The launch of UCT’s Inclusivity Policy for Sexual Orientation has come during a time of relative calm at the institution. After a lengthy consultative period, drawing insight, input and comment from the wider staff and student body, the policy was finally launched earlier this month. Under the control of the deputy vice chancellor for transformation, Professor Loretta Feris, the policy will be coordinated and implemented by the university’s Office for Inclusivity and Change. The policy focuses on four key areas of the university – teaching practice, communication and media, institutional culture and service provision – and plans to move actively forward in creating an inclusive university environment.
There are elements of mystery to this policy though, not least in the fact that many students I spoke to hadn’t heard of it – nor had they heard of the Office for Inclusivity and Change that is meant to be implementing it. The Office is relatively new at the university and established in November of 2017 as a result of amalgamating three former services – the HIV/AIDS, Inclusivity and Change Unit (HAICU), the Discrimination and Harassment Office (DISCHO) and the Disability Service.
For 2016 UCT alumnus Mark Fitzgibbon, and countless others, the university offered and continues to offer a space for greater self-expression – away from homes, parents and unaccepting communities. “Coming from a household that I didn’t think would accept my sexual orientation, I found UCT as a safe space even more so when I joined the Rainbow society. It was the first time I actually heard of a group or society or community club for queer people, being so free and so open about who they are,” he said.
He continued: “When I first came to varsity I was really nervous and didn’t want people to know but when I opened up about who I was I found that space and other spaces to be really inclusive.” He later intimated that when he found his close group of friends, who he could exist around freely the broader culture of the university was almost irrelevant. He had his tribe who loved and accepted him and that was that.
However, Fitzgibbon stayed in residence in three of his five years at the institution and he stressed that that was where being unwelcome, different or othered was most palpable. “Res was the only time where I didn’t want to show off who I was. I lived in a boys’ dorm and then you get the jocks and the macho boys and you go into the dining hall and at first you sit by yourself, because you don’t want to sit with these boets. But by my third year, all the gays found each other and we would go to the dining hall at the same time, just so that we could sit together.”
UCT residences are home to almost 7,000 students. The institutional culture of the university is not only limited to classrooms and the experience of being on the campuses. On the institutional culture and communication front, Fitzgibbon raised the point that the university could better prepare Orientation Leaders (OLs) who welcome new first years in the weeks before lectures start.
“I was an OL and they’re very important. For many people that’s their first face-to-face interaction with the university they’ll spend years at. It’s supposed to be fun and it is, but it can’t only be about telling these new students about how to put a condom on. I was an OL long ago but I think that workshops could help them be better mentors and tell new students what’s what from the start,” he said.
This potential way forward could help day students too, who can fall through the cracks at universities in relation to policy-engagement – especially with UCT having roughly 20000 day students.
Lara Evans, a gender studies and day student, said: “As a day student you’re much less involved in the sense that when things get hard you can escape campus. People who stay in res have to go back everyday. A lot of the focus with societies and so on is also on queer students and I’m more concerned with gender. I very strongly don’t identify as lesbian, so that was sometimes hard because organisations were more focused on sexuality, Rainbow and so on. The Trans Collective during #RMF started putting more of a focus on gender and they definitely changed campus as a space. There was a lot more trans-visibility because of them.”
Many students, including Evans, said that overtly derogatory and offensive language from teaching staff was uncommon although present, offering the suggestion that there should be on-going sensitisation workshops with all staff members of the university.
Yonnic Carelse, a third year sociology and law student, offered his opinion, “You need to look at the academic material that’s being taught. We don’t want things to be done or taught just for the sake of it, we want there to be a genuine purpose.”
Evans responded, “I think it has a lot to do with teaching appointments. If you have a homophobic teacher then you have a homophobic teacher. If you have a queer teacher, it’s going to show. If your teacher cares about feminism, then you’ll learn about feminism.”
Both stressed the importance not only of curriculum but of the in between moments of teaching – like respecting a students’ preferred pronouns and how you interact with students outside of the classroom etc. “If you have a queer black woman teaching engineering, engineering would be a whole lot different. You should be rigorous with teachers […] Our main issue isn’t that there are people saying slurs to us, it’s deeper and more structural,” Evans said.
Some students I spoke to during their lunchtime break were adamant that lecturer feedback at the end of semesters should be taken more seriously – both by students and the relevant department – and that university should think about introducing face-to-face or group feedback sessions instead of online, which give off an aura of unaccountability. “Maybe they should think about a queer quota like they do with race,” said a student who requested anonymity.
A consistent topic throughout my conversations with students though, particularly with those in their second year and above, was service provisions of Student Wellness.
“A friend of mine, speaking from a res perspective, was really battling psychologically but he couldn’t tell his mom. A lot of students don’t have private outlets that they can go to. If your parents pay or you’re using their medical aid, they’ll get a bill saying you went to a psychologist or a psychiatrist and then the questions come and that can cause even more damage than anything else. For students who don’t have access to private healthcare facilities Student Wellness has to expand and expand efficiently,” said another student.
With the Office for Inclusivity and Transformation absorbing both DISCHO and HAICU, it will arguably take time for their ability to help the university community to be fully realised. Nevertheless it is a slippery slope to stand on placing all hope on Student Wellness, a much-beleaguered arm of the university that has been called out for being understaffed and having long waiting lists for years, particularly since RMF protests.
Is it out of the question then for the university to spread the load? Many staff members, both teaching and non-teaching, develop good relationships with students – is there space for these staff members to have training in counselling? “I think it would be great if all staff members went through a little training because you students could talk to you about anything. I used to do the Gender and Sexuality Project [GASP] and they teach you protocol for when you’re talking to students who bring up certain things, like a list of things that you can refer to. If staff got some kind of basic training, that would be great,” Evans said.
What remains most clear is that, more than anything else, students are desperate for tangible action that they can see the results of.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons