Created in 1980, Oxford Friend is a voluntary organisation which runs a helpline for LGBTQ+ people in Oxford. Back then, according to one of its most long-serving volunteers, things were a lot worse than they are today. We’re also better off now than we were in 2000, when a church in the city centre told him that Oxford Friend could not base their helpline there because it would ‘contaminate its spiritual dimension’. But, the volunteer added, discrimination remains a problem today. This investigation suggests he is right. Oxford has one of the largest LGBTQ+ communities in Britain, and is arguably among the best places in the world to live openly, but that should not blind us to the fact that bad things still happen.
The prominence and rhetoric of LGBTQ+ voices reflects this reality, and has done much to improve it. Yet this has brought its own problems by provoking a reaction from people who do not consider themselves prejudiced and are upset when presented with accusations of bigotry. One way in which this has manifested itself is the use of the snowflake stereotype to castigate certain members of the LGBTQ+ community as so weak that they become immoral, shutting down debate and harassing those who do not conform. Hence this investigation will also explore how people have reacted in very different ways to the stigmatisation of queerphobia.
“People don’t believe that trans and non-binary people exist, and they view our concerns as niche, embarrassing or irrelevant”
The Oxford Student conducted a survey over five days, which received over 250 responses. While it was not intended to give a comprehensive picture of how many people are affected by discrimination, the headline figures are worth mentioning. 35% of those surveyed said that Oxford has a problem with discrimination on the basis of sexuality or gender identity; 27% thought that it does not, and 30% were unsure. 55% thought that most people underestimated the scale of discrimination, while 18% said that people tend to overestimate it. Over a third of the responses came from people who do not identity as LGBTQ+, and their answers indicate that the problem is visible from outside the community.
But it is the written responses – and several interviews we conducted – that give the best insight into what happens here. First, it would seem that certain groups tend to bear more of the brunt of discrimination than others. The volunteer at Oxford Friend noted how, in the 1980s, trans women were the most likely to get beaten up outside clubs; and the transgender community today still faces unique problems. Several survey responses mention that some people are sceptical of the existence of transgender people, and the fact that they are ‘visibly queer’ exposes them to abuse. Katt Walton and Molly Moore, the President and former President respectively of the Oxford-wide LGBTQ+ Society, agreed that those who identify as transgender are among the worst-affected, in part due to the ‘ingrained misogyny’ which they believe underpins discrimination against many groups within the LGBTQ+ community.
Discrimination from within
Bi-erasure was another commonly-cited problem. Rosalie Wells, a third-year English student at Worcester, told me how one man demanded to know if she was a “full-blown lezzer”, while another declared to her while on a date “I just don’t understand having feelings for the same sex”. But often, discrimination comes from within the LGBTQ+ community itself. Katt Walton recalled how when they first joined the LGBTQ+ Society, they were approached at events and asked why they, as a woman, were “taking up space”. An anonymous respondent to our survey, meanwhile, complained that she had faced discrimination for being a femme bisexual woman. “If you don’t look stereotypically queer, people often dismiss you.” Another person was called ‘cis-het’ by a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and when they protested that they rejected the whole concept of gender, were told that they “clearly identified as a woman”.
Religious students identifying as LGBTQ+ face a whole other set of problems. A Roman Catholic chapel assistant said how most people automatically assumed they were straight and cisgender, suggesting that people sometimes forget that “religion does not change your sexuality, even if it alters how you express it”. Another person describing themselves as Roman Catholic said that while they have not experienced discrimination from within their own church, “the preachers of the Christian Union” were another matter. The CU was mentioned again by someone who felt that “my existence has clearly made some members of the CU uncomfortable.” The Christian Union gave the following comment to the Oxford Student: “OICCU seeks to provide a safe and supportive environment for all students to consider the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection, regardless of sexuality or gender, since we believe that what Jesus offers is for everyone. We also wholeheartedly believe in the need to support the LGBTQ+ community in the light of the specific challenges its members face in university life.”
Attacks from both sides can create a sense of isolation. Several people reported that they felt isolated within their friend groups, or that they were considered separate from the rest of their college because of their involvement in the LGBTQ+ community. Others do not feel able to involve themselves in Oxford’s gay scene because they do not express their sexuality in a particular way. It was in part to combat this sense of isolation that Sandy Downs, then a PPE student at Corpus Christi, founded Rainbow Peers, an extension of the University’s peer support programme which operates on an inter-college level to provide LGBTQ+ people with a more specialized service. In an interview, Downs explained how frustrating it can be talking to someone who cannot fully understand what you are going through – and Rainbow Peers was one way of combatting this. But the programme has its flaws. Rainbow Peers does not currently have any non-white members, reflecting the poor representation of this demographic in the LGBTQ+ community. The same problem is true for those who identify as working class or come from poorer regions of the UK, many of whom consider the community to be very middle-class.
“I believe that the vast, vast majority of people in Oxford are perfectly accepting of the LGBT community (as they should be), but do not accept the aggressive and intolerant attitude of some of its more vocal members.”
How do institutions respond?
Sometimes, isolation is caused by more overtly sinister means. We spoke to Alistair, a finalist, about what he experienced after coming out in his first year. All but two of his friends at college abandoned him, making jokes behind his back and rejecting criticism on the basis that “he’s gay – he should expect it”. Lots of them were religious, he said, but many of them also found it funny. When Alistair tried taking the problem to his college, their response was dominated by denial. He was told that “it’s the sort of problem this college could never have”, and even though he was having panic attacks and at one stage did not want to return to Oxford, everyone to whom he turned among the senior college staff ignored him. In his own words, ‘they were very adamantly prepared to do nothing’. Alistair does not think that his college’s total abdication of responsibility is an isolated case: he has heard of incidents at other colleges, which usually recommend that the bullied student simply change college instead of making any serious attempt to deal with the problem. At his own college, which he says has improved a lot since his first year, “no one has ever been sorry for what happened”, neither students nor staff.
Neglect and tactlessness can be a feature of this city’s institutions. At another college, staff tried to take down rainbow flags during LGBTQ+ History Month when alumni were visiting, allegedly to the point of loitering outside people’s rooms discussing whether to go in and take them down. But in general, the University and its colleges have made great improvements in recent years. The University’s harassment code now includes deliberately misgendering someone, and Rainbow Peers has received the full support of senior staff. It is individuals and their colleges which can present a problem – although of course, other cases are more encouraging. One student applied to change the name displayed on their bodcard to reflect their gender identity, but was told by their college registrar that since their legal name remained the same then the bodcard could not differ from it unless this caused significant distress. When the student expressed their disappointment, the registrar replied back: “wouldn’t you say that dysphoria counts as significant distress?”
Who is discriminating?
Discrimination isn’t something we usually associate with ourselves so much as with older generations. Several responses to our survey praised students and instead criticised staff and the wider Oxford population. Incidents in and around nightclubs involving non-students are common, and Molly Moore told us that once she heard someone remark in Plush, “why are there so many gay people in here?” On its Facebook page, Plush describes itself as “Oxford’s premier LGBTQ venue”. It also issued a press release in response to the Oxford Student’s investigation, stating that “Plush prides itself on its excellent reputation as a safe and aggression-free environment where incidents of any nature are extremely rare.”
But the problem is more than a generational one – and in some ways, particular to Oxford. Katt Walton describes how the smallness of the ‘Oxford bubble’ serves to compress extremes of opinion, creating a situation in which debate is fiery and can sometimes border on harassment. In other cases, according to one survey respondent, the problem is “students thinking they’re so smart they don’t need to learn anything new about gender at the wise old age of 19”. But mainly, the causes are not unique to Oxford.
It is possible to distinguish between cultural and casual prejudice. Some students have been raised in a family or country in which attitudes to LGBTQ+ issues are less accepting; and some treat the whole issue as something of a joke. Alex Benn, who wrote an article for the Oxford Student last December about homophobia in initiations, spoke to me at length about the incident that prompted him to write. When the St Catz rugby team staged an initiation which involved a parody of gay sex, concerns were initially dismissed and no apology received for some time. He said that many ‘allies’ of the LGBTQ+ community were only supportive as long as it didn’t impact on their social lives, which include the kind of behaviour found in some sports teams. Our survey suggests that this is part of a wider problem: that people don’t always agree on the seriousness of an action. 42% of those asked whether hetero- and cisnormativity were taken seriously by most people answered that they were not, and 39% said they thought most people were unaware of or did not understand it.
“I have been physically attacked by a fellow student who didn’t think queer women’s relationships are real.”
Going on the offensive
All of what has been described above has prompted massive efforts from the LGBTQ+ community to educate people. But as well as unearthing hundreds of discriminatory incidents, this investigation has detected a strong reaction to LGBTQ+ campaigning – and to the way that many members of the community conduct themselves more generally. Time and time again in our survey, people distinguished between a radical fringe and “the rest”, the former of whom have apparently discredited the cause. These are the ‘snowflake students’: people characterised by their aggression and sense of entitlement as much as by their thin skin.
Said one respondent: “When certain groups of students aggressively police the language of other students, the latter can feel alienated, fall silent at the fear of risking offence, and altogether avoid engaging with the real issues”. From another: “There is perhaps a group of students whose actions are what first brought about the idea of ‘snowflake students complaining about everything’, but that is now used to label whoever deviates from what’s considered ‘normal’ and so lumps together what are very valid problems and concerns with the more ridiculous stuff, which then gives everyone else a reason to ignore these concerns as ‘just snowflakes being special’”. Most students may reject the term ‘snowflake student’ for its associations with the hard right, but our survey indicates that a sizeable minority consider such people to exist. Some are less coy: 14% of those surveyed said that they use ‘snowflake student’ to describe certain people, groups or causes. It is worth noting that many of these responses were from people who identify as LGBTQ+, including someone who wrote that “as a gay person, the very presence of snowflake students perpetuates stereotypes about myself which aren’t true.”
These responses focus on how the rhetoric of some LGBTQ+ people is alienating, both in its aggression and the use of terminology drawn from academia, like hetero- and cisnormativity. But implicitly many of them rely on a rejection of the ideas themselves. Take the respondent above, who feels able to distinguish between ‘normal’ and ‘ridiculous’ causes. Another respondent stated: “I think that average people are going to think less seriously about those suffering from gender dysphoria when they are unpragmatically and unquestionably told by ‘snowflakes’ that someone’s gender can change daily.” Not everyone accepts all identities, and when those who accept some are placed in the same category as homophobes and racists, they are unimpressed. But to many LGBTQ+ people, there can be no such hierarchy of what is and is not valid. As Molly Moore puts it, “for some people their queerness doesn’t define them, but for so many it does.” On the one hand, you have people who think that queerness is taken by some as an excuse to be needlessly nasty; and on the other, people who are deeply frustrated at the invocation of free speech and the ‘right to be offensive’ to justify what they consider bigotry.
But there is discrimination in this city which anyone would call real, and on which surely there must be consensus. Social isolation, notes left in pigeonholes, harassment in clubs and on the street. Things which cannot be dismissed as the inventions of some radical fringe. Discrimination is not confined to certain sections of the press or older generations, nor to the poorly-educated or culturally unaware. Too often, queerphobia is a choice.