Queer students deserve better than what the SFSS is providing

Photo by Chris Ho / The Peak

Written by: Gabrielle McLaren, Features Editor

When I left high school, every breath felt fresher and every step felt stronger. Most students experience this power, but to queer students this can be even more valued. For us, coming to university can mean finding ourselves in an open, inclusive environment for the first time, depending on your home situation and just how spectacularly high school has failed you. Universities have historically been sites of queer activism and pride, and this was known to us in high school. It gets better, in its glorious simplicity, translated to “here is how.”

Out on Campus (OOC) is SFU’s pride centre. It provides LGBTQ2+ students with services like peer support, crisis referrals, safe-sex supplies, a queer-oriented library, and a safe space where queer students can socialize and feel supported.

OOC is managed by the SFSS, and running such services on campus is a typical responsibility for Canadian student societies to take on. Judging by OOC’s common and ongoing closures, though, the SFSS clearly hasn’t made the department’s well-being a priority.

Since the start of the fall term, a sign on OOC’s door has informed students that the service is “temporarily out of business” on account of “unforeseen circumstances,” and directed all queries (pun intended) to the Women’s Centre’s all-genders resource area. At the SFSS’s annual general meeting (AGM), students were told that the OOC coordinator was on temporary leave.

But on October 4, everybody on the OOC mailing list learned that the SFSS is looking to hire a new coordinator. Posters have since cropped up across campus to advertise the vacancy.

Before anything else, I want to thank OOC’s last coordinator, Dani, for the time they spent at SFU, and the initiatives and energy they brought with them up the mountain. I wish them well on their next adventure. Their reasons for leaving are private, and they aren’t obligated to share.

What concerns me is that Dani is the second OOC coordinator to part ways with the SFSS this year, and their departure is most likely a sign of a systemic issue. When Dani’s predecessor, Kyle, left in February, OOC closed for a month before Dani was hired. Combined with the past few weeks of inactivity, OOC was essentially closed for three of the last 10 months.

Despite this, the SFSS board of directors seems to feel that the SFSS has enabled great success from OOC, going as far as to call both it and the Women’s Centre “incredibly vital resources” at the AGM. But do you really get to call a service you’re supposed to offer “vital” when your students have had to go without it time and time again?

If, as the SFSS continues to say, OOC serves to make sure that “the campus as a whole is committed to honouring the needs of our most marginalized students,” then closing the centre for nearly three months sends one clear message about how committed the SFSS actually is to the community, advocacy, education, and support that OOC is meant to give queer students.

I understand that keeping OOC running has logistical issues, as The Peak has reported in the past after interviews with SFSS CEO Martin Wyant. It takes time to fill vacant positions, and keeping up services can be hard during vacation leaves, sick leaves, and so on. But when the SFSS commits to providing a service to its membership, they have to have a contingency plan to make that service reliable.

There are several approaches the SFSS could take to keep it actively open. Things like a temp pool that can take leadership roles through while in-between coordinators, or maintaining more volunteers that can be mobilized to keep the space open while the job is open. At the very least, the SFSS could be more transparent with the student body about the space’s fate. But the SFSS is doing nothing close to any of these; they’re just quietly searching for a new coordinator, and delegating its specialized support to the Women’s Centre.

With services like Out on Campus where students go for emotional support, community, acceptance, and validation, they might not be getting elsewhere. The fact that the SFSS is treating Out on Campus like a bonus (rather than a vital service that needs to be highly prioritized) demonstrates their complete lack of understanding of what Out on Campus really is and really does. It shows a complete disregard for its importance, and for the queer students who need it.

As for the SFSS’ suggestion that queer students should direct themselves to the Women’s Centre, it’s as if they think all issues regarding “gender stuff” fit in one convenient basket. There’s certainly much support that the Women’s Centre is able to provide to queer students in this time during OOC’s closure. But I’m still disappointed that they have to when it’s not their primary purpose, and I’m curious as to what additional support their coordinator receives so that they can better assist queer students.

Regardless of their effectiveness as a replacement, the implication that self-identified women and queer students have the same needs is insulting to us all. Each of those has different needs, and so of course they require different respective support services. While mine and some other queer students’ identities intersect with both the Women’s Centre and OOC, this is certainly not the case for much of Out on Campus’ collective. Many of them will still feel they don’t have a support service where they feel welcome.

Allyship with the queer community takes many forms, but whatever they do, the SFSS must be active. This isn’t a question of whether the SFSS says they support queer students: it’s a question of whether they’re actually doing it.

Considering how quickly it seems OOC has gone through coordinators lately, I have to wonder why it is that enthusiastic coordinators with big plans and experience inevitably leave. There is no shortage of folks who want to work in advocacy, education and support within the LGBTQ2+ community, so I can’t help but question the SFSS’s commitment and effort.

I spent so much of my first semester at SFU sunk in a soft couch in OOC. I hammered out shitty first-year papers, learned about my world and community, and even discussed what a trans retelling of Romeo and Juliet would look like (answer: badass). Most importantly though, I knew that this was a comfortable, safe, and welcoming place on campus whenever I needed it. It pains me beyond belief that there are first-years at SFU who haven’t had that experience.