February is LGBTQ+ History Month so we caught up with student Steph Preston, our former Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Officer, to find out what this month means to them and how they are working to help make the College as inclusive as possible.
"LGBTQ+ History Month is about educating people and celebrating the history and culture of our community. While we’ve come a long way, there is still so much work to be done to ensure acceptance and inclusion across society, and to work with those from other backgrounds and belief systems that may be less educated or aware. I’m going to be spending this month educating myself even more on the key figures from our history, and working to educate and inform friends, family and other people about the key issues facing our community, particularly trans people and queer people of colour.
There are so many amazing people, both past and present, who have fought to further the rights and inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community. One person who has inspired me in particular was Marsha P. Johnson, an African-American drag queen and activist. She played an instrumental role in the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and worked throughout her life with marginalised communities, particularly trans and gay people. In more recent history, some of my key inspirational figures are people like Munroe Bergdorf, Jamie Windust and Travis Alabanza, who all work to break the boundaries of binary gender whilst educating others.
In my role as the EDI Officer for the Student Union, I worked with Kathryn Mogford, our Head of Student Services, to form an EDI Committee, whose mission was to work on policies and campaigns that made the College more inclusive for everyone, including LGBTQ+ people and SEND students. I have also worked with Kathryn to form the College’s first Transgender and Identity Policy, which outlines key policies and procedures for working with staff and students who identify as Trans. We have also worked together to increase the accessibility of gender neutral toilets for trans students who wish to use these.
It is so important that the College takes on board the needs and opinions of current and future LGBTQ+ students because so many who don’t feel able to express themselves at home will use College as a space to be open and comfortable in how they identify or present. In my experience, I have only had positive interactions with my teachers and support staff regarding my gender identity and expression. The tutors and Student Services take the time to listen to any issues I have, and provide the best support and comfort I could’ve asked for.
I still think there is plenty that could be done to make the College more inclusive and accessible for its LGBTQ+ students. We need to work on increasing the number of gender neutral toilets at both campuses, potentially changing one block of toilets at each campus to be gender neutral for any and all students to use, regardless of their gender. I think it’s also important to increase the visibility of LGBTQ+ members of our community, both students and staff alike. Seeing staff who also identity as LGBTQ+ can reassure students that there are people like them who can be a friendly face or reassuring voice if needed, and that they will be accepted however they identify. A third and final way the College could become more inclusive for queer students is by increasing the education of students on related issues; we need education on topics such as LGBT+ terminology/identities, the history of our community, and the issues that face us still today, to be engrained in our education and tutorial system. It’s great to focus on these issues in LGBTQ+ History Month, but they need to be engrained throughout the year to have an impact and to reach the most students.
These issues aren’t specific to our College though, and I think that there is much room for improvement across the entire academic sector to improve the inclusion of LGBTQ+ students and to educate others on the issues that our community still faces.
Early last year I was picked to attend the Stonewall Youth Summit, but because of Covid-19, the event was held online, which was great though I was unable to attend. Speakers included various queer activists and POC who could speak on their experiences and their campaigning. One speaker was Tanya Compas, who founded ‘Exist Loudly’ and ‘Queer Black Christmas’; Exist Loudly is a charity whose work focuses on creating spaces of joy and support systems for young people in the queer black community. Their work involves workshops and mentoring, plus physical supplies like binders for trans men.
The selection process was relatively simple – I just had to give my details and write a short statement about my own campaigning and activism and how I could benefit from attending the Summit. From the several hundred applicants who applied, I was one of only 100 young people in the UK to attend the Summit, which was the first of its kind!
The advice I would give to LGBTQ+ students who are thinking of joining the College is be confident and be yourself (although that is easier said than done). Express yourself however you want, and do it confidently, because I can guarantee you will be welcomed with open arms.
It’s definitely worth talking to Student Services before coming to the College so that you’ve got some familiar faces on your first day, and so that any necessary arrangements can be made. For example, if you identify as trans then it can help to let the team know beforehand so that they can ensure the correct name and pronouns are used by teachers, even if you don’t feel comfortable coming out to family just yet. Honestly, just be unapologetically yourself and you’ll fit right in. Everyone respects one another here, and you’ll have an amazing support network of teachers, tutors and support staff to help you with anything.”
Over the course of LGBTQ+ History Month Steph will be writing more about LGBTQ+ trailblazers past and present so keep an eye on our website and social media for future articles.