Personal Insights

My trans story: theory is only half of the journey

'Now I focus much more on talks of empathy, understanding, compassion, togetherness.'

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This week, co-editor Jo sat down with Aubrey Quinney who reveals how pivotal their university degree was in coming out as trans non binary.

They reflect on how important education is for young people, yet how overwhelming it can be. Comparing queer communities in Canada, France, and the UK, they also discuss how tolerant and supportive environments can change someone’s journey.

Tell me about your journey with your gender identity so far?

Well, for my gender specifically, I was born female but I realised I didn’t feel like a woman at about 19 years old. Of course, I could say I always felt more boyish my whole life, but it was when I first went to university that I really didn’t feel anything close to “womanly”.

As a kid, I could never figure out why my style and personality kept swinging towards the masculinity side.

In any case, everything changed in November 2019, my first year at university in Canada. There was the annual “cisgender 1.01 workshop” held in the halls. I like to think it was a very Canadian thing to do!

It was an hour-long conversation about what being cisgender meant, when your sex and gender align in your identity, for men and women and how it impacts you.

I’m assuming it was very eye-opening?

Completely! It was so cool. I realised there was this tension within me that was crying out to be heard. Later, in the hallway, I told everyone how I wanted to try be gender fluid.

A year later, I switched to the non-binary label and then started using they/them pronouns. A few months later I changed my name to a more neutral one.

I want to make a point on sexuality though: I realised I was gay when I was 16/17 years old in high school. My parents were pretty supportive and I dated two different girls. I also cut my hair short for the first time ever in my last year.

I think my relationship with my sexuality was similar to gender: I wanted to be more like a boy so I liked girls, and then I had a boyish haircut and style. So it made total sense to identify as non binary years later.

However, I know a lot of people who are gay women, who look similar to me, and don’t identify as non binary or trans. That’s fine too! I just wanted to make it clear how sexuality can play a huge role in people’s “gender identity” stories too.

How did your relationships and emotions develop as you became more comfortable with your gender identity and expression?

Oh my god I was so much happier when I identified as non binary! It was gradual though.

I was so moody as a kid, never truly happy, always wanting more or aspiring for something different.

My parents like to say I was just uncomfortable so I couldn’t be super happy. I usually answer back: “well, thank you for not helping me understand sooner if you knew!”

It’s been a really weird journey though: the minute I started learning about gender and feminist theory at university, in my second year, I started feeling really angry at the world.

Anger? Really?

In some ways, it was anger but I was also suffocating I guess.

I was seeing everything we were learning in class in real life, and I didn’t know how to deal with all of that yet.

Don’t get me wrong, it was great to vent about the patriarchy and chat all about rights and freedoms on Tuesday mornings, but a kid needs a break sometimes – I was only 20!

For most of second and third year at university, I really disliked men. I couldn’t stand them! At one point, my girlfriend asked me to be more civil with men in general, to which I replied: “I have a right to be angry at them, look at what they represent!”

Though of course it was the insecurities fuelling the anger, I really had to work on myself – and I did.

So what helped?

I started really sitting down with my thoughts and told myself: “I can’t go my whole life being mad at men because most of them are really nice anyway.”

Surprisingly, when university finished, I was in much more control of how much education I was soaking up. Either reading or watching documentaries. The anger completely disappeared.

I think it was all of the theory and the history I learnt which made me so mad.

Now, if I have conversations about queer rights, I focus much more on broad things like empathy, understanding, compassion, togetherness.

Do not get me wrong: all of the theory I learned in class helped me figure out who I was.

I’m so thankful for that because I feel like I transitioned to non binary really quickly – in the space two years, which is quite quick for most people. From the minute I used the word to the first time feeling super confident about how I looked and acted – it was second nature.

So university was super important, but you needed that time on the outside too.

Exactly. The minute I could live more as “human in the real world” rather than a student, I was so much happier. I’m also much calmer and slightly more mature now, I like to think!

I think anyone who is affected by marginalisation will tell you that they probably choose how to spend their energy efficiently. If you’re already spending so much to try to figure out who you are while having theory-based debates — it makes sense why you may have a short fuse.

Have you noticed any differences between the queer communities in France, Canada and the UK?

I think there’s a really clear difference. Especially when it comes to how integrated the queer community and the “cisgender and straight” community are.

In France and the UK, I notice quite a lot of extreme identities in line with punk rock for example.

I get it. When I was learning about the terrible way the world works, I wanted anarchy too!

Yet because Canada has quite a “tolerant” society where queer rights have been around for two generations, it was much easier to avoid extremisms there. Not everyone was perfect, but they definitely never questioned identifying as queer (unless you go to the middle of nowhere).

In Canada, lots of queer people (but not all) mirror straight peoples’ ways of life, like planning for the future, having a family, owning a house, thinking about their careers.

In a less tolerant society, it can be really hard to plan anything, and you can get caught in quite a vicious cycle.

I wasn’t a crazy party animal, didn’t listen to any rock or punk (the type of music which symbol rebellion). I just enjoyed traditional things like going to the library and reading about politics and business. Luckily, I was able to “fit in” pretty well while trying to figure everything out on gender.

Now that I’ve left university, I work full time in the business world and I’m loving it! But I don’t think that would’ve been possible if I went to university anywhere else than Canada.

I was able to have a comfortable, supportive transition at school. It allowed me to go crazy, be angry, then feel better – all in the space of 2 years.

Is there anything you wish people better understood about the queer community?

There are so many different experiences. People go through different emotions all of the time which might change the way they want to identify.

I think seeing queerness as a plurality rather than a single way of living is important. It is fluid of course.

Especially for conversations about transitioning, there’s no reason why someone cannot transition more than once in their lives.

Many cisgender people won’t have a conscious understanding of their gender; it is something that most of us don’t have to think about. Can you try to explain the importance of gender to you, and how it influences your day-to-day life?

It’s always so strange to me to think about how some people don’t realise their gender affects the way they live and experience things. I get it: “It’s just me”. I wish most humans in the world could say the same!

It’s not just the queer community which is affected by stares and social assumptions.

The way I would explain my relationship with my gender is how I feel with my body.

Although that makes it sound quite biological, it really isn’t. Everything I do whether I’m getting dressed, walking somewhere, talking to someone, I always feel a connection with my body. I won’t just be “doing something,” I’ll be actively conscious of how my body is feeling.

Usually, that feeling is happiness, so it always feels pretty good. I’m rarely in a bad mood now!

If you’ve never had that itchy feeling, that really uncomfortable feeling when you do something so you never do it again — you might never understand the relationship a queer person has with their body. I was uncomfortable for so long! Now, anything that makes me happy, I do it over and over again.

Final thoughts? 

Fund education that teaches queer theory and history. With everything on social media now, trying to figure out who you are if you’re just at the beginning of questioning everything is really hard. Any sort of teaching at school would help so much, I just had to wait until university.

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