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LGBTQ+ inclusivity: better at home or away?

Credit: Flickr

Ilia Hionidou

Ilia Hionidou compares the LGBTQ+ inclusivity initiatives at different campuses across the world to find out how we can create a safer space for all students

The decision to study abroad can be challenging for a plethora of reasons: the lack of financial accessibility for low-income students, language barriers, convoluted immigration processes to name a few. For some students, however, there is the added issue of LGBTQ+ inclusivity. While same-sex marriage has been legalised in 26 countries, the criminalisation of homosexuality in over 70 countries worldwide drastically limits the options for LGBTQ+ students to study abroad in safe and tolerant environments. Even in countries that have attained marriage equality, there are serious disparities: in the USA for example, studying in New York City or San Francisco would be an infinitely different experience to studying in Texas or South Carolina.

One Glasgow University student – lets call her Sarah – told me about her experiences studying in Hong Kong as an LGBTQ+ student. Hong Kong’s laws are partially emancipatory: “homosexual activity” is legal and the age of consent for LGBTQ+ individuals is equal to that of heterosexual individuals. Same-sex marriage, however, remains unrecognised.

“I’d say [Hong Kong] is a bit more restrictive [than Glasgow] since I don’t know many other LGBTQ+ people here and so I don’t necessarily feel 100% comfortable coming out to someone unless I’m close to them or know for sure that they don’t mind.” Although it seems as though most locals are “fine with it”, Sarah says that she is “more likely to [come out to] the exchange students than the locals.”

For Sarah, the general attitude towards LGBTQ+ people in Hong Kong seems to be heteronormative: “If I ask people ‘Do you have a boyfriend or girlfriend?’ they’ll act super surprised, as in, why would I even consider a non-straight option? They’ll get offended that I’m even thinking that they could be non-straight. They’ll also sometimes make gay people the butt of a joke or use the word ‘gay’ as a derogatory term.”

What about support for LGBTQ+ study abroad students? “I’m assuming [the University of Glasgow or the Chinese University of Hong Kong] have non-discrimination policies…but they don’t really address it. During the study-abroad session in Glasgow they warned us to be aware of certain attitudes towards minorities, and to be safe. But [neither University] offer tangible support systems.”

This differs drastically from my own experiences of studying in Washington, DC, where (in a 2015/16 study) over 8% of the population identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender – 3.3% higher than any other US state. No to mention D.C. has a prolific LGBTQ+ history: amongst other things, D.C. was home to the poetic giant and father of modern American literature Walt Whitman (who is usually described as being gay, or bisexual), and whose words are engraved into the metro entrance to Dupont Circle, the city’s lively Gay Village.

As one of the most thriving gay communities in the country, with 18.08 same-sex couples per 1000 households, I found – before I even arrived – that D.C.’s American University (AU) reflected the inclusivity of the city’s LGBTQ+ population. The AU Abroad website (a platform for both outgoing and incoming abroad students at the University) had a tab for “Student Identity Abroad” under which were nestled the options “First Generation College Student”, “Disabilities”, “Student of Colour” as well as a tab labelled “LGBTQ”. A lot of the information provided was geared towards students from AU that were going abroad, but nevertheless I was impressed by the University’s efforts to collate a comprehensive list of resources, featuring the emails and telephone numbers of organisations that deal with travel and study abroad information for LGBTQ+ students.

The first week of lectures also augured well. At the start of most classes, the professors would ask for our names, our degree programs and our pronouns. This process was very casual; no explanation was required or given, and most people reeled off their pronouns very easily and entirely unabashed. The only other place I had witnessed this was during Speaker Training at the Glasgow University Debating Society; for many new participants, including myself, such disclosure was an unfamiliar – but enormously welcome – concept. At American University, it seems almost second nature to the point where many lecturers sign off their emails with their pronouns, in an as matter-of-fact way as signing off with their names. Similarly, during an orientation presentation on Sexual Conduct at the University with the EMPOWER AU scheme (American University’s homegrown, nationally recognized, peer-led sexual violence prevention program) and the OASIS program (the Office of Advocacy Services for Interpersonal and Sexual Violence), the mention of sexual assault against LGBTQ+ students, and within their community, was also a nod of acknowledgement towards LGBTQ+ issues, and a form of encouragement in favour of LGBTQ+ safety and security.

After asking members of the LGBTQ+ community at AU about their personal confrontations with inclusivity, the feedback was largely encouraging. Fourth-year student Katie stated that her “experience has been very positive; I have never experienced homophobia and I feel super safe on campus.” Professor Fiona Brideoake, of the AU Literature department, had a similar response: “there is a lot of structural and institutional work that goes into making this a visibly welcome place for students. There is definitely a perception that this is a progressive and activist school. The Literature department is certainly very welcoming, and there is support for students in the sense that people are not stigmatised.”

Despite this, AU falls short in providing comprehensive protection and support for certain student demographics. Professor Brideoake addressed the “publicised and dismaying incidents of campus racism”, saying: “There are ways in which spaces could be safer for queer people of colour. I know students of colour, particularly African-American students, have not felt safe on campus and have felt that the school could do more on that regard.” Professor Brideoake also mentioned that, academically, she has at times “had to make more of a case” for her work, which comprises of an interdisciplinary focus on the history of sexuality: “There have been some unexpected instances of heteronormative thinking – and it was only a few people – that I was struck by. I have also heard from scholars more generally that there can be methodological bias to the kind of work that is taken seriously and that is seen as ‘properly scholarly’ and ‘properly literary’ – as moving a discipline forward in serious and important ways. In part, that comes from the tradition of what has been thought of as ‘properly literary’ in the past, and has been to the exclusion of various marginalised communities.”

More positively, Professor Brideoake noted that “there is increasingly a cohort of visibly self-identified queer students, and trans and non-binary students which I think AU has become known as a relatively safe space for.” The increased number of students that openly identify as trans and non-binary is a progression that Professor Brideoake has noticed since coming to AU in 2009, and since her own time attending university at the Australian National University in Canberra: “over the last ten years there has been a shift in thinking from what was often a tokenistic inclusion of trans people to the rise of a self-identified and proudly vocal community of students that are trans or non-binary. I feel like that’s very striking and recent in my experience.”

This progress, however, has seemingly not taken place everywhere. Professor Brideoake noted that, “certainly colleagues at schools with very strong sporting traditions or outspoken alumni communities can feel that queer students and minority students are less served because of the baked-in misogyny and sexualised violence of sporting cultures. In these different institutional settings, student athletes may have a certain kind of impunity underpinned by money and institutional power, and universities can be less willing to challenge long-established traditions and norms.”

Professor Brideoake and Katie both noted American University’s active and outspoken criticism of LGBTQ+ discrimination. Professor Brideoake specifically commended the system in place that protects and supports minorities including the campus LGBTQ+ population, AU’s “Centre of Diversity, which does, I think, really terrific work. They have programmes such as the peer education programme where students are trained by the centre to go out and do training and interventions and so [there is a] more horizontal model of education and peer work which I think is particularly important in a school that has a largely middle-class, four-year, dormitory-living population.” Meanwhile, Katie observed that by “being so public about its support of the LGBTQ+ community, [AU] attracts a lot of people who are either gay or very socially liberal.” Katie specifically cited AU’s public support as being an easy and effective way of creating a safe space for LGBTQ+ students, suggesting that professors “who are allies or gay themselves” could put “Pride flags on [their] doors and publicly [support] LGBTQ+ communities.”

For many, I would assume, such small adjustments in individual and organisational conduct may seem trivial and inconsequential. What real difference does it make to edit email signatures, or pin up pride flags on faculty doors? Ultimately, it sends out an implicit message of ally-ship. Small indicators of support from academic staff can reassure pupils that discriminatory behaviour is less likely to be tolerated, and implies a safer (if not completely safe) space for LGBTQ+ people.

Again, many may question, why are we still in need of a safe space? It’s 2019 – surely (at least in the UK) gender is fluid, pride is colourful, and the trauma of the closet is a distant, faded memory? Apparently not. Although Scotland is at the forefront of the world stage for being the first country to embed LGBTQ+ teaching across the national curriculum, during the 2018 Freshers’ Week, the Edinburgh University Student Association faced severe backlash for handing out optional pronoun badges to its students: of 5000 Facebook respondents, 81% of people voted against the initiative. Students also receive regular emails that address “highly offensive” behaviour. One email distributed on 30 January from Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology reads that “stickers of a highly offensive nature were found in the toilets” of a university building. The email cautioned students that “displaying offensive material is explicitly forbidden and can be met with disciplinary action under the code of student conduct.” Students were reminded of the 2010 Equality Act, and its “nine ‘protected characteristics’ which include gender reassignment, alongside disability, race, sexual orientation, age, pregnancy/childbirth, religion/belief, marriage and sex/gender.” While such emails show the University of Edinburgh’s persistence in tackling queer-related discrimination, they also indicate that deep-rooted LGBTQ+ discrimination is equally persistent in universities and higher-education establishments.

At the University of Glasgow, the GULGBTQ+ society is one of the largest and most active societies on campus, and the University also offers online support for LGBTQ+ students. However, it would be absurdly short-sighted to assume that homophobia does not endure in University of Glasgow seminar rooms, lecture theatres and student accommodation halls. Far too often have I witnessed first-hand, homophobic, transphobic and bi-phobic behaviour: backhanded and sarcastic comments about transgender or gender non-conforming students; undergrads getting tested for HIV/AIDs immediately after discovering that they had slept with a bisexual person; queer students being asked grossly inappropriate and intrusive questions about lesbian sex; advising others to not date a bisexual person, because ‘it would just get messy – better to stay out of it’; outing a closeted individual without their knowledge, consent or will, whilst insensitively maintaining that such endeavours were in the closeted individual’s best interests. The list is endless. These throw-away comments and actions are as damaging as pronoun-inclusive email signatures and flag-wielding doors are encouraging. They are also unequivocally bi-phobic, transphobic and homophobic.

I am calling on our University, and all universities, to engage in an inter-institutional cooperation with the aim of prioritising LGBTQ+ inclusivity in order to provide a safe and comfortable environment for all LGBTQ+ people. As nearly every university has links with other higher education institutions across the world through Study Abroad partnerships, programs that encourage LGBTQ+ inclusivity should be compared, shared and adopted: the Chinese University of Hong Kong could borrow initiatives from the University of Glasgow, and the University of Glasgow could in turn borrow initiatives from American University.

LGBTQ+ inclusivity at the universities I have mentioned, in D.C., Hong Kong and Scotland, tends to reflect the local populations’ attitudes. Of course, it must be noted that each of these local cultures are inherently different. By suggesting inter-institutional cooperation, I am not subscribing to Orientalist ideas that “the East” is on a one-way path towards emancipation as defined by Western tradition. Rather, I am suggesting that each university should not simply follow their population’s attitudes, but instead lead the conversation regarding LGBTQ+ rights by learning from one another, and by initiating strategies for effective LGBTQ+ inclusivity in higher education institutions.

Not only could universities borrow and share initiatives, but they should also collect and sample data from students at the end of their time studying abroad. Specific and detailed feedback from LGBTQ+ Study Abroad students would help the University of Glasgow to understand how other universities approach LGBTQ+ issues, and how this compares to their own methods and approaches. In turn, to address the regional nuances from one institution to the next, the University of Glasgow – and all universities – must work closely with locally managed LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, youth initiatives, students and faculty members. It is imperative that Universities understand just how important this is: in order to lead such conversations within their institutions they must first actively listen to the LGBTQ+ people in their communities. It is up to institutions with substantial influence, such as the University of Glasgow, to iron out the creases of LGBTQ+ discrimination that endure, however ostensibly small these wrinkles may seem. Furthermore, it is up to institutions of higher education across the world to push not just themselves, but one another, to prioritise the equitable safety and comfort of all students, including LGBTQ+ students.


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