As I get ready to head off to the Canadian Universities Queer Services Conference (CUQSC), I can't help but remember why I came to the University of Ottawa.
Like most high school seniors, my parents took my last spring break to travel from university to university, checking out campuses, scouting teachers, and finding my place for the next four (or five) years.
The truth is, most institutions are the same (Psychology 101 doesn't change much); but what matters for a queer youth excited that he won't have to sneak around his parent's house to have sex, is whether the institution fosters a community for him to get some (and find true love and all that stuff).
It was in that frame of mind that I left my house for my "Find a University Tour" and discovered a home at the University Of Ottawa.
The tour guide showed me the University Centre, with all the fancy services offered by the student union, and like a diamond in the rough, the Pride Centre stood out. To my innocent high school eyes, the centre seemed to glow. It was more than a discussion group or resource centre: it was a place where I could finally be who I was — openly and proudly.
Four years later, I am getting ready to head out to Winnipeg to speak at the second annual conference of university queer services groups. CUQSC started last year at the University Ottawa with the goal of creating a network of campus queer services. This year's conference organizers hope to raise the quality of student life for queers at universities nationwide. They intend to work with delegates to share tools and resources so that a minimal standard of services can be established, and struggling groups can get the help they need.
The first Canadian gay university group was started in 1969. The University Of Toronto Homophile Association was a radical gay liberation organization that held its first meeting on Oct 24 and elected now-Ottawa resident Charlie Hill as its first leader. The group fought for sexual freedom and against discrimination by students and the administration. The group later evolved to become the current Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Trans People of the University of Toronto (LGBTOUT).
Today, no university queer service organizations claims to be as radical as the U of T group was in the year that Canada finally legalized some gay sex. Most organizations have support from their student body, and some level of acceptance from the administration. Nevertheless, despite such universal tolerance, the number and quality of programs offered varies greatly depending on the institution.
Queer McGill is considered one of the best in the country, not only offering services to its students, but also doing high school out reach, influencing school policy, and raising thousands of dollars for local HIV/AIDS charities. Around since 1972, the organization offers a range of services from just hanging out and holding discussion groups, to lectures from politicians and activists. One of their most recent campaigns is to address trans discrimination by creating more gender-neutral bathroom and removing gender from all university forms and products (like student cards).
But their experience is considered unique.
Many queer university services in Canada are struggling to stay afloat. The single greatest accomplishment of University Of Lethbrige's Gay and Lesbian Integrity Association (GALIA) is their very existence in a conservative community. They are proud to finally offer a space where persons, no matter their sexual orientation, can be themselves.
At most universities, services available to queer students services lie somewhere between McGill and Lethbridge. The University Of Ottawa, Carleton University and the University Of Manitoba all work to create a space for queer students to be themselves, organize a few events throughout the year, and work with the administration to create a better and safer environment for queer students.
It's interesting how a university's queer services reflect its city and institution: Montreal — very queer positive, Lethbridge not so much. What is universal, though, is that no group claims to be radical or fringe; everyone is working with the institution (and at their pace).
For this reason the work at CUQSC is very important. For the first time, university students at progressive school can help struggling organizations to improve their services, their campuses and potentially even their communities (perhaps by igniting a bit of anarchy).
Regardless of the outcome of this year's conference, the simple presence of queer university services at our institutions teaches tomorrow's leaders that queer issues have a place at the table. That place may vary depending on where you go, but queer student groups leave a lasting impression of the normalcy of our lives, and that is a big step in itself.