Are LGBT societies still important on university campuses?
They offer a safe environment for LGBT students to come together to socialise and campaign, but are LGBT societies still important to students at university?
They’re a staple of most Freshers' Fayre’s at university. Come September, you’ll find one stall decked out in colourful bunting, smiley faces and the iconic rainbow flag, sticking out like Alan Carr in a men's football team.
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Yes, the LGBT Society stall is always the one group you can count on for being both fun and vibrant. A chance for young gays, those struggling to come to terms with their sexuality or just straight girls who love a good drag night at the local club to come together and have a gay old time.
LGBT societies have played an influential role on campuses over the last few decades. Since their inception, they have supported and campaigned for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students, along with queer individuals and those that support LGBT rights and campaigns.
With acceptance from students and peers at university growing – although undoubtedly, more needs to be done to stop universities judging LGBT issues as just a social problem – one question that arises is; are LGBT societies still relevant on our campuses today?
On some campuses, this seems to be the case. The LGBTQ group at the University of Exeter recently disbanded following lack of interest from students.
Former President of the group, Bradley Osborne, said: “Unfortunately, my experiences with the LGBTQ group at Exeter has not been very positive overall. The group shrank immensely after the first few weeks, with only a handful of people regularly attending events. There have been a lot of personal disputes between members who have very different ideas of what an LGBTQ group should aim to do.”
Bradley went on to state that he feels campaigning for LGBTQ rights should “be kept separate from the society”, and has since started up a new 'Pride' Society to cater for the LGBTQ community at Exeter.
Within societies in the UK, a divide exists between those that want to campaign, and those that want to have fun and socialise. In some cases, societies have stuck with the social side in order to appeal to more members. Each student that joins a society is going to have different reasons for joining. They may just be there to make new friends. Some may wish to campaign and fight for LGBT rights, but this can often be off-putting for society members who are less vocal.
Ross Strong, chair of the University of Birmingham's LGBTQ Association, said that his society's focus on social events in previous years needs to change.
“Last year we were perhaps mainly social, but this year and next we plan to reinforce the successes of the social side while expanding participation, also having a strong campaigns side to the association.”
In some cases, universities have created two separate groups – one focusing on campaigns, the other holding social events – in order to appeal to more students and stop disputes occurring within groups.
Five years ago, the University of Kent took this approach, and according to Karl Lewis, Kent Union's LGBT officer (Open Place), the split has worked “well” at Kent.
“At Kent we have a separate society and campaign, with our two LGBT officers being in charge of a campaign as well as a thriving society. The decision was made over five years ago with the creation of liberation officers at Kent Union. I feel this system of separating the society side and campaign side out works as long as they both know their role and work together when needed.”
But some LGBT societies at universities in the UK disagree. Hayley Morris, President of the LGBT+ Society at the University of Bristol – which won the NUS LGBT society of the year award this year – says splitting the society has “never been considered”.
“I personally don't think there would be any point because of the fact that campaigns don't run all year. Not everyone who joins a campaign joins every campaign and so I think that a separate political society would be quite small.”
The majority of societies we approached did however claim that LGBT societies are still as relevant on campuses as they were a few years ago, a point the National Union of Students LGBT officer Finn McGoldrick stressed.
“LGBT societies are vital for some students. For the majority of LGBT students the society will be their first interaction with a large, diverse group of LGBT people. Often it is the first chance for students to experience the sense of community that being LGBT brings.”
Asked if societies have become more important in the last few years, Finn added: “I don't think it's that they are either more or less important – perhaps just different. Looking back at the history of NUS LGBT I think that societies face the same challenges and opportunities, but on the whole students unions are much more accepting of an active group of LGBT students than in the past.”
With the NUS' strong view that LGBT societies are still relevant, we asked societies for their personal view. This is what they said:
Gareth Mattey, LGBT+ rep for Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge: “CUSU LGBT+ is a very important part of the university but also a very respected part of the student world here. It's a really incredible environment!”
Alex Ward, UPSU LGBT Publicity Officer, University of Portsmouth: “I think they are still relevant, we lobby the university and union alongside the LGBT officer and we want to be known as a safe place to go for any issues people have on campus.”
Matt Jones, LGBTQ* Chair, University of Lancaster: “We are still popular with students. Like most LGBT societies probably find, there are some members of the LGBT community that don't define themselves through their sexuality or gender identity, so choose not to engage in society activities – but that's their choice to make.”
James Morton, Bristol LGBT+ outgoing Welfare Rep, University of Bristol: “I think they are more relevant than ever. The society provides a gateway in order to help people feel comfortable being LGBT.”
Ross Strong, UOB LGBTQ Association Chair, University of Birmingham: “For the active members it is definitely successful, though myself and the new committee are aware of previous issues with cliques and a feeling of the association not being accessible or welcoming, and are working hard to combat this in the future.”
Karl Lewis, Kent Union LGBT Officer (open place), University of Kent: “The society and campaign both have vital roles in creating a community for students coming the the University and to campaign on liberation issues.”
Bradley Osborne, Pride Society Chair, University of Exeter: “I set up Pride Soc because I believe that universities do need a society catered towards LGBTQ people. I don't think support networks and campaigns are enough – the opportunity to take part in a LGBTQ society should always be available.”
It seems that despite challenges, LGBT societies are still as important as ever. The NUS offers support, training and resources for LGBT societies, as well as an annual LGBT conference. To find out more, visit www.nus.org.uk/lgbt
NUS LGBT Officer Finn McGoldrick offers advice for the following:
a) A student who is thinking about joining an LGBT society:
“Societies are very good at keeping things confidential. Talk to those involved and let them know you aren't out - no one is going to judge you. You couldn't be around a more supportive group of people if you do want to start thinking about coming out.
Make sure you keep up with events online. Most societies have a confidential email list rather than using Facebook, in case you don't want to out yourself online. Also, you don't have to sign up at a fresher’s fair. I know walking up to the rainbow covered stall giving out condoms isn't exactly inconspicuous! Most societies will have a web page where you can join, or contact the students union if you can't find it.”
b) A student who wants to start up their own LGBT society on campus but isn't sure how to/where to start.
“First thing I would say is go and speak to your students’ union or student liaison officer, if you are in a college without a student union. Each institution varies in terms of how societies are set up, so make sure you understand the process. Then start planning how you are going to get the word out that your new LGBT exists. Often visibility is the key. There are a lot more LGBT students than people think, so you need to let everybody know.”
c) A president of a current LGBT society who wants to engage more students:
“Variety is the best thing to keep an LGBT society engaging lots of students. Use the resources of your institution and students union. Is there another society you can have a joint event with? Often you will find LGBT students who don't want to go to an alcohol focused night. Consider this, and make sure you have events that cater to more than one audience. Talk to LGBT students; find out what they would like to see.”
Find out more about LGBT NUS.
Words: Kieran Watkins