Reflections on History Month: More Than Just Celebrations

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LGBT+ history month 2016 has drawn to a close and for me it’s been by far the most spectacular one I’ve seen in my 5 years here. My personal highlights would definitely be seeing the colleges fly the rainbow flags in support of the LGBT+ people, the talk given by Ruth Hunt CEO of Stonewall and the I Don’t Exist campaign. A huge amount of effort went in from LGBT+ reps in each college to get the rainbow flags up with most colleges flying the flag for the very first time. Ruth Hunt was as ever spellbinding speaking about the history of LGBT+ activism and the future with her own personal story woven in.

With the I Don’t Exist campaign I’m perhaps just a tiny bit biased considering I’ve been spending far too much time running it rather than on my degree but the support it’s gotten is far beyond my expectations. The main photos include 15 non-binary people with 82 binary people in support photos while we’ve also had support from major organisations around the UK, other student unions and Cambridge’s own MP Daniel Zeichner. While it has been a month of huge celebrations, befitting of Cambridge being national host of the month, LGBT+ people do not simply vanish at its end.

Cambridge may have a reputation for socially changing at the rate its buildings are eroding, but I am still delighted to see how far we have come in my time here. Despite this it has definitely been an uphill battle all the way. Like most students I came to university intending to learn but unfortunately life isn’t really so simple and I’ve ended up sending a lot of my time teaching, teaching lecturers, colleges, fellow students, everyone I can get my hands on. I’ve seen pretty much every horror story you could imagine along the way from colleges breaking anti-discrimination laws to lecturers dropping slurs while teaching. These are rarely malicious, mainly born out of ignorance which is itself pretty sad for an institution which prides itself as a centre of knowledge.

You would hope that there would be staff around the university who would be able to fix these problems but fundamentally the people who care most about student wellbeing are other students. This is what your student representation is all about and why I’ve dedicated two years of my time here to working in CUSU LGBT+. Our own work in 2013 found that over half of trans students had been treated negatively by a member of staff. While there is significant amounts of news on any perceived failings within CUSU there’s very little on what your university is getting away with.

Students should be demanding an inclusive and high quality learning environment and for that to happen the university needs to listen to the voices of students. One of the key issues CUSU LGBT+ has been working on is gaining places in the university’s committees, the decision makers for the university. We think it’s outrageous that the university won’t even let your elected LGBT+, BME, disabled students and international student representatives be a part of its Equality and Diversity committee. Like each of the university’s committees it is made up almost exclusively of staff despite the fact that there are almost twice as many students here as staff. Staff members will never be acceptable substitutes for student representatives as coming here for your job is miles away from the student experience of living here for months at a time.

At the start of LGBT+ history month the university singed up to an ‘Equality Pledge’ saying that they “believe in the dignity of all people and their right to respect and equality of opportunity.” For this to be more than a vacuous piece of self-promotion the university needs to fundamentally shift its attitude towards its students, to take their views and issues seriously. Students are at the heart of this university and they deserve to be valued by it. As LGBT+ history month comes to a close it’s time to remember that we didn’t get here without a struggle and there is much left to do. Be angry that students still face discrimination and demand that your university does better.

Sarah Gibson, CUSU LGBT+ president

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