Toronto
6 min

Campus queer factor

A homo's guide to higher education in Toronto

PUTTING THE CAMP BACK IN CAMPUS. York's Kathryn Waters, Ryerson's Matt Radford and U of T Mississauga's Skye Plowman keep it queer. Credit: Tony Fong

It’s that time of year again when fresh-faced high school students have to commit to a university of their choice. But what’s the best bet for queer students taking the post-secondary plunge? We asked Darren Cooney, Xtra contributor and former president of the Ryerson Student Administrative Council, to suss out the queer quotient at each of the three Toronto universities.



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RYERSON UNIVERSITY



With Canada’s largest queer community bumping up against the northern edge of campus, Ryerson University gets its pink quotient not only from its queer students and staff, but also from the legions of shopping bag-toting fags cutting through campus on their way home from the Eaton Centre.



Easy access to queer nightlife means students have the choice of getting involved with on-campus activities or frolicking in the village’s hotspots. For those who want to get their fix on campus, RyePride is the sole queer student organization, though there’s a queer student group for the social-work program currently in the works.



“When I was looking at applying to Ryerson, it had a good reputation for being queer positive and accepting all kinds of people,” says Matt Radford, RyePride’s events coordinator and a second-year journalism student. This past year the group, which has several paid coordinators, emphasized activism in the fall with its own equal marriage campaign and social events in the spring, hosting a sex toys workshop.



The student government, Ryerson Students’ Administrative Council (RyeSAC), is known for its progressive politics and has drawn many a queer activist into its ranks. Just a few years ago, three of the four executive members were gay men – the fourth was a gay-friendly, straight hockey player.



But despite the strong queer presence, there have recently been high-profile instances of homophobia. Last year one of the campus newspapers, The Eyeopener, published an editorial promoting gay stereotypes. This year another student paper, Nightviews, featured a cartoon comparing the impact of SARS and Mad Cow disease to the impact of same-sex marriage.



Radford says that student leaders, both gay and straight, have been quick to challenge these incidents. “Every university has its issues with homophobia. Ryerson has a really interesting dynamic because it will react no matter what the comment.”



Ryerson, like the other universities, has no shortage of out gay men and lesbians on staff. Tony Conte, an out gay man, runs student programs at Ryerson.



“I think it’s important that we have out staff in high-profile roles doing our jobs,” says Conte. His colourful props and gentle self-deprecation help break barriers with Ryerson students and his presentations infuse anti-oppression principles with humour.



Campus buildings are dotted with Positive Space stickers, though the program itself is in a state of renewal. The Positive Space Campaign was initiated at the University Of Toronto in 1996 and has since spread to universities and colleges across the country. The theory is that queers and their allies post the stickers to indicate their commitment to providing an affirming environment. However, implementation varies from campus to campus. Some universities have introduced mandatory training for participants in an attempt to prevent the program from becoming administrative lip service to sexual diversity.



Radford says there are plans afoot to bring increased queer programming to the university. “In general, it’s an extremely accepting environment.”



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UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO



For those size queens out there, it almost goes without saying. The University Of Toronto is big. Very big. It’s the biggest university in Canada and has the queer programming to match.



Not that members of its largest queer organization – Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals And Transgendered Of The University Of Toronto (LGBTOUT) – brag about it. But they do attract attention, whether it’s through their dances, political action or lively debates.



Though LGBTOUT receives no dedicated funding, it somehow manages to pull off well-organized political and social activities year-round. The largest of these, the infamous Homohops, are currently hosted at Five nightclub once a month.



“They’re the most important fund-raising activity for us,” says David Adizes, LGBTOUT’s external coordinator, one of six volunteer executive members.



Activism and academic debate flavour queer activities on campus. Some students keep in touch with an Internet discussion listserv that occasionally erupts into passionate debate. Its members recently knocked heads over a kiss-in protest at the university’s Catholic college – would the political message be lost in the lip-lock?



U of T is home to the country’s first Sexual Diversity Studies Department, which will be expanding its offerings to a major program next September. It is also the only local university to have a resource centre dedicated solely to queer issues.



Jude Tate, the coordinator of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Queer (LGBTQ) Resources And Programs Office, organizes events and services for the on-campus queers and allies. Tate’s office also plays a lead role in responding to homophobia on campus, particularly through an on-line reporting tool.



“It allows victims or witnesses to an incident or who have seen graffiti or seen something in the classroom to report it anonymously, or not, and I can follow up with some of the reports,” Tate says.



In the stretches of Mississauga, the two-year-old Out At University Of Toronto Mississauga (Out@UTM) is growing exponentially, according to president Skye Plowman. An English and theatre student, she says Out@UTM is a lighthearted gathering place for queers on U of T’s Erindale campus.



Plowman explains that Erindale is the sort of environment where lesbians identify as “gay” and campus apathy may actually be a good thing, if it keeps the vocal homophobes at bay.



“Out@UTM is primarily a social group,” she says. “We’re not sure how political action would be taken [at UTM] and we’re not sure if that’s what the suburban gay is looking for in their leadership.”



This year the group received official recognition from the campus student union and UTM’s sex ed centre, which boosted the group’s funding. Plowman says that the suburban campuses have a bad reputation for being less than queer friendly, but she adds that things are slowly changing.



“Between a lot of faculty support last year and a lot of student support this year, we’ve managed to become one of the fastest growing groups on campus,” Plowman says.



Still, it can be a struggle to recruit members. “It’s an invisible community. People here don’t necessarily define themselves as being in the gay community, they just happen to be gay.”



To the east, students at U of T’s Scarborough campus have LGBTQ At U Of T Scarborough (LGBTQ@UTSC). Like its younger cousin in Mississauga, the group is rooted in social activities with an eye toward the political.



“We’re mostly right now social and educational services, with general advocacy on student councils and student services,” says coordinator Brian Konik.



The queer social life continues to build on campus. Last September, the B-Girlz ventured to Scarborough to perform on campus. Queers congregate in the group’s lounge space and the weekly, unstructured meetings are gaining popularity as a place to hang out.



Like the Mississauga campus, UTSC has very little in the way of formalized, university resources for queers. There is little or no queer academic programming and the climate can be isolating. LGBTQ@UTSC is working to change that for queer students.



“It’s comforting to know that a group is out there doing things,” says Konik. “That [students] can get involved in representing their interests.”



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YORK UNIVERSITY



Much more than a hop, skip and a sashay away from the village, queers at York University have created their own spaces on campus. Trans Bi Lesbian Gay At York (TBLGAY) hosts a monthly queer night in the on-campus nightclub, the Underground, which attracts the odd busload of students from downtown schools. The cute bartenders and popular DJs – Aural of Grapefruit fame is a former TBLGAY resident – might be part of the attraction.



The TBLGAY lounge, a popular hangout for homos between classes, is an oasis of calm in a sometimes stormy political environment. In recent years, labour disputes have disrupted classes and tensions have run high between the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups on campus.



“It’s very carefully an apolitical space,” says Kathryn Waters, a fourth-year theatre student and coordinator of TBLGAY. The organization steered clear of recent political battles while increasing diversity within its space.



“We’re very excited that we’ve seen an increase in the number of allies in the space,” Waters says. “It’s not another closet, it’s actually representative of the safe space on campus.”



This year, after an intense debate, the student government voted to fund a campus-wide same-sex marriage campaign. Oddly enough, the organization’s vice-president in charge of equality abstained and later waffled on a proposal from religious groups to run a counter-campaign.



In recent years, trans men and women have burst out of the closet as vocal student leaders, including Susan Gapka, a public policy and administration student who sits on both York’s board of governors and senate as well as being on the board of Egale Canada.



York’s Positive Space Campaign is well-established and has more stringent criteria than the other Toronto-area universities. “The sticker indicates that the volunteers in the program have attended a three-hour orientation session and are therefore familiar with services available forÂ… queer students, staff and faculty members at York,” says OmiSoore Dryden, an advisor at York’s Centre For Race And Ethnic Relations. “All of our volunteers represent the diversity of sexuality and genders and are allies of queer issues.”



The ethno-racially diverse community at York has created a need for programming that addresses the “racist stereotypes of homophobia and heterosexism,” says Dryden, “This is what I believe makes our work here at York different than what you will find at other institutions.”



York academics are hot on the heels of their U of T counterparts as they work to create a Sexual Studies Certificate for the university. But until then, York students have to be content with a smattering of queerly themed humanities courses.