It’s 2015. Life as an LGBTQ+ student is, surprisingly, not that bad. Universities across Canada have become more accepting and understanding — both at an administrative and student level — of different sexualities. Support programs abound for students to help them transition and feel comfortable in university, from separate floors in residence to designated safe spaces on campus.
In Ontario, most LGBTQ+ students reported feeling comfortable on campus in the largest ever survey of LGBTQ+ university students released by the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance in early November. The survey highlighted the university experience of Ontario LGBTQ+ students to better understand their satisfaction and inclusion on campus overall. The results of the survey are quite optimistic and portray how far we’ve come in campus culture, and society as a whole, in our understanding of LGBTQ+ issues.
Part of that progress is simply the wealth of services that universities offer. Western has a wide array of resources and programming that facilitate social support and interactions for the LGBTQ+ students.
Naushin Halani, a third-year science student,is a part of Get REAL, “a movement of university students across Canada who speak to high schools about unlearning LGBTQ+ discrimination and bullying.” She says it helped her in her journey because she saw she had the potential to make a difference in people’s lives, especially when talking to students in middle and high schools.
PrideWestern and the Pride Library within Weldon Library, the first of its kind in Canada, allow for more social activities and interactions for members of this community. The Peer Support Centre provides an open safe space for students to come together and support each other. Ally Western organizes free workshops and training, which promotes acceptance and inclusivity of all groups on campus. In residence, Ontario Hall has a rainbow and ally community floor that provides a supportive environment for students and advocates for LGBTQ+ rights.
“We do diversity inclusive training through equity and human rights services for all our residence staff, and also ally training is delivered to residence staff through the [University Students’ Council],” said Susan Grindrod, associate vice-president of Western’s housing and ancillary services.
Compared to the past, Grindrod says complaints of discrimination from LGBTQ+ students have gotten a lot better.
“I’ve been here a long time and it used to be quite problematic, she says. “But now I think people are pretty good and we don’t get very many complaints.”
But that doesn’t mean these students don’t face an overwhelming struggle to stay in school at times and even to stay alive.
Although there haven’t been serious concerns on our campus, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are more likely to experience intolerance, discrimination, harassment and the threat of violence in their lives due to their sexual orientation and gender identity.
For certain people, the threat of violence and the impact of familial or community disapproval is particularly intense. For others, the internal struggle of coming to terms with their own sexual orientation and identity is unbelievably overwhelming.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, LGBTQ+ people face “higher rates of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and phobic disorders, suicidality, self-harm and substance [abuse].” As a result, “LGBTQ youth are at approximately 14 times higher risk of suicide than heterosexual peers.”
Even with such harrowing statistics, the OUSA survey does not acknowledge current long counselling wait times and the very real need for increased counselling services.
For Brett Wiederhold, a fourth-year kinesiology student, counselling would have been key to learning how to cope with and control his social anxiety and depression, to come to terms with himself and his sexual orientation, and to feel comfortable in his own skin.
He sought counselling in November of his first year and was told to come back four months later. He eventually gave up and tried to deal with it all on his own.
“I just opened up to someone that I’ve never met before, I’ve never told anyone my story before and now you’re telling me it’s not bad enough?” he says of the counselling intake process.
According to the survey, 34 per cent of students who used mental health services reported counsellors and therapists did not have the proper knowledge to provide good care.
Cynthia Gibney, coordinator for Student Health Services at Western, says support for LGBTQ+ students is the same as for any student. However, they can make special requests for doctors or information based on the problem presented. She adds that the intake for counselling depends on the student’s situation.
“For example, individuals would be seen differently depending on if they are in crisis, if they have a counsellor in the community or if it is their first time to our clinic,” she says.
With regards to accessibility of the clinic to students, she says she hasn’t dealt with many concerns.
A large majority of respondents to the OUSA survey said they would like more areas designated as LGBTQ+ safe spaces.
According to Jana Luker, associate vice-president of student experience, Western does not have specific places designated as safe spaces, and as of now there are no plans for such in the future.
Students at Western identifying within the LGBTQ+ community believe there to be both pros and cons to safe spaces.
Halani said for her the most important thing is finding like-minded people, and although such spaces facilitate that, they are not necessary to become comfortable with your sexuality.
Wiederhold agrees, suggesting designated safe spaces might even make matters worse.
“In this world where we’re trying to make everyone equal and bring everyone up on the same level, it’s almost like segregation to me,” says Wiederhold.
Phillip Yang, third-year biomedical sciences student, likewise thinks safe spaces are unnecessary because they eclipse the bigger picture.
“Sometimes when you build too much of an exclusive community you forget that we are all part of a bigger community,” says Yang.
From personal experience and experiences of friends, Halani, Wiederhold and Yang think Western’s environment is very tolerant and inclusive towards the LGBTQ+ community. They have always felt comfortable on campus and have never been discriminated against and as a result feel no need for specific designated safe spaces.
Since the late 1960s, the LGBTQ+ community in Canada has witnessed steady gains in rights, acceptance and understanding. Universities like Western have led the way with support systems for those struggling with their sexuality and identity, as the OUSA survey shows.
There’s still more that can be done, however. Students struggling with their sexuality and gender identity need to have access to counselling that can often save them from harmful situations. And there can always be more acceptance showed by the community at large — this is how LGBTQ+ rights become the norm for all of society.
“It’s important for all of us to foster the understanding of diversity of experiences, opinions and beliefs,” says Alex Benac, USC vice-president internal.