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TL;DR: What's the best way to deal with sharing rooms at conferences if you are worried that your roommate may discover you are trans?

I am a PhD candidate in the UK.

When attending conferences and workshops, postgrads are often fortunate enough to be offered free or heavily subsidised accommodation. (Sometimes free food too, lucky us!) Often the arrangement is that students will share a room with a roommate of the same gender. This is cheaper and personally I think it’s very impressive that the conference organiser has managed to find funding for accommodation at all.

I am a passing transgendered (and transsexual) person. This is not a secret, it becomes pretty obvious if you google my name, but you wouldn’t know just by meeting or hearing me. I pass very reliably now; I have even dated people who didn’t know until I told them.

Being trans is something I am happy to discuss at the appropriate moment, but it very rarely becomes relevant, so only five or so people at my university know about it. Perhaps it is comparable to the number of people who know your favourite colour; assuming you don’t wear that colour all the time, you probably don’t discuss it that often, because why would you?

(It would be nice if answers would also address trans people who are fully closeted, and trans people who don’t pass.)

The vast majority of people in academia are probably not at all bothered by the particulars of my transition, and wouldn’t mind sharing a room at all. To date only one person has ever expressed distaste about my being trans to my face. However, I am aware that there are probably rather more people who are hostile to it, but have the diplomacy not to say so to my face. Under ordinary circumstances this is no issue, most people don’t google me so they are not aware.

Sharing a room makes this a touch more complex. It is possible to share a room with someone and not give away that I am trans. Without going into too many technicalities, it's much harder to hide when asleep. I have done this a few times now; I will get up before them and leave quietly while they are still asleep, I will try to go to bed when they are out, and if I can’t I will sleep in a baggy hoodie, I will avoid getting more than tipsy (probably a good idea anyway). It works but it's not foolproof and it’s a bit nerve racking.

I would imagine that even if the average person did realise I was trans they would be too polite to say anything. However, there would be a minority who would not like it. Perhaps they would simply complain, which would be embarrassing but not disastrous, however there would be more unfortunate possibilities. People can react unpredictably to something they feel is imposing on their personal space, particularity something that is sometimes seen as a sexual deviancy. It would be very interesting to know more how accepting of trans folk PhD students are, but I don’t wish to learn about it via sharing rooms.

Within the UK I don’t really think there is any personal safety risk, the nastiest thing I can imagine anyone doing is taking pictures. Outside of the UK I am less able to second-guess the likely reactions, I don’t think it would be controversial to say that trans acceptance is culturally localised.

So potential strategies for dealing with this might include;

  1. Inform the roommate at the start, and ask them if they are uncomfortable. Drawback: aside from being an amazingly awkward way to introduce myself, as mentioned earlier there are probably more people who will be repulsed but not say so to my face than people who will be open about their hostility. If I tell them at the start I have given up the possibility of going undetected and am still sharing a room with someone who would rather not share with me.
  2. Hide that I am trans. Drawback: it’s not very relaxing and the roommate may realise anyway.
  3. Tell my supervisor and ask for alternative arrangements. Drawback: expensive for the university and comes across as needy. Also implicitly accuses other PhD students of being intolerant when they are probably perfectly agreeable. I have no concerns that my supervisor would have issue with my being trans, they are a progressive person, but some people might have this worry.
  4. Don’t go unless I can arrange my own accommodation. Drawback: I would go to less events and events are very useful and great fun. Also, it probably needs explaining to my supervisor.
  5. Tell the people organising the event. Drawback: that’s not quite the impression I want to make on each institution that hosts an event.

So no response is perfect, but what is the most sensible route?

Currently option 2 is what I’m working with. I would prefer a strategy that doesn’t require asking for much. I’m ok with more people knowing that I’m trans, just telling someone out of the blue is a bit awkward.

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    An additional strategy: Discuss the issue with your supervisor to get advice, rather than to request alternative arrangements. – Patricia Shanahan Sep 30 '18 at 2:23
  • Good question, but it might be better to ask other trans people and trans advocacy organizations. Most people on this site won't have experience with a trans PhD student. – Anonymous Physicist Sep 30 '18 at 4:41
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    You might want to clarify: Does your supervisor know you are trans? – Anonymous Physicist Sep 30 '18 at 4:46
  • @AnonymousPhysicist They might do, given they hired me it wouldn't be surprising if they had searched my name, and you can infer it from my CV, but we have never directly discussed it. – throw away account Sep 30 '18 at 12:31
  • @PatriciaShanahan I like that one. They probably have a better intuition for peoples likely reactions anyway. – throw away account Sep 30 '18 at 12:36
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One possible script:

Hi, I have medical issues that make it awkward to share a room with strangers. Are there any options that avoid this? I'd prefer to keep the details private.

There are many conditions that could fit this description, so it's not obviously outing you as transgender, but it's truthful (assuming you're OK with describing this situation as "medical issues") and it gives them the information they need to know to resolve the issue. Also avoids stating who it would be "awkward" for.

This doesn't necessarily resolve the costs issue, but organisers may have a little more flexibility in finding solutions there - e.g. if they have an odd number of guests, it may not cost them any extra.

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    I agree that the organizers should handle this, but it's not a medical issue; it's a concern about personal safety. In Western countries, at least, they should have the grace to accommodate such a concern without asking for details. – Elizabeth Henning Sep 30 '18 at 3:13
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    @ElizabethHenning I agree that it's a safety concern, and that may well be the primary reason for making such a request. But framing it as a "medical issue" may be less likely to draw unwanted attention and follow-up questions, and given that the issue relates to OP's physical body it's still truthful, even if it's not the whole truth. I also agree that organisers should be willing to accommodate such requests without requiring details, but sadly "should" doesn't always happen, and OP hasn't indicated that they're only considering Western countries. – Geoffrey Brent Sep 30 '18 at 3:30
  • Your both right, the lie is a small one, but still a lie. For some countries I would probably take your suggestion, but for most of Europe it might be seen as overly cautious. – throw away account Sep 30 '18 at 12:33
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I would either say it upfront or leave open to discovery. I feel you are probably overly cautious and caring over a minor issue.

Possibly someone has a problem with sharing a room with you discovering you are transgender, but it is much more his or her problem than yours. You definitely own a right not to care his or her comfort.

Within the UK I don’t really think there is any personal safety risk.

I don't think you are any more at risk than anyone else. Sharing a room implies for everyone a (tiny) part of risk.

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