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How do I navigate a college roommate situation?

Q: I am going to be attending a Christian medical school at the end of this month and I secured housing by myself but I will be living temporarily on campus. The issue is that I almost certainly will have a roommate and although I am agender, I was immediately placed in the female dorm. This is not my main issue though, my main issue is that I’m worried that my roommate will feel threatened by me. I have never lived in such close quarters with a stranger before. I am vacillating between feeling like “well it’s not my fault if they have an issue with my identity and presentation” and “I don’t want to make someone uncomfortable in a room we are mutually sharing and respecting”. I know that just because I’m transmasc doesn’t mean they should be threatened by me or disgusted. And they will most likely not care at all. But I don’t have the greatest self esteem and I can’t help but feeling like I’ll be burdening another person by just existing. Thinking objectively, I would never want another trans person to feel this way about themselves and I don’t want to come across as though I’m advocating that we should all be ashamed. I just really don’t want another trans person reading this who is in the same situation as me to suddenly start feeling scared or worried because they are in a similar situation. I’m having a lot of role conflict because I tend to over emphasize with people.

K: I’m sorry you’re going through this. Medical school and living with strangers are both difficult enough without worrying about if someone is transantagonistic. I do feel like your feelings of safety and comfort are actually more important than what your future roommate’s feelings might be. If they’re uncomfortable with you because of your gender or presentation, that is certainly going to make you uncomfortable as well (and, the potential of it already has). My main thoughts here are: 1. Center your own personal safety and comfort and 2. Maybe unpack the idea that being transmasc (or masc in general) can make someone inherently threatening or disgusting to others.

For the first point, consider what your options are. I’m not sure how long you’ll be temporarily having a roommate in the dorms, so I’m not sure what the best avenues might be. It also depends on your level of out-ness at school, and how supportive your school may or may not be towards trans people. Are there any policies around how trans people are housed in dorms? Is it possible to request that you are housed with another trans person, for example? Or, is it possible to have a single dorm? Do you know what support your residence hall might offer if your potential roommate does end up being transantagonistic or makes you uncomfortable? Or, if those aren’t options (due to your comfort level around outness or the school policies), are you in a position to test the waters with your roommate before coming out or just ignoring the situation altogether since you’ll only be there temporarily (which may or may not be an option depending on how strangers read your gender)? I suggest doing a little research and reflection on what options you have for handling this and what feels the most comfortable and safe for you. For the second point, I’m not sure how much I’m reading into this, but you do appear very concerned someone might find your gender and presentation inherently threatening and disgusting. I’m not sure if this is heightened just because it is a dorm situation and you think your future roommate will feel uncomfortable living in very close quarters with anyone who isn’t a woman, but the words “threatening” and “disgusting” appear to go beyond discomfort for me. There’s nothing inherently threatening or disgusting about transmasc people, you included. It sounds a bit like you might have internalized this messaging, which is worth unpacking.

But, overall, I encourage you to center your own feelings and safety. If your future temporary roommate has an issue with you being trans, that doesn’t mean you’re the problem. You’re being put into a shitty situation due to how your university assumes gender and assigns roommates. I encourage you to look into policies at your university if your roommate does become an issue, and to reflect on what options you have (being out or not) and which option feels the safest and most comfortable for you.

S: Agreed with all of the above. This is one of those letters where you already have the answers; they’re just mixed in with a lot of fear. You’ve said the following:

  • “well it’s not my fault if they have an issue with my identity and presentation”

  • “Thinking objectively, I would never want another trans person to feel this way about themselves and I don’t want to come across as though I’m advocating that we should all be ashamed.”

  • “I know that just because I’m transmasc doesn’t mean they should be threatened by me or disgusted.”

All of these things are true! What you need to do is center them and your own right to exist in the world, rather than trying to make aspects of yourself disappear so that other people might feel more comfortable. For one thing, that’s not even a real situation at this point; your potential roommate may not notice or care about your gender, or be supportive, or be trans or gender diverse themself. For another, if they aren’t any of those things and do feel uncomfortable being around a trans person, that’s on them. Don’t change yourself to enable someone else’s bigotry and/or ignorance to continue unchallenged (and existing in your identity isn’t actually a challenge to anyone—it’s their problem if they choose to interpret it as one). The existence of trans and gender diverse people isn’t a “burden” for others! If someone is uncomfortable being around a trans person, their own transantagonism is the problem, not our presence in the world. The issue here isn’t that you’re inherently threatening or burdensome to anyone (like K said, I encourage you to unpack where those ideas are coming from, because they’re not true and echo a lot of harmful anti-trans rhetoric). It’s that your school assumed your gender and assigned housing without asking; it may also be that you end up with an ignorant and/or bigoted roommate and will have to decide how to keep yourself safe if that transpires.

Of course, in practice, people’s anti-trans behavior often makes itself our problem even though it shouldn’t. So you’ll probably need to prepare yourself for different scenarios and plan how you’ll respond. Part of that is research: how does your institution typically treat trans and gender diverse students, if it acknowledges them at all? Are there policies that might protect you, or ones that indicate that you’ll be on your own if your roommate complains or harasses you about your gender? Is there a campus or local queer group of some kind where you can get support and advice? Do you know any individual trans people there who can tell you about their experiences? If there’s none of this, how can you keep yourself safe in a worst-case scenario?

The other aspect of preparation concerns what you personally are comfortable with in this context. Do you want to be out to your roommate? Do you plan to ask them to use a name or pronouns that may identify you as trans? Does your presentation make it possible to go stealth if you decide that’s better for you right now? (If it helps decide this, in my experience, it simply doesn’t occur to most cis people that someone might be trans unless there’s obvious effects of HRT or something, and sometimes not even then.) Your comfort and safety is all that matters here. You don’t owe anyone information about your gender unless you are ready to share it, especially since your school’s assumptions have already forced you into a difficult position with no indication that they’ll support you. On the other hand, if you want to be out, you don’t need to feel obligated to keep your gender identity private. Being uncomfortable about a particular identity is not a feeling that needs to be protected. It’s certainly not your responsibility to educate anyone, especially a stranger, but it might help to remember that meeting trans people in real life is the most effective way for a lot of people to outgrow their ignorance and bigotry.

I do want to note here that Christian schools and individual Christians vary widely in their treatment of trans people; we don’t know if you’re attending the kind that fires openly queer employees and outs students to their families, or one that has some protections for you. The same goes for your future roommate—there are plenty of trans Christians and more who are supportive of queer folks, so your roommate might be fine or might be horrible or might be anywhere in between. I used to live near Liberty University, which is notoriously anti-queer, but also has trans students who were forced into attending by their parents or didn’t have other options for getting a degree. You probably already know all this, but I didn’t want to post this letter without acknowledging the complexity of the topic.

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