Student Experience Project 7

Having been brought up in a family that was largely Muslim, in a conservative part of the UK, I never felt that I could be open my bisexuality before coming to Cambridge. Beyond a couple of close friends, I was unable to be myself completely due to the knowledge that it would result in at best humiliation, and at worst rejection from a large part of my family and community.

This all changed when I came to Cambridge. According to a Tab study, we are the queerest university in the country, and although I can’t be sure that this was the most scientific of studies I totally believe it! I can’t imagine anywhere more open to LGBT+ students of all gender and sexuality identities, or where so many of the people you meet turn out to be queer in some aspect. It is truly a place where you can be open about who you are and be sure that discrimination and homophobia is both extremely rare and also not tolerated by either the university or the overwhelming majority of other students.

As a result, it is also, for someone coming from a place where most people had never even heard of terms such as “non-binary”, and where “gay” was still used as an insult, surprisingly easy to find people who are openly LGBT+. Whether you just want others to talk to about your experiences, or are hoping to find someone special who you couldn’t imagine ever meeting back home, there can be few places better than here to make being queer the smallest barrier possible to your happiness.

While it took some time to get used to the idea of being out, the more people I told about my sexuality the happier and more comfortable I became and the more other LGBT+ people I met. My advice for freshers who have not felt comfortable being out before coming to Cambridge, is to remember that coming up is a chance to start afresh and define your own identity ab initio. Making however it is you self-identify clear right from the start means that you never really have to go through the struggles of ‘coming out’. Even if home is somewhere where your gender or sexuality identity can’t be revealed for whatever reason, spending most of your time somewhere you can be yourself without judgement is a hugely liberating experience. The earlier you seize it, the more exciting and freeing your Cambridge experience will be!

So my advice as someone from a background that was not exactly queer-friendly is to throw yourself into the opportunities Cambridge gives you – there are club nights, bar crawls, coffee mornings, talks, discussion groups and more, all of which are great places to meet people in similar situations from you. Make the most of it!, and good luck with your new start at the best university in the world (no bias!)

(To submit your own experiences, please email lgbt-computing@cusu.cam.ac.uk)

Student Experience 6

In Freshers’ Week, our college chaplain told us all something along the lines of “Don’t feel like you have to stay good friends with the very first people you meet. When I was at uni, I didn’t meet my really close friends until second year, and that’s okay.” It was good advice which I promptly forgot about for the next nine months or so, as I was swept away in the blur that is Cambridge life.

I had come out in high school, a couple of years before starting uni, and I was excited to arrive and finally meet lots of people just like me. So I went to a couple of smaller LGBT+ events in Michaelmas, where I met lots of gay men and trans* people, who were all welcoming and lovely. But it just so happened that there weren’t many women at the events I’d picked, and I was too nervous to go clubbing or to bigger events without anyone who I knew, so I didn’t. Long story short, I stopped going to LGBT+ events and threw myself into my friendships in college. All of my female friends were straight, but that wasn’t too bad – they are supportive and I love them all to pieces.

Towards the end of Easter term, my LGBT+ ‘sister’ organised a sunny picnic at Newnham (side note: sign up for an LGBT+ family! Mine was ultra relaxed and supportive and wonderful!). I went, and finally met loads of really cool queer women amongst the wonderful group of LGBT+ people who were there. I’ve been to a few more events since, and thoroughly enjoyed them all.

Now I’m going into second year with a handful of LGBT+ friends, including the queer women that I really needed to find, and I’m planning on attending a lot more events. I didn’t make any fantastic friendships with the first LGBT+ people who I met, but I wish I’d remembered that that was okay.

(To submit your own experiences, please email lgbt-computing@cusu.cam.ac.uk)

Student Experience 5

Before Cambridge, I was at an all-boys’ school and I don’t think coming out as trans* under those circumstances would have been easy even had I not been completely and utterly confused about my identity anyway. I can’t say for certain whether things would have been different if I’d gone to a mixed school, but I think that coming out at uni is certainly not too late (you still have the whole of your life ahead of you, after all!) and it’s important to recognize that everybody has vastly different experiences. Although woefully short of desirable, I would stress that Cambridge is a comparatively good place for trans* people as a city and as a university and I personally have never experienced in Cambridge anything like the abuse I have received on the streets of London.

Coming out is always a scary process but I was extremely lucky to have a very supportive group of friends and my college was extremely helpful with changing my name for internal purposes and I found it easy to come out to my tutor and Director of Studies. My department itself is a little stuffier and don’t seem to have got the message despite my DoS emailing them. I sometimes get the impression that different colleges have very different cultures and I feel in general that every Cambridge student’s experiences are highly dependent upon which college they end up at, the friends they make and which faculty they are part of. The University administration on the whole is rather more old-fashioned and stuck in their ways, and I feel like Cambridge has an intrinsically “macho” culture of hectic terms and a sink-or-swim attitude to your studies which sometimes doesn’t really allow you the breathing space you need. On a further note, there are some good GPs in Cambridge and some not-so good ones, so make sure you don’t stick with an unhelpful one!

The LGBT+ scene in Cambridge is not too bad, but not as good for trans* people as it could and should be. I would like to see trans* issues placed more at the heart of what CUSU LGBT+ does rather than the periphery because the community would be stronger with more inclusivity and a more powerful voice for everyone, not just gay men. There is progress to be made, but there is also a fairly sizeable and supportive trans* community in Cambridge and it’s a shame that it sometimes feels like trans* people are left on the sidelines.

Student Experience 4

My experiences at Cambridge have been quite mixed and it’s difficult to work out which things are solely “LGBT” relevant. This isn’t necessarily bad, though – bi people and trans people both have higher-than-average incidences of mental illness, so seeing how the University copes with that thrown into the mix is probably relevant to a lot of people in either or both groups.

 

When I was first diagnosed with a mental health issue, most didn’t really know what to do but some seemed willing to learn, as long as it was communicated very clearly and as far in advance as possible. Communication is one of the things people at Cambridge have a very particular attitude towards – the curtness with which people answer emails really affects some people with anxiety issues – so the constant expectation of academic-level clarity can be a drain.

 

As with mental health, so it was with trans stuff – gender doesn’t really come up in my supervisions and so supervisors have gotten all the way to the end of term without ever asking or making a statement that had to be corrected, then have accepted correction when I pointed out their end of term report had it wrong. Most of them have been faintly confused when they see the person attached to the name they’ve been given and it’s quite obvious they don’t quite get what’s going on, but I’ve had very few overt comments. The one memorably bad experience I think I’ve had is a supervisor who decided trans people’s existence was a fascinating intellectual subject and didn’t see why this might be inappropriate. On the college end, it’s been mostly OK, aside from one incident where the Senior Tutor asked me to “just keep using the women’s bathrooms (i’m a trans man), so people aren’t confused and distressed”. He backtracked quite fast when he learned this was “technically discrimination” – basically, the rules are on your side with that one. The main theme here, I’d say, is that it’s overwhelmingly likely that any horrible things that happen will be non-overt and anything that is overt is something you’re likely to be protected from in some way, at least after the fact. Depending on how you process interacting with people, this could be a good or a bad thing.

 

The mix of trans and bi has mostly not been a problem – people who pride themselves on being enlightened, liberal academics tend to at least try to not be overtly homophobic. One of the porters at my college did suddenly stop being so warmly supportive when they realised I still liked boys, but by and large people who can deal with “trans” can deal with “trans and bi”. Cambridge is, I would say, astoundingly safe compared to most of the places i’ve lived when it comes to obvious signs of non-heterosexuality. When I walk down the street with a person i’m seeing who is also trans, we are very rarely harassed – I can count the incidents on one hand. I definitely feel like in most other places we wouldn’t be this safe. I will note that this is in the centre of town – the areas not dominated by students are a bit different. Slightly out of the middle of town I did once get chased by a man threatening to beat me up for “looking like a woman”, but the fact that this was just the once says a lot about Cambridge’s relative safety.

 

The mix of being trans and mentally ill is harder to form a solid opinion on. Supervisors have dealt variously with the mental illness – some have been very understanding when I’ve been unable to attend or respond well in supervisions due to medication side effects, manic twitchiness or depression fog, while others have displayed a stunning lack of empathy for anyone who doesn’t fit the effortless high-achiever mould. People have been less understanding about eating disorder related setbacks than they have been about depression, and I feel this is relevant to my Cambridge trans experience as so many of us have eating disorders. The University Counselling Service was really not appreciative of how being trans might feed into other issues (or alternatively, how not every issue was related to it) and also put my body dysphoria issues down to being on the autism spectrum. The CUSU LGBT+ trans rep really helped me when I came out, though, and they and I are still good friends. From what I’ve heard from people at other unis, our trans welfare is actually pretty decent.

Student Experience 3

“CUSU LGBT+ really has been foundational to providing a new range of social experiences since I came out in October 2012, some two years after matriculating here at Cambridge. The LGBT+ community here has been nothing but welcoming, inclusive, and friendly to me. I’ve managed to meet some of my closest friends from mingling at Spectrum, the weekly LGBT+ club night, and college socials, in addition to those friends I already had before the time seemed right to be more open about my partner preferences.

My college has a thriving LGBT+ community, representing people from all walks of life, so I felt more at home at university than ever before when I got to express who I really felt I was with people who non-judgementally accepted that. Plus, knowing there are two tiers of support available through college and CUSU LGBT+ is comforting, but before coming out my knowledge of the community here was limited. I think not everyone is aware of the support networks available to them, and we should be all the louder because of that.

To prospective students reading this, I would say really take the initiative and get involved, not only in the student politics side of things, but in all the great stuff Cambridge LGBT+ life has to offer. Good luck 🙂 “

Student Experience 2

“I decided to come out when I got to uni because it seemed easier (instead of having to correct people’s assumptions, they could just know I wasn’t straight from the start). Personally, I have had a very positive experience at many levels, for example: my teachers, while sometimes ignorant about LGBT+ issues, have often been willing to discuss them respectfully (in language oral classes, for example); I have made lots of fantastic friends with whom I have experiences and concerns in common; I am involved with running LGBT+ stuff; I feel more comfortable in Cambridge town than I would in many other cities.

Of course, things could improve, for example: LGBT+ events are often very male-heavy, leaving other people such as myself feeling a bit out of place (also unhelpful if you mainly fancy women and were hoping to pull…); biphobia is not always challenged, both in LGBT+ and general settings; my college could be much more proactive things like removing gendered terms from dress codes.

My experience at Cambridge has been, overall, very enjoyable. It is easy for me to find spaces which I feel comfortable in and people to hang out with, and students etc. tend to be respectful regarding LGB stuff.”

 



Student experience 1

“I knew I was interested in guys before I came to Cambridge, but didn’t feel the need to shout about it. I went onto the college’s anonymous LGBT mailing list to see what events were happening but didn’t attend any of the first few things. Apart from the college rep, I only mentioned it to a coursemate who had said he was bi, and it came up in conversation with a few college friends as I got to know them better through the year. I don’t see sexuality as part of my identity, just that some of the people I fancy happen to be guys, in the same way as some might be the same or different race/age/etc as me.

I met my boyfriend shortly before second year started, so that news was the first a lot of my friends knew about my sexuality; there were some surprised reactions and the odd one or two mildly freaked out by it if they’d grown up in a totally ‘straight’ environment (but they got over it sooner or later); some people were willing to tell me they disagreed with it in principle; but no hostility, and most people didn’t find it specially remarkable. It doesn’t have any bearing whatsoever on my academic life, membership of societies, etc – I’ve experienced no discrimination.

The Cambridge community is quite open-minded or at least tolerant. I’d feel comfortable holding hands in the street, in fact yesterday I saw two guys doing just that, although it’s definitely not a common sight. I’ve now been to two or three LBGT formal swaps between my college and others, they can feel a little odd because the only thing really bringing you all together is being non-straight! but like any swap, they’re a good way to chat to some new people.”