Article Title:They'll love me at University
Author or Credit:Chris Banks
Published on:17th October 2003 - 12:00 pm
Story ID:116
Text:A student at Auckland's UNITEC recently shattered the complacency of a campus that thought it was very gay-friendly. What can be done to protect our gay students in future? Many gay and lesbian youth look forward to the day when they can leave high school, an environment which at best can make them feel worthless, and at worst unsafe. Tertiary institutes, though, have always been perceived as places of understanding and acceptance. Some have even gone out of their way to advertise their gay-friendliness, including Auckland-based institute UNITEC, who placed an advertorial in Express for their performing arts programme a few weeks ago: "...For queer students it's not only a safe place to study and express themselves - it's also exciting. At UNITEC, students are encouraged to write, perform and direct about subjects that are relevant to who they are. For many queer students this can literally be a lifesaver..." Almost sounds like everything the Village People promised in "Go West", doesn't it? Yet a fortnight later, Express published a letter from a gay UNITEC student who asked to have his name suppressed: "I have been a full time student at UNITEC for half a semester...on a daily basis there is a lot of homophobic behaviour that goes on in my class. Many degrading comments directed at gays are made along with jokes about gay sex. On many occasions the tutor will also join in with the degrading comments...which at times will bring the whole class to a halt and a massive discussion will go on about what they think of gays and the sexual activities of gay men...I do not feel safe...I have thought about coming out to my fellow students but when I see the passion they put into their degrading remarks and the digust shown on their faces if someone even suggests they are my view, there is a risk of physical and/or mental attack against me..." The response from UNITEC was swift. Dr John Webster, President and CEO of the institution, wrote a 700-word letter to all staff and students reinforcing UNITEC's code of conduct, fiercely condemning the behaviour of the perpetrators (particularly the tutor), and apologising to the student concerned. But for this student, the nightmare didn't end with daily torture in class. When he attempted to find a gay support group on campus, there wasn't one. Emails went unanswered. A meeting with a lesbian tutor resulted in him being told to set up his own support group. The student's story seemed to indicate evidence of institutionalised homophobia, or at the very least, ignorance. How could a situation like this occur, and how many others were going unreported? Correspondence received at suggested that this was not an isolated incident. Dr Dan Blanchon, a lecturer and researcher in botany at UNITEC, believes that homophobia is endemic in all tertiary institutions, but it was believed up until now that it wasn't a problem at UNITEC. "UNITEC is very heavily represented with gay and lesbian students and staff. I have never come across homophobia here, even at the highest levels," he says. "We have a lot of subjects here that are very popular with gay and lesbian students, such as design, performing arts, horticulture, and health-oriented subjects. "With regards to my own sexuality, I don't make an announcement at the beginning of the year, but I don't hide anything. I've never had a bad reaction from a student at all. Not even from the young straight guys straight from school." But what about practical or business courses? The student in question lamented the continued perception that gays would only be interested in "arts type courses". What about gay staff in these places? "There aren't as many, but I know there are some there. I don't know if they're out or not, if I had to make a guess I'd say they're not. Most of the classes that I teach are split 50/50 in terms of gender, and that does have a moderating influence. If I was a tutor confronted with a bunch of 18-year-old male heterosexuals, I would be a hell of a lot less out. "However, I wouldn't be surprised if more than a few of those supposed heterosexual students were actually gay." The nature of a tertiary institution is that it is a collection of individually run schools. Perhaps this is what has allowed homophobia to run unchecked in certain subjects where there is less "visible" homosexuality. "The staff do mix. We have a gay and lesbian staff support group, but it possibly would be difficult for a student in their first and second month to know if there are gay and lesbian tutors here." UNITEC President Dr John Webster says that the student concerned is now in touch with a conciliator. "While this incident has been very distressing for the student concerned, it has helped us to brush up," he says. "We've had some very useful discussions in-house about the issue. We're looking at initiatives backed by our gay staff group, including a sticker system that will identify gay or gay-friendly staff so that students know these people can be safely approached." Approaching a gay staff member didn't seem to help this student particularly, though, whose biggest problem was feeling alone against the homophobes. "If people don't feel they can be open then students will feel as if they are alone. This is why we're encouraging availability of student networks, and encouraging our gay staff network to develop this, to make it easier for gay students." And what of the tutor who participated in and encouraged offensive discussions in class? "I don't think we would gain much by a public crucifixion, I think education is more useful. If I thought these comments were wilfully made, or had been made repetitiously, then I'd certainly be taking a harder line. I'm optimistic that the individual concerned will submit an apology. It is my understanding the staff member involved is relatively new." So, the whip has been cracked. But there's still a long way to go. Acceptance takes time to filter down, and in an environment with a constant turnover of new students, many coming from schools where nothing is done to combat homophobia, gay and lesbian students will still be affected, and not just by comments - but in their choice of career. Dr Blanchon noted certain subjects that were "very popular" with gay and lesbian students. Why is this so? Are gays and lesbians really more nurturing or creative? Or is it simply that when faced with a choice of a career they love but can't be respected as a human being in, or a career they quite like but can be treated equally in, they choose the latter? "You hope to come to a teritary institution to broaden peoples minds, but when I was at the University of Auckland I swapped from geology to botany because it was an all-male environment that was overtly homophobic. "It does affect your career and that's a reality of eduation in general. As a gay newly-attending student I would show caution in my choice of subjects. At any tertiary institution there's going to be a mix of people from other places, and the subjects you do will influence the sort of students you're going to get." UNITEC does seem to be moving quickly and forcefully to solve the problem, though, now that it has been made aware of the extent of it. "I think in a lot of ways the saving grace for UNITEC is we have a lot of mature students as well, so it provides a good moderating influence," says Dr Blanchon. "My partner was an engineering student here, and he never concealed his sexuality. He said he could understand what happened to that particular student, but it never happened during his course because there were a lot of mature people there - they've seen life, they've met gay people, they're grown up." But no matter what your age or position of responsibility, ignorance can still pervade, and although it may never be stamped out completely among students, the least you could hope for would be respect and support from your teachers - after all, you're paying them. "That homophobia should surface within a student group is disappointing; that it should apparently be promoted by a staff member is disgraceful," wrote Dr Webster in his letter to the campus. "It is an old but true observation that those who feel most driven to mock, or even attack, people different from themselves are usually those least confident in their own identity."     Chris Banks - 17th October 2003
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