Ben HaywardAugust 22nd
2019

Last year the University of Sheffield hit headlines when it became the first UK university to provide LGBT-only flats in its student accommodation. 

The scheme turned out to be much more controversial than predicted, with sections of the media accusing the university of everything from ‘creeping segregation’ to outright ‘ghettoisation’.

In fact, speaking to the Telegraph at the time, Simon Thompson, director of Accommodation for Students - the country’s largest student accommodation service - said: “University is about opening your horizons and meeting people from different cultures, different backgrounds, different sexualities, everything.”

“I think it’s a disadvantage if people close themselves off and don’t socialise with straight people. It just seems madness to me.”

It’s important to note that the introduction of LGBT housing does not prevent queer people from ‘socialising’ with straight people - it would be an incredibly compartmentalised world if we only socialised with the people we live with - but also that a report from gay rights group Stonewall found that 42% of LGBT students in the UK are forced to hide their sexuality at university, 33% have received ‘negative comments’ from other students - rising to 60% among trans students. 

Katherine Swindells, an LGBT activist and - at the time - a students’ union welfare officer at Sheffield spoke directly to the students who took up places in the accommodation and found that their views echoed the data. 

Writing in the Guardian, Katherine said: “[The students involved] never saw themselves as part of a big political controversy.

“For them it was about not having to feel like they look feminine or masculine enough to fit in. Or being able to talk about Tinder dates and seminar crushes without fearing judgment or intrusive questions. 

“It’s about one of the most fundamental human needs: to feel safe and comfortable in your own home.”

The students Katherine spoke to revealed concerns that new flatmates could share the views of school bullies or unsupportive parents, and that for them the thought of being around around even one other queer person made life easier.

A first-year biology student called Veronica told Katherine she had worried about living with someone homophobic but the LGBT halls had given her the assurance that her sexuality would be accepted.

Far from segregating her she said that living in the halls made her mingle more by giving her the confidence to go out, meet new people and try new things.

“It gave me strength to be myself and not be afraid, because I know I have people who will accept me no matter what. I feel like I’m not afraid of my identity anymore,” Veronica said.

Katherine writes: “For these students, LGBT accommodation is not about cutting themselves off. It’s about creating a place where they can sleep and eat, free from any of the worry or unease they might feel in their daily lives. 

The project is still a work in progress, but the principle is unshakeable. If we can make just a few students feel happier at university – allow them to study, work and socialise freely like other students, knowing that their home is a place of safety – then it’s worth it.”

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