Universities do not know how to deal with students who want to come out or transition, leaving them without support and at risk of mental health issues, student leaders have warned.
The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) officers for the National Union of Students (NUS) said many institutions still do not know how to tackle homophobic bullying and are instead ignoring the problem.
In an interview with the Huffington Post UK, Finn McGoldrick says the manner in which universities treat LGBT students is "just not good enough".
"As long as they have an LGBT staff network most institutions are happy," she says. "LGBT students' experience at their institutions has a huge part to play."
A report by the NUS published in October revealed LGBT students felt university culture was "alienating and unwelcoming". Many said homophobic and transphobic bullies were driving them out of sport, but McGoldrick feels this is not the main issue.
"It's not interacting with other students which is necessarily the problem. I think it's when problems arise and institutions don't know how to deal with homophobic bullying. They can't help someone who comes in and says I'm transitioning, or someone who says I am no longer feel like I am of this gender identity, can I move halls."
McGoldrick expresses her concern at the rates of self harm and suicide among LGBT students, which she says are "astronomically high, particularly for lesbians and the trans community".
"Universities don't know how to deal with huge rates of depression among LGBT students," she continues, "and they aren't even attempting to."
A detailed investigation into the experiences of LGBT students in higher education highlighted serious problems within universities. In 2009, the Equality Challenge Unit published the report, which found almost a quarter of trans students had been bullied or discriminated against since starting university.
The students reported experiencing particular anxiety about whether staff and students would use their preferred or correct gender pronoun, and whether they would be prevented from using the toilet appropriate to their preferred or acquired gender.
McGoldrick adds: "Universities are not even monitoring LGBT students. They just don't know what to do. They don't think it's a problem."
The ECU study also found LGBT students experienced loss of confidence, stress and self-exclusions from university spaces due to negative treatment, with some reporting "severe homophobic abuse" within their halls or housing.
Stonewall's head of education, Wes Streeting, backed the call for institutions to offer more help and advice. "Universities must support gay students if they want to make sure they’re concentrating on their work rather than fretting about adverse reactions to coming out," he said.
"The very best universities – like those who score highly in Stonewall’s Gay By Degree – work closely with Stonewall and NUS and have vibrant, well-supported LGBT societies.
"Mental health provision for all students is vital given the challenges of university life, and for gay students it can be tougher if they don’t feel supported. Universities should make it clear to gay students where they can go for support if they need it."
Sky Yarlett, another LGBT officer, said the pressure for many students to live a double life was a "drain on mental health and wellbeing".
"I think a lot of students are having a really exciting time [at university] and have a chance to start anew, but it's that double life.
"They may be out and incredibly proud but they can't be tagged in Facebook pictures with the LGBT society because they have a whole different life at home. Having that double life is such a drain on your mental health and wellbeing.
"Luckily for me I'm very out but I think even to some degrees I have "levels" of out, Yarlett adds. "From strangers who I lie to because I don't feel safe, to my place of work and my friends who I can be completely loud and proud with."
Finn McGoldrick and Sky Yarlett have expressed concerns universities are not dealing with LGBT students adequately
Both Yarlett and McGoldrick insist student unions are doing fantastic work but some "miss the mark".
"[It's hard] when you phone up unions and ask how many LGBT representatives they're sending to [the NUS LGBT] conference and they say 'we can't afford to send anyone'. And that's fair enough when it comes from a tiny college or less-well funded union.
"But when it's a really big well-funded Russell Group institution and they tell you they can't afford it... it's a bit of a joke. That union will remain nameless, they know who they are."
The pair also raise concerns over the representation of LGBT people in the student media. "They need to make sure they are representing the views and ensuring the safety of their students," says Yarlett.
"There is definitely a big union I can think of who published an article which I thought was in breach of their safety. Often it's a lack of awareness about how the piece could harm somebody. It was really easily dealt with once we'd had that conversation."
McGoldrick adds: "It's a minutiae of the student movement though, it's not reflective. They're entitled to their opinion. I just think they should think about the welfare of students. These are people's lives, you have a responsibility."
Things are looking up, though, and McGoldrick and Finn seem positive about the future.
"There are so many people challenging these [discriminatory] views," beams Yarlett. "Our national LGBT conference is an incredible annual event but it doesn't just stop there. People have started to talk about their experiences and it's inspiring others."
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