Sigrid Jorgensen had been the newly elected Association LGBT officer for a mere 24 hours when a debate about LGBT life in the modern world swept St Andrews social media.
Sparked by a Facebook status which made allegations of homophobic abuse at the Union following the Glitter Ball – one of the biggest events of the Saints LGBT calendar – the debate quickly erupted into a discussion about what it means to be LGBT in St Andrews, ranging from issues such as discrimination to Drag culture. The status itself has over 200 comments to date.
But what does this debate tell us about LGBT life in St Andrews? “It shows we think we’ve come a lot further than we have,” said Ms Jorgenson. “It’s a very clear case of everyday homophobia that a lot of our members, both active and non-active, see every day,” she added.
Clearly Ms Jorgenson feels discrimination is not a thing of the past for LGBT people nationwide and in St Andrews. Indeed, she gave some examples of the type of problems that still exist. “You have comments being made on sports teams or people saying ‘that’s so gay’,” she said. “They might not mean it as a homophobic comment but it comes across that way,” she continued.
While passionate about the need to have open discussions about these issues, Ms Jorgenson had reservations about the effectiveness of the debate in question. “I think starting the debate was a good thing, it brought the issues front and centre, but I don’t think the actual debate was productive,” she said. “It’s a lot better if you bring it directly to someone in the Union, so that they can deal with it in a productive way, rather than resorting to aggressive online behaviour.”
Ms Jorgenson said that the debate showed what she believes Saints LGBT need to focus on “from a welfare perspective.” Ultimately though, Ms Jorgenson said that these discussions and debates need to happen in a more calm and collected context. “The best way forward for us is to have a civilised conversation about it and not be aggressive,” she said. “Because if you’re aggressive or combative, it’s very difficult to make people hear what you’re saying. Instead they just hear that you are being aggressive, they then become defensive, and put up a wall.”
“And it’s very difficult to bring through that wall,” she added.
As the discussion of the incident spread throughout St Andrews, the Students’ Association reiterated its Zero Tolerance policy for abuse and discrimination. But is the Association doing enough to combat the abuse some students face? “I think the Union is doing a pretty good job so far,” Ms Jorgenson said. “I think, policy-wise, the Union has everything that it needs in place. I think the next step is promotion and making people aware that the Zero Tolerance covers the entire spectrum; including gender, sexuality, race, religion.
“The Union needs to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable approaching any officers, any SRC members, any of the Sabbs, the bar staff, the bouncers, the receptionists and saying ‘this is what’s happened, it’s made me uncomfortable, please fix it’.”
Whilst the Union is trying to expand awareness of its Zero Tolerance policy, Saints LGBT is also developing initiatives to help LGBT students. “We have a poster campaign coming out tonight (2 April) to raise awareness that we’re here and if anyone does need to talk to us we’re always open.”
The major project that Saints LGBT is working on, however, is their soon to be launched anonymous email service to help students who face problems such as discrimination. “People can email us about questions or concerns or instances that they want to talk about and some of our monitors will email them back with non-directive advice based on their own experiences,” Ms Jorgenson explained.
Is this service an indictment of the work of Student Services and Nightline? “I wouldn’t say that at all,” she said, adding: “It’s different because the service will be based on personal experience and we can understand what the sender is going through and that’s what sets us apart.”
Another proposal which Saints LGBT is working on is securing Gender Neutral Bathrooms, in order to make transgender students feel more comfortable and safe in St Andrews. “It’s our proposal but we’re going to bring it to the Equal Opportunities committee and we hope they’ll back it,” she said. Explaining how the policy would be implemented, she said: “the way we’ll go about it is contacting building managers and then seeing if we can change just the sign on some of the bathrooms that are labeled as handicapped and see if we can change them to gender neutral instead.”
One of the main concerns raised by some students during the social media debate was that Saints LGBT caters too much to niche elements of LGBT society, such as drag culture. Some noted that those who do not relate to such things are excluded. “It’s actually a misrepresentation of what we actually do,” Ms Jorgenson explained. “It’s true, our two biggest events do involve glitter and drag, but for example, at Glitter Ball, people can show up wearing whatever they want and it’s an open, safe space.
“I think the problem is that our two biggest events that people talk about the most do happen to be centered around those things,” she continued.
Ms Jorgenson emphasised that Saints LGBT hosts many events that aim to be as inclusive as possible. “We have events that are pub crawls, talks and welfare events, we try to catern to the wider community of St Andrews,” she said, further adding that “because these two big events we do, GlitterBall and dRAG Walk, are the ones that people talk about, it’s easy to forget about all the other things we do like Queer Question Time or TED talks.”
However, Ms Jorgenson also made it clear that she and the rest of the LGBT committee are open to hear out any concerns people might have. “If anyone ever feels uncomfortable, just send me an email and let me know.”
She pointed out that “a lot of people will raise these concerns, but not to people who can actually change it, so if it’s brought to my attention or anyone on the committee, it’s something we will bring forward and take into account.” Ms Jorgenson also added that Saints LGBT never aim to make the society feel exclusive: “We really try to make sure everyone feels safe and welcome, and it doesn’t feel discriminatory or clique-y.”
Ms Jorgenson is passionate about the fact that LGBT people and students still face so many problems across the world. For her, the biggest of these issues is simple.
“Acceptance. I think one of the reasons LGBT can be so clique-y is because we identify with each other and can relate to each other’s experiences,” she said, adding that “I want to get rid of the stigma that we’re so exclusive. While the LGBT community will always come first, we’re here for everyone.” Above all, Ms Jorgenson clearly feels that LGBT people in St Andrews have a long way to go. “I think we need to bring allies in, build that bridge, and show that we’re not ‘the other’.”
While there may still be much to be done, Ms Jorgenson has a clear message: “we’re people as well, we’re human, we’re not our labels.”