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How can Sussex students ensure their campus is safe?

In light of the alleged harassment of DragSoc members leaving a social, Roisin McCormack investigates what our University’s students can do to ensure our progressive legacy lives on, and comments on how students can feel safe and included on an extremely diverse campus…

A word to all Freshers: Discrimination of any kind is not tolerated at Sussex.

Sussex is known for its openness, its acceptance and its liberality. With a reputation as one of the most liberal and free-spirited universities in the country, its conception in the era of the swinging sixties grounds this attitude in its very history. This is why so many students choose to come to Sussex, and Brighton itself: in the hopes of finding a safe space in which to express themselves and develop, academically and personally, in whatever way they choose.

However, a recent incident following the DragSoc takeover at East slope bar on Wednesday has left many shocked and disgusted. After a successful evening of performances and pop music, a few members of the society took the University bus home. It was on this journey home that they were allegedly subjected to harassment.

The harassers were said to have made a number of transphobic and homophobic comments towards the drag artists. These varied from passing desultory remarks such as, “freaks”, “disgusting”, “weird”, to the far more extreme apparent threats of rape and violence.

Responding to the alleged incident, Ally Goldberg, President of Sussex Drag Soc, had this to say: “I’m sad.. but unfortunately not surprised. Any gay person, any drag artist, any non-gender conforming person will tell you that they’ve experienced this before. “ “Even if it’s not directed at them, we’ve all heard things that make us feel unsafe.”

The fact that this was not surprising to the members saddened me. Perhaps this is because in my unknowing naivety as a straight, white female, I was shocked that such blatant intolerance to difference could exist somewhere like Brighton. It appears this is not the first time certain groups have been made to feel discriminated against at Sussex.

The much talked about scandal earlier this year of anti-Semitic messages being scrawled across campus, and previous reports of harassment at the Islamic society (in which a balloon was popped to shouts of “ISIS are coming” and “bomb”) indicate a darker side to Sussex that certainly does not fit with the Hippy, happy-go-lucky narrative the majority of us may subscribe to. So where are these attitudes coming from? In this case, it appears to be a group not yet accustomed with the sort of place that Brighton is.

Ally Goldberg addressed any confusion on Facebook by penning an open letter to Brighton and Sussex Freshers. Opening with “Welcome to the UK’s most accepting city”, the status goes on to remind new students that intolerance or hatred does not have a place in our city or on our campus. Finishing with, “Educate yourself, or find somewhere else to spread your hate”, a question surrounding education arises, as such behaviour can only stem from pure ignorance.

Interestingly, comments made by the DragSoc members involved in the incident described how one person was asking questions along the lines of: “so what are you, a boy or a girl?” and “there’s only two genders, so which one are you?” While these questions are demeaning, undermining and intimidating, they also indicate an actual lack of knowledge and understanding, which can ultimately manifest themselves in abuse.

We assume, nestled within our liberal circles here in Brighton, that every person has the same tolerant and informed views as us. Horrible occurrences like this only work to remind us that more apparently needs to be done in educating our community, around issues of gender, sexuality and identity. This is not excusing such behaviour in any way, and is merely pointing to a wider issue that has to be tackled, whether by the University or the government.

When displays of intolerance and bigotry rear their head, it is important to combat them with strength and by continuing to highlight what is right. Nothing is more important than ensuring students feel safe on the campus where they spend much of their time. If we can’t guarantee our students this then it can be argued that something is going wrong at Sussex at the most fundamental level. It is sad that this incident occurred at the very beginning of term, as a less than welcoming first impression may have alienated marginalised individuals who sought Brighton out specifically for its liberal and tolerant values- never mind the potential dissuasion from feeling safe to join DragSoc, or any other group at Sussex.

However, DragSoc are determined not to let this put people off. They wish to tell students who “feel different or don’t fit in the boxes they’re meant to” that the society is their “safe space to be who you want to be”. The Student’s Union have offered their full support to DragSoc, and have even suggested that on-campus security undergo gender intelligence training. This would make them more equipped to deal with any further trans or gender related incidents on campus. This is a practical solution, and one that reveals the SU as being truly committed to keeping Sussex safe. It is also one however, that sadly cannot extend to outside of the campus remit.

The University’s response to the incident was that they “haven’t received any reports from students about this particular situation at a recent Students’ Union event”, but “would encourage anyone who needs support to talk to one of our advisors in the Student life Centre without delay.”

The fact that it seems not to have been officially reported limits the capacity of the University to respond, but this does not mean that we as students can’t be doing more ourselves to make Sussex a safer and more inclusive place.

There are many ways to combat discrimination on a daily basis, and I feel that Sussex students should be utilising all of them.

By calling out prejudice and intolerance wherever we see it, ensuring the preservation of safe spaces, and raising the profile of any violations against these necessities, our campus can be made to truly reflect what the majority of Sussex students want it to be: inclusive, free of prejudice and safe for every student.

 

Students seeking help with any of the issues raised in this article should contact the Student Life Centre on phone number 01273 876767 or by email at studentlifecentre@sussex.ac.uk.

Image: Falmer Bar

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