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 second of these is postgraduate law student Sureyya Kose, currently undertaking a Juris Doctor.
Did you ever find it difficult being LGBT+ status on campus?
Not really. You don’t come on campus to declare: “I’m gay”. People don’t really know until you say something, or they get to know you a bit better and they find out that way. I guess if I dressed a bit more ‘out’ (which is a really loaded term because we have become pretty diverse as a society by way of dress, and I personally can’t tell anything about a person’s sexuality by the way they dress anymore – especially on university campuses), I might get a few more looks. For instance, if had a buzz cut – but I don’t think you can really say that’s what only gay women do. I haven’t experienced any difficulties personally.
I think among peers of our age level it’s fine. Usually it’s the older generations – people working in admin, some lecturers – where you get a bit of an awkward vibe. Generally you avoid them. You don’t want to have to have that conversation; it’s not your job to change their thinking. Unless it directly impacts you, you circumnavigate it. I mean, handing in assignments has nothing to do with your sexuality.
Do you think the campus needs to be more inclusive of LGBT+ students? If so, how?
It’s a bit of a strange issue. At Curtin – I was finishing off a PhD there – there are just rainbow flags everywhere. There’s a giant flag when you’re walking towards the lunch area, painted on the floor; it’s just this permanent fixture of the rainbow flag. Their Vice Chancellor will always say “Happy Pride Day”, and talk about all kinds of inclusion rights, rather than just gay rights. You really feel that this is a progressive campus – nobody cares that you’re gay, they’re actually celebrating it. Whereas here, you get this conservative ‘Group of Eight’ vibe. You feel that when you move into the upper echelons of UWA, you probably won’t be represented or heard properly. You feel that on the ground as a student (it’s not advertised in any promotional material that UWA is LGBT+ friendly). UWA is consistently recognised as a top ten LGBT+ employer – however, so staff may feel differently.
There is no ‘Happy Pride Day’ from Mr. Johnson, and the flag isn’t flown or shown much on campus. Perhaps that’s the Pride Department’s responsibility, but there does seem to be a bit of resistance from upper management in celebrating UWA’s diversity. It may be a strategy of saying nothing so no other group feels left out. Or for practicality, as giving every individualised group representation and acknowledgement may, perhaps, take its toll on Mr. Johnson. It would show true leadership however to both staff and students if minority groups were acknowledged. It would mean a more inclusive campus and have an immediate positive impact at the student level.
There is now an issue of putting up the rainbow flag during WA PrideFest. Deakin has done it, Monash has enough flag poles to put any flag they want up. At UWA, it would mean taking down the WA State flag for one day. The young Liberals made a big fuss about it last time. But I think management grew worried about some sort of backlash.
Have you ever hidden your LGBT+ status on campus?
No – I don’t think we feel we need to advertise or hide it. If you’re asked, you feel you can honestly answer. But it’s not like straight people come up to us and say “by the way, I’m straight. I was hiding that for a little bit.”
Do you think there is a growing difference between those taking an assimilationist attitude and people who are more physically queer?
Well yeah, it’s interesting. I have had gay people who come up to me say “I’m completely liberal. I want a conservative government. Why can’t I be gay and liberal?” Which is fair enough – but you just think, hasn’t the LNP historically been against equal rights, against the Marriage Act including same-sex marriage, and most laws/policies that are protecting your rights and representation? Why would you support those policies? If gay representatives of the LNP wanted to really make the LNP ‘Liberal’ in every sense of the word and its initial definition, then I would also be a Liberal. As it stands, ‘Liberal’ in Australian politics just means ‘conservative’.
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 aps) and increased awareness have altered the queer scene?
It was really relevant a few decades ago, to push the ‘are you including LGBT+ rights and issues?’ agenda to businesses and universities. To make sure awareness was at a point where people were not beaten to death for being homosexual in any setting. But now, at the university level, they’ll just see you as a student with a number. Not gay, straight or anything. Because it’s a university, and they’re used to dealing with you in a certain way, they’re not looking into other aspects of our identity. And I’m not sure they have to. It’s a business transaction to them.
There was a time when universities were the place we developed our character. Opened our minds to new ideas and concepts and had healthy debates, to ultimately produce citizens with a well-rounded education, which usually meant we questioned ourselves and authority peacefully. It was hoped this would lead to a better society. The business model may erode that core value that universities provide. Because of this, I do think it’s important to engage in those ‘talks’ at university, about race, gender, sexuality etc. and to have the whole institution to champion inclusiveness and by extension human rights. Where else are we going to get challenged about core belief systems and be required to logically reason through them?
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.