Earlier this year, before the chaos of the Fringe Festival, I was interviewed for a project conducted by Glasgow University. The WAYS project was gathering information in order to form a well-rounded overview of young people’s well-being, and more specifically LGBT+ folk from different backgrounds. It was pretty standard – there were biscuits, a squeaky chair, a dictaphone. I signed pieces of paper with reckless abandon and unloaded some mental turmoil. The whole thing was feeling pretty cathartic.
But about halfway into the interview, my interviewer asked me a question that kept me up at night for a while afterwards. I must point out what an achievement that is – I am a truly prolific sleeper.
“If you hadn’t moved so far away from where you grew up, and come to University, do you think you’d be “out” in the way you are now? Do you think you’d still care about these issues?” I tried not to choke on my Tunnock’s teacake. I reflected on the question.
Needless to say, I’ve had time to think since then. Before coming to university, I had never knowingly met someone who was trans; I had never experienced violent or extreme homophobia; I had never considered the ways in which I was complicit in so many entrenched ideas of racism, queerphobia and ableism, to name only a few.
I, and most of the people I came into contact with hadn’t been held to account for the privileges we benefited from, or made to sit with that necessary and important discomfort that makes you just… be better. In short, no. I wouldn’t be the person I am now, not even a little bit. Being involved in student movements during my time here has really changed the way I think about my actions, myself, and my role in society. Back in the day I was, of course, a feminist and it did, of course, annoy lots of men in my small town, but I didn’t know what ‘liberation’ was.
I didn’t understand what more there was to do beyond this reactionary and very basic form of what I believed to be action. Being involved with activism in its varying forms at the University, and in the wider community, pushed me to examine a lot of the preconceptions that my younger self had constructed.
Some of these assumptions are weaponised against people with less privilege than us, things we haven’t had to consider as being harmful and significant because they are ‘working in our favour’. Sometimes, these ideas are actually barriers to our own wellbeing, constructs that we internalise.
During my time at university and as a result of meeting so many amazing groups of radical, open people, I know that I have worked towards considering and altering many of these ideas and hierarchies within my relationships, my sense of self and the way I view the world around me. I would like to say here that I definitely don’t get it ‘right’ all – or even most – of the time. I wouldn’t be ‘out’ in the same way back down South, no. I wouldn’t be able to “own” my identity as a queer, disabled woman.
I would often feel as though something intangible was missing from the version of myself that everyone knew. I would never feel really accepted or seen. I wouldn’t know what “compulsory heterosexuality” was, and I wouldn’t be able to understand why it made me feel so wrong and so sad.
I would struggle to find the words to explain what care I needed from the NHS, or why I couldn’t do certain things. I wouldn’t be sure of how to talk about gender, mental illness, sexuality and privilege with friends and family.
The tools to have all of these conversations – about liberation, community, and activism – were tools I learnt to use here, amongst friends and other members of these vital campaigns. Lots of intelligent and generous people have helped me to find those tools or encouraged me to keep trying when I needed to learn new ones. People will also tell you when you’re using the tools wrong, usually because they are much more skilled than you.
The basic concept of transformation is most likely true for the majority of students – the experiences we have in our time here and the changes in lifestyle and community shape us to become very different individuals, they liberate us and allow us to be the kind of person we truly always wanted to be. Is this more pronounced and somehow more scary to students in marginalised communities, where university life can be that bit more turbulent, confusing and exciting?
In many ways, we can find ‘our people’ and use those aforementioned tools to start picking apart barriers that have penned us in, in a small-scale, personal liberation of sorts. I think the goal of campaigns at the University of Edinburgh is to expand this liberation. Liberation can mean something completely different from one individual to the next, but its essence can be found at the heart of these incredible campaigns.