Lewis Wood speaks fondly of his experience with Saints LGBT+ during his first year at St Andrews, stating that the environment cultivated by the organisation, now in its fourth year as an official Students’ Association subcommittee, was one of support and comfort.
“When you get people that share something that’s so frowned upon, it’s so comforting to be in a space where you’re not going to be judged and you’re completely understood,” Mr Wood said, “because society does still condemn alternative sexualities and genders.”
While Saints LGBT+ as an organisation focuses specifically on gender issues, sexual issues, and the community that surrounds them, Mr Wood emphasised the welcoming spirit of the group to everyone — including those who want to learn more.
“There is no judgement,” he said of the atmosphere. “It’s just a sense of reassurance and comfort you won’t get anywhere else. Absolutely anyone is welcome.”
Currently, Mr Wood dedicates more than 30 hours per week to running Saints LGBT+, as well as serving on close to a dozen different Association committees. His passion for “LGBT and queer politics” was abundantly clear as Mr Wood discussed the past victories and present goals of the queer community.
“Something I’m really passionate about is sexual health,” he said. “There are a lot of sexual politics, specifically towards gay men, especially when over 80,000 gay men died before AIDS was recognised. […] Generations and sweeps of people died and we haven’t moved on in terms of sexual health [education].
“There is currently no mandatory sexual health education for LGBT+. [We] are doing an outreach project to teach people about sexual health in the wider community. I think it’s so important. You have to give a platform for people so they can see and understand.”
“I think it’s quite easy to forget [what] is left to do because of how far we’ve come, but there is so much further to go [in] terms of LGBT rights. Especially with the transgender community and HIV stigma, there is a lot of room for progression.”
While Mr Wood did not give an outright opinion on the problems facing the transgender community, he believes that misrepresentation arising from a lack of information is prevalent.
“I think it’s just visibility. At the end of the day, I will never understand a transgender person’s existence because I am not transgender. You just have to believe that what they say is their authentic self.
”Mr Wood became noticeably animated when the debate surrounding the use of the “queer” moniker among members of the LGBT+ population was brought up, advocating for a reappropriation of the term.
“I love the word queer; I think it’s incredible,” he said. “I think there’s such an argument about the word within the gay community. Some people love it. It gives me a sense of security to say that I am homosexual, and it makes me feel like part of a group. It’s hard to label yourself if you have feelings that you can’t quite identify or complicated gender constructs. It can be so difficult. The term queer gets rid of some of the need for such complex self-identification. I think it makes it so much easier to identify with the group. It stops us being divided.
“When you come up with LGBT+, or as many letters as you want, the community feels divided. It may be an acronym but there are distinct groups, whereas ‘queer’ serves as one large force.”
Yet this enthusiasm for queer issues is not the primary reason Mr Wood gave for deciding to spend the majority of his time serving the members of the St Andrews LGBT+ community.
“It’s a way of giving back,” he said. “[Saints LGBT+] is where I first felt really comfortable, and I always felt indebted to the community because of that.”
Since taking the reins from current Association Chair Sigrid Jorgensen, Mr Wood has increased the number and popularity of events held by Saints LGBT+.
“[The subcommittee] has grown every year, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it take flight quite like it has this year,” he said. “We started the year with a complete rebrand of our website and social media channels, and we took what was very formal and made it quite chic. It’s been responded to incredibly, and it has facilitated a much higher level of engagement with the subcommittee.”
According to Mr Wood, the “ambitious” calendar of 45 events during fall semester and 26 events planned for the first six weeks of 2017 has only enjoyed success because of the hard working, dedicated individuals on the LGBT+ committee.
The amount and frequency of the events was tailored to inclusiveness and openness.
“Whilst not all of our events get huge turn-outs, we find that each event serves a different section of the community, and the diversity and expansiveness of our calendar makes sure that we try and include every member of the LGBT+ community into our lineup,” Mr Wood said.
“I’m especially proud of the leaps that we’ve made with the transgender community this year. Last year we had very few, if any, specific support for these individuals.”
Mr Wood highlighted such events as a festival to honor Transgender Remembrance Day and a clothing drive which collected donations for trans people, who often find it difficult to obtain clothing after their transition.
This was a large improvement over the minimal amount of “specific support” extended to trans individuals in past years.
Another of Mr Wood’s initiatives was to reinvigorate one of Saints LGBT+’s most popular event, GLITTERBALL. He promises a unique experience sure to please.
“I’m very excited for students to see how [our events have] grown and changed, especially GLITTERBALL, which is going to blow people’s minds this year. Just the venue itself is incredibly cool, and we’ve increased the capacity to make sure that as many people as possible can come.”
When he is not in meetings or organising events, Mr Wood participates in drag events, taking on the persona of “Mutha Superior.” Dressing and performing in drag typically involves an inversion of traditional gender stereotypes, with men most commonly dressing and acting like women.
“[Drag] is transcendent,” Mr Wood said. “It breaks down every rule. […] Drag is inclusive because it disregards all boundaries of gender and sexuality and puts us on an equal footing. It’s very empowering.”
Mr Wood appreciates drag, not only for its political statement, but as a medium for expression.
“From creating outfits, mixing tracks, and creating concepts, there is a lot of artistry that goes into performance. My persona, Mutha Superior, is an homage to horror iconography that I love, but it’s also a part-satire/ part-homage to religious history.”
Mr Wood’s term as president expires six weeks into the semester in anticipation of Students’ Association elections in March. When asked what the future holds for him, as well as forSaints LGBT+, he offered the following reflection: “I think that what’s been nice about being LGBT+ President this year is how expansive the role is. You really do work in every area of the Union. I’ve had a chance to help shape the sabbatical role split, help extensively on wellbeing and equal opportunities committees, be an active voice on councils, and even sit on the Association Board.
“Most importantly though, it’s been so special to be able to work to represent LGBT+ throughout the town, and work towards strengthening the community’s spirit and collective well being.”
Work in Fife remains high on Mr Wood’s wishlist for the years to come. He explained, “I think that within the Association […] we’ve nailed it. Outwardly though, there’s a lot that we can do. I want to see us interact with the community a lot more. We get a lot of contact from locals and students that seek our support, which we always provide, but I want to now reach out and provide this in a structured and effective way. […] I think we need to look beyond the glass box, and start thinking of ways that we can support the town as well as the student body. I’m incredibly proud to say that I think I’ve left LGBT+ in a much stronger and healthier place than I found it. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.”