Going to college: Being an LGBT student today
Starting out at college? Or going back and for another year? Another of Gaelick’s amazing new writers, Agnes Von Kenn, shares her tuppenceworth:
Just about two weeks ago, I started my first year studying arts at University College Dublin (UCD) in Belfield. In the midst of trying to navigate the massive campus and attempting to follow my timetable (which I misplaced twice), there was something quite uplifting I noticed about the college: The free-thinking atmosphere.
Societies hold debates on liberal topics (such as the legalisation of marijuana and whether or not porn should be banned), lecturers constantly encourage students to be creative by speaking their own minds and any type of dress code is perfectly acceptable. (I’ve seen it all in my short time here, from hippy to heavy metal and everything in between!)
Having come from a secondary school where the unspoken rule of thumb was “you’re either popular or you’re not,” this new, broad-minded environment was incredibly invigorating for me. But what was even more invigorating was the general attitude towards LGBT students.
Liberal and liberating environments
One of my primary experiences in UCD was going to a play in the student centre during orientation week that was being put on for first years.
Entitled Rainblah, I don’t think anyone knew exactly what to expect but the play turned out to be a light-hearted story about a college student coming to terms with the fact that he was gay.
It was well-performed by the entire cast and had a cheery humour running through it, including many witty (but completely tasteful) jokes. However, what really impressed me about the play was how liberally it treated the idea of homosexuality. At first, the main character (Denny) was dealing with an unspecified issue that seemed to be causing him a great deal of stress.
When the audience eventually found out that he was struggling with his sexual orientation, the play did not put the problem into a specific category of “being gay” but rather suggested that dealing with sexuality is one of many concerns a college student may battle with. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the gay kiss between two of the actors caused no apparent controversy whatsoever. I didn’t hear a word about it anywhere else on campus; it was as if no one cared.
To me, the idea of sexuality being treated so casually was vitalizing.
According to their Facebook page, the UCD LGBT Society is the largest such society in Ireland and attained an award at the UCD Society Awards in 2010 and again in 2012. Originally established in 1988, the society takes part in several different campaigns and special events and heartily encourages people to sign up (including heterosexual students, who are seen as “straight allies”).
When I went to sign up with them, I was pleasantly surprised again to see that their stand at the Fresher’s Tent hadn’t been shoved into a corner as I had (wrongly) assumed it would be. Instead, they were out near the middle of the marquee, their table proudly draped with a large rainbow cloth. They kindly invited the students who signed up to attend one of their coffee mornings and handed over a membership card after we registered with them.
The membership card itself was also something I was struck by. The card gets LGBT Society members discounts from (to name a few) Tower Records, Wagamama, Muji and Captain Americas. Although it might sound cheesy, seeing that these companies openly sponsor an LGBT organization made me smile. The society is also proudly supported by Wilde Bar/Club/Venue and several other places that I was delighted to see support young gay people.
From secondary school to college
Let’s face it: secondary school is not the friendliest environment in the world for LGBT youths, no matter where you attend.
Immature (and often vicious) people decide that targeting someone and victimizing them for being different is the best possible thing they can do with their time and so it happens a lot. I saw several openly gay students get bullied where I went to school and so I stayed deeply closeted, feeling like I was out of harm’s way but also lying about who I really was.
However, as soon as I entered college, I suddenly felt comfortable telling anyone who asked that the reason I joined LGBT Society is because I’m bisexual. It was just as simple as that. The relaxed, safe and accepting atmosphere of the college made me feel at ease saying it out loud at long last.
I know what you may be thinking – so what? The LGBT Society is obviously run by students. What about the college’s attitude to gay issues?
Well, I have a personal anecdote to tell you about that too! Because I’m doing English, we were given a reading list for the semester and I was both shocked and overjoyed to see that Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson was on the list, right there alongside other great coming-of-age novels like Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë.
For those of you who don’t know, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is the story of a lesbian girl who grows up in a very religious society in England. As far as I know, there has been no fuss whatsoever kicked up over this and (just like Rainblah), the whole notion of it is currently being treated very nonchalantly.
UCD and beyond
But it’s not just UCD. DCU, NUI Maynooth, Trinity College and Dún Laoghaire IADT all have their own LGBT Societies, as do University College Cork (UCC), NUI Galway, Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and many others.
I know I can’t speak from personal experience about any of these other universities but I personally find it extremely heartening that so many of them make an effort to embrace and support their LGBT students and provide them with a student group they can feel comfortable being themselves in.
Some of you might have just read this article and are mentally screaming at me to take off the rose-tinted glasses and confess that Ireland still has countless problems to do with LGBT rights and marriage equality. You might be frustrated that I’ve written such an optimistic piece when there’s so many crimes being done against LGBT people in this country today. Well, I agree with you there.
Ireland still has a lot to work out before lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have full rights. But to me, the LGBT-friendly ambience at UCD is a big deal and it’s very encouraging.
I’ve only been attending the college for a short while and already, I feel like my sexuality doesn’t matter in any immense way to anyone. The sense of being able to come out in an environment where you will not be judged is more liberating than I can ever explain to you (although I’m sure some of you might understand it well) – and also gives me hope for the future.
Why? Well, everyone attending UCD at the minute is being exposed to the college’s liberal atmosphere. Which means they’ll probably be more inclined to accept their fellow students for who they are. Many of these people are already of voting age. To me, that predicts a very optimistic future for the Irish LGBT community at large.
Also, it’s a hopeful message for those in secondary school who are struggling to come to terms with their sexual orientation, that they can look forward to graduating to a much more accommodating place.
Overall, the way LGBT students are treated at UCD is a great testament to the accepting nature of the university as well as the development of tolerance in the country itself. Remember that homosexuality only became legal in Ireland nineteen years ago and already we’re at a stage where LGBT youths can feel comfortable in their third level education environment.
One lesson I’ve certainly learned since starting at UCD is that things really are changing and there definitely is hope.