An inside look at the Australian LGBTI University Guide

June 05, 2015
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For many fresh-faced first-years, starting university is purely exhilarating. But this milestone can also be scary and overwhelming, and without proper support, some students find themselves floundering.

But thanks to the recently launched Australian LGBTI University Guide, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and intersex students can now access vital information about how well universities around the country cater to their needs.

A joint project created by the NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby and gay news publication Star Observer, the online guide was supported by advocacy bodies Out for Australia, Organisation Intersex International and Transgender Victoria. Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson launched the site in May.

NSW Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby convener Dr Justin Koonin told Hijacked the prototype guide was put together quickly by a team of hard-working volunteers, at the suggestion of Star Observer journalist Benedict Brook.

“It’s a work in progress, but I think it’s a good start,” Dr Koonin said.

An important resource for students and universities alike, the guide works to inform LGBTI students about which learning environments may suit them best, and to educate unis on how they can continue to improve their services for LGBTI students.

“Every student needs to know that they’re valued and respected,” Dr Koonin said.

Modelled on a similar initiative by the UK’s biggest gay lobby group, Stonewall, the guide uses a checklist of 15 criteria to assess universities’ facilities, resources, staff training programs and inclusive policies aimed at LGBTI students. Information was gathered from publicly available data.

However some unis still have a long way to go. Only one in five institutions listed have antidiscrimination policies in place to protect LGBTI students. And while many unis have support groups and resources aimed at lesbian, gay and bisexual students, it seems trans and intersex students are still being left behind.

“But, we have seen small number of unis introduce gender-neutral toilets,” Dr Koonin said, which is a step in the right direction.

The recent emergence of transgendered people and characters in mainstream pop culture is also helping to raise awareness in this particular area. Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover and upcoming reality TV show, and Laverne Cox’s character on Netflix hit Orange is the New Black are, at least, highlighting transgender issues in the public arena – a place they were previously ignored.

But Dr Koonin is quick to point out: “Not every trans person fits a stereotype you see on TV.”

'It’s generated quite a lot of attention, and it’s got people talking about the issues. And that’s a big step on the way to progress.'

It’s obvious, then, that solid and rigorous information and support services such as the LGBTI University Guide are essential tools for students navigating their way through the world of higher education.

The guide also found that about one third of unis have implemented training on LGBTI issues to their staff. Dr Koonin explained this recommended training could consist of a simple online course for staff to ensure they’re catering well to all students.

“Staff should be aware of issues which are particular to LGBTI students, but the majority of unis are not implementing that as mandatory at the moment,” he said.

The guide encourages all universities to become members of Pride in Diversity, which is the country’s leading workplace information program for LGBTI people. At present, only 10 out of the 43 unis listed on the guide are members.

But Dr Koonin is hopeful that the creation of the guide will help raise awareness of LGBTI issues for students, and encourage broader implementation of much-needed resources.

“It’s early days, but a number of unis have said they’re taking it seriously,” Dr Koonin said.

Topping the list of educators that rate well on the LGBTI University Guide are Western Australia’s Curtin University, Victoria’s La Trobe, the University of Queensland, and the University of Sydney. These unis have developed tailored support services, LGBTI-friendly work experience placement programs, or even bursaries for LGBTI students undergoing hardship.

Dr Koonin said the organisers have big things planned for the future.

“We’d like to provide more resources both to unis and to students,” he said.

The guide will be constantly updated and refreshed to reflect universities’ changing approach to LGBTI services. A new and improved version will be launched in 2016 to an ever-increasing audience of students keen to gain insight into supportive learning environments.

“It’s generated quite a lot of attention, and it’s got people talking about the issues,” said Dr Koonin. “And that’s a big step on the way to progress.”

Students can check out the Australian LGBTI University Guide here – it’s your road map to an exciting, informed and empowered university experience.

Phoebe Hartley

Phoebe makes films, eats dumplings and studies journalism. She tweets sporadically at @phoebehartley.

Image: Curtin University official Facebook page