Sunday Longread: Societies fighting against prejudice on campus

Solidarity is the key to fighting prejudices on campus and in wider society

College is a place where anyone can express themselves, explore their identity, and figure out who they are. For some students, self-discovery can be even more challenging in a world where vitriolic debates ripple throughout social media. It would be difficult to argue that any society has felt this obstacle more than Q-Soc and the Dublin University Gender Equality Society (DUGES). 

Originally named ‘the Gay Society’, Q-Soc was officially recognised in 1983 by the Central Societies Committee (CSC), making Trinity the first University in Ireland to institutionally recognise an LGBTQ organisation in its campus. As far as Q-Soc members are aware, they may be the first university LGBTQ organisation founded in Europe – a prestigious and progressive achievement. Like many social movements, the momentum of gay rights was in large part focused within student groups and youth action. This paved the way for other Irish Universities to establish their own student organisations. Yet, this was not victory without struggle. One member tells me that “when Q-Soc was FIRST first proposed to the college half a century ago it was rejected out of college’s fear that having a gay society would dethrone them from their good name”. Though the society has come a long way since it was founded over 30 years ago, many of its goals have remained the same. Q-soc Auditor Luca Caroli states that “Q-Soc was founded to fight against bigotry and homophobic laws […]. Our purpose was, initially, to engage in radical activism, fight for our rights, and let “polite society” know that we would not hide anymore. That has not changed to this day”. 

“Accusations of man-hating are a little repetitive, while others simply find new expressive contortions of their face to give us while passing the stand”

The 1990s saw feminism enter the mainstream. Following radical changes in Irish law such as the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the legalisation of divorce, Trinity estalished the Gender Equality Society. Since its foundation, the society has created an avenue for feminism to grow in Trinity by providing a safe space where ideas about current sexism can be discussed. In the words of Margot Kavanagh, the society’s chair, DUGES stands for “open and critical discussion of feminist ideas and gender relations […], for the safety and rights of all women to bodily autonomy and to possess a voice in their community, whether in Trinity or in society at large”.

Throughout the years, both societies firmly established themselves as not only a fun social outlet for their members, but also as a support base for many students. DUGES provides community support for many female students in college that need a safe space or wish to discuss certain feminist issues. The society has created an avenue for feminism to grow in Trinity by providing a safe space where ideas about current sexism can be discussed. DUGES successfully deals with many difficult topics to discuss such as abuse and rape culture in their weekly meetings. Ideas about feminism have been able to grow and members themselves have learnt whilst being in the society that it is not just one ideology. As Kavanagh states: “I’ve seen myself grow with this society over the years and have personally had my views on feminism and equality expand and change quite a bit through the friendships I’ve made and conversations I’ve had”. Likewise, Q-Soc holds weekly coffee mornings on Discord (prior to COVID-19 these were held daily), along with safe spaces, nights outs, movie screenings, quizzes, game nights and art sessions. Caroli says that they are more than activists: “we provide people from the LGBTQ community with a safe space where they can escape prejudice, explore their sexuality and gender identity, and meet other LGBTQ students, and I know just how important that is from personal experience. I was but a kid from rural Italy when I first joined, and I had never really got a chance to truly understand myself before Q Soc”. 

Despite their efforts, members of both societies still believe that Trinity has a long way to go before their goal of gender equality has been achieved. Indeed, Kavanagh believes that Trinity is far from realising this goal. Kavanagh cites that a recent study conducted by The Nation University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) found that 3 in 10 third-level students in Ireland report experiences of sexual assault (see here). The fight aginst sexual violence has a clear place on university campuses, and societies such as DUGES are directly engaging in that fight. “While DUGES doesn’t want to speak to any one individual’s experience, we know not just from this data but from our own membership that sexual abuse is all too common as a college student in Ireland, particularly if you are a woman.”

For many the topic is clearly an uncomfortable one…she describes the “rite of passage” awkward confrontations between DUGES members and students at the Freshers Fair stand: “accusations of man-hating are a little repetitive, while others simply find new expressive contortions of their face to give us while passing the stand”. Kavanagh argues that feminism and gender “has to become a persistent point of discussion at every level of college”. “Greater consciousness and measures can be taken by administrators and by students and student leaders themselves to ensure the safety and equal opportunity of its members regardless of gender”.  

“Q-Soc needs its members to be the best it can be and the more people join, the better for everyone”

The repercussions of an unwillingness to engage with these issues is felt frequently by the members of Q-Soc themselves. Ignorance of this debate is displayed by staff and students alike, resulting in consistently uncomfortable/insulting exchanges with society members. One member states that “I did get the usual uncomfortable questions from people wishing to know more about my sexuality and my sex life”. Another member recounts how they “have been subjected to regular verbal abuse, [whilst other members] again have had to listen to their own TAs and lecturers make transphobic comments under the guise that they were “just a joke”. While some of these incidents have been reported to the relevant authorities, nothing much has been done, unsurprisingly”. It is hard to feel like you have a voice when reporting discrimination if it is not met with proper consequences. Creating a voice for students is the essence of these societies’ goals. With a wider student support base instances of prejudice and abuse can be easier to stamp out. 

Both Q-Soc and DUGES have clearly fostered profound bonds between its members – something that should be commended by society chairs and committee members everywhere. When asked what Q-Soc means to them, one member replied with just one word: “family”. Similarly, when Kavanagh was asked why she joined DUGES she replied that she wanted to find a “community of people who shared similar values and experiences”. From the brief interviews I conducted with Q-Soc and DUGES, it became very clear that members of the two societies celebrate and deeply value the community it has found. In many ways this is inevitable, as good friendships are invariably built upon shared values, interests, hardships, and most importantly mutual respect. As with every society, finding like-minded people is vital. “Q-Soc has been a great support for many of us, especially in times of stress. It has given us the opportunity to become friends with people like us and meet friendly faces while recharging our batteries…” says one member. The strength of their communities has clearly helped it achieve such commendable successes thus far. 

Nonetheless, whether members or not, students should support these societies by calling out instances of discrimination, prejudice and abuse by the Trinity establishment. Being aware of what Q-Soc and DUGES do and acknowledging their values can be extremely helpful. Kavanagh concludes that by “listening and spending time with sometimes uncomfortable conversations, and discovering ways to engage and grow personally with feminism” is extremely important. Similarly, Caroli states that “Q-Soc needs its members to be the best it can be and the more people join, the better for everyone. We provide a safe space for LGBTQ+ students and support for everyone who needs and wants it but can only do so if people engage with the society”. Solidarity, as displayed in these two societies, is the key to fighting prejudices on campus and in wider society.