Uni is considered a place where students can define their sexual identity, but there’s only so much institutions can do to combat negative behaviour, says Lauren Razavi.
The powerful slogan of lesbian, gay and bisexual charity, Stonewall, is becoming increasingly recognisable as it appears on a variety of websites, billboards, buses and phone boxes throughout the UK.
"Some people are gay. Get over it!"
If there’s one section of society progressive and engaged enough to follow this advice, surely it’s university students. Freedom and experimentation in terms of friendships, relationships, casual sex and defining or redefining sexuality are common fare in the higher education experience.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of East Anglia, a friend took me out for coffee one day and told me we needed to have a serious conversation. I was one of the first people he told that he was gay.
As a modern human at a liberal institution, this news garnered a fairly nonchalant response: I shrugged and asked him if he wanted another coffee. Caffeine was far more of a concern to me than the fact he liked to sleep with men.
Yet many LGBT students still face considerable difficulties in higher education. According to a report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, a high number have experienced negative treatment on the basis of their sexual orientation: 49.5% of survey respondents reported problems with fellow students, 10.4% saw negativity from tutors and lecturers, and a further 10.6% from other staff within their institution.
The report also revealed widespread instances of exclusion and self-exclusion from activities, especially within sports, clubs and societies, and even accommodation.
National initiatives such as Stonewall’s Gay By Degree university guide are putting pressure on institutions to combat these problems. The project collects data from around the web to provide an extensive guide to the systems, support and services available for prospective LGBT students.
As well as offering the insight and advice that matters, it is also encouraging universities to take a proactive approach to positive change, and advertise what they’re doing to enforce what’s already required by equality law. Some universities are doing it better than others, but improvements in this regard are happening.
But there’s only so much institutions can do to combat negative behaviour; this kind of change in perception ultimately comes down to individuals and their influence on a community.
University students may operate in a culture of library all-nighters, enthusiastic boozing and living off coffee and toast, but our undergraduates are also the future leaders of the UK.
Those currently studying for a degree will quickly become the politicians, journalists, entrepreneurs, creatives and scientists who advance our nation and define the society we live in.
The Commission report, mentioned above, also reported some positive findings. University is considered a place where students feel that they can truly define their adult sexual identities, away from the school and family contexts of childhood where homophobia has often been an issue.
It’s in this sense that the higher education environment offers an important opportunity to spearhead social evolution. Today’s students are the ones with the power to embrace and promote freedom in terms of sexuality, whether they’re gay themselves or not.
The law, the educational institutions, national charities and organisations, public figures and the moral side of social opinion are all there to back us up in supporting LGBT students at university and beyond.
It’s only by embracing this from the earliest days of adulthood that we’ll succeed in eradicating backward-minded individuals from the national dialogue on issues of sexuality. In turn, we pave the way for our society to become more equal and progressive – and surely that’s something we all want?