Adapting to university life is a challenge, but it can feel insurmountable when you have to worry about whether others will be welcoming or understanding of your identity. This is backed by evidence: according to Cibyl’s 2019 Out & Proud report, LGBT+ students are 38% more likely to report depression and 24% more likely to use mental health services. With 60% of LGBT+ people who were ‘out’ at university not being so in the workplace, it’s clear that difficulties and uncertainties due to discrimination continue across big life changes.
With this in mind, TARGETjobs spoke to three finalists for the LGBT+ Undergraduate of the Year Award 2020 to discover the challenges they have faced during their time at university and in the workplace, as well as their experience-backed views on how a good ally acts.
We spoke to:
- Francesca Warren, second-year law student at the University of York who identifies as bisexual and uses the pronouns she/her.
- George Barker, final-year medical student at University College London who identifies as gay and uses the pronouns he/him.
- Kai, first-year computer science student at Durham University who identifies as a bisexual trans man.
Overall, how would you describe your experience at university?
Francesca: I wasn’t fully ‘out’ at school and, before I started at university, I felt pressured to ‘find myself’ and know exactly what that ‘self’ should be. This actually manifested itself in issues with clothes: a lot of queer people seemed to have an edgy style – maybe with a mullet that they manage, somehow, to pull off. That’s just not me. I soon realised that I’m fine as I am, even if I don’t exactly know what that is yet, and that everyone else at university is just as clueless about their identity as me.
What are your experiences with LGBTQ+ specific activities or societies at university?
Francesca: I haven’t looked for LGBTQ+ societies specifically. This is partly because my university has quite a close level of pastoral support, for instance with LGBTQ+ reps. I feel supported through this, so I decided to follow my interests when it came to societies.
My experience of doing what I enjoy outside of studying has definitely been a positive one. At school, I found the netball team to be quite an unwelcoming environment for me. Without wanting to stereotype (and university showed just how wrong this would be), netball at school was often packed with the very popular girls who didn’t have much time for anyone outside of their clique. I enjoyed the sport though, so I thought I’d give it another go at university. I’m happy to say I had a very different experience here: many of my closest uni friends come from netball.
George: I have been involved in the LGBT medics network and actually ran it for a few years. I was also general secretary for the larger UCL LGBT network. I find that it’s always nice to meet people who are interested in similar things to you. For instance, the LGBT medics network spent one evening discussing the series It’s a sin (a television series depicting the lives of gay men throughout the HIV and AIDS crisis of the 80s and 90s) alongside the medical faculty that had first-hand experience of the ward depicted in the series. It was fascinating to get a deeper insight into the history; while I didn’t live through the AIDS pandemic, it’s obviously something that gay people in particular are very aware of.
Kai: I’m in my first year and the Covid-19 pandemic has made meeting up physically through societies pretty much impossible. I have tentatively been involved in the LGBT+ society by joining a few of its virtual events but they haven’t really worked for me. Thankfully, there will be an LGBT+ network socially-distanced picnic soon, which I’m looking forward to going along to.
How comfortable are you with the idea of ‘coming out’ at university?
George: ‘Coming out’ isn’t just one event. I meet new people, get to know them and sometimes I share and sometimes I don’t. Both choices are fine, but I do feel that I’m becoming less hesitant about it than I used to be. Obviously, you should only ‘come out’ if you’re sure you’ll be safe.
Kai: I came out after finishing school so I have had to try to figure out what feels right for me at university. I’m still figuring this out – how comfortable I am with being visible as a trans person. So, some of the worst experiences at university have been when others have ‘outed’ me. As one example, I felt comfortable enough to let someone know that I was trans and they came to me shortly after and said ‘None of my housemates realised you were trans’. Firstly, that’s my information to tell. Secondly, is that supposed to be a compliment?
Have there been other comfortable or uncomfortable moments at university because of your identity?
Francesca: Luckily, my sexuality has not made me feel unwelcome. I’d say I have had the kinds of experiences that most female-presenting people have: catcalls, verbal abuse in the street and a ‘club culture’ in which some people are drunk and dangerous and attempt to use their power and size to take advantage of others. Obviously, all of this is both unacceptable and, unfortunately, completely normalised.
Kai: I hadn’t realised what the university experience would be like. I’m surrounded by people who want to be supportive but who don’t really understand. That’s why I really value conversations with people who do get it. I met a non-binary person recently and we had a really long chat about gender; it was so nice to speak to someone who instantly understood. Often, it’s not that others are doing something wrong; it’s just tough to feel like I have to explain my identity over and over.
Do you have any advice for others on choosing a university in which you can be comfortable being yourself?
Francesca: Find out whether there is an obvious space to report incidences of discrimination or hate, and clear policies for supporting victims of specific types (eg sexual harassment and assault). Many universities have a ‘report and support’ area where this information can be found (try searching ‘[your university name] report and support’).
George: I grew up on the Wirral and the biggest city nearby is Liverpool. Liverpool is the best city in the world (of course) but I knew I wanted to move somewhere new. I visited Cambridge university and just felt like I didn’t quite fit in. I then tried UCL and loved it: London is such a vibrant city with so much going on and UCL was ranked second in the country for medicine at the time.
Do you have any advice for people who identify as LGBTQ+ who are just starting or at university?
Francesca: On a practical level, check the support and report services provided by your university, get in contact with an LGBTQ+ rep at your university and check the student union website to make sure there are plenty of societies and/or events with LGBTQ+ themes or membership (whether or not you plan to go, this should suggest a welcoming environment).
On a more philosophical note, well done! It’s great that you’re at university, it’s OK to question your identity, you can try out new things and you are meant to be in the spaces you’re in. I’d also say keeping an open mind is a good idea: sometimes people don’t know all the lingo and you can usually tell the difference between someone being uncertain and someone being malicious. While it’s not your job to educate people, I find that calling someone out politely rather than cutting them off completely can lead to some strong friendships.
George: If I was giving myself advice before I started university, I’d have let myself in on just how many opportunities I’d be able to choose from and told myself to make the most of them. All the best experiences I’ve had at university have been from trying out something that might be fun. For example, I auditioned for a sketch comedy group and, bearing in mind I wasn’t the most confident person when I left home, I was surprised when I made a few people laugh – let alone when the group, with me as a member, did a gig at the Edinburgh Fringe!
Could you tell us about your experiences of identifying as LGBTQ+ in the workplace?
Francesca: Last Christmas, I served in a working man’s pub (we’ve had different levels of social distancing restrictions on the Isle of Man), which reminded me of the random homophobia you face in the service industry. One man was so shocked that I was queer that he left the pub after actually saying ‘But you’re too pretty to be gay’. Sometimes, in the ‘university bubble’, you forget that this kind of homophobia underpinned by ignorance exists.
How did you find the transition from university to the workplace?
George: During the later years of university, medical students work in a healthcare setting such as a hospital, and that’s what I’m doing now. The working environment requires a level of maturity and professionalism; getting used to this can be a challenge. However, I’ve felt privileged to be able to meet so many people from different backgrounds – people who I probably wouldn’t otherwise meet in my everyday life.
Finally, how can someone be a helpful ally in the workplace or at university?
Francesca: One of the reasons I didn’t let homophobia at the pub faze me too much was that I knew my co-workers had my back. I don’t think good allyship is always about having the most eloquent or considered argument against someone being discriminatory or aggressive. Often, it’s simply about stepping in and saying ‘That’s not OK’ (and, if required, throwing them out the pub!).
George: I think it’s important to call homophobia and microaggression out, and I think it’s important to do this during casual conversation. The way I think is that if I don’t let someone know that what they’re saying or the language they’re using is discriminatory, an LGBTQ+ person who meets them at another time might be made to feel uncomfortable.