Championing LGBTQ+ voices on campus
In honour of Pride month, we sat down with Rylee Spooner, who recently won the 2023 LGBTQ+ Undergraduate of the Year Award, to explore queer communities on campus. Rylee is an undergraduate student at the University of Chichester, where they have been the LGBTQ+ officer for the Students’ Union for two years and proudly champions LGBTQ+ voices.
Congratulations on your recent award, LGBTQ+ Undergraduate of the Year! Can you talk us through your cross-institutional work on campus that led to you winning the award?
A friend of mine who was a finalist last year pushed me to put myself forward for the award. I was quite hesitant to begin with, but she encouraged me to go for it anyway and I'm so glad I did. The process involved a written application followed by an assessment day at Clifford Chance in London, where I had to show how I would respond to various case studies and explain my work. I made it to finalist and then ended up winning, which was incredible.
For the past two years at Chichester University, I’ve been the LGBTQ+ officer for the student’s union. I was determined to use my position to make campus a better place for queer students. The university was already doing a great job, but there was so much more that could be done. I started to work on university policies – for example, the transgender and gender nonconforming policy for staff and students we were using had been written in 2015. If you think about how long ago that is in terms of gender theory, it’s completely outdated. And so, we ripped that to shreds, hosted focus groups with trans students and allies in the staff network, and rewrote it. As a result, we now have a fully updated educational resource for both students and staff to use.
In terms of the cross-institutional work I’ve done, as I’m an associate lecturer in the Department of Psychology, I started giving guest lectures to different departments about LGBTQ+ inclusivity and awareness. For example, I've delivered training in healthcare environments, to our counselling team, to leadership teams and to other internal departments. I tailor the training I offer depending on the department I’m working with – for example, when talking to roles within counselling services I’ll focus on potential psychological stresses for LGBTQ+ students, but when dealing with education services it’s more about highlighting the tools to build inclusive learning environments.
In particular, I found working with nursing really interesting, because as a practice it’s so broad but it’s also extremely person-centred. From the offset you need to have a different mindset in place, even if it’s just being more aware of the importance of neutral language. So rather than gendering someone straight away, you’re checking in with them – for example, asking the question of whether using the word ‘chest’ is appropriate for them. It’s about not being scared of having those conversations, because I think a lot of people are worried about getting it wrong, but actually trying and getting it wrong is better than not trying at all.
Your research is based on understanding minority stress in the LGBTQ+ community, and how to improve support for students. Can you talk more about this research?
My final dissertation at undergraduate level explored internalised homophobia, which is a form of minority stress where you internalise external societal views that claim being gay is wrong, or that cause feelings of shame, guilt or fear. This can be a predictor for self-harming behaviours in LGBTQ+ communities, and particularly in the lesbian population because of the added social stress that comes with living in a sexist, patriarchal society. When I researched this last year, the statistical results found no relation between internalised homophobia and maladaptive coping mechanisms – however, I also did some qualitative research alongside it and all of the participants reported a strong relationship between this and self-harming behaviours. So we know there is a link, it just wasn't captured in the statistics. This is really interesting, because in terms of clinical practice, it’s so important to be aware of these stressors which are particularly relevant when it comes to LGBTQ+ identities.
This year I've focused more on domestic abuse in queer relationships, and specifically identity abuse, which is basically when you leverage someone's identity against them. This could be represented in the threat of outing a partner in social environments when they're not ready, or maybe in the workplace, or using homophobic or transphobic slurs against them, even if you are in a queer relationship yourself. It's a very under-researched area, but it's all very much still linked to minority stress because the act of using those mechanisms against someone is usually fuelled by internalised homophobia. I’m hoping that this research will help with the provision of services in this domain, because so often queer voices are left out of resources and support.
Have recent advancements in education technology changed the way you work?
Not yet, but I was having discussions with one of the senior lecturers at my university about using virtual reality to improve the training I offer. VR is such a useful tool for helping to practice those soft skills – for example, using that technology to practice using gender-neutral language or asking about pronouns in realistic situations. I think when that happens in real life, people can get worried about how to apply what they’ve learned in the moment, but VR gives them an opportunity to develop those skills, and it would be great to include that in our intervention and practice toolkit.
Aside from that, there are so many ways that we can use technology to improve the way we work with queer communities. For example, using EMGs and biofeedback to help provide voice therapy to transgender people – this is something that singers have used for years to learn how to manage their voices, but it would be so interesting to look at the benefits of this tool for people who are transitioning, especially if they don't have access to hormones, for example.
Finally, there’s a huge rise in using data and analytics to better understand student wellbeing. This is a great example of how universities can move beyond just having inclusive principles as part of their values, and instead evolve their systems to be more inclusive. For example, a student who is undergoing a difficult transition might be taking more time off than expected – this should be flagged as a reason to check in with them, and perhaps offering different options for them to complete their work. Tracking student behaviour empowers staff to support learning outcomes while prioritising student wellbeing. This approach goes beyond LGBTQ+ students, as it also identifies societal pressures impacting minority ethnic groups, neurodivergent students, and those facing mental health challenges. Ultimately, it benefits everyone.
What more could Higher Education Institutions be doing to support inclusive communities and elevate LGBTQ+ voices on campus?
I think it’s so important for different Higher Education Institutions to share their policies where they’ve had success, and establish the ‘gold standard’ in this work from a policy and practice perspective. It would be great to see universities communicating with each other more about what successful student support looks like for these communities – an idea that sparked action in a student’s union in Falmouth ,for example, could be utilised just as well in London.
I think listening to students is also a really important piece of the puzzle. I alluded earlier to student attendance, and that insight came from when we wrote the policy for transgender and non-conforming students, and heard directly from a student who was in the middle of transitioning. She was struggling with her attendance due to having to travel for her surgery, and then the added daily tasks she had to do post-op to heal properly. In cases like that, it’s so important to check in with students to properly understand their circumstances, and offer leniency around attendance when required. That case really demonstrated the importance of working with students and not just for students – anyone can write a policy that feels inclusive, but it’s essential to hear lived experiences to make sure it works in practice. Listening to students means that you can embed inclusive values across administration services, wellbeing services and pedagogy, so that you’re providing true support at every level.
June is a great opportunity to recognise important work being done both by LGBTQ+ individuals and on inclusive initiatives. How can we keep this momentum going year-round?
This inevitably varies from place to place, but I think it’s all about prioritising visibility. I think people are sometimes scared of being seen as tokenistic by putting up an LGBTQ+ flag or a call out for days of importance to the queer community, for example, International Day Against Homophobia. People get worried that the community sees these things as performative, but as long as the institution is committed to those values, I think it’s a great way to show your students that senior management are invested in these conversations. It could be as simple as having an inclusive pin available, or an ally badge on a lanyard, just those small things that are not going to single-handedly improve equality and inclusion, but give the message that this is a safe place.
For example, I’ve led a vigil on Transgender Day of Remembrance at my university for the past two years, which is always very well attended. It’s a very sombre event, but it’s important to show that as a university and as a cohort we’re thinking about these things, and we’re paying respect. So, I say don’t be afraid to put a flag up – observance and visibility are key.
Can you give a shout out to any other advocates or activists who are doing great work in this space?
I’d like to shout out Joel Mordi, who is doing incredible work advancing LGBTQ+ rights in Nigeria, and who actually won the LGBTQ+ Undergraduate of the Year Award last year. He founded M.I.F Nigeria, Nigeria’s largest charity focused on achieving the United Nations sustainable development goals, and is the organiser and face of Nigeria’s first ever LGBT Pride parade/protest. He is also a Young Leader advocate for Safe Passage, part of a group of people from refugee and asylum-seeking backgrounds campaigning for change. Definitely keep an eye on his work, because he’s an incredible voice for the community and is making such a difference.
I’d also like to shout out Melissa Hamilton, who was the instigator behind the first ever Pride festival in Chichester. She has long been committed to promoting support and visibility for the LGBTQ+ community in Chichester, and was involved in forming the Chichester Pride committee. She’s an incredibly passionate local voice for the queer community in Chichester, and is an absolute icon in her own right.
Will you be celebrating Pride this year, and if so, how?
We host our Pride in May, in the hopes that we capture all the students before they go home for the summer. So, I’ll be there on the 27th May, where I’ll be co-hosting – I’m also a musician, so I’m doing a very short set, which I’m really excited for. Throughout the month of June we’ll be doing more events within the town, and in July we’re also doing an event at one of the galleries in Chichester with music, talks and art. I think there will also be a few Pride nights in our local bars, so I’m sure I’ll find myself in one of those for a boogie too!
If you want to hear more about the events included in Chichester Pride, you can find further information here. You can follow Rylee here on LinkedIn or here on Instagram.