Wherever I move I always have a couple of pictures of me as a child, Christoffer tells me over the phone. “Trans joy for me is about showing [this] younger self that this is something I get to embrace.”

We’re speaking about trans joy, a few days following his photoshoot with Varsity. Illness and busy Michaelmas schedules have pushed our in-person meetings back multiple times, but even now over the phone, Christoffer’s enthusiasm shines through.

“I get joy out of being able to reflect that happiness and that sense of being proud about who I am,” he explains, still recovering from his bout of fever. “I wasted a lot of my younger years hating myself wrongfully.”

Though as I look at photos of Christoffer with his arm poised in the air, gripping the trans flag in his right hand, I suspect a lot has changed.

From Denmark, MPhil student Christoffer has been involved with politics and trans activism in his home country for many years. Now 24 and a matriculated postgraduate, Christoffer is making similar strides in the Cambridge community, helping organise the protest against the Helen Joyce talk held at Gonville & Caius in October.

Not only is it Transgender Awareness Week, but trans students have been caught in the middle of a debate about free speech, a debate often perpetuated by the national press. This is, of course, not without consequences on those caught in the crossfire.

Alex Parnham-Cope for Varsity

“Discourse travels and it manifests in people’s minds as a legitimate way of thinking about [trans] people,” Christoffer says.

The effects of this discourse are not immune from spreading in Cambridge either. Popping into Sainsbury’s for a quick shop, Christoffer was approached by a student wearing a John’s puffer. “He said can I ask you a question,” he recounts. “I said: 'Sure'.”

“Why do you think you have the right to be at Cambridge? I think you should have gotten mental help before you applied to the University,” the student said, his two friends standing silently behind him, complicit in their terrifying silence.

Listening back to the recording of my conversation with Christoffer, I was left audibly shocked by his story. Perhaps even more shocked at my own naivety. This is a situation I would have previously considered rare at a place like Cambridge.

“I told him that I have every right to be here, and that if he didn’t think so, it was maybe him that needed the help,” he continues.

Christoffer is unfortunately used to this sort of confrontation. Having been politically active for a while, he has often dealt with the Danish far right. “Politics is a very dangerous place for a trans person,” he observes. Still, he worries how this situation might have affected him had it happened only six years earlier, as an 18-year-old fresher.

Alex Parnham-Cope for Varsity

Crucially, events like the Helen Joyce talk jeopardise the positivity of the trans rights movement. “The notion of positivity is really important,” he explains. "This is just the way I am and have always been".

Lucy, a second year undergraduate, agrees. "When I talk about being trans with my friends that are also trans, the [word] joy comes up more than anything else really".

This notion of trans joy is really important to Christoffer and Lucy, and both tell me that the joyous nature of gender affirmation is often ignored by many in their discussions of trans issues.

"I think that joy is really a lot of what being trans means to me. It's finding joy where you didn't [think] you ever could, in a way that a large part of society has told you from a young age is 'weird' and 'wrong'," she says.

Have trans students been unfairly caught in a debate over which they have no control? “I think so,” says Lucy.

Speaking particularly passionately about the false dichotomy between free speech and trans rights, she emphasises that trans people can’t participate in these debates in the same capacity.

“I do think free speech is important, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that trans people can’t engage in this debate in the same way that cis people can, [particularly] when the debate is a choice about your right to exist in public and your right to healthcare,” she explains, highlighting that these rights are precarious in the best of cases anyway.

Alex Parnham-Cope for Varsity

“This desire to frame [the debate] as an issue of free speech is that the people most affected can’t engage freely.”

The University, as one of the most prestigious educational establishments in the world, has a duty to use its platform responsibly, according to Lucy. Trans students should not feel “unsafe” and “unwelcome” in their own community.

As for press coverage of these events, Lucy goes to great lengths to stress that we shouldn’t try to frame them in a “objective” way, because they are fundamentally not “neutral”.

But more than anything, the debate distracts from the actual issues trans people are facing in day-to-day life. Lucy lists these emphatically: “The fact that trans hate crimes are rising, the fact that we still don’t have proper access to healthcare on the NHS, the fact that many trans people are forced into sex work, the fact that many trans people are homeless.”

The trans rights movement clearly has many obstacles ahead, but the lasting impression Lucy and Christoffer left on me was their sheer positivity. They speak assuredly about their community and their movement. Christoffer’s voice lights up as he talks about the queer community he helped start over the summer. “We’re nearly 200 now,” he tells me triumphantly. 

I now understand why Christoffer has a photo of his younger self pinned to the wall of his college room: it’s not only a reminder of how far he’s come personally, but how much more there is left to do for the next generation.