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

Freddy Sperring and I sat down and discussed the LGBT+ student experience at Durham and the importance of Durham’s LGBT+ Association.


Luke Alsford: Why did you get involved in the LGBT+ Association? What drew you towards it? 


Freddy Sperring: I started in my first year, I took a job as a being the representative for non-binary people, because that was at the time what I identified as. I just wanted to take it because I was a little unsure of my identity and I had made some non-binary friends and I knew no one else was running, so I thought, “Someone needs to do it. I want to do it. And I want to put on a social event every now and then.” Because at this point, all the non-binary people were just my mates, so it wasn’t that hard to do! Then the next year I took Social Secretary, which was a huge job, because of covid, and then I won an award for that job and I was like, “Well, this is quite nice!” Finally, I was like, “OK when I come back from my year abroad, I’ll run as President.” I told some people before I left that I was considering running and I wanted to run. And then over my year abroad, I was like, “Yeah, I’m definitely running when I come.” Just because like I felt I had enough experience having done different things throughout my different years. And also, because I felt like it just kind of finished off the journey nicely.



LA: How was that experience as non-binary rep? How was it building a community of non-binary people?


FS: It was really, really nice. Because when I arrived at Durham, it was the first time I’d been out as non-binary. I remember on the first day they had all the pronoun badges on the table, and my dad was with me, so I took a ‘she/her’ one and then later when he wasn’t looking I put it back and took a ‘they/ them’ one. Growing up in semi-rural Lancashire, I didn’t really know any non-binary people, or any trans people, full stop. So, it was like the first time I felt like I could do something, you know? I could be a different gender. I’ve never felt like a woman. I didn’t want to come out halfway through [the year], so I was out on day one. I was going to use ‘they/them’ pronouns, which worked great and I would recommend, for anyone about to start university, to come out on that first day. Meeting other people [through the LGBT+ Association] was really nice, especially when I came from a place where I was the first trans person I knew. I worked out I was trans before meeting other trans people, which is a really strange position to be in, because you get a very skewed idea of what a trans person should be, because you’re watching YouTube, you’re trying to figure yourself out. So you don’t have a person to look at and be like, “Oh, that’s what I am going to be like.” It was also very difficult thinking about the future because I’d never met a trans person as an adult. So that is what I wanted to provide in my second and now in my final year is to show younger trans people that you be a successful adult and be fairly successful and have your life together. That’s the curse of being non-binary rep is that you don’t identify as non-binary by the end!



LA: Do you think that Durham is a positive place to come out or to explore and question your sexuality or gender?


FS: I think that question is multifaceted. So for me, coming from a small town in Lancashire, to Durham, it was like a good place to come out. But looking at other universities, maybe Durham isn’t the most accepting. I do think coming out was pretty good for me personally. I had a pretty good time, and I always thought in my first year, it was way harder being northern than it was being non-binary. Being from a non-private school was a bigger sticking point. But with all the scandals that have happened, and you hear about things and you hear about lecturers: there is this general sense of unease within the community that Durham is not always a safe place. I think that Durham as a culture has a long way to go before we can consider it to be a pretty good place to come out. As an LGBT+ association, we discussed among ourselves if we feel comfortable saying to people who are LGBT+, “Come to Durham, Durham is a really good place.” We actually decided that we weren’t that comfortable saying that. We don’t think that we should be saying to people “Come to Durham because you are LGBT+.” Come to Durham for other reasons, and it’ll be OK if you’re LGBT+.



LA: The LGBT+ Association offers welfare support and runs a parenting scheme. I wonder, are you filling holes in the services that colleges or the University should be providing, that that they aren’t providing?


FS: College welfare is one of the backbones of Durham and provides great support and many college welfare peoples are themselves LGBT+, so I don’t want to disrespect them in any way. But, for example, in my first year I contacted the Transgender Association, which is currently inactive, to ask about binder sizing. That’s not something that I can really go to Chad’s, my college, welfare about, because I’m going to be talking to a cis person who’s going to be like, “Your guess is as good as mine, mate.” It’s a very specific question that needs a specific answer and you need to talk to someone who’s trans and who is going to be understanding. So, I think there is not necessarily gaps, it’s just an additional service that we could provide for those more specific issues and for other issues generally. People just want to talk about their relationships and sometimes it’s not LGBT+-related and people just want to talk to someone who they know is a friendly LGBT+ face. One of the biggest fears is, that you’re going to seek welfare support and that person is going to be homophobic or transphobic. And I’ve not heard any reports of that happening, but there still is that fear that it is going to happen. I think it’s just nice to have a safe space in that way. 



LA: What are your thoughts on the extent to which there are still hostile attitudes towards LGBT+ people in Durham? In particular after what happened with Rod Liddle last year and the University response, when the Mary’s College LGBT+ zoom call was hijacked almost two years ago now, and recently when a trans staff member resigned at South College


FS: There definitely still are hostile attitudes at Durham and we can’t pretend that that isn’t. There are students who hold transphobic and homophobic views and we’ve seen that before. There are a lot of things that go on at Durham which are extremely heteronormative and cis-binary normative. Things like, a lot of colleges will have a Mr and Mrs competition at their college. I’ve heard of bar crawls having a kings and queens theme and you had to choose to be a king or queen. Then some non-binary people asked what they should do, and then they basically told them, “You looked like a queen, you should be a queen. You look like a king. You should be a king.” I think that’s where I’ve found a lot of homophobia and transphobia: when you challenge traditions, and Durham has so many traditions. It comes out then, when I’m challenging if we need an all-men’s and an all-women’s formal. It is very difficult because people say, “It’s a tradition, we’ve done it for hundreds of years, why are you coming in now?” There are people who are very, very homophobic. The people who crashed the Mary’s zoom call were disgustingly homophobic. I’ve experienced people yelling things in Durham, in the city center. There is a lot of homophobia about and it is really, really difficult. That’s why we provide our welfare support as well. It is really hard, but, we keep fighting. 



Read part two here


Image: Tony Winward on Flickr

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