Homophobia At University: It's Often Dismissed As 'Banter', Warns NUS

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Homophobia on campus is dismissed as "banter", while universities do not take the problem seriously enough, student leaders have warned.

In an interview with The Huffington Post UK, the National Union of Students' two LGBT officers warned institutions need to "step up" to their responsibility for lesbian, gay, bi and transgender students.

Sky Yarlett and Finn McGoldrick, who have both experienced bullying and discrimination while at university, said students were so used to dealing with homophobic language and abuse they don't even bother reporting it.

HuffPost UK sat down with the pair to find out the truth behind the under-reported hate crimes, and what universities have to do to improve life for LGBT students.

Research by HuffPost UK seems to reveals very few homophobic incidents take place at university. Is this reflective of reality? Or are students simply not reporting hate crimes?

Finn: I think there is a problem at universities in terms of how LGBT students experience their education and I think that stems from classrooms and halls of residences to social spaces like student unions.

We've heard instances of people who have been bullied in their halls and it's been they who have been removed rather than the bully.

We're conducting research into how LGBT students experience education so we'll have more of a sense as to how things are once we've completed that in a few months.

Sky: We need to help SUs to empower LGBT students to feel comfortable in their environment and stand up and take policies they have forward. The number of reports aren't important, it's people's experiences. If there is one report of bullying, it's one too many.

Are universities 'burying their heads in the sand', as Luke Tryl from Stonewall claims?

Finn: Overall I wouldn't say unis are burying their heads in the sand. I'd say they don't know how to deal with it.

Across the board hate crime reporting is phenomenally low. People are very reluctant to report it and there needs to be more done in SUs and universities to encourage victims and third parties to report it.

Universities are wandering around in the dark, not really knowing what to do. SUs can encourage universities to improve their policies. And we can encourage SUs to lobby for better provision in their university and better reporting procedures.

How important are LGBT societies?

Sky: If students have problems they don't always feel comfortable going to their universities but they will speak to the LGBT society and have their own space there. It becomes much more than a fun social group and it provides a vital network of friends.

When I was at university I had a couple of horrible bullying experiences. I didn't follow it up and now I wish I had. But my LGBT society not only gave me a space to talk about it and realise I wasn't at fault and it wasn't my fault for being who I am. They gave me a space where I felt safe and I could talk to other people who felt like that too.

Finn: Homophobic and transphobic bullying is so ingrained in society, by the time you've gone through school and college and you get to university, someone making fun of you in your halls or a classroom, you take it as par for the course. And that's something societies have worked really hard to get people to realise that is not ok. It's not ok to say it and you shouldn't expect it. I think that is really important.

LGBT societies are doing a lot more advice and welfare than perhaps their institution is. I think that's something universities really need to look at.

Do societies need more financial backing to provide this vital support?

Finn: Definitely more money needs to be put aside for LGBT students and societies. I do think societies need resources and training and support to give advice. Ultimately students aren't trained to deal with this stuff.

Especially with trans students and really complex problems around estrangement and money, often that does need more expertise and universities are not equipping themselves or their students with the skills they need to deal with that.

Shouldn't it be the university's responsibility to support LGBT students?

Sky: It is the responsibility of the institution to take [homophobic abuse] on and proactively say 'we are open and we are welcoming'. Lots are doing that, but it's way more embedded than just one university. It's a societal problem.

Why is homophobia so under-reported at university?

Sky: If you hear homophobic language from a young age and think it's acceptable then you go to school and think it's acceptable, you go to university and think it's acceptable. It just becomes an ongoing cycle.

There are such visible cases of LGBT hate which go unpunished.

Finn: We've had a lot of anecdotal experience of things being brushed off as "banter". People say: 'Oh, that's just how things are'.

Universities don't take it seriously enough. The impact that it has on the individual student. If you feel your halls of residence, which is essentially your home, is no longer a safe space for you to be in, what will that do to your studies? Your self confidence? Universities need to take it much more seriously than they currently do.

Were you surprised at our research revealing lack of reports logged by students?

Finn: When I was a student and things were said to me, things that were completely unacceptable, I didn't report them. You have to really go out of your way to encourage students to report those things. It comes down to a lack of self-confidence and being so used to being discriminated against, you don't think to report it.

I doubt bullying policies are particularly well advertised to students. If someone in your halls calls you a faggot, then you should know what to do.

Sky: We should be encouraging third party reporting too. So there is a space for LGBT people to speak about what's happening to them. It can be very daunting having to come face to face with what may very well be a hate crime.

Are a lot of students worried about the repercussions of reporting homophobic behaviour?

Finn: Naturally. If you're in halls with six other people and one of them says they're being disciplined for a homophobic incident and you're the only gay person in the flat, then it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to figure out who reported it.

It is a problem. We need to do more around encouraging people to challenge that sort of behaviour. I would like to see institutions to do more during inductions at halls.

Universities tell you 'don't drink too much, don't set the fire alarm off at 3am'; it would be good if they spoke about living with different people. You interact with so many new people at university. It's highly likely there will be people who have never lived wilt an LGBT person before. Then it means you're not the one who has to have those sort of awkward conversations. That would be really helpful.

What are the long-term effects if universities continue to fail to take action?

Sky: We often find LGBT people take it upon themselves to educate and inform their straight friends. Speaking from personal experience, it takes a lot out of you having to be the educator all the time. It is a lot of responsibility.

When your identity is called into question, or when you are challenged, it is something very personal and it's very tough. Alongside all this bullying, there's also worrying about LGBT individuals' mental health.

The Youth Chances report showed worrying trends among young LGBT people having mental health issues. You can't look at bullying as a one-off incident. You have to look at its impact on mental health.

Especially if you're estranged from your family, if you don't have many friends, if you come out at university, and then you are bullied. It impacts on your mental health. You stop going to classes because you don't feel safe, or you stop socialising with people. Where does that lead?

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