Post-Secondary Education and Queer Student Engagement in Canada

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Rachael Sullivan, University of British Columbia
Guest Contributor 

This entry is part of the CFHSS’s VP Equity Issues series on issues related to LGBTQI2-S (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, questioning, intersex and Two-Spirited) peoples.

At the recent ‘We Demand: History/Sex/Activism in Canada’ conference, I was struck by the centrality of post-secondary education, and specifically university and college campuses, in the recollections of prominent queer activists. The contributors to the conference’s opening plenary included Ron Dutton of BC Gay and Lesbian Archives; barbara findlay, a prominent Vancouver lawyer; Janine Fuller, manager of Little Sister’s Bookstore; Amy Gottlieb, a Toronto-based educator and photographer; and Gary Kinsman, a professor at Laurentian University. In each account, these activists connected their early involvement in a wide range of social movements in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s – the peace movement, women’s liberation movement,  student activism,  gay and lesbian liberation – to a college or university campus. It was clear from their testimonies that these spaces had provided a crucial site where they could engage in radical thinking and activism, as well as explore issues of identity, sexuality, and desire.

I wonder if post-secondary education can still play an important role in the exploration of queer desires, political identification(s), and activist possibilities.  Some people feel that colleges and universities have lost their central role in cultivating radical politics. At the end of the conference, a volunteer, Ivan Drury, noted: “We’re at a crisis where political radicals among students are probably at a historic low right now … Professors are largely more radical than their students. It should really be the other way around.” Drury’s dismay lies in the perceived apathy of students to ‘get involved’ in political and social justice activism on campus. The current perception is that students accept the status-quo without considering how they might want to and can change their university into one that is more inclusive and aware of LGBTQI2-S issues. In fact, LGBTQI2-S students could become some of our greatest leaders, if they are given the right tools, skills, and opportunities.

Today, a post-secondary education is recognized as important for personal development, as well as for future employment and career opportunities. Without encouragement and the opportunity to reflect on how the university and its resources could better meet the needs of LGBTQI2-S students, it is easy for students (myself included) to get caught up in the construction of post-secondary education as a means to an end for employment and income security. We need a critical reflection that engages with how universities and colleges can (again) be sites for citizenship and political engagement, rather than sites solely for academic training and accreditation. Consequently, I want to consider the role that post-secondary education and campuses play in LGBTQI2-S students’ lives and the potential that these sites might serve in the (re)making of radical queer students and citizens.

Perhaps the crisis described by Drury is reflective of the ways in which LGBTQI2-S needs have changed over time. Today, many universities and colleges provide resources for LGBTQI2-S students, including, amongst others, educational resources, visibility campaigns, administrative offices, and student groups that focus on issues of gender and sexual diversity.  In many ways these resources have become the hallmark of hard won fights based on the concerns raised by queer students, staff, and faculty, predominantly students over the last 40 years. The aim has been to make university and college campuses ‘safe’ and more welcoming through equity and accessibility policies. While it is important to recognize that these policies have had a positive impact, how do they translate to the actual lived experiences of LGBTQI2-S? When we talk about making campuses ‘safe’, whose safety are we considering, and within which spaces?

My doctoral research tackles some of these questions by exploring how queer students understand and engage with a Canadian university campus – in this case the University of British Columbia (UBC) – a as a ‘safe’ space. Through these interviews I found that all of the students interviewed identified at least one place on campus that they felt was queer welcoming or friendly, many of which were student services and administrative spaces. This suggests that these UBC administrative and student services units have done a good job of establishing a welcoming environment for queer students by educating their staff and making sexual and gender diversity issues visible in these spaces. And, yet, half of the participants identified spaces that they would avoid on campus, which included some residential and social spaces. This strongly suggests that there is still work to be done on campus.

Understandably, students might be reluctant to raise questions or concerns when they and university administrators can point to the resources that are already provided. Perhaps the question that needs to be asked is this: Are the current resources meeting the needs of all LGBTQI2-S students at UBC or across Canadian post-secondary institutions in general?  In my interviews I asked students what they would like to see changed across campus. Many had little to say, often stating that they had not had a chance to think about it. Perhaps it is because they had not been asked; to a certain extent, they may have been taught to be grateful for the resources that are available, rather than being taught to ask questions about the limits of their campus. In this sense I believe, radical activism, and more specifically radical queer activism, starts with learning to ask questions. Post-secondary education is a time and a place for developing critical thinking skills which are important for political engagement and activism.

Although equity and access policies have altered university and college campuses, it has also created an expectation of inclusion for marginal students, staff and faculty. But I want more than safe spaces and inclusion. I would like to believe that university and college campuses have the potential to become (again) the training ground for radical queers, where LGBTQI2-S students can engage with radical ideas about what queer experiences and lives could look like both on and off campus, rather than lives uncritically shaped by conventions and conformity. There is still work to be done. For instance, homophobic and transphobic hostility remains a threat both on and off campus and the imposition of gendered and sexualized violence is a reality that students face across Canadian campuses. While there are no easy answers to these issues, I believe that universities and colleges can provide students, especially LGBTQI2-S students, with the tools for awareness and radical engagement.

To extend our understanding of the complexity of LGBTQI2-S issues, we might consider questions that still need to be asked, including how are the needs of queers of colour, queers with disabilities, trans, intersex, and Two-Spirit students being identified and met by the university? Are issues of intersectionality being raised? And how do we deal with the complicated realities of LGBTQI2-S lives both on and off campus? Students need to be encouraged to think about these questions, and to pose their own. In fact, students need to learn how to connect issues of sexual and gender diversity to other issues of marginalization, and then be able to translate their critical questioning and activist skills to their lived realities, while also understanding how change can actually be achieved. This is the potential and possibility that post-secondary education and campuses offer our LGBTQI2-S youth.

It is my hope and goal to help students become (re)politicized through engaging with the questions above, perhaps not solely for themselves, but also for those whose relationship to power and opportunity is even more tenuous. For me, this means providing the opportunity and space for LGBTQI2-S students and their allies to be critical of the institution, while also generating new possibilities, creative solutions, and changing policies and resources on campuses.

It was only a generation ago that students were fighting for the right to organize, have a space on campus, and have issues of sexuality and gender included in the curriculum. In many cases, these provisions now exist across Canadian post-secondary institutions and, yet, there is still room for improvement. At this moment in time I fear we, as members of university and college communities, risk complacency because there has been so much improvement in terms of access and equity. The time for assimilation is over; not encouraging LGBTQI2-S students to ask hard questions of their college or university will do nothing to reverse the decline in queer student engagement and activism.

We need to think critically and carefully about how university and colleges can provide a rich opportunity for LGBTQI2-S student engagement. The crisis outlined by Drury, and the lack of radical queer students, is too important to be dismissed by both queer scholar and activists.

Rachael E. Sullivan is a PhD candidate in the department of Sociology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.


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