When I was a student at Trinity, campus life was dominated by two trends in activism: LGBT rights and consent. Both of these movements had already seen some stunning successes: the victory of the Yes Equality campaign for the former, and for the latter, the bringing into the mainstream of discourse surrounding sexual violence.
You could reasonably expect that people like me, who find themselves caught in the middle of these two currents – that is to say, LGBT survivors of sexual violence – would be doubly supported; that some efforts would be made to help those who have the courage both to come out of the closet and come forward about their experiences. The reality is that these people often find themselves increasingly left behind by a system that marginalises their experiences and leaves them feeling invisible.
As a final year student, I was not only contending with the stress of essays, exams, and a dissertation, but also in the middle of an ongoing investigation into the sexual violence I experienced while at a major organisation for LGBT youth. For an entire year, I was forced to delve into this experience again and again, while also having to navigate Ireland’s notoriously labyrinthine and ineffective child protection system – all without any support whatsoever.
Still, there were many times when I spoke out while at College. Sometimes it was a cry for help, trying to access support services, or protesting College decisions that I felt disparaged survivors of sexual violence. At other times, it was more academic, like in an essay proposal to a gender studies professor concerning LGBT sexual violence. In each case I expected compassion and empathy; more often than not, what I received was indifference.
The most common response was simply to ignore what I had said. Time and time again, I would send emails to College staff, administration, and the Students’ Union, and be left waiting for replies that never came. I grew to dread every incoming email notification, as days turned to weeks without any response. To trust somebody with this kind of information is to make yourself vulnerable. To be left waiting is a huge betrayal.
Of course, there are many ways to ignore someone, some more insidious than others. When I did receive a reply, it was never to open up a dialogue about how College policy affected me and others like me, but invariably to shut me down, along with all my valid concerns. I grew to expect the terms that would be used to belittle what had been done to me. I was frequently reminded over email and even in person that what I had experienced was just “speculation” or “opinion” – in other words, that it was not worthy of any discussion. I was even told outright by a senior College administrator that they would take no action based on my complaints as they “could not act on an allegation”.
Yet the simple fact that always seemed to be ignored is that the College has a duty to its students: to listen to their complaints and to help them, regardless of what stage in some legal process they are at, or even if they choose to never pursue a case at all.
I don’t believe for a second that any of these people felt that what they were doing was harmful or discriminatory. In fact, many of them have done much to support LGBT equality. But it is time to recognise that discrimination goes far deeper than legal inequalities and overt intolerance. It is also a system of thought, a way of treating others, that considers alternative experiences to be inferior simply because they differ from the norm.
This form of discrimination is truly systemic. The most humiliating part of all this was to see straight people in positions of power throughout the College dictating which aspects of my own experiences were valid, and which were offensive nonsense. While I made it very clear I was myself a gay man, I was repeatedly told that what I was saying was homophobic.
Eventually, I learned to bookend everything I said with blatant and exaggerated declarations of my sexuality – a degrading act of unwarranted contrition. Even then, I was still dogged by ridiculous accusations of bigotry. At one point I was even cautioned by a professor whom I had trusted to treat my experiences of abuse with respect that if I were “concerned about being ‘misinterpreted as homophobic’” then I should “try to express my views in a way that left no doubt about my intentions”.
The sad truth is that seeing other people misinterpreting experiences they have no idea about is something gay survivors of sexual violence know far too well – we are, after all, a minority of a minority. We learn to make excuses for the behaviour of others, for those who refuse to accept that we have been victimised by our own “community”. We tell ourselves that they are not malicious, just ignorant. That if they knew how real our pain is, if they knew how invisible they were making us feel, that they would treat us with compassion.
But in reality, such wilful ignorance is malicious. How can you hope to educate others, to make a difference, when you are ignored and silenced because of who you are? At a time when we are rightfully applauding the courage of the women who stand up to systemic harassment, no one could get away with something as ludicrous as suggesting that these women simply hate men. But that is exactly how our society treats LGBT survivors.
We are forced to contend with two currents of social activism that are working against us. The consent movement pushes an image of a “typical,” heterosexual, female victim, painting men as capable only of aggression, not of victimhood. The LGBT movement, for its part, casts gay people solely as victims of wider society, glossing over internal conflicts and creating an automatic link between allegations of any kind of sexual impropriety and homophobia.
In the words of one professor who tried to dissuade me from taking this any further: “There’s a sense that these people have suffered enough.” This dehumanising kind of thinking – that violence committed by an LGBT person is somehow more forgivable, less worthy of pursuing – is truly pervasive, both inside and outside College. But the bitter truth is that these people who consider themselves to be championing equal rights will never have to bear the full, awful burden of this kind of thinking.
Even when these people followed College policy and provided the details of Trinity’s support services, it only serves to avoid the issue, to place the blame and responsibility back on the student, while doing nothing to meaningfully address their concerns. It is not up to the College to decide when and how a student should start to heal; complaints should be taken seriously regardless.
But there is a deeper fallacy in simply listing the contact details of College support, one which completely fails to take any kind of reality into account.
It assumes that the College system is working perfectly, that all students are respected regardless of their sexual orientation or experiences of violence, even when all the evidence points to the contrary.
It assumes that marginalised individuals have an infinite capacity to be denigrated by College staff when they are at their most vulnerable, and that they have an infinite capacity to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and try again.
It assumes an atmosphere of genuine compassion that simply does not exist. If, for example, you had confided in someone in a position of authority about something so personal, would you feel genuinely supported by receiving something as perfunctory, detached and unnecessarily sceptical as this in response:
“If this is the case, I do hope that any such young person in Trinity would seek support.”
The truth is that, despite all the headway made by social activists, those who have already suffered the most continue to suffer, with no progress in sight. We are ignored and accused of hateful prejudice; our experiences are dismissed entirely. There is no support, campaign or pride parade for those of us who have been betrayed by what should have been our own community, and left behind by the march of progress.
If there is any barrier to equality that has been left standing, it is this culture of silence. History has demonstrated time and time again that it is only through speaking out and sharing experiences that minorities can resist injustice. Why, then, is Trinity, and indeed Irish society, so intent on shutting us up?
If you have been affected by the issues raised of this article, support is available from the following services:
TCD Student Counselling Service: (01) 8961407; Address: 3rd floor of 7-9 South Leinster Street, Dublin 2
Samaritans: 116 123
TCDSU Welfare Officer: [email protected]
Dublin Rape Crisis Centre: 1800 77 8888