University residences aren’t yet a happy home for same-sex students

Some students say they are too frightened to bring a same-sex partner back to their residence. From www.shutterstock.com

This article is part of a series The Conversation Africa is running on issues related to LGBTI in Africa. You can read the rest of the series here.

A large body of research shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual people are often able to express their sexuality and confirm their sexual identity for the first time when they go to university.

Having a safe, accepting and conducive environment in which to “come out” is critical for a person’s well-being. South Africa has very progressive laws protecting gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. However, the country’s young people frequently come from homes where non-heterosexual desires are not supported.

Many universities have formal policies that declare their commitment to inclusivity and non-discrimination. But research conducted at Rhodes University shows that lesbian, gay and bisexual students experience systematic exclusion in everyday campus life.

We were interested in experiences of residence life because residences are, firstly, a place where students spend large periods of their time – they are homes away from home. Secondly, university residences are often sites of tension and conflict.

After examining literature from many different disciplines we distilled the essential features of “homeness” as incorporating comfort, privacy, security, acceptance, companionship and community. These are all essential to human flourishing. We wondered how lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) students experience residence life and whether they are afforded or denied these home comforts.

Not a home for all

In university residences, the dominant expectation is that everyone will be heterosexual. This means that LGB students are excluded from everyday conversations. For example, when everyone is talking about dating, participants reported that they often keep quiet. If they do enter the conversation it interrupts the comfortable flow of story swapping and suddenly turns the spotlight of public attention agonisingly onto themselves.

LGB students find themselves being careful about what they say, who they are seen with and who they bring home – the very antithesis of what we associate with feeling comfortable and at home.

Everyday rituals like taking a shower are major hurdles to overcome when one is gay and in an environment where one fears encountering a lack of understanding. One participant spoke of experiencing an “acute awareness that I was lesbian when I went to the showers”.

… and I was like ‘Oh my goodness they think I will be checking them out’ and I worried I was making them uncomfortable by being there.

What makes this particularly poignant is that the young woman is trying not to intrude on the sense of comfort, privacy and security of the majority in the residence. She realises this is a natural and accepted expectation of being at home – yet she herself is denied these rights.

The sense of being constantly the object of scrutiny and surveillance means that LGB students can never let down their guard – kick off their shoes, as it were – and just make themselves at home. Many end up isolating themselves and feeling that there is something wrong with them.

They engage in a constant internal questioning: “Should I bring a girl over? If I do, what will they say, how will they react?” Some participants experienced high levels of anxiety – as one put it, “shit your pants fear” – at the risk of being exposed as homosexual.

Coming home

When home is experienced as comfortable it fulfils the fundamental human need for recognition, acceptance and being welcomed by others. The flipside of belonging is ostracism – being ignored, judged or excluded. We have a long way to go before our campus environments are places where people are simply afforded the equal right to just, as one participant put it, “live our lives”.

There is much that institutions can do to infuse their non-discrimination and inclusion policies into day-to-day practice. Those in formal positions of leadership and authority have an enormous role to play in creating institutional environments in which it’s possible for all to feel equally welcomed. Institutions need to be calling their office bearers and employees at every level to account for what they are doing to promote inclusion.


Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge the work of Chipo Munyuki, a Master’s student, in collecting the data discussed in this article.