By Jess Frieze, President of the Durham LGBT+ Association
Back in 2009, Palatinate published a piece lamenting the lack of an LGBT+ scene in Durham: the rather wonderfully titled ‘All Work and No Gay?’, which you can read here.
In considering my response to this, I have thought long and hard about how it should be approached – and it lends itself to comparison, assessing the changes which have occurred.
Whilst the original piece praised the work of what was then called the LGBT Association in effectively being the Durham scene, it concluded that both a general lack of nightlife and prejudice even within LGBT+ spaces were issues that Durham students faced.
So, let’s take a look at what has changed since the publication of the article eight years ago.
What particularly struck me about the article – as someone who started at Durham in 2015 – was the often cis-normative language used by the writers, including members of what is now the LGBT+ Association. Whilst we may now be nowhere near perfect, things really do seem to have become more inclusive: even our name now better represents that fact that our service users include a range of identities, which are far more wide ranging than simply lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.
Whilst the simple addition of a plus sign cannot be said to be representative of all, we are not complacent – we regularly hold forums to allow students to feed back on how we can improve our name, logo and other media.
I was similarly a little shocked that the article used language such as “transsexualism” and referred to non-LGBT+ people as “straight”. Though I mean no slight to the contributors, this really does demonstrate how the norms of language usage have become much more inclusive in recognising the wide range of identities which Durham students hold.
In particular, trans inclusivity has been a huge focus of the LGBT+a in recent years, bolstered particularly by past Presidents Jo Gower and Ted Lavis Coward and their committees. Whilst the 2009 article focuses mostly on gay or bisexual students with only a few glancing references to the trans* community, the LGBT+a now has its own Autonomous Trans Campaign group, which elects its own officers and provides welfare, campaigns and socials for trans and non-binary students.
In addition, Durham student athletes can now play for whichever division they feel best fits their gender identity, following a policy created by Ted, and successfully passed by the LGBT+a at university and national level.
In terms of the ‘scene’, I hope that we demonstrate substantial improvement from 2009. Whilst we continue the Monday socials that the original article mentions, these are now held in the accessible location of Cuth’s Bar and feature gender-neutral toilets, a quiet space where films and games are available, and a garden area.
The LGBT+a also run regular ‘identity socials’, such as Multiorientation coffee meet ups, and have just passed a policy to set up regular caucuses held by our identity reps, who represent a large number of specific LGBT+ identities.
We have hosted events such as a Genderosion Pride Day, where students could learn self defence, take part in discusssions around gender identity, politics and body confidence, and buy clothes at a Pay What You Can charity Label-less boutique where all clothes could be bought by anyone of any gender identity. Furthermore, in the next year we hope to hold events such as SU Club Nights, in support of accessible sanitary products, to name but a few.
Even outside of the LGBT+a, things have improved a little – a Pride Café now runs every Saturday at My House Bar, and Osbourne’s still runs its Monday night Rainbow Room events. In addition, colleges have been much more involved in recent years – hosting film screenings, discussion groups and Pride Parties – both with the Association and independently.
Whilst I really do believe that things have improved for LGBT+ students at Durham, they are, however, by no means perfect. Just as in the 2009 article, there is still no permanent LGBT+ space in Durham, such as a bar or club, and the famous Newcastle Pink Triangle remains inaccessible for many (as do bars such as Osbourne’s).
I also don’t believe Durham is free of the prejudice described by several students in the 2009 piece. Unlike one writer, I have felt comfortable in the past holding a partner’s hand in public; however, I have also witnessed shocking examples of discrimination, and especially transphobia, from staff and students.
It seems there is still a lot to be done in terms of raising awareness of different identities and of accessible, intersectional events.
Despite this, however, I am proud to be part of the LGBT+ scene in Durham. We may have a way to go, but I really believe we can make it.
Reading the 2009 article makes me happy, as not only does it show that our predecessors were fighting just as we do today, but also illustrates the sheer amount of positive change which has occurred in the last 8 years.
In 2017 Durham there may still be lots of work – but, thankfully, there is now also plenty of gay.
Photograph by Denise Coronel via Flickr and CreativeCommons