“Durham is not always a safe place for LGBT+ students” – an interview with Durham LGBT+ Association President Freddy Sperring, part two

In the second part of my interview with Freddy Sperring, we talked about the continuing discrimination encountered by LGBT+ students at Durham University and if we can be optimistic that the LGBT+ student experience will improve.


Luke Alsford: How do you see the balance between the LGBT+ Association being an activist, campaigning society and a society that is for socials, fun and building a community?


Freddy Sperring: Yeah, this is something that we definitely talk about internally, where our role is. I think definitely the socials and the welfare, it’s something that we do really well and historically we do really great on. We have also done a lot of campaigning. We are under the SU-umbrella, so there are going to be certain things that we just can’t do. We can’t start doing a disruptive protest. It could get you in trouble, potentially with the police. There’s a line you can’t cross as a member of the SU, but there is a definitely a role for us. For example, the Durham Union is suggesting that they are going to have a debate on trans rights, which we consider completely inappropriate, and they also want to invite Rod Liddle, who apparently is going to defend himself or trash the university and its students. If that does happen, we will form some sort of protest. It shouldn’t get to the point where we’re standing somewhere placards. That shouldn’t be our role. But if we have to, then we are here to represent students. We don’t live in an ideal world and Durham is far from an ideal world, and other LGBT+ associations in other universities don’t need to do that. 



LA: Where do these issues stem from in Durham…does it potentially come from the leadership or the background of some of the students? Why is it particularly difficult for LGBT+ students here in Durham?


FS: I think in terms of the Durham Union one, it’s just pure ignorance and arrogance. Their arrogance to assume that they’re adding something to the conversation so great, it’s worth putting my safety at risk, is absolutely flabbergasting to me. After Rod Liddle and after the homophobic and transphobic thing that happens, we do see a spike in hate crimes. We always do. And if Rod Liddle comes to Durham and speaks, we are going to see a spike. Because a lot of students come from places of privilege, they’ve never experienced it themselves. We are extremely white, quite cisgendered, quite heterosexual, in terms of other universities. A lot of people making these decisions, don’t experience discrimination in a large scale in their life. Some might, and maybe just do it anyway. But at the same time, it is very it’s very easy to make decisions when you know it will never affect you and never affect your friends. And I could never ask someone to speak if I knew that I was putting another group at risk, even if that group wasn’t my own. The Durham Union aren’t responding to me. I kind of wanted to have a meeting with them so they could look me in the eye and say, “Your safety is less important than our debate.” I don’t want to speak on people’s backgrounds necessarily, because I think people can be homophobic and transphobic from any background. Homophobia and transphobia come from many places, I don’t think it’s any more in certain groups than others.



LA: You recently put a fresher guide out, for new first-year students. What is the experience of freshers who are part of the LGBT+ community, are there particular challenges for them? 


FS: We recently asked for people to share their experiences of homophobia and transphobia that they have had at Uni and I was surprised about just how many people mentioned stuff that happened during their fresher’s week. And I think it’s because during freshers’ week, you are interacting with a variety of different people. Overtime, people tend to settle into their communities and find their people and the Durham LGBT+ community can, at times, be a little insure and tend to only hang out with other people who are also LGBT+. But, in freshers’ week you are hanging out with everyone and you have flat mates and housemates and more like people on your corridor who come from all different places. You have the freshest reps who come from different places and different backgrounds and different opinions. You also have a lot of people who are seeking out churches and religious things. People have had some very, very bad experiences with the Christian Union during freshers week, because they think that they’re going to somewhere affirming and accepting of both their sexuality and their religion and they don’t necessarily find that, and it’s very difficult to warn freshers. We also have freps saying and doing things which are inappropriate, because frep training isn’t always the same across all different colleges. The sad thing about freshers’ week is that we don’t tend to find out about people’s bad experiences until they’re older and they say, “Oh yeah, that happened and that was really bad.” During freshers’ week, freshers are really nervous to bring it up. So, I am going to be gone by the time I am hearing stories about freshers’ week this year.



LA: The LGBT+ community in Durham appears to centered so much around Osbournes’s Monday. What are your thoughts on this and the importance of Osbournes’s Monday?


FS: Gay culture across the UK has often been centered around bars and nightlife. We did put out a form during freshers’ fair and we got around 40% of responses saying that people wanted non-drinking socials, so that is one of biggest things we have to do as an LGBT+ association. Osbornes, while great and a super fun time, is focused around drinking and often heavy drinking. It has been disappointing recently just how long the queues are. I have heard of people standing there for several hours, which is crazy to get into a nightclub, because it is the only gay night in Durham that’s currently running. Every single year everyone has this debate about, “Should straight people be allowed into Osbournes’s”, and people respond, “You can’t assume people’s sexuality,” and it gets into this huge fight every year, which I don’t particularly want to wade into because it’s so complicated. I think it’s just a lack of gay spaces in Durham and also the lack of non-drinking spaces, which we try and provides as the LGBT+ Association.



LA: We have talked a lot about the various challenges still faced by the LGBT+ community in Durham. What is your sense of the prospect that things improve and that there is a more welcoming environment? What are the chances that you will be able recommend Durham to prospective LGBT+ freshers?


FS: It’s hard. At the moment I’m in such early stages, talking with people like Shaid (Mahmood, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Equality, Diversity and Inclusion). We have already made some changes, like with the counseling service, which has been really good. We’ve got a meeting with the career’s service soon. We are doing our best to improve things where we can. I think this year has been maybe one of the best years for change, given how many people are new in their jobs. There is some impetus there, there are high-up people who want to change. But I also think that there’s a lot to be done and there’s so much to change. Until we are more of an accepting place, until we stop having a scandal every single year, it’s going to be very difficult to say, “Come to Durham!” because the culture is hard to put your finger on and it’s hard to change. It’s hard to prevent a scandal. I don’t think Durham is not worth saving. I don’t think we’re on sinking ship, but I do think there’s a ton of work to be done.



LA: Has this taken a toll on people in the LGBT+ community? Are spirits high in the Association for a good year?


FS: I mean, I’m an eternal optimist, so I’m riding high all the time, so that’s just me. I also wasn’t here, I was on my year board, when the South College scandal happened. I think it’s easy to underestimate just how much that has affected other people as opposed to me and how much people care about that. But, by nature I’m a very optimistic person and I am hoping my sometimes quite ridiculous optimism is brushing off on other people within the Association and that we are all feeling pretty positive because I think that’s the only way you can do it, if you think there’s change to be made. Sometimes the way to push through change is just to to think in yourself, “I want that to happen.” We recently lost our association room as it got turned into a seminar room, which was a big blow. It is just about saying, “Oh yeah, we’re getting that room back. I am not going to allow them to take that away from me,” and I have already had some early options presented. If I thought, “TheUniversity hates us, our room is gone,” we wouldn’t ever get it back. You have to keep that optimism going and try to think of things and keep going. People are definitely tired and annoyed and frustrated. What happened at South College still doesn’t feel resolved for most people. But while there is change to be made, we need to still push for that change to happen, and to do that you have to be optimistic it’s going to happen.


Image: Tony Winward on Flickr

2 thoughts on this article.

  1. Alice says:

    Academic freedom requires you to be able to support your arguments and be subject to peer review. Quite simply, Rod Liddle is not qualified to speak on transgender issues. He has no academic legitimacy on the subject.
    The existence of transgender people and their rights to exist in society are not up for legitimate debate. Substitute ‘transgender’ with Black or Jewish and see what kind of tirade of hate this really is about. Will Durham Union be platforming a transgender speaker to talk about lived experience? If students want to hear anti-trans rhetoric they need only pick up a newspaper. How will they ever learn the experience of trans people in the U.K.? This isn’t even the pretence of a debate. It is uneducated drivel and a deliberate action to platform uncriticised hate riding the coattails of past media controversy without any thought of the human consequence. Shame on DSU!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I understand it’s a complicated subject, but I think your criticism of the Durham Union is unfair. Freedom of speech is important, and yes, it must come with consequences, but it solves nothing if people are prevented from speaking their mind due to fears of offending others. I can’t believe you view the transgender debate (which was cancelled, actually) as ‘completely inappropriate’, you have no right to automatically assume your view is correct and that it shouldn’t be up for debate. And the Rod Liddle debate is not an opportunity to hold him up on a pedestal, it’s a chance for passionate students and external speakers to debate AGAINST him. If you are so vehemently opposed to Liddle, like practically everyone at the Union, then for goodness sake use this opportunity to speak your mind against him! That’s how Britain works; we don’t ostracise those we disagree with, however vile their views, we instead question them and come to our own objective conclusions.

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