LGBT+ life in Cambridge: the outsider’s view

Image credits: Caroline via Creative Commons

Image credits: Caroline via Creative Commons

Two weeks ago, I spent six days visiting my partner who is studying at Cambridge University. Cambridge student life was completely unknown to me since I’m from the Netherlands and go to a Dutch university, which is an entirely different set-up.  In those six days we did loads of LGBT+ related things, so I have gained a unique perspective as an outsider on Cambridge LGBT+ life.  

Multiple people had told me how busy they are as Cambridge students, which was hard to imagine for me before arriving. Here in the Netherlands people just do their university work (for approximately 30 hours a week) and do very little outside of that. When they do, it’s things like having a 6-10 hour student job and going out partying – nothing special really.

Not being used to anything but student life here, I was surprised and amazed how  everyone in Cambridge seems to be part of all these wonderful different societies like the life-drawing society, the vegan society and the CUSU LGBT+ society. On the  LGBT+ side, the first noticable thing is how active campaigns are, and how many people are part of them or support them. The awareness of queer existence is excellent and makes Cambridge feel like a safe place to just be who you are; I didn’t feel scared when holding my partner’s hand, nor did I feel any people staring at us, which feels good because usually in a town there are places where you feel like you’d better act as ‘just friends’ for your own safety. However, there didn’t seem to be any of these places in Cambridge.     

Since this November is Trans Awareness Month and Cambridge events are being held by Make No Assumptions (the trans awareness campaign organized by students) we went to the Solidarity & Allyship workshop on the Sunday. This was such a lovely experience, beginning by discussing in small groups what we would do in situations when people ask us questions about trans people. Everyone was so supportive and open minded and seemed to be very aware of everything what they could say and do to be the best ally possible. Secondly we discussed articles that were trans-related but written by cis people, discussing why certain sentences were either okay or not okay to say, and the implications of some sentences that didn’t seem to be offensive at first glance, but turned out to perpetuate problematic attitudes in various ways. This was incredibly eye-opening and I hope I’ll soon be able to criticize and point out those harmful implications as well as the people who led the workshop did. The most amazing thing, apart from the content of the workshop, was the number of people who showed up and actively and accurately participated in the discussions. Never have I experienced this amount of campaigning for trans awareness, which already seemed to be relatively common here, anywhere else.     

On Monday, having amused myself during the day in art galleries and bookshops, we went to the hustings for positions on the CUSU LGBT+ executive committee. Around ten people gave a three minute talk about why they wanted to be in the position they applied for. Again, I was struck by the enthusiasm and dedication to helping LGBT+ life in Cambridge become more accessible and safer, and to raising more awareness (even though Cambridge already felt more accessible and safe than what I had experienced in the Netherlands).  

Tuesday was quite a “big day”. My partner had organized a massive LGBT+ formal swap in Clare’s Great Hall. In the first place they had only reserved 30 seats, but many more people were interested in attended and we ended up with a hall full of 90 queers in all their glory. I had no idea what a formal would look like, apart from mental images of dinner scenes in Harry Potter. No one had told me about the moment when fellows come in and you have to stand behind your chair and be silent so it was quite surprising when we had to do that. However, this unexpected formal tradition was nice to witness.

After good food and gezelligheid (Editor: I can’t try and translate this Dutch term because it really comes from feeling, but it’s a combination of sociable and comfortable), we all went down to Clare Cellars for drinks and more chatting, which was absolutely great. All shyness had disappeared, so I had a fantastic few hours meeting people who were all very open minded and easy to start a conversation with, and then everyone started moving to the club Kuda (a.k.a. “Life”). Even though the formal and the club were LGBT+ related, I didn’t really get a different feeling of clubbing than in the Netherlands, but I guess that’s because I also am surrounded by a queer friendship group there. It was still absolutely great and it was comforting to see how easily you can become part of a nice group of people who want to spend the night dancing with you. Even though students are working on improving awareness of LGBT+ life in Cambridge, it already feels like the student community has come a long way with its activeness and openness. The amazing events students organize and the drive to make other people feel comfortable is wonderful; I think a lot of other student cities would definitely do well to start following similar initiatives and take Cambridge as a great example.

Iris Vermeulen (Get Real. contributor) 

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