I became a lecturer ten years ago this April Fools’ Day. As someone who likes interacting with mainly well-brought up, polite people, and hates being told what to do, what to wear or when to ‘clock in’, it is the job I am ideally suited to. I never had to worry about my sexuality at work. In fact, I threw glitter on it and made a feature of it, doing my PhD on the “dead gay language” Polari, and later on looking at how gay people were written or talked about in various contexts like Parliament and the media. I never needed to come out, because my publications did it for me.
As a student though, coming out can be a much more difficult business. Without the support network of family and friends who have known you for years, it can be face-threatening to tell a bunch of new people about an integral part of your identity, and one which is even now still stigmatised. And the longer you leave it, the harder it can get. I only came out to my class-mates in exasperation after being accused of lasciviously eyeing up a bunch of women. How way off the mark can you get? At least after that, the casual jokey homophobia of my friends vanished overnight. For the most part, I was accepted, though I had a bad second year when a relationship ended and I felt on my own.
As a lecturer, I’ve seen gay students come through our doors, often deeply in the closet at first. Sometimes I get an ‘oh dear’ moment when someone pings everyone’s gaydar yet they’re terrified of coming out and do everything they can to avoid being seen associating with anyone who’s openly gay. I’ve also seen doomed relationships play out in snippets, in seminars and refectories, as a not very well-closeted student develops strong feelings for someone who will never be interested in anything more than friendship (they’re usually straight). Most of us have been there, and it’s horrible. Yet in the relatively liberal atmosphere of a university, some students eventually relax and start exploring aspects of their sexuality that they have deeply denied for their entire lives.
And that’s when the problems start.
Because if you’re a straight teenager, in these godless ‘end times’, you’ve probably got a head-start on emotional growing up. You’ve probably fancied members of the opposite sex (and nobody’s bullied you because of it), you’ve probably had a boyfriend or girlfriend, experienced a break-up, cried, written bad poetry (maybe that’s just me) and gotten over it. You’ve never heard the one word to describe who you are also being used in playground language to refer over and over to anything naff or bad. I contrast this to many of the gay people I knew at university, who had to do a lot more work accepting themselves by combating years of brainwashing before they were ready to say ‘I’m gay’ or even handle a relationship.
No wonder then, that gay students can ‘go off the rails’ a bit at some point in their academic lives. Factor in difficulties with regard to coming out to parents or other friends, concerns over STD infection, and encountering homophobia (as well as the likelihood that if you do make gay friends, they may draw you into their own problems) and it’s not a recipe for a quiet life.
Hardly surprising then, that some gay students drop out, either for an extended period, or for good. I started counting up the number of gay male students I’ve known in the last few years who’ve intercollated for over a year or just given up – it was nine. I also counted the number of heterosexual male students I’ve known who’ve had to leave, even for a while. It was only two, and I had to go quite a few years back to remember them. Although the numbers are small, considering that there are many more heterosexual than gay students, this is starting to feel like a trend, and not a very nice one. The gay students I know all dropped out for different reasons. One encountered homophobia when he tried to collect data from a local school for his dissertation, and he ended up not wanting to go there. As a result he fell behind, became demotivated and eventually just gave up. Another one felt isolated among the other students in his class, and had no other gay people to talk to. Then a relationship went sour and it was the last straw. There were other reasons for the others, some which I never fully understood, but in almost all cases, I felt that sexuality was a contributory factor – making things just that bit more difficult for them – yet one more problem to get in the way.
I’m still in touch with most of them, these Lost Boys of Academia, and they’re doing fine, but there is part of me that feels they didn’t live up to their own capabilities and that however well they’re doing, that additional piece of paper with the word ‘Degree’ on it would have helped to make their lives even better.
Universities ask students to volunteer information about their sex, ethnicity and disabilities, and these can be considered along with drop-out rates, to see whether we are letting down certain types of students. But we don’t ask about sexuality, and even if we did, many students in Intro week might not feel ready to volunteer such information. So I don’t know if my own experiences are just subjective (e.g. I’m over-focussing on the problem) or atypical (e.g. I’m accurate but my experiences don’t match up with the general picture across the country). An American study claims that 28% of gay students drop out of school – three times higher than the national average. A report by Stonewall to the government in 2009, notes that some LGBT students drop out as parents stop funding them when they come out. I suspect my anecdotal evidence is not too far off the mark.
So if you’re about to becoming a gay student, first – I apologise for the fees – it’s not fair, and I hope that when you’re much older and in powerful positions, you get revenge on all the elderly politicians who messed up and changed the rules without asking you. And second – do everything you can not to become a Lost Boy or Girl. Get a support network in place as soon as you can. If there’s an LGBT society, join it (though minimise the potential for drama by being very picky about whom you sleep with). Prepare to swim upstream, and identify some sensible coping strategies for those times when (not if) things go badly. And when you get your degree at the end, you’ll have more than earned it. Just don’t drop out. Because hardly anybody’s counting.