A year ago, the University of Sheffield made headlines when we became the first UK university to launch LGBT-only flats in our accommodation. Much of the coverage was based on untruths and exaggeration, conjuring images of huge rainbow-clad buildings where all gay students were forced to stay.
The reality was far less dramatic: 32 students in seven flats scattered among the three student villages, with no way of being identified aside from by their tenants. It was hardly the “ghettoising” we were accused of.
The debate hit the news during my first week as the students’ union welfare officer. The project was a result of a partnership between the university and the students’ union LGBT committee. As an LGBT activist myself, I initially had concerns. But my worries were quickly assuaged when I did what lots of news outlets didn’t: actually talk to the students concerned.
They never saw themselves as part of a big political controversy. In fact, they were baffled by all the attention. For the LGBT students, it was about not having to feel like they look feminine or masculine enough to fit in. Or being able to talk about Tinder dates and seminar crushes without fearing judgment or intrusive questions. It’s about one of the most fundamental human needs: to feel safe and comfortable in your own home.
One resident I spoke to, Fran, acts as a mentor in several flats. She said she has heard lots of LGBT students voice fears that their new flatmates might share the views of their school bullies or unsupportive parents. For those students, being around even one other queer person can make life easier. “As a queer person, in an environment that still isn’t great, especially for trans students, your very existence and the fact that you’re living out is resistance in its own way,” she said.
Veronica, a first-year biology student, told me that she had worried about living with someone homophobic. LGBT halls gave her the assurance that her sexuality would be accepted. She had friends express concerns, saying that LGBT students should mix with others to teach them acceptance. But living in the halls made her mingle more by giving her the confidence to go out, meet new people and try new things.
As Veronica put it: “It gave me strength to be myself and not be afraid, because I know I have people who will accept me no matter what. I feel like I’m not afraid of my identity anymore.”
Of course LGBT students should be mixing, and they are every day. Our university prides itself on its commitment to equality and inclusion, to making sure all LGBT staff and students feel welcome and supported across the institution.
But the fact is that the world isn’t perfect. Across the country, 40% of LGBT students have hidden their identity at university for fear of discrimination, and 60% of trans students have experienced negative comments because of their identity.
For these students, LGBT accommodation is not about cutting themselves off. It’s about creating a place where they can sleep and eat, free from any of the worry or unease they might feel in their daily lives. The project is still a work in progress, but the principle is unshakeable. If we can make just a few students feel happier at university – allow them to study, work and socialise freely like other students, knowing that their home is a place of safety – then it’s worth it.