The cacophony of problematic fuckery going on at universities is why many students take action themselves and organize groups, events, and safe spaces for marginalized identities.
Victoria Bryant enrolled in Laurentian University to study computer science. Along the way she got an education in transphobia, when she learned her university only cared about her safety after threats from human rights officers.
She was just one of the attendees at this year's Canadian Queer University Services Conference (CQUSC), held at Ryerson University last weekend. It was billed as a student-organized conference for queer and trans students, but it could've doubled as a survival guide to the Canadian campus, one of the most dangerous places to be a minority.
Serial sexual assaults at Ryerson University and University of British Columbia. Rape chants fromVancouver to Halifax. Misgendering and trans harassment at University of Manitoba. These are just the few stories that get media attention; the cacophony of problematic fuckery going on at institutions of higher learning is why many students take action themselves and organize groups, events, and safe spaces for marginalized identities.
The workshops were geared to those who have been or will be in shitty situations: dealing with sexual violence, activist burnout, racism, and transmisogyny were just a few of them. How to listen to others going through shitty situations was another.
I facilitated two discussion groups at CUQSC, one for mental illness/madness and another for disability. I needed a breather from talking about how shitty it is to choose psychiatric drugs over textbooks, and met Victoria over a game of Super Smash Bros. at the conference.
Bryant led a workshop on preferred name policies. She decided to go to CUQSC after her experiences with Laurentian University administration, where changing her name became a nightmare.
Bryant transitioned between first and second year. After going through several channels, her birth name was removed from documents and online resources. When she took a teacher's assistant job at the university, her name reverted back to her birth name, outing her to classmates and professors. Things went from bad to worse when exams rolled around: without a student card bearing her preferred name, she was ineligible to write.
"Look, I want to pass all my classes. You know, the ones I'm getting As in?" Bryant told the registrar's office.
With her birth name popping up on university services over four months, she broke down. Stressed and not sure where else to turn, she went to Pride@LU, Laurentian's LGBTQ student group. Their support, along with a school committee threatening to report Laurentian's administration for human rights violations, got her a slew of apologies. The school, however, still has not made a preferred name policy. She stressed that her problems with Laurentian University isn't with the whole school; it's with the administrative department that had power over her.
Pride@LU, and other safe spaces like it at universities, are disruptions of systemic power. They interrupt centralized experiences just by existing, giving physical spaces for marginalized students to occupy and build communities.
It's pretty fucked up that students themselves have to make safe spaces on campus to get away from trauma and take care of each other. It's even more fucked up that these spaces are so scarce.
Emma Harrison, a fourth-year psychology student at University of Ottawa and a woman who identifies as queer and disabled, was told by a professor that her orientation "needed to be fixed." She's heard professors condemning all mentally ill individuals as dangerous. Every semester is a battle to get university administration to take her invisible disabilities seriously, especially since her ADHD is often mistaken as apathy or laziness.
"I have to always justify why I am disabled," Harrison said. "Through my struggles of failing multiple courses, not receiving accommodations for assignments and exams, and hearing ableist remarks from profs about my disabilities, I have absolutely no faith that the university cares in the slightest about students' well-being."
Both Bryant and Harrison note the lack of safe spaces for racialized students in particular on their campuses. Ryerson fares better, with an active racialized students' collective, but even they came under fire for just existing—in March, national publications and school newspaper The Ryersonian reported on white students being denied access to a meeting.
The story blew up on racist forums, garnering hundreds of comments condemning the racialized students as racists. Death threats were sent to their personal social media accounts and emails, including ominous "you're on our list" emails and dumbass V for Vendetta references. The white students, who were in first-year journalism and went solely to write about the deep shit the support group needed to share, received no backlash; instead, they got even more opportunities to speak to press. Assholes online seemed to gloss over the fact that the collective ran events including white allies. This was the one time per month racialized students could speak freely about racism in their lives in a space where they wouldn't have to worry what white people would think.
Aside from meeting places, the basic right for a student to go to the bathroom safely is largely ignored by Canadian universities. Only a handful have permanent gender-neutral washrooms. The building the conference took place in didn't have any either, despite lobbying from trans students—con-goers had to make due with paper signs slapped over gendered ones, reclaiming pissing grounds as their own for the weekend.
So why aren't universities committing to physical safety for their most vulnerable students? For Sidney Drmay, a CUQSC organizer, universities see students only in terms of financial gain, and get confused when students identities are complex.
"Universities are always very excited to support one idea, but as soon as intersectional identities come into play there seems to be confusion," Drmay said. "They start to insist that there has to be a hierarchy of identity and you have to decide which one is the most important to you."
For students whose identities are invisible, this often means erasure. Which sucks. University is supposed to mean freedom from the human cesspool that is the 3D high school closet experience, starring queer and trans kids getting the shit beat out of them. And if they went to high schools with no GSAs or sexual/gender diversity resources, they got the director's cut: they would be more at risk to think or attempt suicide. University shouldn't be the direct-to-systemic-oppression sequel no one asked for.
Swapping stories on traumatic experiences might not seem like a weekend getaway, but for con-goers, especially those from rural parts of the country without access to face-to-face peer support, organizing like CUQSC is one of the few instances they can talk to someone who's been through the hurt they've been through.
Giving as many students a chance to experience that is why the conference changes host university every year. The next CUQSC's heading over to Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, where gendered violence has gone hand in hand with post-secondary education.
"Between Rehteah Parsons, the SMU [Saint Mary's University] rape chants, and Dalhousie's dentistry scandal, Nova Scotia's really been put on the map for issues of rape culture, homophobia, and systemic misogyny," said John Hutton, VP Academic & External of the Dalhousie Student Union. "Student action is essential for creating safer campuses and communities. That's why we wanted to host CUQSC, and look forward to bringing students together to tackle these issues head-on."
Albeit temporary, the act of transforming an entire building into a safe space for four days had lasting effects: support groups and newfound allies were made on Facebook. Shots of grinning students piling into yellow school buses and heading to a queer prom social were posted on Instagram and Tumblr. There's yet to be an inter-campus movement for safe spaces, but if anyone's going to start it, students will.
"Student organizing works. It's the beginning of many campaigns and ideas. For me it is necessary for survival," Drmay said.
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