Last week the Guild unanimously passed a motion ratifying that the UWA Queer Department be officially renamed as the UWA Pride Department. Meanwhile, the Equity and Diversity Office is currently undertaking a questionnaire-based study, funded by an Alumni Grant and ending in June, with the purpose to gain a better understanding of and ultimately improve the experiences of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans (LGBT) students on our campus. The questionnaire is open to all LGBT students over 18, with participation anonymous.
In support of these noteworthy changes and undertakings, Pelican caught up with three individuals to talk to them personally about what it means to be LGBT+ at UWA. The first of these is Reece Gherardi, who holds office as one of this year’s Pride Officers.
Did you ever find it difficult being LGBT+ on campus?
I’d planned to be open about my sexuality upon leaving high school and entering university, however this was a bit difficult at first. A portion of people from my old school went to UWA, so I felt that being open would mean risking some of them finding out. I wasn’t out during my high school years, so there was always that constant ‘fear’ that somebody would find out and I’d be outed to everyone. What I was feeling was a bit of a throwback from those days. While I don’t have those inhibitions anymore, I still have to constantly monitor myself to make sure that nothing I do with the LGBT+ community on campus makes it onto Facebook. I’m still not out to my family, so I’m still a bit paranoid that they’ll find out before I have the chance to tell them myself, and this makes being LGBT+ on campus somewhat difficult sometimes (i.e. avoiding being in photos for the own Department I represent).
What are some of the positive responses you’ve had?
Going on exchange to Germany is one of my most positive experiences. I was with about twenty other UWA students, two of whom I hung out with regularly (and they became my best friends), along with a bunch of people from other universities. They all knew before I even told them, and they didn’t care at all. Even people I thought would be very disapproving (one of the people from University of Adelaide was a very strong Christian) weren’t, and I felt so accepted by everyone. I have never actually had a bad coming out experience to anyone at university, so it’s hard to pinpoint the most positive responses.
Have you ever felt unsafe or unwelcome on campus in relation to being or identifying as LGBT+?
Not really. There have been some instances (such as on O-Day and at Club Carnival) where I saw some students giving us a few weird looks. On O-Day, there were small groups of students who pointed at the Department stall and gawked and laughed, which made me feel a little bit self-conscious and not accepted. However, this has been the minority; the vast majority of my experiences have made me feel safe and welcome.
Do you think the campus needs to do more to be inclusive of LGBT+ students and if so, what?
I feel that the initiatives the university and the Guild have taken are very good and promote inclusivity on campus. However, I would like to see more gender-neutral bathrooms.
What resources/communities did you find helpful during your time of transitioning and since?
The Pride Department. I was very closeted during secondary school, and I made myself a promise that I would stop hiding my sexuality when I got to university and therefore didn’t have to see anyone I went to school with ever again. However, upon getting to university, I started to fall back into old habits – paranoia, hiding, inability to talk about anything LGBT+ related, etc. However, I discovered the Department (then called the Queer Department) and found the room in my very first week. Seeing other people be so confident about themselves and talk openly about being LGBT+ and other topics helped me be able to express myself more within the Department, and then in the wider university environment. I became so comfortable with who I am as a person that it’s just normal for me to express it now, and I eventually even became one of the Pride Officers. The people I met through the Pride Department also helped me to work through non-LGBT+ related issues that I was going through during the transitioning period from secondary school to university.
Have you found yourself in any ‘awkward’ situations, and how did you work through them?
Not particularly. There have been some instances where I have had crushes on straight guys, however there was nothing I could really do about that. All I could do was just get over it, which I did. There was also one time where a straight guy thought that I had a crush on him (which I didn’t), so I dealt with that accordingly by telling him straight-up that wasn’t the case.
Have you ever hidden your LGBT+ status on campus?
It depends how you define ‘hidden’. I don’t actively go out of my way to hide it; I participate in Pride Department events that are visible to all students and answer honestly anyone who asks me about my sexuality. However, I have never chosen to reveal my LGBT+ status in tutorials and nobody has ever asked me about it (if anyone ever did ask me, I would probably lie and say I was straight, to be honest). It’s no reflection on my tutors or tutorial groups, it’s just that I’m still a little bit paranoid about tutors finding out and my grades being impacted if they’re homophobic.
Do you feel that being LGBT+ is regarded as still ‘relevant’ by society at large and the media, given how much technologies (such as hook-up apps) and increased awareness have altered the queer scene?
I think a lot of society views being LGBT+ as ‘the in thing’ now, like it’s just the newest ‘fad’ that will go away eventually. For example, I’ve heard a lot of people (particularly my parents) say that “Everyone’s either gay or bisexual nowadays!”. It’s like they view it as a thing that everyone does just because it’s what everyone else is doing. Whereas in reality, sexuality and gender identity are parts of who a person is.
The study ‘Enhancing the University Experience of LGBT Students at UWA’ is coordinated by Research Fellow Dr Duc Dau, with Penelope Strauss as Senior Research Officer.