful trying to manage all of that. I came out to my family in kind of a random enough way. Um, I came out to my sister in a pub, in Galway first, I think about being gay. And then when I came out to her as trans, we were at a pride event and we were both a little bit drunk and I brought her into my bedroom and I, um, I don’t like Kaitlyn Jenner, but at the time she was watching Keeping up with the Kardashians.
So I was like, okay, this is a good way to explain it to her. Um, and in my drunk mind, I was like, you know, how Kaitlyn Jenner is now Kaitlyn Jenner? And she was like, yeah, I was like, I’m the same, but the opposite. And I just left the room and I just left her with that. She was completely supportive and understanding, her worry for me and my parents worry was what was gonna happen to my future. Um, they were still very scared of what it was like to be a trans person in Ireland. They didn’t know any openly trans people from where we were from, you know, rural areas. They didn’t know how I would react to, you know, people saying stuff if I was at home or, um, what would happen if I was on a night out and someone decided to physically attack me or do whatever, that’s kind of where their problems lay.
I told my parents a few weeks later, they kind of always knew, which was nice, because they had kind of done some research for the previous year or so to try and understand trans identities and what I was going to be saying to them. But I suppose the whole time, whilst it was great and I felt more and more of a sense of relief of coming out to them, I still kind of felt very shoehorned into this very binary existence. It’s only more recently that kind of in the last two years that I’ve kind of come back to people and said, actually I did this because it was necessary at the time, but I actually identify as non-binary. Um, and the way I describe it to people is like, my gender is so unimportant to me it’s important. And I suppose that’s kind of difficult for people who aren’t in this sphere to understand. Once I kind of said that to people and kind of went, no, actually that is how I feel, that sense of relief that I wanted back in 2012 when I came out as gay happened. So, you know, it was nearly an eight year process to get that and that weight off. I think that’s just a byproduct of the time that I came out, what was available at the time, the university didn’t have a huge amount of support. The LGBT society didn’t really understand trans and non-binary folks, in the city resources, again, they didn’t really understand trans and non-binary folks you’re kind of navigating this by yourself while it’s also not really knowing a lot of trans people. So every year I went back to Pink Training and it was great because we had safe spaces for trans and non-binary people.
And so I could talk to people, but, you know, I was only having those conversations once or twice a year. So, you know, it was very kind of few and far between that I was able to talk to this with people that understood now that that’s different. I know a lot of folk that are opening out as trans in, um, lots of different gender identities and gender expressions. And so I can have these conversations quite often. I also think there’s lots of things changing, um, and lots of small villages and towns, communities are becoming way more supportive. Um, so I think it’s kind of relative. Sometimes we forget that small communities can be really, really good, um, and really supportive and can be the basis for why someone decides to come out in college. Even if they don’t come out at home. I am a hundred percent respected in my lab, in my masters all the way through it. Um, there’s no questions about it and no one has ever had an issue with it. Um, so I think that, you know, there’s that positives to it that the culture has changed, but I think the visibility bit is still important as to how we I suppose, encourage and empower younger trans people who want to come out, be visible and to be visible in a safe way for them.
Emily: I think it’s really interesting to hear the way your experiences have changed as your identity changed, kind of from undergrad right up to, you know, now being where you are as a fully out trans person. How has that experience changed and has that brought about any issues or opportunities for you throughout your college life?
Cameron: Yeah, I think it’s brought both, to be honest, I suppose I’m a lot more confident now than I was when I was in my undergraduate to address any issues that arise. Um, I suppose a couple that I can think of, both as an opportunity and as a challenge, I took up fencing, so sword fighting when I was in college. Um, and I’ve been fencing since my third year in my undergraduate, before the university, I started off on the women’s team because I wasn’t out, there was no gender recognition act. So you couldn’t, you couldn’t even change, even if you wanted to change teams. Um, so that presented some complexities, because some of the people there would’ve known that I was questioning my gender and some didn’t and I kind of kept it something that I wanted to be like within myself at fencing. Fencing is kind of the space that I go to, to not think about any sort of like activism work, LGBT+ identity.
It’s a place I go because I love fencing. Um, and it’s a very therapeutic place for me, but it allowed me to interact with people who didn’t care about my identity, didn’t care what I was studying in college, all that much, who there was no pressure to be anything other than someone that loved fencing. Um, and so it was a really great space for me and I loved competing on the women’s team cause I loved the women that I was competing with and they were really good mentors for me. And at the time it was the right place for me to be. And then when the gender recognition act came out and I had made the decision that for me, logistically and legally, that it was easier to have a gender recognition said that said male instead of female in terms of, we all know how shit the trans healthcare system is in Ireland.
So it was another thing that I had to do in order to get into that system. So when I came back and said, actually I prefer to fence on the men’s team at this point, because I didn’t think, first of all, I felt more comfortable at that point moving to the men’s team, but I also didn’t feel it was fair to be on the women’s team at that point either. And again, fencing is a very neat sport. It’s a very pretentious sport as well. It’s kind of like the weapon that I do. It’s kind of like playing chess, but physically. Um, so it’s a very interesting sport. If you haven’t watched it, you should definitely go watch some of it. Um, but I thought that they’d have loads of problems with me trying to fence for the men’s team and move over because there had never been in college circuits, a trans person who had switched teams, but fencing, Ireland were super supportive.
They knew exactly what they needed to do and they were like off you go. And that was it. Now the attitudes on the fencing circuit were different. So fencing Ireland were completely behind it, but I did have, you know, a lot of things to face in the fencing circuit in terms of when you walk on piece people underestimate you, because they’re like, oh, you’ve fenced for the women’s team. And now you’re fencing for the men’s team, people using the wrong pronouns, people using the wrong name, people just not taking you seriously. And so I’ve had to work hard over the last number of years to prove myself as a fencer. Um, again, you know, I had to prove myself as a fencer when I started, but I had to prove myself as a fencer, right all over again to gain their respect. Um, and I remember, in universities and not wanting to leave the dressing room, cause I was like, they’re all talking about me and I don’t want to be out there. And the captain came into me and you know, the NUI Galway team is phenomenal, um, in terms of the support that they offer. Um, and we have had four openly trans people on our teams over the years. But he came into me and he was asking what was wrong. And I was explaining to him and he was like, you’re going to do this because you’ve earned your place here. But he was like, when you walk out of that dressing room, every single member of this team has your back. And that’s, you know, that, that was all I needed to hear to go out and fence.
So there was different challenges with that as, as well as that, you know, in the gym that we have in NUI Galway before there was no gender neutral toilet options, um, which was quite difficult for me, like pre and post top surgery, and where I felt most comfortable, but I just worked with, initially irrespective of the union, I worked with the university and I worked with the King Fisher gym, the manager in there, and we did several walk arounds the building to figure out where would be the best place to put a gender neutral toilet? And how many did we need? They’ve been in operation now for two years and the amount of people, even, not even people who identify as trans or non-binary that are very, very grateful to have those options because it’s a safe and secure place to go to that has a shower and a toilet.
So after your gym session, your sports session, you can just go in there. So, you know, there’s been issues and opportunities, but I suppose for me, it’s always been, okay, this is an issue, how do I address this? Or this has been an opportunity, how do I get more out of this? I’ve worked with the university as well, alongside a number of other trans and non-binary folks in the university to help them create a gender expression and identity policy, which means that students don’t have to go through a legal name change or general recognition start to go into the university and say, this is actually my name. And this is what I’d like, my college email and Blackboard or whatever it is to reflect. So that’s a really handy process for people to be able to do those things. If they financially can’t do a legal name change or general recognition at the time, or if they’re still kind of trying out different names or figuring out what they wanna do or how they wanna do it. But it also allowed us to have conversations around trans and a binary entities on campus. So it meant that we could talk about the struggles that trans and binary students faced around access to bathrooms around access to support, around the level of information that people have in university. I think that there’s definitely more people who understand at a very basic level what trans and non-binary identities are than there was say when I started, but I think there’s still a lot more work to do, but the university is much more willing to take training. So they’ve had TENI in a number of times to train some elements of their staff, to ensure that they understand to a certain degree trans and non binary identities.
Um, I’ve been able to work on a project that looked at the experiences of minority students, of which one cohort was trans students in third level education, both at undergraduate and postgraduate, anecdotally, we know there’s more trans students coming into undergraduate level and coming out and feeling supported, but we don’t see that progression going from undergraduate to postgraduate. Um, and so, and we don’t have any official research that shows the true experiences of trans students in higher education, but also the progression rate. d I think if we looked at the progression rates throughout, you know, first year to final year, but also from final year to post-graduate studies, you’ll see that trend gets smaller and smaller and smaller of how many people actually survive a system.
I said this before, I’m on an international network looking at gender equity and higher education. I wrote a piece for the university on it and it kind of got me annoyed a little bit when I was writing it, because I was thinking about like, we set the bar so low for equality across the board a lot of the time where we diversely recruit, so we recruit lots of diverse people, but we don’t in build the support system within the university to allow those students from diverse backgrounds to succeed. And then at the other end of it, we celebrate the 1% who get through as if, you know, the 1% getting through is a show of how great we are at equality and sure they had what it took because they went through all this hardship and suffering to get here. We talk about, you know, leveling the playing field for all different types of folks in university, but we really don’t. Um, because we haven’t changed how we teach. We haven’t changed what we teach. We haven’t changed the supports we have in universities that we only end up at 1% the other side of it, despite the fact that maybe 10% started, but we lost 9% along the way, because there was no support structures in place and having policies is great. But I suppose, you know, we still have students who are dead named in classes. We have students who aren’t supported by their peers. We have students who are struggling with their mental or physical health as a result of being trans and don’t know where to go. We have support services that are kind of a little bit afraid of touching anything to do with trans and non-binary students cuz they don’t wanna mess up. So we have this lots of these cultures that we need to change.
They’re all issues that I suppose, lots of trans people at my point in education have already experienced. I suppose you’ve got two options. You can be really jaded by the system or you can still try to have those conversations, with people and you know, like I try to link into the LGBT society when I can, um, I’m offering to, you know, talk to other younger trans people. I still talk to the university. I try and get involved in projects that allow me to have a voice for trans and nonbinary people around inclusivity here. And to be fair by and large, they do wanna hear the voices of students. And so, you know, when we were doing that project around inclusivity, I was able to bring at our symposium that we had in April, three trans students from different, you know, walks of life to that symposium where over a hundred academics were listening. So, you know, you can affect change and have lots of opportunities, um, through the different things that you can get involved from your own experiences. But I think that if you understand that not everyone has to suffer the way that you did, you’re more motivated to keep doing it.
Emily: What other supports do you think that colleges should be able to provide to their trans students?
Cameron: Sometimes we, I suppose, misunderstand what the goal should be and in my opinion, the goal should be that any trans, non binary, intersex individual can walk into a classroom, a lab, the library, support services, whatever it might be and that their identity doesn’t matter unless it’s relevant and needs to. Um, and that it’s not this idea of, oh, let’s, you know, clap every time the trans person comes in. So they feel welcome. It’s about making it as normal as being CIS. And I don’t like the word normal because no one’s normal. Um, but that sort of attitude of why can’t we just live our lives the way that we want to. We’re in education, because we’re passionate about the topic that we’re looking at or because it’s a means to an end to whatever job we want to get, or it’s a gap before we go and do something.
I’m not in a PhD because I’m trans, I’m not in a PhD because I’m non-binary, you know, I’m in a PhD because I really love science and medicine and how I can help. And sometimes people forget that they’re like, oh, it’s amazing, you’re a non-binary PhD student. Like, no, I’m just a PhD student. Um, my identity is my identity and absolutely, and I love the fact that I’m non-binary and I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world. Uh, maybe when I came out first, I kind of wished that I could, but I really wouldn’t change any element of being who I am, but I’m doing a PhD because I love what I do. I feel so normal, again I hate that word, but I feel so, you know, underrated when I go into the lab, because my identity is just that, it is my identity. I go in and have conversations about science or paper I’ve read or about medicine or about what we’re gonna do that week. Those are vastly more important conversations. I think once we recognise that there’s vastly more important conversations that we could have as intellectuals in any sort of higher education and we understand that trans people and non-binary people, intersex people just exist just like they always have, I think it’s very much happier experience for everyone.
Emily: The last kinda thing I wanna ask is if you could give any bit of advice to trans students who are now starting their degree, or those who are already in their degree, who are now coming out, what would it be?
Cameron: It’s a great question. I suppose I’ve got a few pieces of advice. Um, the first thing is that the only person that really knows the intricacies of your identity is yourself. No one else can tell you how to be trans, how trans you are, how trans enough are you, what you need to do, how you need to look, how you need to dress, none of that. You can trans, non binary in your own way. A way that makes it comfortable and safe for you. Um, and that gender identity and gender expression, as you come out, could change and can change and evolve over time and to not be afraid to explore different elements of yourself. But also to find your allies in university, find people that understand and support you and give you that space of it doesn’t matter who you are, we like you for you. That might be through a society, that might be through your class, that might be through a sport or a different part of university, but, there’s definitely people who will support and will love you for who you are. The third thing is don’t take any shit from anyone, you know, no one can dictate to you what you should and shouldn’t do. You don’t deserve to be misgendered, misnamed, mistreated because you’re transgender or non binary or you’re intersex. So if someone’s not treating you the way that you’re supposed to, find someone that you can tell that to and get that sorted or go to your union or go to your class rep or whoever it might be. Um, but just because you identify in a certain way, doesn’t warrant, you know, misuse of your name pronouns, or mistreatment in any way. So yeah, don’t tolerate that.
Emily: Thank you for that. It’s really good advice to have, I think this has probably been, you know, my favourite part of each interview as well is to get all the bit of advice at the end of it. Because everyone has that little bit of advice that they can give based on their experience. And when you put it all together, I think it’s such a great thing for students to have. So I just want to say thank you so much for coming on and joining me for this interview and thank you to everyone for listening.
This podcast was supported by: STAND Diversity + Inclusion Editor Conor