In June 2019 a new Part-Time Officer role was created following consultation with our Transgender and Non-Binary students who did not feel adequately represented.
A few months into the newly created role we caught up with Mike Jones who is the first Part-Time Transgender and Non-Binary Officer elected by University of Plymouth students.
What is your understanding of the role and why does the role exist?
My understanding is that there isn’t much of a definition for the role and it was created because of students not having felt like they were properly represented before.
Rather than the role existing for a specific purpose I see it as being more around the lack of any pre-existing purpose or remit. So, it’s more about filling a hole that wasn’t really defined or understood because it hadn’t existed before.
What are you hoping to achieve within this role?
In context of the previous question, my goal is to try and open up discussions that we haven’t really had around ‘What is gender identity?’ ‘What is gender?’ ‘What are gender issues?’ etc.
Since starting the role I have been asking people ‘What does non-binary mean?’ to see what responses I get. People will often not really know what this means, or they might say that it means something to them but then you ask somebody else who describes things very differently. That’s why I see my role as being about opening the conversation rather than pushing my own opinions or describing how I think of terms where nobody really agrees on what the words mean.
Whilst my own perspective is mainly focused around the non-binary aspects, I also hope to be able to bring my approach to discussion around trans issues by building on my previous experience of framing topics in a way that is different to the traditional activism in the subject.
What was your motivation for standing for the role?
It was basically when I was looking up why the role exists and I saw that it had been created because students gave feedback that they didn’t feel properly represented.
Although I have always advocated a non-binary view point it is not a term I would use to describe myself, because of the fact people don’t really know what it means or they think it means something that might not necessarily apply to me. My motivation was entirely around that lack of proper representation for non-binary viewpoints, and the fact that when I have heard others representing the subject they tend to be representing a specific thing that is often different to how I and many others think. The role having been created due to students not feeling represented is something that really resonated with me, and when I saw that nobody else had put themselves forward for the position I felt that I needed to put myself forward.
Do you recognise that the term Non-Binary can be a spectrum of gender identity?
That is supposed to be the meaning of the term. This brings me back to that question of ‘what does non-binary mean?’. If you ask people this then many will give a simplistic answer of ‘not male or female’, which is technically correct.
If you follow that up by asking ‘what does that mean?’ then some will admit that they don’t know but a common response is something like ‘not he or she but they’. That answer demonstrates societies lack of understanding around the subject. Some non-binary people will prefer to be referred to as “they”, but there are also others who do not share this preference. If I use the term gender-queer as an example then people will often recognise what I mean. Gender-queer refers to people who somehow fit that first “not male or female” simplification but will also typically not prefer to be referred to as ‘they’.
I have found that I can not talk about this subject without saying at least once “what do most of these terms even mean?” to emphasise that even when I am using gender related terms I am using them in a context-specific way to convey a mutual understanding rather than giving a definitive explanation of what various words mean.
The word “spectrum” is often used in relation to autism and is a good analogy to use. There are certain traits that will make someone appear to be “clearly on the autistic spectrum” yet each person who is described that way is likely to be very different to the next.
Are you trying to create a space or a community of students who may identify with the term transgender or non-binary but also students who are unsure which label they define as, or which community they belong to?
My personal perspective is that it’s the label aspect of things that is the difficulty, and putting people under labels requires that the label has a meaning before you can even decide if it is appropriate. A lot of gender related terms don’t have a commonly understood clear meaning.
Take transsexual and transgender as an example, I believe the distinction is supposed to be if you are referring to physical or psychological. The fact that those two terms exist as separate terms but are often treated as if they mean the same thing demonstrates the problem quite well.
Gender related terms can have distinct meanings within a specific context, but if you take that word out of context it can have a different meaning. How can someone decide if a word describes them or not if that word has a different meaning each time it is used?
If you are not referring to the physical aspect of “someone with a penis” then what does the word “male” mean? I am “someone with a penis” and in some contexts the way that the word “male” is used might apply to me, however quite often “male” is used to refer to things that do not describe me at all. I have also heard examples where “female” is used to describe traits that I have. I can not be male because if I were then I would consider that an insult… if you get what I mean?
So are you aiming to use this platform, and this role, to educate the student body on what this terminology means? Or are you using it to allow students to explore their own gender identity whilst having a support system?
We have to be able understand what we are talking about before we can educate others. I believe that society still has not really achieved the first step of getting people to properly recognise that there IS something to discuss before we can better understand WHAT it is that we need to discuss.
When it comes to someone exploring their own identity, gender is just one aspect of this and there is a reason why people are getting less certain about the answers than they used to be. I would like to point out particularly to younger students, but this also applies to other mature students, that your time at university is an opportunity to explore aspects of yourself and experiment with life in a way that you are unlikely to have the opportunity to do again. Wider society does not give people as much leeway to experiment, and it certainly does not provide anywhere near the level of support that you can find at Plymouth University. (Other universities obviously aren’t anywhere near as good!)
You're going to be hosting two forums, each focussing specifically on issues and ideas affecting Trans or Non Binary students. Could you tell me more about those?
I wanted to have a forum for discussing these kinds of issues, I wasn’t sure whether to have a single forum or separate ones. I decided to split it into two halves of the same event that are technically different forums.
With the trans forum (the first half) there will be some obvious things to discuss such as gender-neutral toilets, difficulties with updating university records etc. however when it comes to the non-binary forum there is some overlap but there are also distinctions and I don’t really know what different perspectives people might bring or which subjects students will consider important.
I am hoping that people will come to both, which is why they are scheduled together. I am particularly hoping that trans students stay afterwards for the non-binary forum. The non-binary forum is likely to be more about the general subject of gender and I hope to provide a venue for discussion around the subject and how it effects students either at university or in their wider lives.
I have conversations with specific people and then I go somewhere else and either have the same conversation again or a different conversation, but it is normally just a topic that comes up in existing conversation. I was hoping to have a group conversation with students from different areas of the university with different backgrounds and different perspectives rather than it just being a subject that sometimes comes up whilst I am already talking to someone.
So you are currently considering running a campaign attempting to articulate to the student body and the general public the concept of a non binary gender using characteristics that are typically assigned to certain genders. Will you be using these forums to develop that campaign idea?
Yes, that is what I am hoping for input on particularly from the non-binary forum. From my perspective it is about raising awareness of the fact that there is something for society to think about rather than trying to convey specific messages. I have an idea for how to do this by trying to satirise gender stereotypes, but as for the actual message to send across and how to convey it properly I am hoping for other students to be able to provide input on that and help in the development of something that can hopefully be launched during the second semester.
So if students would like to contribute to your campaign idea, but aren’t able to attend the forum, how can they get in touch with you?
You can get in touch with me on my student email address which is probably the easiest way to contact me if you don’t know what I look like or where to find me. If you see me around campus I am normally available for a chat, I am happy to meet up any time either around campus or at the pub!
Mike Jones, Transgender & Non-Binary Officer
Thursday 30th January 2020