In a recent interview, I sat down with Kolby Pearson to discuss his personal transition journey, the experiences he has faced as a transgender student at the University of Southampton and some wider social contexts and debates that surround the trans community.
When did you realise you were in the wrong biological body?
Probably from when I was really young, this had been a sign throughout my whole life, I just didn’t know the words to express it at the time. I was just really confused as to why I wasn’t allowed to be on the boys football team and that kind of thing. I always had a general discomfort with my body but my parents put that down to being a young girl and the pressures that society puts on young girl’s bodies. It wasn’t until I actually got to Uni and met other people who were non-binary and trans and I was like ‘ooh that might be something that I need to look into’.
How long did it take you to tell your family/friends that you were transgender after you knew?
At first I told my parents that I just didn’t feel quite right as a girl, I hoped that they would kind of get it … they didn’t. It took me changing my legal name and seeing a psychiatrist for me to actually tell them. So overall it took months, for some people it takes years and for other people they never tell them. I told them by writing a letter, firstly because my family are quite far apart anyway since my parents are separated so it was easier to do that, and also because I don’t travel home very often so writing them a letter was the easiest way to get everything I had been feeling out. You also don’t have to deal with the reaction immediately, however it is really nerve-wracking because you just sit there for a few days waiting for them to tell you that they read a letter.
What was their reaction once they received the letter?
My Dad was like ‘oh cool, I’ve got another son and I didn’t have to make anyone pregnant’. Whereas my Mum didn’t get it at all, she completely supports me and she loves me but she just doesn’t understand. She gives as much support as she can but because I’m quite a private person anyway and I don’t involve my parents in my life that much, it might not be as much support as some people receive, but I’m comfortable with the level we have.
My brother did not react as well, he doesn’t like the idea at all but I think it’s because he’s quite young. He’s only just turned 16 and at that sort of age, you tend to care more about what your friends think than you do about other stuff. Hopefully in a few years he’ll come to terms with it.
What would fully transitioning do to change your life?
For me personally, fully transitioning would allow me to live comfortably as the person that I know I’m supposed to be.
I think an issue here is that people tend to believe that all transgender people must fully transition, whereas there might be some people that are absolutely fine with not making any steps towards transitioning. Maybe they don’t want to have surgery or there are cases in which people can’t – potentially because they don’t have access to it or due to health conditions, and for some people that is actually okay and they are still able to call themselves fully transitioned. Within the trans community, a lot of the time, full transition is just socially transitioning which means to be perceived by others as your gender identity. But for me personally, a full transition would be to go through hormone therapy and surgeries.
I haven’t really had any real communication with someone who is transitioning before, so in my head I thought that a full transition must mean going through surgeries and so forth but the way you describe it, I now think it means whatever you are comfortable with is when you are fully transitioned.
TRANSGENDER EXPERIENCE AT UNIVERSITY
What did you do at University that made you aware of your transgender identity?
Joining the LGBT+ society was the main thing. That gave me the exposure, but having their support throughout is what allowed me to come to terms with everything. It allowed me to make a lot of realisations. Last year I was even part of the committee because the society was such an important support network and I wanted to be a part of offering that to other students.
What kind of reactions have you experienced at University to your decision?
Generally they have been wholly positive from people which is very lucky and I put that down to being in a student environment. Particularly a student environment in this generation, because a few years back it probably wouldn’t have been the same.
I’ve heard and read news articles, mostly online, about horrible reactions to other trans people, which does affect me in a way because I can empathise with them. I think when we hear a story like people’s parents kicking them out or to the extreme that someone has been murdered, it does affect the whole transgender community. It reminds us that we are still a minority and we are still endangered.
What could the University do to be more inclusive and accepting of the transgender community?
I think gender awareness training for all staff members because all it takes to ruin your day is to have a funny look in the bathroom or having an old name said in-front of a lecture theatre. I think a lot of time with binary trans people (male to female, female to male) there is a lot more awareness from staff, but it’s when it comes to non-binary people that there tends to be less awareness. It’s important teach staff members so they don’t presume a gender when they first meet them.
What help if any, is available to the trans students at Southampton University?
Currently, there isn’t a whole lot of support tailored to trans students. Through the support groups like enabling and helpline they are aware of trans issues or you can at least make them aware and through that they can change things like your preferred name or they can tell tutors if you want so you don’t have to keep coming out over and over again. But for trans people generally there isn’t a sole thing. A lot of the time you would turn to the LGBT+ society for more of a support line. The society is just about creating a positive environment so you can be yourself and be accepted which then fills you with confidence that you can take outside of the group.
I want to get down exactly what the correct pronouns are, can you run through them for me?
Absolutely, so there’s a term that people use called ‘preferred pronouns’ which a lot of the trans community don’t like because they are not pronouns that I prefer, they are my pronouns. I use he and him pronouns, other people will use she and her and some people like to use they and them because they don’t like to be gendered either way. I think the most important thing to remember is that if someone tells you that they are using something as a pronoun, even if it sounds ridiculous and silly to you for example when people use just their name or like to be referred to as ‘it’ (which is less common) then you have to respect that.
Also if you make a genuine mistake and slip up then it’s okay. Maybe take the person aside and say look ‘I’m sorry, but what would you like to do if I do make a mistake, would you like me to correct myself there and then or would you like me to move on?’ Because personally if someone slips up with me, I would rather they just carry on with the sentence they were saying, rather than suddenly making a big deal out of it because I know they don’t mean it in a malicious way. Especially people who have known me for quite a long time, they have to unlearn years of gendering you. Even I’ll misgender myself sometimes, because I’ve also got 20 years of unlearning my own pronouns.
TRANSGENDER ISSUES IN A SOCIAL CONTEXT
What is the worst misconception about transgender individuals?
I think, actually a phrase you used earlier, about being in the wrong body. I think it’s a good way of describing it for someone who doesn’t understand. But I also find it problematic because I may have been born in a body that I don’t feel is quite connected to my gender identity but it’s still mine and it’s not necessarily the wrong body, it’s just a little bit different to other men. If we want to stop gendering clothes, hair and other stuff then we also need to stop gendering bodies, especially for non-binary individuals because the idea that they’re in the wrong body kind of suggests they would have no body.
That’s really interesting view point and I’m glad you said that to me, because I definitely wouldn’t have thought of it in that way. Is it okay if we move onto a really serious and sensitive topic: why do you think the percentage of transgender people who have attempted and committed suicide is alarmingly high? (A study on transgender people showed that 41% of transgender people reported attempting suicide, compared with 1.6% of the general population.)
I think it’s a huge mix of things, generally from the discomfort you feel in day to day life. Like personally, I don’t have mirrors in my room at all, because it’s too difficult. For some people just having to experience themselves living on a daily basis is too hard, to the point that it’s not just that you feel uncomfortable, it’s that you feel grotesque. So that dysphoria leads some people to attempt suicide.
Then there’s also whether or not they have been accepted by family and friends, because if it can make you feel like you are never going to be who you want to be, that feeling of hopelessness can lead people to have mental health issues. The percentage of transgender individuals who have a supportive family have far lower suicide rates which just proves that general acceptance is incredibly helpful.
I’ve seen those statistics before as well and it shocked me a lot, because giving support really can be a matter or life or death and when it’s not available, the rates of suicide for trans individuals just increases dramatically. Addressing the big picture now, what can we do as a society to change this?
I think the main thing that needs to be done really is awareness right from a very young age.
Quite recently in the news, there’s been something about a young kid wearing clothes that didn’t fit what other people thought was their gender. In this case it was a kid who had been assigned male at birth who came into school wearing a dress. Which firstly, is not necessarily indicative of being transgender at all, cause you know some boys just might want to wear a dress and that’s fine. However a couple of parents took their children out of that school because they believe that you can’t know that you are trans at that age. I do think that is true in a sense because you don’t know who you are when you are that young, but that also means that you don’t whether you are CIS-gendered, trans, gay or straight either.
Some quite lucky transgender individuals in my opinion, are allowed to start socially transitioning as kids. As a result the people in those schools who are around that transgender individual then have awareness. Then when/if they are exposed to it again later in life there’s not that shock value and they understand. We’re not saying we want to sit kids down and talk to them in detail about what a transition is, but kids should know that we exist and it also allows them if they are having feelings like that to know that it’s normal and it’s allowed.
I think what frightens or worries people who are against exposing kids to transgender individuals is that in their mind, ‘exposure is equal to encouraging it’
Definitely, it’s the same argument that is used against gay relationships, but quite simply, it’s not something you can catch (laugh).
I mean I can understand the half logic behind it, because I didn’t realise I was trans until I was exposed to trans people. I was still already trans, I just didn’t know it. If your child tells you that they are trans after being exposed to a trans person it’s not because they’ve been encouraged, it’s just because they now know what it is. I understand how they can draw a connection, but it’s faulty logic at best.
Yeah I’m glad you said that, it is ridiculous to assume that it can be passed on like a cold or something. If one kid is trans in a classroom, and from this another kid then realises they also are transgender, that doesn’t mean that the other 28 kids in the class are all going to automatically become trans as well just because they’ve been introduced to it.
What advice would you give to transgender individuals who are only just beginning their journey?
It would depend on the age group, but for people my age, just coming to uni or even college, it would be to go to your GP straight away. Your GP can refer you to a mental health team if you are experiencing distress, and if you are very sure that this is who you are, then they will refer you to an NHS gender identity clinic, which gets the ball rolling. The waiting time for anything medical to happen is months, so you have the time. It’s always best to start the medical ball rolling, if you want take any medical transition. It’s best to get that going before you tell anybody because then you have a few months anyway to tell people.
We talked before about kids discovering they’re trans at an early age, should there be a law in place that enforces an age limit of 16 or 18 before allowing surgical transitions?
I personally believe that there should be age limits. I think how it works in the UK currently is that if you are a child, you can be given blockers that will prevent you from going through your biological puberty, therefore preventing things like facial hair growth or development of breast tissue. That will prevent trans kids having to suffer through a puberty that doesn’t feel right for them. Currently it’s not really known what the long term side effects are because so far there haven’t been any, so it’s a fairly safe route. Then if the child does decide, ‘oh I’m not transgender’ which happens in very, very few cases, but if that does happen then they just come off the hormone blockers and continue going through puberty.
At the moment you can now start hormones to go through what you perceive to be your correct puberty at 16, I think it’s happened sometimes for cases that are younger but I think that’s mainly overseas. I feel like there should be an age limit just because a lot of the things that happen with hormone therapy are irreversible so you have to be 100% sure. Obviously kids nowadays tend to start puberty a lot younger, from the ages of 8-12, so it might seem as though you are underdeveloped going through secondary school until you get hormones. But I feel like 16 is the main point that you can do major medical things like that anyway. You may be able to start receiving hormones at a lower dose when you are 14 but I feel like there still should be an age limit for it.
In your opinion do you think Trump has any just reason for banning transgender individuals for working in the US military?
Absolutely not. His main reason is money, at least that’s what he said, but that is laughable. Trans military health care equates to around £5 million, in comparison they spend £75 million on viagra for the military. Another reason he proposed was that the mental health issues that trans people face will distract them from doing their duty. Whilst he may be correct that trans mental health is not always that great, it’s because of attitudes like that are the reason why mental health isn’t that great within the trans community. His reason is purely based on discrimination.
Do high profile cases of transgender individuals; like Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox do more harm than good for the whole trans community?
I say it’s an equal mix. I wouldn’t equate Caitlin Jenner to Laverne Cox. Laverne Cox is not quite as high profile and also she is a trans woman of colour and as far as I’m aware has no negative press and she didn’t transition under the spotlight coverage. Caitlin Jenner on the other hand, I think highly of for coming out because it was unbelievably public. However it also puts a lot of pressure on trans women because she had time and money to just do it. It’s maddening because it doesn’t happen like that for the majority of people. Also she struggled for a long time to even put herself within the trans community and she took a backseat to a lot of things. In terms of general exposure and awareness, they do amazing jobs because they are in the spotlight and people are made aware that this does happen, it’s a thing and it’s okay.
What are your thoughts on the statement: ‘If gender is a social construct, how can trans individuals say that they want to be a different gender to their biological sex due to the way they feel or behave?’ Would this just be feeding into the idea that a certain gender must feel and behave in a certain way and therefore reinforce these social constructs?’
Yeah it does reinforce gender binary, 100% but that’s a fault of wider society. I don’t think we will ever have a time when there isn’t a distinct gender binary unfortunately. I feel like the lines are blurring very much so, which is a great thing but there will always be people who are socialised to be a particular gendered role. The idea that you have to transition does reinforce a gender binary, but there are also steps against that, by being non-binary and trans. For example a female to male person who still enjoys typically feminine things then they also become masculine things because they are male. So transitioning still blurs and changes the lines between masculine and feminine.
I’m not going to suddenly start loving sports and wanting to become a plumber and fulfil traditionally male roles just because I am transitioning to male. I still have the same personality and I still love the things I love.