University, by its very nature, is an incredibly liberating experience. It allows you to broaden your horizons whilst you, hopefully, make new friends who will remain with you for the rest of your life. At least that’s what the pamphlet says. For me, as a gay man who had spent his entire childhood and adolescence in remote rural Herefordshire, the sense of excitement was massive. At last I’d be able to engage in an LGBT+ community beyond the confines of my bedroom and its computer and TV screens. As well as an opportunity to live more openly in a more liberal environment.
After completing my first year at Lancaster I can say that to some extent this excitement did make its way into reality. For the first time in my life, I met a group of people who I shared this experience with. The LGBT+ association on campus, despite the problem of terminally diminishing attendance over the year, did provide a good space in which to meet new LGBT+ people. It also helped, most successfully, to provide a presence for LGBT people on campus and a place that you could go to for help if required.
However, despite what you may have been led to believe about campus and Lancaster itself, it is, unfortunately, not a homophobia-free zone. Some of it has a direct influence on people’s ability to live on campus openly. I have come across people who still feel unable to come out for fear of being ostracized not only by their family but, worryingly, their friends at university. For some this stretches so far as to prevent them from attending the LGBTQ association’s weekly coffee evenings for fear of being seen attending through the windows of the Furness TV room.
Sadly for most of these people these fears will not be unwarranted, particularly in certain social circles of the university. Nowhere is this more organised or endemic than within the sporting community. Too often have I heard stories of sportsmen and women being turned on and even bullied by their own teammates or ‘friends’ as soon as even the minutest of deviations from heteronormativity is detected.
In wider campus life general insensitivity is responsible for a large amount of the homophobia encountered by members of the LGBT community. On countless occasions, I have been in the company of another person when they use the term ‘gay’ as a derogatory insult. More often than not this is said without malice and without the knowledge the person they are speaking to is indeed gay. In my experience, as someone comfortable within their own sexual identity, this is often nothing more than an annoyance. However, for those who are still trying to come to terms with a fundamental part of themselves, it only serves to confirm fears that they are innately disgusting or wrong.
One of the easiest ways for these harmful (intentional or otherwise) sentiments to be spread is over social media. Particularly on social networks like YikYak, where anonymity allows public cowardice to be bypassed, gay jokes and bullying abound. Last year, a prominent example of this were the calls for a ‘straight extrav’ in opposition to the LGBTQ associations Gaystrav event. Not only did this show a profound sense of ignorance as to the reservations of members of the LGBT community to be openly affectionate in nightclubs like Sugarhouse, where every operational night, in effect, is ‘Straightstrav’, but it also created a sense of alienation. Even one night catering directly towards the LGBT community seemed to be asking too much. The amount of justification in response to these criticisms was, likewise, too much. In fact, such justification shouldn’t have been required at all.
All of these problems boil down to the same root cause. Simply the fact that there are inordinately larger numbers of straight and cis-gendered students on campus than those who are not. This creates the automatic assumption that every person you meet fits into both of those arbitrary categories. This doesn’t have to be the case: greater visibility and increased education around LGBTQ issues have and will continue to improve the lives of people affected. However, even more could and should be done to help those who struggle to come to terms with themselves if these incidents of, sometimes accidental, casual homophobia were avoided. The responsibility lies with all of us to ensure campus is, and will continue to be, a safe and positive environment for all of its students.