Content note: coming out, misgendering, depression, anxiety, mentions of cissexism
I arrived in Cambridge in January with my old name. Only one person in the world – my girlfriend – knew me as anything else. There was not a single item of clothing in my big, half-broken bag which had not once been placed by a retail worker under an obnoxious ‘Men’ sign. I dragged the bag to Selwyn, a scenic, cosy college of 400 students, and upon entering my room I was greeted by the tall mirror with which I have grown an uncomfortable affinity.
Looking back was the same figure as always – a fairly skinny being with shaggy hair, a bit of stubble poking through on the chin, adorned with one of the many bland, grey jumpers that had become a staple of my appearance. My arms were held out comically wide as always, like a cowboy, or George W. Bush, as if to exude powerful maleness. Every element of my body language had been carefully rehearsed to leave people in no doubt – what you see here is an exemplary specimen; a confident, comfortable man.
I am none of those things. Keeping up the act was exhausting. In fact, I could barely maintain a conversation because my mind was so preoccupied with checking and re-checking that each part of my body was properly conforming to ‘Man.exe’.
Needless to say, this caused severe anxiety. I mentioned it to a counsellor in 2013, who suggested I join the CUSU trans mailing list to get me in contact with like-minded people. CUSU LGBT+ holds a weekly trans coffee event. I desperately wanted to go, but every week would be the same. I would see the email reminder stating the time, place, and that the table could be identified by the toy ostriches sitting on it. I would think: ‘OK, this week I will go!’ I never did. I was far too nervous. What were the others going to think if I turned up looking so obviously male and say I am a woman? Of course, this was a silly thought, but it made enough sense at the time to keep me contained in my anxious little bubble. It went on like this for a year.
But early in Lent term, 2015, I reached a vital conclusion. I was not getting any less lonely. I was not feeling any more comfortable with living the way I was. So I went to trans coffee – I forced myself to, even as my head wished to turn back. I got there, bought myself a hot chocolate, and approached the table with the famed ostriches, this time riding on the back of a dragon. The others asked me for my name and pronouns, as they do for everyone. I forced the words past my panicking heart: ‘Mariah; she/her pronouns.’
And so that was that. For the first time since telling my girlfriend almost four years ago, I ‘came out’. It was one of those moments that look mundane to everyone else, but for me it was life-changing, and it opened the floodgates. Over the coming weeks I came out to my tutor, director of studies, supervisor, and my fellow second-year historians at Selwyn. Cambridge was going to be my safe place, where I would be Mariah full-time. It feels good. A friend told me about the term ‘gender euphoria’. That’s probably the best way to describe it.
Of course, I am still the same socially anxious, slightly awkward, clumsy individual that I always have been. But now the future looks infinitely less grim. I have met some truly spectacular friends who have helped me rebuild my confidence. Together with them, I have started to transform my wardrobe, and, slowly, adapt the way I present in public. I can hardly imagine a better place to do this than Cambridge. The support systems diligently built by generations of LGBT+ students have been indispensable in beginning a new chapter of my life, and for this I am enormously grateful.
But my own positive experience has made me convinced that the work towards making Cambridge a safe place for LGBT+ students is far from over. We still hear of homophobia, transphobia, cissexism, and flat-out ignorance dished out by students and staff alike. LGBT+ students at Cambridge today will, by and large, have a much easier time than our predecessors just 10 years ago. But the job is far from done, and problems persist. For trans students, even basic human functions like going to the bathroom present dilemmas in our own colleges and faculties.
I went home at the end of Lent term feeling very strange. Coming out is one of the best things I have ever done. But as my emotional highs were magnified, so too were the lows. My depressive bouts began to hit harder and faster. Among many other things, this was a result of heightened anxiety about being accepted. One day I will have to face the ‘real’ world, outside the accepting Cambridge bubble. For now, it will have to suffice that this day is yet to come.
Normally I would love returning to all the home comforts of my little cottage. This time I didn’t want to get on the bus. I could be myself at Cambridge. In my hometown I would be returning to my old name, old clothes, and old pronouns. But at least now I know there is a place out there where ‘Mariah’ is my day-to-day reality. Others still struggle. Many students still feel isolated, lonely, scared, stressed, depressed, anxious, and misunderstood. The work must go on.
Mariah Hickman (GR. Features Contributor)