Law school is a unique experience, but it is also incredibly stressful. For some transgender law students, school is more complex than just going to class and studying for finals. Some trans people, such as myself, deal with high levels of stress and anxiety in daily life aside from the struggles of law school.
For instance, I dealt with so much stress and anxiety my first semester that my face would swell randomly, and I would have panic attacks a few times a week. This experience not only negatively affected my grades, but it forced me to re-evaluate my life at the time. Upon this re-evaluation, I made the difficult decision to come out to my peers.
Since coming out in law school, my mental health has improved in some ways and declined in others. Before coming out, I felt as if I was suffocating. I couldn’t concentrate on my school work, I was having panic attacks, and I found it difficult to engage in everyday conversations with my peers. However, after coming out, I have found it easier to manage my work and social life; further, with the help of medication, my anxiety has decreased. But, new challenges have reared their heads in a way that I wasn’t anticipating, and law school has a funny way of forcing you to adapt quickly.
For any trans law students who may need some guidance, here are five tips that are helping me cope:
1. Set time aside for yourself
One unfortunate aspect of law school is that it creates the illusion that you have no free time. From orientation to graduation, law students are swept up into the pressure of joining campus organizations, being on law review or another journal, and applying for internships on top of making the grades. Moreover, during your 1L year, you will hear that you cannot do anything that isn’t law school related if you want to make the grades. It’s easy to get swept up into that mentality, but it may do more harm than good for your mental health. I learned quickly in my 1L year that if I was going to survive, then I had to formulate ways to deal with my anxiety and stress.
One of the ways I cope is to take time after school work, but before I go to sleep, and do something completely unrelated to law. I download games on my phone. I watch old sitcoms. Basically, I do anything that will help me wind down and eventually fall asleep.
Another way I cope, is through my weekend routine. On the weekends, I don’t set my alarm. I wake up, make some coffee, eat breakfast with my wife and daughter, and get started on my work around noon. This allows me time to enjoy the morning and spend much needed quality time with my family and myself.
2. Find a comfortable place to study
Finding a place to study can be challenging. During 1L year, you’ll listen to people who live in the law library, those who condemn studying at home, those who never leave home, and those who prefer to change up the scenery. You might try all of these to locate a study nook, but only one will work for you. And, that’s the one you feel most comfortable in.
Depending on where I am mentally, I’ll either study at home or at the public library. I have to be careful when I study at home because I tend to be lethargic and distracted with everything else I could be doing. On the other hand, sometimes I don’t have the energy or motivation to get dressed, so doing homework in my pajamas is best for me.
When my anxiety isn’t getting the better of me, I go to the public library near my apartment. The public library I study at currently, is great for my mental health because it has floor-to-ceiling windows and secluded tables. I can enjoy the view, but I also don’t have to worry about talking to anyone if I’m not in the mood.
3. Let people know your pronouns
Transgender people may prefer pronouns that correspond to their identity. For instance, trans men may use traditionally male pronouns while trans women may use traditionally female pronouns. Some trans individuals may use pronouns such as “they” and “them” if they identify as non-binary.
Although this is easier said than done, let your law school peers and professors know what pronouns you prefer. Law school is a gateway to a professional environment that you will be a part of for a long time. It is better to come out in law school and let others know how you prefer to be addressed than to enter the profession without the practice.
I have not come out to everyone at my school, and while I believe it is better to come out now, it is no easy feat. Take your time and do it when you are most comfortable.
4. Locate a single-stall or unisex bathroom
Often, transgender people are afraid to use public restrooms. This fear is attributed to several factors, but the fear itself can be crippling. During 1L year, I would make sure to use the restroom before I left home, and I was conscious of how much water I drank during the day. This is a challenge because most law students are drinking one to two cups of coffee in addition to staying hydrated. Trust me, I know.
Since then, I have located a single stall restroom on the second floor of the law school. It is in a low-traffic area, so I can slip in and out without being noticed, and it is within a relatively short distance from all my classes. Discovering this has lowered my anxiety level overall in day to day life.
I found this restroom just by walking around the law school, but there are other ways to find single stall or unisex restrooms. You can check with the LGBTQ group on campus, check the university map, or check the “Refuge Restrooms” app. “Refuge Restrooms” is an app created by Teagan Widmer that maps safe restrooms for trans people by trans people. Even if a restroom isn’t listed near you, you can do a service and list it when you find one.
5. Speak to a trans-friendly counselor
Law school is hard to handle and so is being transgender. It’s a good idea to speak to someone about it.
I reached out to the local assistance program for the legal profession, and they were able to set me up with a great counselor. Through our sessions, I came to realize that my anxiety was something I needed to handle with medication occasionally. I also learned simple skills to combat stress and overthinking. Working with my counselor just makes me feel better about life, and I don’t think there are any cons to trying it out especially if you are struggling mentally and emotionally.
The important thing to remember is that you are not alone. There are trans people across the country in the legal profession and in law school who have similar experiences every day.