Why we need more queer safe spaces in our university

Image Credit: Roger Templeman

Last week, it was announced that Plush, Oxford’s largest LGBTQ+ venue and only gay nightclub, will be closing down – although hopefully only temporarily. The owners are currently in talks to source a suitable replacement venue, but there are no signs yet where this could be. While the search is underway, Plush will undoubtedly be missed from the Oxford LGBTQ+ scene. At this time, it feels appropriate to reflect on Plush’s place within the community and the wider importance of queer safe spaces in our university.

For many students, university is the first opportunity for them to truly be themselves. Some may come from homophobic families or communities. Some may have not yet had the chance to explore their identity. In the National LGBT Survey conducted by the government over the past year, a significant number of respondents specifically commented on the improvement to their quality of life at university compared with negative experiences at home and in their previous school. This is an experience which resonates with many at Oxford, including me. Lots of us come from small, quiet towns, where being gay is treated not just as something out of the ordinary, but as something frightening. I knew just one gay couple growing up and I was aware from a very young age just how different their situation was. People who “lived like that” existed on the social peripherals. 

My experience so far at Oxford couldn’t have been more different from this. I have never felt more accepted and free than I do now in my second year of university. Not only has Oxford provided me with the confidence to be who I am during term time, it has also enabled me to go back to my little hometown and be open there too. This is a situation I could not have even imagined a year ago. 

“Everyone should be able to feel safe, accepted, and supported in an environment which best suits them.”

Places like Plush were an integral part of this personal development. My first time there was on Matriculation night and even seeing the sign near the door which announced ‘You are now entering a queer space’ seemed so bold and exciting. It was my first time in a gay club and my first time in any kind of queer space. I loved the cheesy music, the rainbow dancefloor lights, and the very reasonably priced drinks. But most importantly, I loved the feeling that I didn’t have to worry about being me. It was a feeling of complete and utter liberation. 

Plush has provided a safe queer space for people to be who they really are without fear of judgment or shame. These spaces are of particular importance to university students. As young people just beginning our transition into adult life it is essential that we have the chance to explore our identities in a space which allows us to do so safely. The light escapism from the stress of university life is made all the more valuable by the welcoming feel inherent in the club. It is also integral for us to build social support networks made up of people who share and understand our personal experiences. This makes what can be a very difficult journey to self-acceptance that little bit easier. 

However, Plush is not for everyone. In fact, I know many students who find the late nights, the bright lights, and the alcohol incredibly alienating and off-putting. There are some for whom nights like this are completely inaccessible. It is for this reason that as much as Plush’s presence in Oxford should be celebrated – and its soon-to-be absence mourned – we should advocate for more inclusive safe queer spaces throughout the city and the University. The closure of Plush should prompt a conversation about what kind of queer spaces the community in Oxford wants and needs going forward. Everyone should be able to feel safe, accepted and supported in an environment which best suits them. This means creating spaces which are, for example, non-alcoholic and open during the day. 

“The closure of Plush should prompt a conversation about what kind of queer safe spaces the community in Oxford wants and needs going forward.”

A source, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “All too often it is easy to feel excluded from the community if you can’t, or don’t want to, go to clubs…I am a valid member of the community and I want a circle of support, even if I can’t be in Plush every Tuesday.” 

It is also important to bear in mind that social spaces are not the be all and end all of the community’s needs. There should be a concerted effort to promote the existence of spaces dedicated to welfare. 

As liberating as university life can be, there are challenges which will arise, whether those are difficulties posed by fellow students, staff, or the uniquely stressful way of life that Oxford imposes on us. With increased visibility comes an increased risk of discrimination and hate crime. The Independent recently reported on a YouGov poll which showed that 37% of LGBT students at UK universities say they are worried about hate crime as a result of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. From a welfare perspective, as well as a social one, safe queer spaces are essential to ensure that life at Oxford is as comfortable as it can be. 

The LGBTQ+ Society is a valuable resource in this respect, organising a variety of accessible events both of a social and welfare-orientated nature. However, there needs to be an increased effort to change the way in which a disappointingly large proportion of the community feel – that if you don’t go to Plush, you’re not really part of the community. 

University is a time for everyone to find support, and this should not be limited to those who enjoy, and are able to attend, the bright lights of the Plush dancefloor.