Navigating USyd as a gender-diverse STEM student

I always hoped that USyd would be an inclusive environment for gender diverse students. Now that I’m entering my second year, I have doubts.

This hope for inclusion arose from the lack of it at my single-sex religious school in the western suburbs of Sydney. While I am grateful for the quality of the education I received, this teenage experience had adverse effects on my mental health at the time. The continued devaluation of my gender as something equated with my biological gender, along with degrading ‘class debates’ about the health of LGBTQIA+ individuals, became a precursor to some of the concerns I had about the college study environment. I wanted a college experience in which my gender is taken seriously, and as only one aspect of my identity.

When I started college at the beginning of 2021, I became more confident in myself and started dressing as I wanted, instead of the way I thought I should. To this day, I thank Twenty10’s OutWest, Cal’s unpardonable trust in Netflix’s “Sex Education”, for normalizing how to live outside sexual norms and feeling proud of my identity. In turn, I began to notice how the university and my transgender peers addressed me within the content taught in the lectures, and how teachers spoke to me, along with the systems and processes put in place to aid the transition.

My experience was mixed, to say the least.

Although my legal name was updated at the end of last year, most of the university’s services including Zoom, USyd email address, UniKey, Canvas page and tutorial run sheets do not acknowledge this. I’ve signed off on the issue with the Student Center a few times (most recently in March of this year), which has sent me into a vortex-like email thread; They claimed to have escalated the issue with senior staff, however there has been little change in my user experience to date. The only sites that recognize my name, as far as I know, are Sydney Timetable, SRC Vote, and AutoCAD software in its class.
Additionally, I’ve had several USyd employees contact me that my personal information is out of date, expected to be obtained from the Australian Tax Office (ATO) and a Unique Student Identifier (USI) record. Although I changed my name on both platforms at the beginning of the year, I receive emails every two days claiming that my name is not compatible with the University of Sydney database (my dead name); Threaten to cut off access to HECS.

Legally changing my name was easier than changing it through Student Center. This is very worrying and unacceptable.

The delivery of gender-related content in USyd classes is also complex and outdated. When studying a STEM degree, I’ve noticed that a host of procedures—from displaying statistics in lectures, to the way teachers treat students—reflect a largely ignorant view of the gender diversity on campus. In the early CIVL2010 (Environmental Engineering) lectures, a short deadlock-breaking survey was run, asking about our gender by choosing either ‘female’ or ‘male’. In addition, the reporter quoted statistics from the United Nations, “Fertility rate, children per woman,” assuming only women, and All Women, can reproduce within a certain age – skew the data set by excluding any surrogates (i.e. individuals who identify women and who I can not Reproduction; Non-women identify individuals who Can Reproduction).

On the other hand, some of the lecturers were thinking forward. While delivering the inaugural lecture for MATH1005 (‘Statistical Reasoning with Data’), I appreciated a class-wide questionnaire in which the lecturer acknowledged the presence of transgender individuals, and allowed us to choose the ‘other’ when we entered our gender (rather than choosing a gender at random, as we would if it weren’t for give us a choice). Similarly, in the online registration for CIVL2201 (“Structural Mechanics”), students welcomed the class using the word “everyone,” a simple gender-neutral term that includes all persons.

I admit these are marginal changes, but they make a big difference.

I don’t think the lecturers, teachers, staff, or even USyd students have ill intentions, but they lack an understanding of how to properly accommodate and support LGBTQIA+ students within the classroom. In contrast, we receive a poor sense of support on campus by its staff and formal support systems, heightened only by student communities and bodies with significant queer representation.

Sophia Costantino, a CIVL2010 teacher, told me that she has had little or no formal training on how to recognize gay students in her induction program, let alone how to accommodate them in the classroom. Obviously, this has to change. For a university with the enormous wealth and resources of USyd (it generated a massive $1.04 billion surplus last year), such a feat is certainly defensible, and any opposition clearly stems from an apparent lack of sponsorship.

So here are some of the ways the university can improve its ally towards transgender individuals, particularly in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

If there are multiple disabled unisex bathrooms in the Peter Nicol Russell (PNR) Building, at least make them all readily available at all times; One should not be “temporarily closed” at any time. Furthermore, if gender statistics are necessary in lecture venues (or if they are the only information available on a topic), the lecturer should explicitly state their limitations on lecture slides and/or in class. When teachers introduce themselves to the class, they should, if they are comfortable, include their pronouns, just as they do in emails and names. Finally, if there are group-wide surveys, there should be a “non-binary or gender diverse” option, not just male/female.

The battle for acceptance is not complicated. Let’s stop doing that.