Before I came to Cambridge I wasn’t ‘out’. I had spent my childhood living in a working-class, conservative community in Essex, where to be a lesbian is to be an outcast. A place where, when I returned home from Cambridge in the summer, I was told ‘gay people shouldn’t be allowed’ by a kind stranger in the high-street.
For many, the Cambridge ‘bubble’ becomes the place where one can be comfortable with one’s sexuality. In Michaelmas of my first year, I found myself saying the words ‘I’m gay’ out loud for the first time. But coming to Cambridge didn’t blow the doors off my closet and thrust me into the world as a fully lesbian, just waiting to be un-shackled. I would go to LGBT+ club nights and events in Cambridge, but would never click ‘attending’ on Facebook, should friends or family see. I would laugh off questions from family about whether I’d found a ‘nice boy’ at university with excuses of being ‘too busy’. Whilst coming to Cambridge can provide students with the space to explore their sexual identity, for some, coming from environments which actively encourage them to suppress their sexuality, inhabiting two totally different ‘worlds’ can be incredibly burdensome. Combined with the high pressure environment of the Cambridge ‘bubble’, a breeding ground for mental health issues of all varieties, navigating one’s ‘queerness’ at Cambridge be difficult.
Over a year later, I am one of the LGBT+ officers at my college. I wore the suit I always wanted to wear to halfway hall, whilst drinking out of a boob-shaped beer glass one of my bisexual best mates bought me for my birthday. Over time, the whiplash I experience when I transition between home and university has lessened, but the difference between home and university remains difficult to navigate.
The flying of the LGBT+ flag this month by (some) colleges across Cambridge is an important act of solidarity. However, we must make sure it doesn’t obscure the need to actively support the LGBT+ community in Cambridge.
Research has shown that mental health problems disproportionately impact LGBT+ people, with a 2014 survey by LGBTQ support group METRO finding that 42% of young LGBT+ people sought medical help for depression or anxiety, compared to 29% straight, cisgendered youths. LGBT+ students are therefore particularly vulnerable to struggle with mental health issues at university. However, we must also recognise that the experience of every LGBT+ student is different. A sense of community is incredibly important—as demonstrated by the flying of the flag—but within the LGBT+ community there are issues that further increase the burden on an individual’s mental health and well-being.
The demographic of the LGBT+ community at Cambridge reflects that of the university as a whole. Because of this, students often have to contend with feelings of alienation within the community itself. LGBT+ students coming from relatively affluent, ‘middle-class’ and ‘liberal’ areas are likely to have had different formative experiences in understanding their gender and sexuality than students originating from working-class, ‘conservative’ communities. Due to such poor representation of BME students at Cambridge, the LGBT+ community is predominantly white. BME people in the UK are more likely than white people to be diagnosed with mental health problems The diversity of the LGBT+ community therefore renders every LGBT+ student’s experience of Cambridge different.
Community and solidarity are incredibly important and should not be undervalued. That certain colleges can continue to refuse to fly the flag is indefensible, and fosters a hostile environment for LGBT+ students in Cambridge. But every LGBT+ student’s experience of Cambridge can be wildly different, complicated by the demographic composition of the ‘bubble’. The LGBT+ community needs to be supported, but the nature of that support is not always the same.