Making the university a better place for LGBTQ+ students, by Dr Nuno Nodin

Making the university a better place for LGBTQ+ students, by Dr Nuno Nodin

Universities are generally considered fairly diverse and accepting spaces where many lesbian, bisexual, gay, trans, queer, and other sexual minority (LGBTQ+) young people feel like they can be themselves. However, this is not by any means ubiquitous and evidence suggests that some of these students experience abuse and consider dropping out due to their sexual orientation or gender identity. This is even more the case for trans, gender non-conforming, and other gender minority students.

Although many universities in the UK have explicit anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies, more can be done to improve the experience of LGBTQ+ students. Here are a few strategies that can be considered for this purpose..

Increase representation in the curriculum

Whatever the topic being taught, universities, departments, and academics can think strategically about how their teaching can reflect diverse identities and perspectives. This can be done at several levels. For example, an audit of teaching content can identify where queer authors, materials, theories, or narratives can be explicitly included. Images used in presentation slides or other teaching materials can be changed to portray diverse LGBTQ+ identities and relationships. Research project supervision options can include topics that have a direct influence or that speak to the interests of the LGBTQ+ community, and therefore to sexually diverse students. For non-LGBTQ+ students, this will also create a more obvious culture of diversity and acceptance which will indirectly contribute towards a more inclusive university climate for all.

Make signs of support more visible

In the UK, February marks LGBT History Month and in June Pride is celebrated. These months tend to come with important visible support towards the LGBT+ community in many educational environments, e.g. by raising Pride flags and by displaying rainbow coloured versions of universities’ logos in social media. However, restricting visible signs of LGBTQ+ support to these periods of the year is not enough. Other simple ways to complement them include making rainbow lanyards available to staff, therefore signalling staff’s support and openness towards LGBTQ+ people; and including one’s pronouns in email signatures and in presentation slides, which demonstrates staff’s understanding of the importance of pronouns, and subtly signals their openness towards their gender diverse students. Finally, other than LGBT History and Pride months, there are other dates that are worth promoting, such as International Asexuality Day (6 April), Celebrate Bisexuality Day (23 September), or Transgender Day of Remembrance (20 November). These can be marked via internal and external communications channels such as through social media, and by organising relevant events, such as guest lectures or exhibitions.

Address institutional cisheteronormativity

Despite their explicit anti-discriminatory policies and regulations, universities often include pockets of cisheteronormative resistance that may require an extra effort to identify and change. An example of that is a simple mechanism for students who wish to change their names in student IDs or email addresses, something that is much appreciated by trans and other students who may wish to change their names so that it matches their gender identity. In universities where there may be gender-segregated accommodation, students who transition should be able to easily be relocated to accommodation that fits their gender identity. Another simple measure is to ensure that all toilets on campus are gender-neutral to facilitate access to trans, non-binary and other gender non-conforming students.

Safe spaces

There are various ways through which higher education spaces can be made safer for LGBTQ+ students. An important one is to ensure that staff are  trained and feel confident in respect of LGBTQ+ issues. Training about unconscious bias or about more inclusive language can help staff in being prepared to engage in conversations about sexual minority issues, in communicating with their LGBTQ+ students confidently, or in challenging any instances of inappropriate language they may encounter. The Safe Zone project provides free resources that can be adapted and used to deliver training on LGBTQ+ inclusivity within organisations. Virtual spaces also deserve some consideration, and it is important that universities take the appropriate steps to minimise the occurrence of any trolling incidents (e.g. making any virtual LGBTQ+ spaces registration only). Furthermore, there should be straightforward and well-advertised mechanisms for reporting any trolling, hate crime or discrimination incidents within the organisation.

This is not an exhaustive list, but a review of some important aspects to consider in the pathway to the creation of more inclusive LGBTQ+ higher education spaces. Importantly, LGBTQ+ inclusivity work is not something that is accomplished at any given point, as many of the suggested actions above require ongoing will and effort. The matter of who is responsible for ensuring that necessary steps are taken needs to be carefully considered, and it should not be of the sole responsibility of specific people or groups of people (e.g. LGBTQ+ staff networks or out members of faculty). Rather, these responsibilities should be embedded into specific roles, including but not restricted to the universities’ senior leadership and EDI teams, to ensure continued investment and action.

Creating a more open and diverse university has wide reaching benefits. It creates a positive environment where everyone can be more authentically themselves and make the most of the educational opportunities they are offered, but it also has important reputational implications for the university. Having a clear and visibly supportive culture will attract students who might not be able to experience that openness elsewhere, as well as staff who might feel that the university understands the importance of supporting people from a range of backgrounds, therefore allowing it to attract talent unrestricted by discrimination concerns.