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Reflections on Pride Month and the Experiences of LGBTQ+ Students

As Pride Month comes to an end, it is an important time to reflect on the experiences of LGBTQ+ students in Ontario’s higher education sector. It’s easy for Ontarians to dismiss this topic of conversation in recent years. For instance, the Pride Parade in Toronto generates massive audiences each year, institutions have made strides in encouraging the hiring of LGBTQ+ faculty and staff, and more and more safe spaces for LGBTQ+ youth are popping up all over the province, including gender-neutral bathrooms. However, as the festivities come to a close, the lived realities of LGBTQ+ students continue to permeate across the province.

OUSA’s Ontario Post-Secondary Student Survey found that 12% of undergraduate students identify as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Pansexual, and/or another sexual orientation aside from heterosexual. Despite the significant proportion of students in this group, universities have yet to reflect these demographics in their administration, faculty, and staff employment practices. In fact, OUSA’s survey of LGBTQ+ students has shown that about 84% either agreed or strongly agreed that the university needed to employ more full-time staff to run LGBTQ+ groups, events, spaces, etc. Furthermore, approximately 63% of LGBTQ+ students reported that they felt uncomfortable (sometimes or often) about their sexual orientation due to comments or assumptions made by their professors. Finally, one in five indicated that the on-campus physical health care staff did not have sufficient knowledge to provide them with quality care. As such, there is a clear need for the provincial government to invest in improving the quality of research and teaching, as well as health and wellness, for LGBTQ+ students across all Ontario universities.

These struggles are compounded by some of the recent issues surrounding ‘freedom of speech’ defenses by professors such as Jordan Petersen, whose refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns for transgender, intersex, and/or genderqueer students raises serious concerns about the university sector’s inclusivity. While ensuring freedom of speech is essential to university autonomy and academic freedom, it should not come at the expense of students who already face substantial hardships in their daily lives both on and off campus due to their sexual orientation. This is a difficult issue to tackle from a provincial advocacy standpoint. Since it is not within the provincial government’s jurisdiction to weigh in on issues relating to academic freedom, these incidents are often handled case-by-case from institution-to-institution. This leaves many such students on their own to find the best path forward with varying levels of support.

Finally, research has shown that LGBTQ+ students are also statistically more likely to be survivors of sexual violence. It is encouraging to see the provincial government recently take on a stewardship role in mandating each institution develop clear sexual violence response and prevention policies, as well as commit to conducting climate surveys to assess this issue more directly. However, most prevention programming and campus policies tend to focus on sexual violence perpetration in heterosexual circumstances, which inadvertently excludes students who identify as LGBTQ+. While efforts will be made in the coming years to ensure that sexual violence prevention is achieved across all sexual orientations, it is nevertheless an issue that continues to inordinately burden LGBTQ+ students in particular. As such, it is essential that the provincial government recognize these realities and mandate that institutions address them in their campus policies and prevention programming.

In short, as Pride Month comes to an end, let’s not allow the progress to end as well. As we pat ourselves on the back for our support of the LGBTQ+ community, let’s not pretend that many do not continue to be treated as outsiders. In short, as we showcase our pride, let’s remember that we still have a great deal not to be proud of.