Culture & Society

Drag, Diversity and Dissertations

Many in and out of LGBTQ+ community on and off university campuses question the need for these societies and groups, what do they do and what is the purpose of them? This article explains, from the viewpoint of those who join, why they still exist, despite the large, diverse and accepting nature of modern university life.

I joined York St. John University in September 2015 having recently come out to my parents as a Lesbian. To put it lightly, I was terrified. Immediately everyone I met was non LGBTQ+. Now for some this may not be an issue, but coming from a small village where the only thing resembling a gay bar was over an hour away, I had felt isolated for years, and that continued, despite the warm and welcoming people on and off campus.

Let me clarify that the campus itself wasn’t an issue, YSJ has one of the most openly diverse campuses in the entire UK, it was more that I hadn’t got confidence in myself to be more open about my sexuality, and I am not the only one. Then the Fresher’s Fair hit, an event where the societies and sports of the University all cram together in the sports hall in a bid to gain members and show how diverse the campus really is. Immediately my friends signed me up to the LGBTQ+ society, I went to their first event and it changed my life. I became more involved, on my course and with my friends, be it in the society or out, and more open about myself and my identity.

Now a year or two on, I am President of the society, I am confident, and I feel like I can be open and free, so much so I have accepted not only my sexuality but my expression as a gender non-conforming/androgynous person because of my confidence. Many will read this and think it as a victory, a ‘good for her in finding herself’. However, since becoming President I am constantly bombarded with the question, why? What is the point in an LGBTQ+ Society at a campus that is so open and diverse and accepting? Often it’s asked by people who are LGBTQ+ rather than not, this article will answer your questions as to why there is such a society on such a modern campus, not just answered by me but by the members themselves.

Immediately this past year alone many members have come out to their family since joining the society. This of course doesn’t seem like a matter of huge importance to many people in modern society, but it demonstrates that a support system given by societies and groups such as these, give people confidence in being open and out. It also helps drive the sense of diversity and acceptance on campus, since last year we now have 25 members, and host open and vibrant events all over campus, even for non-members this helps people feel as if they are safe on campus, being open and overall being themselves.

This is important in a country where it was reported that ‘one in three people believe being gay is a choice’. Also, in recent news, the restriction of a lot of LGBTQ+ content on the platform ‘Youtube’ can restrict access for many young people to educational, and beneficial content, which is also a blow for many trying to validate and be confident in their identity.
Certain examples include many ‘coming out stories’ being blocked, due to them not being ‘child friendly’, essentially claiming a person’s identity is not okay for everyone to watch and they should be restricted.

When stories like this are making headlines continuously, it can diminish the confidence of many young LGBTQ+ people, societies like LGBTQ+ not only help educated people on campus who are the ‘one in three’, but also those members in the society that are not out, or open, about their sexuality. Which is the same for many similar groups across the UK. Such members may even be scared to come out to housemates, or course mates on campus, for their own reasons, whilst remaining an active society member; LGBTQ+ groups provide a secure and safe environment for such members to discuss these issues, and support one another.

Working with the Students Union also allows such societies to spread Sexual health awareness to all its members, recently YSJ’s Students Union introduced dental dams, along with its usual free condom section for the first time. This allowed me to give feedback that has made a lot of members feel as if sexual health was finally relevant to them. It was liberating. Some members, however, may previously not have had the confidence to talk about their sexual health before being given that safe space that the society provides. This is not only the case at YSJ – other university campuses around the UK are benefitting widely from the introduction of LGBTQ+ Societies and groups, especially due to the LGBTQ+ youth being the largest failed in the UK education system.

I have interviewed members of YSJ’s LGBTQ+ society, on their opinions of the society and to give them a voice to respond to those who critique the purpose of such groups. In order to protect them and their identities for varying reasons they will be addressed as A, B, C and D.

What do you identify as on the LGBTQ+ spectrum?
A: Somewhere in between Gay and Bisexual, but if someone asks I would probably say Gay.
B: CIS Pansexual Male.
C: I’m Gay, but like not exclusively, I don’t think I’d identify myself as say Bi or Pansexual.
D: Bisexual, but that’s fluid. I don’t like putting labels on myself but that’s as close as it gets I think.

What does the University LGBTQ+ Society mean to you?
A: It means we all have a safe space, and I have like minded people to talk to about LGBTQ+ as a topic.
B: It means a close selection of friends, safety both on and off campus, with a group which is open to everyone and allows everyone to be included.
C: It’s like a place where you can make friends who in some ways are similar to you, and obviously sexuality can be an awkward thing to talk about with some people; so being able to express that side of yourself freely is great and that’s the place to do it, with all your mates. It also is all your friends in a group so you go out and just have a good time without fear of judgement.
D: A place of comradery where its safe to speak your mind/be who you are without fear of judgement.

How do you think a LGBTQ+ Society can benefit university campuses, even non-members? If it can at all.
A: It creates a safe space on the campus for all people on campus not just LGBTQ+ students. It also helps allies, and develops understanding of LGBTQ+ topics and issues with the wider community.
B: As a group it allows people to have a free space to talk about their problems related to issues they might be feeling in their own sexual/physical identity. It also allows everyone to get access to the information that they might require regarding their self-identity.
C: It makes people aware of us, and like the fact that queer people are everywhere and we are all different. We aren’t just that one white gay male best friend that’s represented in the media. It helps with representation a lot throughout universities which will then catch on as students leave with more knowledge. I think it will help in the long run with representation of all types of queer people.
D: The society can demonstrate the forward thinking of a university and act as a safe place for everyone, LGBTQ+ or ally. A university without one may as well be in the dark ages. It most likely will also help encourage prospective LGBTQ+ students to come to the university.

How does it feel, when other members of the LGBTQ+ community question the validity of purpose of such societies, and what would you say to them?
A: Societies like LGBTQ+ help people and provide a support network for people which is often not available in wider society.
B: I would say that it is important for us to have societies like this as it gives people more freedom. I don’t think that it should be necessary, but due to many different factors with prejudices and changing times, I believe that the societies and groups like this are here to not only be a safe place for us to go when we need it, but also a way for us to give other people information on the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. And hopefully will reduce the amount of stigma that members of the LGBTQ+ community could receive in the future. I also believe that, in a perfect world, there wouldn’t need to be one but necessity of protection requires us to have one right now.
C: It’s frustrating ‘cause it’s similar to having a Christian society or other cultural or diverse society/group. In a way that it’s for people who identify similarly and enjoy the same things to come together and find a friendship group they can fully trust and support them. It also gives me a good university experience. It’s about having comfort in what you know and is being more educated as well like as much as we are part of the LGBTQ+ community we aren’t educated on every issue. For example as a Cis gendered woman, I can’t understand Transgender issues as I don’t experience them. I need to be educated and groups and societies help with that as I can be with my mates who understand these issues and educate me so I can do what I can to help them and I think education for the general students is also a purpose of such groups.
D: I think it’s a bit ridiculous to be honest. I’d ask them to think back to their youth. Their experiences through school, college and/or university and think about the support they had and the friends they had. To consider whether they had the support they needed while figuring out who they are/discovering that they’re different from what the world widely accepts as ‘normal’. If they received opportunities to attend talks and events about things like safe sex -because the government still doesn’t include homosexual sex ed. Then I’d ask them to put themselves in the shoes of someone who received no support, is maybe lost and confused, then I’d throw the idea of a new city and studying for a degree in the mix. A group of people with similar attitudes and access to support and advice could literally be the difference between life and death.