LGBT+ President: “There’s a long way to go” to improve diversity

By Anna Tatham

LGBT+ President and President-Elect have expressed that “there is a long way to go” to improve diversity at Durham University.

Joanna Gower, current President of the LGBT+ Association, has stated that Durham is “lower in diversity than other universities in the UK, and that needs to change.” She has expressed concerns about the representation of minority students within the University, particularly those amongst minority ethnic groups. According to its website, the LGBT+ Association “exists to provide welfare services, campaigns, and socials to anyone who identifies as being under the LGBTQ+ umbrella.”

The Association is currently led by Joanna Gower, with Ted Lavis Coward being recently elected as her successor for 2016-17.

Joanna describes the Association as “a base for students to explore who they are,” but reiterated that membership was not compulsory for those who identify as LGBT+: “It is a personal choice, but we’re here to represent them if they would like.”

The Association runs welfare services such as a confidential listening service and free sexual health supplies, as well as holding popular socials, attracting members from both within and outside the university.

Transphobic comments have recently been left on articles published by The Tab Durham, particularly on an article about whether Durham SU should give free sanitary products to girls. “Apparently it’s ‘political correctness gone mad’ for everybody to have accessible hygiene in 2016” says Ted, protesting that the article was trans exclusionary, and the comments by users were “disgusting” as well as “ignorant” of discrimination faced by the transexual community.

Other issues have arisen this year; in January, for example, Hatfield College made the controveersial decision to retain the title of ‘Senior Man’ rather than follow suit of other colleges to change to the gender neutral name of ‘Senior Student’.

“They seem to think the way things were is always going to be the best way,” Joanna commented, as she reiterated how language plays a crucial role in how we think.

“For someone who identifies as trans, it could potentially change your entire university career, how comfortable you feel in your accommodation, your living environments by talking to the exec, people who voted against changing the name.” Moreover, the decision has been criticised as ascribing positions of authority solely to men, without considering how other individuals may identify.

Joanna also spoke of the difficulties with terms such as ‘Male Welfare Officer’ and ‘Female Welfare Officer’. As a non-binary individual, she described the requirement to wear a t-shirt branded ‘Female Welfare Officer’ on some occasions “like wearing a label of someone else’s name.”

There are also concerns with how Durham University staff members understand gender and sexual orientation. Joanna has delivered presentations about gender identity to the psychology department during staff training, and explained that even a lot of social psychologists do not understand the terms. Joanna remarks, “Staff members need to reach out to the resources that we have,” to which Ted adds, “if the staff don’t really understand it, how can we expect students to?”

The LGBT+ Association encourages Durham students and staff to “ask us the awkward questions” in order to eliminate ignorance about gender identity. Ted states that “there’s a lot of unconscious bias in the language we use and the way we act that will take generations to filter out.”

Image: Harriet Rawet  

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