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University - it’s all about finding your people, working hard, and coming out with lasting memories.
Societies are one of the best ways to find like-minded people. They provide a support network and community.
They are particularly important places for people from marginalised and minority communities, such as the LGBT+ community.
LGBT+ societies have existed at universities across the world in some form for decades. They are now often one of the biggest and most prominent societies on campus.
They tell us how they support queer students, and what joining the society has meant to them.
Val Knight, a second-year Games and Multimedia Environments student at the University of Sussex, said that one of the most important things that LGBT+ societies at university do is help queer students “get embedded” into a community.
“Whether that be on a level of, finding somewhere you can feel safe and people you can go out partying with, or finding people who share the same ideas with you and want to go out and protest for, they really help you find people that you can feel safe and comfortable around exploring your own identity at your own pace.”
The coronavirus pandemic has hit university societies hard, with most currently unable to hold in-person socials and events.
However, Ethan, a first-year medical student at the University of Glasgow, said that despite the pandemic, the level of activity in the society had remained the same.
Glasgow LGBT+ Society made sure that coffee mornings that were usually held in-person had been shifted to zoom calls, and Ethan said that they were very much “still open for students”.
COVID-19 has seen many students who would normally be at university stuck at home, unable to return.
For LGBT+ students, this may be particularly difficult if their family or community at home are not supportive.
LGBT+ societies have been tasked with the challenge of supporting these students from a distance throughout the pandemic.
As well as virtual events, societies have made sure that the support network they usually provide in-person has remained.
However, Val said that there had been some positives in terms of running online events and socials, as they allowed students to participate without necessarily ‘outing’ themselves as a member of the queer community.
“A lot of these events allow you to talk to other people in your community without explicitly having to out yourself in the process.
“So in comparison, for LGBT history month, we are planning to run a panel-style discussion on what the future of Pride should look like and how Pride has changed and what it should be in the future.
“I’m really excited for that, but obviously, if you’re in a family that thinks Pride shouldn’t exist at all, you can’t at least engage in that in a speaking capacity, and if you don’t have the ability to have headphones, everyone else around you will be able to hear what’s going on as well.
“So having these spaces where it looks like to anyone else just some friends hanging out on video call, it doesn’t look like an LGBTSoc event, is actually quite useful because it doesn’t immediately out people who are there.”
Starting university is an exciting but challenging time for most, and this is especially true for those who are struggling with their sexuality and/or gender identity.
Both Ethan and Val emphasised the importance of making connections that allow you to truly be yourself as an LGBTQ student on campus - one of the main things that LGBT+ societies aim to do.
“Reach out, even if you’re questioning if you’re questioning,” Ethan stressed. “Everyone is so nice, they’re just here to support you.”
Val also pointed out the importance of making sure that you find people who allow you to be upset, anxious, and fearful, as well as happy.
“Make sure that you find people you can be around during tough times. Because it’s all well and good having a community where you can be happy all the time, but we don’t want people to feel like, ‘oh I always have to be happy around these people.’ Because we’re not, and people struggle, especially people in the LGBT+ community.
“The advice I’d give to new students is, find those friends, attend the events, but also make sure you find spaces where you can be allowed to be upset and just experience a wide range of emotions, whether that be joy or sadness or fear or anxiety or fear or whatever it is about what’s facing you at that time.”
Ethan is currently undertaking his second degree, and said that he had previously been involved in university LGBT+ societies at a national level.
“When I started this degree, I had originally planned on not coming out and not really getting involved. But as soon as I got here it didn’t take me long to get stuck in - these are my people and everyone is so nice!”
Val said that she found that the LGBT+ society on campus was an important place to share joy and happiness and discuss shared experiences, as well as support with difficulties.
“Being able to talk to people and having people to share in the joy when I finally went to access hormone treatment in January of 2020 and having people to share in that joy with was really valuable.
“We do often go about saying that LGBT+ societies exist to protect people, or they exist to build communities in a hostile environment, but what they also do is they provide people to experience happiness in a way that is so unique to the queer community.
“They allow people to share in that joy which is so precious and so rarely talked about, because we only often see, all the mainstream narratives we see around queer people is pain and suffering, and trauma. So actually being able to go into a space of other queer people and have that joy together, that happiness and freedom of being in a community, is amazing.”
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