On Tuesday 5 March, Sheffield Students’ Union announced that it was “incredibly happy” to be establishing exclusive LGBT+ only flats. While I applaud them in their continued efforts to improve the wellbeing and university experience of LGBT+ students, in my opinion this decision is a grave mistake and will, if anything, backtrack on the current achievements made.

Avoiding harassment, building a community and feeling better able to be ourselves are just some of the reasons an LGBT+ student may choose such accommodation. However, university is not about closing yourself off from new people or creating a space where you can avoid the realities of the outside world. University is about being open to new people, new ideas and new ways of life – for both LGBT+ and non-LGBT+ people.

In a statement announcing the development in May, Celeste Jones, then Women’s Officer at the SU, said that the SU will never “encourage segregation”, and yet they implicitly do so anyway by perpetuating the idea of ‘otherness’ and thwarting any attempts previously made to integrate and normalise people from the LGBT+ community. Instead, the SU should be pushing forward its agenda of celebrating being LGBT+, instead of hiding people away in separate accommodation.

Although the SU defended this on the grounds of it being called for by the LGBT+ Committee and it only being optional, it nevertheless sends out the wrong message. For example, students who face bullying or who are scared of being bullied in halls may come to see the LGBT+ flats as their only option. This, however, does nothing to tackle the actual problem and instead leads the victim of the situation to be separated from others instead of the bully. If the SU really is passionate about taking action against discrimination, then it should target the bullies instead by making it easier to remove students who are caught being discriminatory.

Furthermore, it creates an unrealistic experience for LGBT+ students whilst living in halls. In the real world you are unable to establish segregated areas when you feel intimidated, and this policy leads to such spaces (little more than echo chambers) being legitimised instead of encouraging difference and forcing us to face people from different walks of life.

As a gay student myself, I am aware of how awkward and nerve-wracking moving into halls can be. The uncertainty as to whether your flatmates will respond negatively or whether they’ll treat you differently are issues which can be difficult to prepare for. However, the answer isn’t to just move into separate halls and isolate yourself. Again, the real world isn’t like that and separating students does nothing to mitigate these worries. I would rather the SU and the University dedicate time and resources to fighting the abuse faced by LGBT+ students. In recent years it has done incredible work for this, establishing events such as ‘Proud’ which continue to push the message that LGBT+ people are exactly that – people.

Of course, everyone has the right to feel comfortable in their sexuality and gender but this does not mean they have a right to separate accommodation. Would we approach heterosexual-only accommodation in the same way? No. That’s because we believe that to progress as a society we have to treat everyone equally; halls is a great place to do that and the policy hinders this.

The SU should be breaking down barriers, not building new ones.

Read our news story on how the LGBT+ accomodation is oversubscribed here: http://forgetoday.com/2018/07/11/first-ever-sheffield-lgbt-student-halls-triple-oversubscribed-national-debate-continues/

Image: Flickr, Lee Haywood.

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