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 third of these is an Honours student in Asian Studies.
Did you ever find it difficult being LGBT+ on campus?
To be honest, never. I find campus one of the most accommodating places to be and ‘just be’. The concentration of educated and open-minded people makes a huge difference in comparison to when I have to do my grocery shopping or when I’m out in Northbridge for dinner and drinks trying to dodge alcohol-impaired people. In a way, transitioning has made me love and appreciate university and what it stands for more than ever before. I have come to spend most of my time on campus, hanging out with the Asian Studies staff and have dedicated more time to study than ever before. It is also testimony to how important creating LGBT+ inclusive spaces is, be it in the workplace or at uni – individuals will flourish and thus reach their full potential.
The notion that it is not how you look, but what you have to say; the idea of broadening one’s horizon; a willingness to understand the things one does not know or comprehend; questioning why we do things and think about things a certain way; and being aware of the variety of ways one can view the world – these are all things which in my view are at the heart of the Humanities, and I desperately feel that mainstream society needs more of these qualities.
What are some of the most positive responses you’ve had?
I am exceptionally lucky. Essentially all my friends have been supportive (or have at least never said anything negative). The greatest experiences I have had have been with my female friends. It is like I have joined the club – with all its ups and downs (the downs of which I have been repeatedly warned of!). It is great to be accepted in a community to which one so deeply feels one belongs to.
I have had emails from friends and relatives whom I had not spoken to in years, saying the most heartfelt and supportive things. One email which I will never forget was from an aunt, whom I had not always been particularly close with. She sent me an email with a quote from e. e. cummings: “To be nobody but yourself – in a world, which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle, which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting”. I printed it out and have it hanging over my desk.
Have you ever felt unsafe or unwelcome on campus in relation to being or identifying as LGBT+?
No, though I have to admit I have not exactly tried to push the boundaries. My main aim is to just get on with my studies.
Do you think the campus needs to do more to be inclusive of LGBT+ students – and if so, what?
I think the university needs to be more vocal and clear of its support of LGBT+ identity. As important as policies are, it cannot simply be a policy hidden amongst the variety of HR policies. It needs to be more. University needs to openly endorse and emphasise campus as a diverse place. Public endorsement is what changes people’s attitudes and creates notions of what is ‘normal’ and what is not. Specifically this means being an open supporter of LGBT+ events such as the Guild’s UWA Pride Week, held in September for instance. I have seen the amount of money Curtin puts into its LGBT+ community engagement at community fairs such as Fair Day for instance and they, without any exception in all the community events that I have attended, out-do UWA in their endorsement of the LGBT+ community. It is important to clearly show to society that ‘yes this is a place where you can thrive and be yourself’ and this in turn will attract more students.
What resources/communities did you find helpful during your time of transitioning and since?
The biggest support I have had has been from the Equity and Diversity Office here at UWA. The annual events which they organise such as the Isabelle Lake Memorial Lecture or events during UWA Pride Week have been absolutely essential for me in meeting new people and feeling like I belong to something. I have to give credit especially to [English and Cultural Studies Research Fellow and LGBT Study Coordinator] Duc Dau, whose dedication in engaging the university with LGBT+ matters has been inspirational also for myself.
Have you found yourself in any ‘awkward’ situations, and how did you work through them?
I had gone out on the weekend with friends and I love giving myself a nice manicure (apologies for the stereotype). It was Tuesday and I still had not yet removed my nail polish (which I normally do because I am not out at work yet). I had a tutorial on in the afternoon, but at one point I just thought: You know what, stuff it. So I went to my tutorial with the prettiest, painted, azure fingernails. Funnily, I usually sit quite close to our professor, and my friend who sat on the opposite side of me told me later that he kept staring at my painted fingernails. He was very professional about it though, I have to say, and I did not even notice. I have never received any comments from academic staff on how I present/look.
Have you ever hidden your LGBT status+ on campus?
Transitioning can be a somewhat awkward process, in that unlike with one’s sexuality, ‘coming out’ as trans is simply one aspect of a prolonged process of very visible change. It is can get very awkward at the beginning when one decides to transition – in my case – when the hair grows longer, the wardrobe and physique change. When does one actually say something? It is something I have been trying to figure out myself. I would say I never had to explicitly hide it, but I also have not made it per se official. I am in that awkward in-between stage, which really is also about embracing my queer identity and not having to fit into a neat category of ‘male’ and ‘female’. The fact that I have not had to explicitly hide it is probably testimony to the reality that it simply did not matter whether I was LGBT+ or not.
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?
In a perfect world, the label ‘being LGBT+’ would not be necessary. In a perfect world there would be no categories and there would simply be other people living other lives. But that is not the reality. All too frequently being LGBT+ is recognised and respected (which is the first step), but still regarded as ‘unnatural’ or ‘weird’, despite us being around since the earliest recordings of human history, throughout cultures across the globe. The greatest challenge, which we face today besides the legal recognition of a variety of matters, is social. It is in people’s minds. We are a far way off from actual equality. Actual equality is the point at which one is not merely accepted as non-normatively ‘different’, but simply a natural variation amongst human diversity. It is about ‘mainstreaming’ LGBT+. About being first and foremost person x, who happens to be LGBT+, just as this person happens to be a hundred other things that make them unique.
The acceptance of any minority within mainstream society goes through cycles. The first cycle is – in a way ironically – to establish a strong, distinct identity. This allows us to argue for equal rights vis-a-vis ‘the mainstream’. Once equality is achieved the necessity for a distinct identity fades as one becomes absorbed into ‘mainstream society’. You can see this in the cases of other civil rights movements, the suffragettes in the UK or the black panther movement in the US for instance, which started as quite drastically oppositional movements, but which ultimately became much more moderate and mainstream as acceptance has grown (though even in these domains we have not yet achieved 100% equality).
Together, as a bloc, the LGBT+ community has been quite successful in creating an identity that has managed to foster a feeling of belonging for those who are made to feel ‘different’. Together the LBGT+ community has achieved increased visibility amongst mainstream society and successfully fought for legal and social recognition, though there are still basic rights such as marriage equality which we have not yet been granted. As a community we are by no means done yet and thus LGBT+ is in my view still very much relevant. There are plenty of people who still view us as inherently ‘different’ and there is still a lot to do from a legal and policy point of view. It is all heading in the right direction though, which makes me extremely hopeful, but unfortunately the necessity of a minority identity is a testimony to the fact that we as a society have still a lot of homework to do.
Words by anonymous.