Beginning my research on the realities of the LGBTQ+ student experience, I started my conversation with each queer student by asking them what their first impressions were of how their chosen college represented and interacted with the LGBTQ+ community. Overall their responses were very positive. Many felt like their colleges were very supportive and open to all identities and encouraged students to feel safe in expressing themselves.
Onyx, who is currently a third year student at NCAD, doesn’t feel comfortable explaining his gender identity to others yet praises his college for the initiative of “college tutors encouraging signing off an email with their pronouns, making it more comfortable”. Multiple students were pleasantly surprised to see their colleges have an LGBTQ+ Society, with Dylan, a Masters student at UCC, commenting that their own is “very competently run and celebrates UCC’s queer history”.
As I took in everyone’s first impressions it led me to ask if they all feel comfortable expressing their sexuality and gender identity on campus. The feedback on this one was decidedly more mixed. The most negative comment I heard was from Dylan, embarking on their second year at TUD, explaining they do not at all feel comfortable expressing their queer identity, “mostly due to the campus location and my campus having a predominantly cisgender/heterosexual student body. A large percentage of them are under 20 years old and it feels they know nothing to very little about the queer community, making anti-LGBTQ+ comments without realising.”
On the other hand, many felt like they could openly talk about their sexuality but felt uncomfortable taking the risk of explaining their gender identities. Dylan from UCC explained, “I don’t share my gender queerness outside of queer circles as I don’t like to unless I know I will be accepted.”
With the negatives aside I still heard some students feel completely free to be themselves, with Nikolas, a recent graduate from NCAD, stating that he “felt comfortable expressing and experimenting with my gender expression”.
I next asked everyone if they feel like their college has enough support for their LGBTQ+ students and their answers were overwhelmingly positive. Many students reflected on various student-led events that helped them feel supported, with one person highlighting how their college held a vigil one year on Transgender Day of Remembrance. Others stated that they felt like a majority of their college’s staff were very helpful with any LGBTQ+ issues they faced and referred them to any support systems available. From my own research I noticed several student union websites openly had LGBTQ+ helplines highlighted for students and I even found the NCAD student union promoting the college’s T-Fund, which is described in their own words as: “a fund to help aid our transgender students financially in their transition, with funding allocated by the college”.
Even with the positive feedback on support for queer students I asked if they felt that there is anything the college could change to better support LGBTQ+ students. Onyx from NCAD believes that there should be “more awareness of LGBTQ+ students and there should be workshops, not only for students but for teachers too, to better understand gender non-conforming students in particular, to better support them or to just be kinder to us”.
Nikolas agreed with better training for the staff, specifically in NCAD, as he reflected on moments where “staff have accidentally offended me. Sometimes I correct them but most times I let it slide because I know it isn’t malicious”. One point made by Eli, a graduate from BFEI, is that he would love to see gender neutral bathrooms in the college. And one last change that Dylan from TUD would like to see is “more recognition for queer people in the college through queer friendly workshops, events, and nights out”.
Wrapping up my conversation with each queer student I asked them if they have any experiences that stood out in their mind when it comes to being queer in college? Each response I received was beautifully unique. Dylan has had good conversations with the UCC graduate attributes team about queer inclusion and job hunting, explaining it was “good to candidly talk to a sympathetic ear about my experiences and worries”.
A student, who asked to remain nameless, was proud to see posters around the UCD campus about the protest against anti-trans activist Posie Parker “since the official parts of the university aren’t exactly gonna be that political”. Eli from BFEI shared with me that “very shortly after I started in college my head teacher got my email changed to my correct name and it was no extra hassle, just a super quick but important gesture”. Dylan studying at TUD mentioned, “one student who asked for my preferred pronouns last November and hasn’t slipped up once, when others in their friend group have multiple times”.
A very important moment that Nikolas described to me was when he was creating very vulnerable work for a final project in NCAD. “I did photogrammetry scans of my chest, and as a pre-op transgender man, this made me very dysphoric. I was able to trust Elaine Hoey, my tutor for the project, and show her, and her reaction was so overwhelming positive, caring and supportive. She really encouraged me to explore myself and my practice.” And last but not least, one of the most iconic queer moments was told to me by Onyx when he reminisced about a past student event at NCAD, “When I was in first year, someone came up to me and asked, ‘What’s your star sign? My mission is to kiss one of each tonight’.”
All in all, it is a very proud time to be a queer student in Ireland. There is always space for improvement but it feels like we aren’t far from a comfortable and inclusive future for Irish college students to come.
I would like to thank everyone who shared their college experiences with me and for allowing me to use their comments to highlight the acceptance of the queer community in colleges across Ireland.
My last words to you, dear reader, will be a phrase someone said to me in one of the above interviews: “If there’s a way out, it’s together!”