‘Colourfully queer’ – Finding an alternative family at Oxford
Upon arriving at Oxford, I was initially tentative about dipping my toe into the water of the LGBTQ+ ‘scene’, as it were. As a closeted and very awkward fresher, I assumed that I would continue down the path which I had precariously followed for the previous years of my adolescence, i.e. attempting to deflect all mentions of my sexuality unless absolutely necessary.
Yet, as I waved off my father at the college gates in October and retreated to my empty new room, I realised that for the first time in my life I had free rein over the identity I wanted to present to the world. I was also mindful that the intensity of a short-term and a tight-knit college environment would make it difficult to hide a signficant part of my personality.
The LGBTQ+ Society at Oxford has been instrumental in organising what may well be the most welcoming and supportive group of its kind at any university in the country. From the ever-popular Tuesday night drinks (and the mysterious ‘queer juice’) followed by the weekly ritual trip to Plush, to the more relaxed welfare events for people whose cup of tea is more, well, a cup of tea, there’s been something for everyone regardless of identity or orientation. Naturally, as Oxford is a student city with a generally liberal outlook, many of us do feel freer to openly express our identities and walk the streets without the fear of reprisals that we may have felt at home.
Furthermore, by branching out I have developed a network of friends across different colleges. One of the absolute highlights of Michaelmas has been watching my friends support the #OxwiththeT campaign as a riposte to those who wish to silence their identities in academia. Perhaps the first time I felt at home at Oxford was when I joined my friends in chanting “Solidarity Forever” at a trans* rights rally at the Sheldonian on a cold autumn evening. In that moment, the sheer wave of camaraderie and harmony amongst us transcended the institutionalised problems of the University.
However, the inclusive and supportive university-wide community may not necessarily translate into a wholly positive experience within individual colleges. Only some colleges have a trans* rep (or equivalent) and, as a minority group within a much larger community we can occasionally feel adrift from the crowd. I vividly remember my first evening at my new college when I sat next to a group of students who rolled their eyes and snickered when the JCR committee announced their pronouns to the new freshers.
I joined my friends in chanting “Solidarity Forever” at a trans* rights rally at the Sheldonian.
Over the next few days, as I overheard my peers casually debating (and dismissing) trans* rights across the dining table, I became painfully aware of my cisgendered privilege. As I plucked up my northern courage to challenge their views to their faces, I began to worry that some people have never had the inconvenience of having to contemplate the dignity of others at the expense of their intellectual ego.
Evidently there is still more to be done to ensure that everyone is welcome in Oxford, and I can’t help but wonder if some colleges do a better job at encouraging a vibrant and supportive LGBTQ+ scene than others. Whilst considering how many of my queer friends have admitted to me that they feel isolated from college life, I also realised that many of them are also from an ethnic minority or low-income background — in other words, groups at higher risk of experiencing mental health issues at university. Oxford is by no means perfect, and the toxic masculinity associated with certain societies and traditions — although by no means a large part of the university life experience — is just about discernible enough to be an irritating reminder of the University’s more unsavoury aspects.
…a community of friends who empathise with and support each other…
That being said, I don’t regret my decision to stick my head above the parapet at the start of Michaelmas. Indulging in the colourfully queer world of Oxford has rewarded me with a community of friends who empathise with and support each other through the good times and the bad, from the transphobic tutors to the most euphoric ABBA nights at Plush.
During each vac, some of us may have to return to homes which may not be the most supportive of our identities or sexual orientations. But we face that prospect with the small ray (or rainbow) of hope that we at least have a diverse, inclusive, and caring alternative family awaiting us upon our return to Oxford.