Bradley Neal: Trans Pride & Healing

To celebrate UK Pride Month, the British Ecological Society journal blogs are hosting a ‘Rainbow Research’ series, which aims to promote visibility of STEM researchers from the LGBTQ+ community. Each post will be connected to a theme represented by one of the colours shown in the Progress Pride flag. In this post, Bradley Neal discusses gender identity, trans pride, and healing:

Last Pride Month I wrote too much about myself, but despite that, this year I’m delighted to be asked back to write for the BES blog series again. I wrote the previous blog piece in June 2021, which was before I had officially started my PhD. This time, I want to centre my post around trans pride and healing, two things that have been extremely important to me over the past year.

A lot has changed since then. I’ve become an associate lecturer (AL) and have just completed my first presentation of an environmental science module which I have adored. I’ve met some fantastic students and have really been inspired by how far they are sure to go. I am proud to have met such excellent budding scientists, but also to be getting close to the inner workings of an institution I love so much at The Open University. In terms of my education, I am about to complete the upgrade process from MPhil to PhD and I am absolutely loving it. Despite twitter memes to the contrary, my PhD experience has been almost entirely positive so far. There’s been blips, frustrations and lots of times without a decent break (e.g., right now), but it is still the most fulfilling and enjoyable thing I’ve ever done. That said, the mere act of writing this blog post is reflected quite nicely here.

Healing

Nature is the best healer for me, but I’ll try not to talk about butterflies for at least one article

This brings me to the first theme I’d like to discuss; Healing. As I mentioned in my previous post, I had little to no formal education until age 30 when got an undergraduate degree at the OU while working in retail and generally being poor and depressed. Then, I achieved an MSc in 2020 and went on to start my PhD in 2021. I detailed this journey and my research in a recent podcast for anyone interested. As someone who’s spent the majority of their adult life (until I met my husband) with ability but lack of support, I got bored at work quickly. Most jobs lost my interest as soon as the challenge stopped, or the repetition kicked in. Having the opportunity to do something I love so much at the OU with its regular challenges and mental stimulation is really rewarding.

My role as a PhD student and an AL has allowed a tumultuous part of myself to settle down a little; the self-doubt. Academia is known for fostering a huge amount of imposter syndrome, and while this flares up now and then, I most often feel amazed at the fact I’m even here. I often find myself, as postgraduate researcher and CENTA student, sitting among some truly impressive peers with interesting and diverse backgrounds. I still don’t feel quite like I fit in with all of them all the time, due to my own self-esteem, but the fact that we are both sitting in the same room boosts my confidence rather than harms it. It has also been cathartic to meet others from similarly disadvantaged or marginalised backgrounds, such as several neurodivergent people.

Those in the postgraduate research community at the OU are specialists in their own fields, but the truly great ones take an interest in the passion of others, and this is my favourite part of the social life here. I’ve met people doing all sorts, from icy moons, tiny minerals, electro-acoustic composition, to autism studies and fossils. All of these people have an amazing passion to share, but also want to hear me share mine. This is something that has been missing for most of my life, as a first-generation student with no present family members that can relate or really understand what a degree, MSc or PhD takes, let alone understand or be interested in what I am so dedicated to in time and passion.

So this is the healing element, acceptance, finding people like me and feeling like I’m starting to find my niche. This sense of community is of critical importance, as along with this comes acceptance of me as a person, which brings me to my next topic.

Identity – Trans pride

I wear this every day, but when recently noticed by someone I chat to on the bus– they said something transphobic and now we don’t speak. Standard, really, but I effectively removed them from my life with ease.

For the past few years I have been questioning my gender identity, and it is a rollercoaster ride, for sure. At the beginning it felt strange and kind of… false – no matter how much I could logically advocate for trans and non-binary people in my rational mind, when I came to feel this myself, all the negative press, internet comments and personal sense of worthlessness reared their heads again. I began feeling misplaced and unsure of my own validity; the anxious and illogical brain is cruel. Most significantly is that I didn’t feel that I fitted neatly into any pre-defined category I knew about. Again, through community I have found a place to heal, grow and learn. Learn what’s out there in terms of gender identity but also understand where to go for support. Because I grew up around so much homophobia my mind snaps to negativity, invalidity and all the awful ‘lessons’ I was taught growing up about how wrong and unusual it was to be anything other than cishet. This cycle occurs every time I do or feel something outside of the mainstream and this time it was fierce.

The negative media persistence does cause cracks, and sometimes things do creep in. This is why I didn’t write about trans pride in my last blog. Not only was I not ready, but I also didn’t understand myself; and this is where the healing comes in. It’s also exhausting to constantly explain yourself, something that research by the brilliant Lynn Regan has recently found to be a common stressor for trans people in higher education.

Through the endless support of my husband and best friend, along with anyone who’s been aware of it in my circle of close friends, I have learnt that people are on my side. However surprising it might be for a 6’1 “masc-presenting guy” to say they feel otherwise, I have been accepted. There will be a bunch of people who won’t be on my side, obviously, but with the sense of community where I live, my friends online, and the support and solidarity from a great friend at the university (the other building I live in), I feel I sometimes have a place I deserve.

There are still pangs of shame and other negative feelings, but I can turn to a few key people and be reassured that I’m loved and enjoyed as me. I am not a body, gender or sexuality – I am a person and so is everyone else. The network I am now a part of sees me as a person first, and all the other stuff after. This is something I have never had in such a reliable way until I met my husband, and it has grown rapidly over the past year.

I suppose I’m writing this for anyone else who feels like I did; lacking validity, ground down by the tedium of the British press and politics that have caused so much pain for the LGBT+ community. It’s likely that you’ve faced discrimination too and probably had a rubbish support network growing up. Know that communities out there exist and speaking up to the right person can help you, as it did for me.

Even broken in spirit as he is, no one can feel more deeply than he does the beauties of nature. The starry sky, the sea, and every sight afforded by these wonderful regions, seems still to have the power of elevating his soul from earth” – Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein.

Read more Rainbow Research posts here.

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